Explore the beautiful silence of the North and Central Cascade white — hit the slopes and trails.
The North and Central Cascades offer mossy covered Douglas fir trees, mountain peaks that reveal themselves one after the other in a breathtaking and rugged landscape with abandoned pioneer homes, mills and mines that once held the ambitions of countless men and women. Winter reveals a different kind of ambition here — one that can only be met by strapping on snowshoes, climbing mountains, and gliding down groomed trails. Winter in the Cascades is nothing short of glorious.
Hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, camping, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, and cross-country and slope skiing all attract the adventurer from Darrington south through the Cascades to the Wild Sky Wilderness north of Highway 2 and the southerly Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.
Inveterate hiker and snowshoe enthusiast Tonya Christoffersen is nearly breathless as she describes the beauty of the mountain range. Ticking off the names of easy and challenging trails — the Lime Kiln Trail, Sauk River, Boulder River, Old Robe Canyon, Johnson Ridge — Christoffersen says she thought about hanging a shingle as a trail guide, but, she said, “the mountains are free.”
The Mountains are Free. Take that in for a minute.
The Federal Government has set aside hundreds of thousands of acres in the North and Central Cascades, protecting them for all to enjoy. Wild Sky Wilderness alone is more than 106,000 acres with 25 miles of salmon spawning streams. Trails lead to stunning views of peaks and valleys, waterfalls and clear blue lakes. Alpine Lakes Wilderness encompasses 394,000 acres of drop-dead-gorgeous views, home of the Enchantments and a Pacific Northwest wilderness gem. The Pacific Crest Trail, the iconic 2,650 mile trail from Mexico to Canada, runs through these heavenly regions.
Know before you go,of course—bring your“ten essentials,” as every outdoorsman and woman calls the critical gear you may need on an outing. Tell somebody where you’re going. Download useful phone apps that may save your bacon in an emergency and work with GPS even when you don’t have cell service. Get the appropriate permits, where needed. And prepare for alchemy.
Winter is, quite possibly, Christoffersen’s favorite time to be in the Cascades. “I love snow. It’s so freaking breathtaking! The misconception is that you’ll be cold. I absolutely guarantee you that if your body is moving and you are dressed correctly you will not be cold.”
One of her recommended trails for a winter jaunt is the Sauk River Trail — six miles round trip and relatively flat — it is “absolutely magical in the winter,” said Christoffersen, who maintains a Facebook page giving tips and inspiration, called “HikerChickandMadHatterExplorethePNW.”“Sometimes you have to break trail, and I’m OK with it,” she said, adding she has friends new to snowshoeing follow in her footsteps after she’s compacted the snow for them. If somebody wants to just get a feel for snowshoes, they can try them out in the soccer playfields outside of Darrington.”
Christoffersen hikes or snowshoes every weekend, often at night when a full moon’s reflection off the snow illuminates the mountain. She loves to share this with others, bringing friends and newbies who want to learn. It’s in her blood. She was out on the trails with her parents every weekend. Now she takes her granddaughter out. The six-year-old can already identify what berries to eat or not eat.
Skykomish City Council Member Todd Brunner is as enamored of the Central Cascades. His home includes a laminated wall map where his family marks their destination and route before they leave for a hike. He, too, can tick off a list of trails that inspire a soul to wander. Deception Falls, he said, is a short and easy jaunt for snowshoeing, opening to an incredible view.
Deception Pass Falls National Recreation Area is overlooked by most travelers on Highway 2. Pull off to a rest area east of Skykomish to find a half-mile interpretive trail (including an ADA accessible trail). It delivers you to a tumbling, multi-tiered waterfall and creek with a distinctive 90-degree turn.
“Beautiful Silence,” said Brunner, is what you’ll find in these mountains. “A quiet, white wonderland.”
Snow camping can get you more beautiful silence and views of star-filled skies. Or make a reservation and enjoy a night in a historic fire lookout turned Aircraft Warning Station for World War II. For $50/night and a fairly steep climb to the top, the 5,500 feet elevation tower provides stunning views of magnificent peaks, from Mount Rainier to Glacier Peak. The lookout was built in 1935 and continues to be maintained for hikers today.
Beautiful Silence is what you’ll find in these mountains. A quiet, white wonderland.
These wilderness areas can be reached from the North in Darrington via Highway 530. From Everett, it’s a straight shot to Highway 2, the entry point to the Central Cascades.
Just an hour and a half from Everett, Stevens Pass Mountain Resort provides deep powder and steep slopes for the adventurer with a need for speed. With an annual snowfall averaging 460 inches every year, Vail Resorts is investing $35 million in the ski resort. Upgrading two of their chairlifts this year will increase their capacity by 33 percent on one and doubling the capacity on the Brooks chair.
The 1,125 acre ski resort has something for everybody. From numerous bowls, glades and faces to extensive lighted terrain for night-time adventures, with six lifts running till 10 p.m. Favorite night runs include Showcase, Skid Road, Crest Trail, Blue Trail, SkyLine, Broadway and Barrier Ridge.
The resort’s Nordic Center, six miles east of Stevens Pass, is a great place to try out snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Beginner to advanced users will find groomed trails as well as a “snow play area” dedicated to tubing and sledding — great fun for families with young children under 10 years old.
Whether you’re a novice or have spent your lifetime on the slopes, there are many winter recreation options from Darrington to Stevens Pass. After all — The Mountains are Free.
Cover photo courtesy Stevens Pass
Know before you go:
The landscape of the Cascade Mountains is wild, services are limited and conditions can change rapidly. Be prepared.
Some resources and things to know before you go:
Where to find maps: Forest Service Ranger Stations have maps, guides, forest passes and more information.
State Parks require a Discovery Pass discoverpass.wa.gov
A Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park in trailheads in the Wild Sky Wilderness and other Forest Service lands. The pass is available at National Forest Service offices and visitor centers and via private vendors or online. A day-pass is $5.
ALL visitors to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness are required to have a Wilderness Permit from May through October. Wilderness permits are free and can be obtained at trailheads and ranger stations.
The Nordic Center at Stevens Pass requires a trail pass which can be purchased at the center’s Cascade Depot.
Apps can be helpful and need to be downloaded before you go. Download the Washington Trails Association app (WTA Trailblazer) and search for the relevant hike you plan to take. Other useful apps include Pocket Earth (you can download topographic maps that use GPS to help you keep on track. Rescuers are also able to pin your location within a 3 square meter area via what3words.
Google your ten essentials and pack them. Do this no matter how short the hike is. You never know what’s going to happen and you’ll be in the wilderness. Go prepared.