The cross-country ski trails at Tronsen Meadow on Blewett Pass, with the sprawling view of the Stuart Range from the ridge, or the equally majestic vistas of the Goat Rocks to the west from Maintenance Shed Road at White Pass.
Easy and oh-so-accessible snowshoeing on the Tieton Nature Trail, or the just-as-easy but longer-to-get-to loop at Pleasant Valley on the way to Chinook Pass. The Teanaway, Milk Creek, Bumping, Cowiche Mountain from either the Snow Mountain side or from Rocky Top.
All of them are beckoning — covered with snow and available to cross-country skiers and snowshoers, just one year after enthusiasts of those winter pursuits were all but out of luck.
“We’ve found great snow all over this side of the (Cascade crest),” said Kim Hull, a former Cascadians president and a regular participant and leader on the club’s year-round schedule of outings. “The cold temperatures and the snow — and the lots of it — has been great, especially after last year.
“It sure has been fun.”
Business keeping pace this winter
Rental business has been booming at the Little Red School House, the convenient roadside spot alongside Highway 12 just west of Naches — which offers the full spectrum of winter-sport rentals.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed it stays this way,” owner Kim Clark said recently, following a hectic weekend of customers on their way to downhill ski at White Pass or to access all of the free cross-country skiing or snowshoeing available along the White Pass and Chinook Pass corridors.
“Last year was bad. We lost Christmas break, and that really hurts. That’s the biggest money-making week right there, Christmas break. It was tough for us. Cross-country skiers, nothing, nobody was going. It was pretty quiet.”
This year, Clark figures to stay busy, even though he has plenty of season-long customers who actually only come in twice each winter — to rent their skis, boots and poles, or their snowshoes, for the season, and then to return them next spring.
“It’s a good deal for them. It’s not that good a deal for me,” Clark said of the $125 season-rental deal. “I make more money renting it by the day than by the season, but it makes them happy, and so that’s why I do it.”
Skiers versus snowshoers
One of Clark’s regular customers is Phil Bird, another Cascadian outing leader who rents all his equipment seasonally for downhill skiing and Nordic skiing — the latter because he’s still fairly new to cross-country skiing and wanted to do it for a while before deciding whether or not to purchase.
“Going in, before I used to ski, I used to snowshoe with (Cascadian winter recreationists),” Bird said. “Going in, usually the snowshoers have no trouble keeping up with the skiers. Coming back out, there’s enough variation — some people came out quickly and some came out a little slower.”
On a recent Cascadian Trekkers outing, the lone snowshoer reached the parking area no more than 10 minutes after the cross-country skiers did.
That the Trekkers had just a single snowshoer on that outing was not unusual. Throughout the years, snowshoers have largely gravitated to the outdoor club’s alternative Tuesday group, the Free Spirits.
“When I first joined the Cascadians six years ago,” Hull said, “I went on Free Spirits trips where a good handful were cross-country skiing and there were some snowshoers. Now it’s almost exclusively skiers with the Trekkers and almost exclusively snowshoers with the Free Spirits.
“You can still do either with either group, but if you’re going to be snowshoeing with the Trekkers, you’re going to have to be comfortable with falling behind, or with being able to keep up with the skiers.”
Falling behind, though, isn’t a problem on most of these outings, since “on a typical route, it’s just a bunch of little loops,” Hull said. “And it’s not like we’re out in the backcountry somewhere where you don’t know where you are. If we were exploring new ground, we wouldn’t be leaving anyone behind.”
If you’re new to the area, or new to snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, and are looking for places to get started, you have plenty of prime locations and, as well, lots of people who can help you make that happen.
Take a class or dive right in
New to the activity? OK, block out some time on your calendar for Jan. 23. That’s when the Yakima Nordic Skiing and Snowshoeing Council will hold its annual Open House and Jamboree, with free lessons provided members of the Cascadians outdoor club.
And if you don’t want to wait that long to get started, simply rent your gear at a local outlet, and head out to one of a whole slew of snow-filled locations with easy trails.
