Eugene Weekly : Outdoors : 2.28.08

The Kettle Crest
A true winter wilderness adventure

Most of the human population of Washington state stays crowded in and around Seattle, a land of moist winters, mild summers, bustling city streets, traffic, ballgames, bull markets and bumper-to-bumper traffic. The city and the surrounding suburbs are bursting at the seams with green, from evergreen forests to expansive lawns to the dollar bills offered as change for overpriced lattes and microbrews.

Bald Mountain at sunset. Photo by James Johnston

Everything changes east of the craggy, glacier-clad Cascades. A blazing hot sun or towering thunderclouds and violent blizzards replace perpetual overcast. Sprawling metropolises give way to endless views of wheat fields, sagebrush prairies and lonely stretches of highway. Monochromatic greens are supplanted by a million shades of spare, lovely and changeable colors.

Last fall I wrote a column about the gaudy, Lord of the Rings-like scenery of Washington’s North Cascades, and this spring I’ll explore the majestic low elevation old-growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula (the high country of the Olympics rivals the Cascades for jaw-dropping scenery). But if I had just three days to backpack in Washington state, I’d plan a trip along the Kettle Crest Trail, possibly the most overlooked National Scenic Trail in the country.

The Kettle Range, in the far northeastern corner of Washington, is one of the most remote and interesting regions of the Pacific Northwest. The Kettles are not tall or particularly rugged. They’re a relatively low range of north-south running 6,000- to 7,000-foot hills and mountains, separated from the Rocky Mountains by the system of lakes and dams formerly known as the Columbia River to the east and by the broad flat plains of the Okanagan River Valley to the west. They’re neither the Rockies nor the Cascades. They’re a mountain range alone — and plenty lonely, too — perfect habitat for moose, grizzly bear, wolves and wolverines.

I’ve never found a good way to describe hiking in the Kettles. The diversity of scenery is extraordinary. You’ll plod slowly uphill or downhill through a thick forest of lodgepole and true fir, then break out into mile-long meadows of wildflowers, bear grass and fescues. Then through a lovely stand of open, park-like old growth ponderosa pine. Then down, then back up along the spine of another lovely mountain, this one dotted with the bleached white trunks of trees consumed by raging wildfires 10, 15 or even 100 years ago.

The most outstanding natural resource in the Kettle Range is solitude. This area is completely undiscovered by day hikers and backpackers, and even more surprisingly, undiscovered by skiers. The Kettles are almost a 12-hour drive from Eugene, but they get the best snow in the Pacific Northwest, light, airy powder blown north from the Arctic — pillows of joy for ski junkies.

Hardy souls (actually just one soul that I know of) have been known to ski or snowshoe the 40-mile Kettle Crest Trail from Canada to the Colville Indian Reservation and back again. If you only have a couple of days, try the cross-country route from Sherman Pass to Snow Peak Shelter. You get to Sherman Pass on Hwy. 20, which bisects the Kettles running west to east from Republic (deer hunting capital of Washington) to Kettle Falls, on the east bank of the Columbia (possibly the oldest continuously occupied site in North America).

You’ll pick up the Kettle Crest Trail heading south from the top of Sherman Pass. The trail splits right next to the highway. The right hand (western) trail is better marked (mostly by orange tape) and is the quickest way to the Snow Peak Shelter, but both trails get you to the same place. The first half-mile of the trail climbs steeply (you’ll need skins or climbing skis). In about a mile you’ll found yourself skiing gently descending ground through the silvery snags of the 20,000-acre White Mountain Fire. The pretty, symmetrical shape of Bald Mountain dominates the southern horizon.

You’ll find the Snow Peak shelter at 6,270 feet, on a saddle between Snow Peak and Bald Mountain, four miles from the Sno-Park at Sherman Pass. You’ll find room for up to 10 people in the cabin, which has a stove and is well stocked with kitchen supplies and firewood cut by a volunteer snow patrol. You’ll still need your warmest clothes and a very warm sleeping bag — temperatures frequently plummet well below zero.

This trip is a true wilderness adventure, and you should buy a good map, consult local experts and possess good route finding and avalanche rescue skills. Although the area is remote, you will need to call the Republic Ranger District at (509) 775-3305 to reserve the shelter.

There are fantastic day trips from the shelter in almost every direction, and the surrounding peaks offer excellent downhill runs. Remember that this year has seen extreme avalanche danger in Washington state.

Wait until you see the Kettles in the spring.