ALONG INTERSTATE 90 IN THE CENTRAL CASCADES — After trundling up a narrow road heading out of Easton, Kittitas County, on a sunny January weekday, I encountered an unexpected sight when I arrived at the end of the plowed road: nobody.
Save for one other vehicle, the parking lot at the Easton Reload Sno-Park was completely empty on an otherwise postcard winter day with temperatures in the high 20s, abundant sunshine and not even a hint of a breeze.
The Sno-Park has long been a snowmobile destination, but last winter Washington State Parks temporarily set aside parking spots there for so-called nonmotorized users, like snowshoers, cross-country skiers and families just looking to play in the snow.
The move to create more winter recreation options along the I-90 corridor was made on an emergency basis to alleviate overcrowding at other winter recreation destinations around Snoqualmie Pass. One year later, State Parks has taken the next step and made two new Sno-Parks permanent.
At Easton Reload, the two parking lots with room for approximately 110 vehicles are open to holders of nonmotorized Sno-Park permits ($25 per day, $50 for the season from Nov. 1 to April 30). Note that these parking lots are shared with snowmobilers.
The Easton Reload Sno-Park is 20 miles east of the busy Hyak Sno-Park, with its popular sledding hill and snow play area. From I-90 Exit 71, it’s a 3.5-mile drive. While not too steep, the plowed road does gain elevation and can still get icy in places so be prepared for winter driving conditions, whether equipping your car with snow tires or carrying tire chains.
From the trailhead and the groomed snowmobile trail beyond, snowshoe routes marked by blue diamond blazes head into the woods to your right at three intervals. At times of day when snowmobilers are not coming and going from the trailhead, the main groomed trail makes for a pleasant warm-up before ducking into the trees. Although Washington State Parks staff have hacked away the underbrush, there are still tiny stumps that can trip you up.
The gently undulating route tops out at three-fourths of a mile before reaching a wide-open riverbank alongside Cabin Creek, where you can meander upstream as far as you wish. If you have GPS, drop a pin to mark where you exited the forest as the blaze can be hard to find on your return.
This flat, unobstructed stretch of snow would make a scenic backdrop for family photos as an alternative to heavily-trafficked Gold Creek Sno-Park, though without imposing Chikamin Peak in the frame. Or bring a foam pad and settle in for a family picnic. For kids, there is more than enough room to build snowmen or wage a snowball fight.
Just before Snoqualmie Pass, meanwhile, Washington State Parks established an entirely new park this season known as Asahel Curtis Sno-Park. From Exit 47, go to the north side of I-90 and turn right onto NF-9034, also known as Denny Creek Road. In about a half-mile, the plowed road dead-ends.
This new Sno-Park is less impressive than its eastern cousin. About a mile of blazed snowshoe trails follow portions of the Asahel Curtis Nature Trail and weave between sections of unplowed road in the dormant Asahel Curtis Picnic Area. Highway noise from I-90 detracts from the scene, though when the snowshoe trail approaches the South Fork Snoqualmie River, the raging waters make for a meditative soundtrack. Less sunlight penetrates this valley than the wider-open spaces near Easton Reload, which can make for icier conditions. However, the late afternoon light shines alpenglow onto nearby peaks like Granite Mountain that are visible from the valley floor.
When I visited, the 30 parking spots, plus more along the road, were mostly taken by winter hikers heading to Franklin Falls. Asahel Curtis Sno-Park now doubles as the de facto winter trailhead for the 7-mile round-trip hike to reach this captivating world of snow and ice, which means any winter hikers bound for the falls should make sure they have a Sno-Park permit. (A quick reminder: Take Exit 47, most definitely not Exit 52, which will lead the unsuspecting hiker into a dangerous, hourslong odyssey.)
While the new Sno-Park’s current amenities are underwhelming, Washington State Parks winter recreation operations manager Jason Goldstein insists that Asahel Curtis is a work in progress.
“Phase 1 was to open Asahel Curtis,” Goldstein said. “It’s feasible we could even groom it for Nordic and snowshoe use with a trail down into Franklin Falls.”
So how successful have these Sno-Parks been thus far at alleviating crowds elsewhere?
“They did not alleviate winter crowding on I-90 [but] these Sno-Parks provide a bit of a catch-up for increased need,” said Karen Behm, coordinator for the Central Cascades Winter Recreation Council. “This winter is busy, but the lowland snow over the holidays and constant snowfall in December kept the snow play crowds in town, so the Sno-Park Nordic areas were on the quieter side as compared to the insanity of last year.”
Although Washington State Parks administers the Sno-Park program, winter trailheads are not always on state park land. All but one Sno-Park along this stretch of I-90 are in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie or Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests. In the case of Asahel Curtis Sno-Park, the first 2 miles of the access road are owned and maintained by King County. This public land management patchwork makes the development of new Sno-Parks as slow as breaking trail in 2 feet of fresh snow.
As playing catch-up continues, one potential Sno-Park smack-dab in the middle of Snoqualmie Pass is hiding in plain sight.
At the Kendall Katwalk Pacific Crest Trail North Trailhead, a busy summer trailhead with a paved parking lot and vault toilets currently sits under a blanket of snow all winter. Snowshoers and backcountry skiers heading up the Commonwealth Basin must instead park at The Summit at Snoqualmie then walk across a treacherous road and under a highway overpass before embarking on any outing into this valley ringed by the impressive constellation of Kendall Peak, Red Mountain, Lundin Peak, Mount Snoqualmie and Guye Peak.
Although the trailhead is a mere two-tenths of a mile from I-90 Exit 52, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest spokesperson Colton Whitworth points out several challenges. The access road exceeds a 10% grade, which would require sanding or chemicals for safe driving. With an average of 5 to 8 feet of snow per year and no designated place to put it, any plow contractor would also need a dump truck to haul out snow periodically. “Not impossible but not a slam dunk,” Behm said.
“We continue to look for better options for an additional Sno-Park opportunity,” Whitworth wrote via email. “Currently we are trying to develop Asahel Curtis as a Sno-Park and learning as we go on what it will take to make this area successful in the winters to come.”
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