If you’d rather be around other people who have a bit of experience, your best option is to show up at the 40th Avenue Bi-Mart south lot at 7:45 a.m. on pretty much any Tuesday morning and go out with the Cascadian Free Spirits, one of two Cascadian groups — along with the Trekkers — that have regular Tuesday outings.
A word of advice: If you’re just starting out, start with the Free Spirits. Most of them will be snowshoeing, not skiing, but many if not most of them are also experienced at both activities. The Trekkers are mostly skiers, but they tend to move a bit faster, further and higher into the backcountry than most beginners are ready for.
If you’d rather learn at your own pace, you have plenty of choices. Here are just a few — certainly not anywhere close to all — including a few insights on this year’s early-season conditions from, yes, those omnipresent Cascadians.
White Pass Corridor
▪ White Pass Nordic Area: You can’t beat the 18 kilometers of groomed double-track trail, but, of course, you pay for it: $15 for a day pass or $135 for a season pass, plus rentals. Lessons are available daily through the holidays and then Thursday-through-Sunday after that.
▪ Maintenance Shed Road: It’s about a mile west of the summit, providing a pretty gentle grade up and, if you go far enough, can provide an awesome view of the Goat Rocks’ Coyote Ridge.
▪ Pacific Crest Trail: A lot of folks will snowshoe or ski on the PCT to Sand Lake or Deer Lake, a 6- or 7-mile out-and-back trek. It’s not groomed, obviously, but it gets enough use that there’s almost always track you can follow, and it has plenty of snow cover.
▪ Round Mountain: There’s plenty of uphill and, because on the downhill you can pick up the kind of speed that might be unnerving for a beginner, this is basically an intermediate spot. But you can definitely get in a workout following the road about four miles to the hikers’ trailhead and then back down.
Chinook Pass Corridor
▪ Morse Creek: This is the furthest trip you can make on Highway 410, since that’s where the road is closed for the winter. If you’re just learning, though, Morse Creek is not for you. There’s some great trails, but they’re best reserved for experienced skiers.
▪ Pleasant Valley: This loop system, part of the Sno-Park system with grooming by the Washington State Parks Winter Recreation program, is especially popular with snowshoers and with beginning skiers, or simply those who don’t want a lot of uphill and downhill.
▪ Bumping: The road-snowplowing has been an ongoing issue on the Bumping Road, but there’s often so much snowmobile use that the road is nicely packed down for skiers. There’s also the Chipmunk Road, about halfway between the 410 turnoff and Goose Prairie, the windy 1802 road with ups, downs and some pretty views.
▪ Milk Creek: This is somewhat closer to home than Pleasant Valley or Hells Crossing, east off 410 before you reach the Little Naches. It’s a motorized Sno-Park, so plenty of snowmobiles, but there’s a portable toilet at the bottom and plenty of groomed roads/trails to follow.
▪ Teanaway: There’s a variety of choices in the Teanaway State Forest, northeast of Cle Elum off Highway 970. One is Jungle Creek Road, at the end of the pavement on the Teanaway Road.
▪ Tronsen Meadow: This is part of the Teanaway but accessed off Highway 97 further to the north and east, just on the far side of the Blewett Pass summit. It’s hugely popular, and for good reason.
▪ Swauk Campground: This is a designated non-motorized Sno-Park off Blewett about a mile past the Old Blewett Highway junction, so it’s quiet but it can be steep and narrow at places. Not exactly a beginners’ paradise.
▪ Naneum Creek: Also accessed off Blewett Pass, this out-and-back offers some good views. It’s not groomed, but the road is plowed to the beginning of the canyon to facilitate the bus-turnaround there.
Closer to home
▪ Cowiche Mountain: There’s no grooming, but it’s getting to be a popular enough destination — at least from the Snow Mountain Ranch side off Cowiche Mill Road — that you probably won’t have to break new trail. There’s also a portable toilet not far past the fence from the Snow Mountain Ranch trailhead, maintained by the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy.
▪ Tieton Nature Trail: This is accessed on the southwest side of Highway 12 across from the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. It’s flat and easy, great for beginners and learners.