One Foot in Front of the Other
When a cold winter rain starts falling in Seattle, I turn giddy. Not because I’m thrilled at the prospect of being chilled and wet at sea level, but because I know the raindrops slicking our streets are likely to be fat snowflakes up at Snoqualmie Pass. A dog-eared copy of Rainer Burgdorfer’s 1986 book “Backcountry Skiing in Washington’s Cascades” taught me that trick: When the mercury reads 45 degrees Fahrenheit or less in Seattle, the temperature is likely at or below freezing at our nearest mountain pass.
While Snoqualmie Pass is the runt of the litter among Cascade passes, cresting at a mere 3,000 feet above sea level, Pacific Northwest weather often conspires to produce prodigious amounts of snow as storms surge in from the west and collide with cold air from Eastern Washington seeping through this gap in the Cascade spine. Such was the case as the annus horribilis of 2020 came to a close. On New Year’s Eve, the atmosphere cranked up and did not relent for eight days. By the end of the first week of 2021, Snoqualmie Pass had received upward of 6 feet of snow.
Why hike muddy trails or walk on sidewalks caked with decaying leaves when you can snowshoe on a carpet of white? Once the storm cycle had finally settled, I saddled up with my wife and another couple for the hourlong ride to the pass and a jaunt up Cold Creek Road, marked on maps as Forest Road 9070, a surefire place to find a bit of backcountry solitude even on a busy weekend close to home. Our friends, relatively new to winter adventuring in the Cascades, were skeptical of my promises that we’d encounter snow banks taller than us as we cruised east on I-90 past a gloomy tableau of leafless limbs. But after North Bend, we left the lowlands behind and began the steady climb into the heart of the Cascades, inching ever closer to the snow line demarcated clearly on the mountainside — that magic elevation where evergreens adopt a white sheen.
We set off from the Hyak Sno-Park (elevation 2,600 feet), which abuts a rails-to-trails conversion formerly known as the Iron Horse Trail. Today, the level grade is officially the Cascades to Palouse State Park Trail — a bit of a mouthful — but not much else has changed since the decommissioned railroad became a trail in the 1980s. Washington State Parks still grooms the trail in winter, and that’s where this trek starts. Don’t let the crush of sledders deter you. Just strap on your snowshoes and start walking. Most importantly, stay out of the groomed track or risk incurring the wrath of cross-country skiers.
After 1.25 miles, keep a watchful eye for a blue diamond blaze to your right. That’s the signal to head off into the woods. A few hundred feet later, you’ll pop out onto Cold Creek Road. This section is also groomed as part of the Summit at Snoqualmie nordic trail network, but the stretch from here up to Windy Pass is part of the public land “common corridor” that doesn’t require a nordic trail pass from the ski area. The wide forest road, groomed edge to edge, is an ideal winter trail for physical distancing.
Head south on Cold Creek Road past signs indicating a wastewater spray area. Unappetizing, yes, but the municipal infrastructure for Snoqualmie Pass has to go somewhere. It will get more pleasant, promise. A bridge crosses Mill Creek as the road swings southwest. Skiers glide by gracefully. Snow begins to pile up. After 3 miles, the scent of wood smoke wafts through the air. You’ll stumble upon the Jim Brooks warming hut (max capacity three this season) and a Honey Bucket, helpfully situated for a midday pit stop.
Here is where decision time comes: Is the weather socked in or you’re not interested in a climb? Don’t follow the road, which begins to switchback upward. Instead, look for a wooden trail sign pointing toward Twin Lakes and continue southwest along the banks of Cold Creek, which you’ve been paralleling all this time. It’s just 1 mile to your destination, but GPS is recommended for navigation, especially if there is no snowshoe track already broken into the snow. The two lakes are by no means impressive alpine specimens, but they are sheltered by a lovely grove of trees and offer peekaboo views of Silver Mountain. They are also likely to be far from the madding crowd that can throng Snoqualmie Pass on weekends. You have found your winter zen moment.
If there is fair weather above and you’re feeling strong, option two continues up the groomed forest road. That’s what we did, lured by a blue hole aloft that had us holding out hopes for panoramic mountain views. Many Nordic skiers turn around at Jim Brooks, deterred by the 1,000-foot vertical climb to Windy Pass. At stretches, we had the trail to ourselves even on a Saturday. As we climbed, the relatively thin and crusty snowpack at Hyak, which had mixed with rain during the storm cycle, evolved into marshmallow fluff as the snow became more abundant. Before us, humpback-shaped Mount Catherine loomed above. Behind us, a wall of snow-clad evergreens cascaded down Roaring Ridge.
After 5 miles, we pulled over for lunch and bundled up at the aptly named Windy Pass (3,800 feet). The blue hole was a false omen: Clouds drifted in and our hoped-for Cascade panorama was reduced to views of Granite Peak and Mount Snoqualmie, barely visible across the valley. Winter weather can be mercurial and I know better than to trust a sunny forecast in January, but no matter. As a bumper sticker I see in my neighborhood often reminds me: The trees are the view.
If you go
Distance: 8 miles round-trip to Twin Lakes with just a few hundred feet of elevation gain; 10 miles round-trip to Windy Pass.
Good for: Snowshoers looking to avoid avalanche terrain and clock considerable mileage on mostly groomed trails.
Parking situation: The Hyak Sno-Park fills up on weekends, so arrive early. Park staff will wave you through if you already have a seasonal Washington Sno-Park Permit with special groomed sticker ($80). Only going once or twice? Pay $20 on-site for a one-day permit.
Terrain: Mostly groomed except for the connector trail between Cascades to Palouse State Park Trail and Cold Creek Road, as well as the 2 miles out and back from Jim Brooks warming hut to Twin Lakes. Relatively flat to Twin Lakes; 1,300 feet of elevation gain to Windy Pass.