Three cross-country ski trips to try before winter departs

By Al Thomas, Columbian Outdoors Reporter



When the weather forecasters announced this was going to be a La Nina winter, it conjured up visions of snow and more snow in the backcountry.

And it started as expected. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving there were 18 inches of fresh snow at Oldman Pass Sno-Park in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Breaking trail, even for just four miles, was a lot of work.

The snow kept falling intermittently in December and the world seemed in order.

Then about the second week of January, the snow stopped falling, the temperatures started rising, and the melting began.

When I competed in the Big Tree Ski Race out of Pineside Sno-Park in the Mount Adams District in mid-January, there was enough snow, but not a lot.

By Valentine’s Day, the snow was down to patches at elevations around 2,500 feet. At Cougar Sno-Park on the south side of Mount St. Helens, it was necessary to walk up the road (gaining elevation) before putting on the skis.

But Valentine’s Day night, the weather changed and the snow returned.

Monday and Tuesday dumped 30 inches of new snow at the Wind River and Mount Adams sno-parks. The winter recreation areas all have three to five feet of snow now.

So, get in a trip soon while the conditions are great.

Below are three suggested outings. The McClellan Meadows trip is simple and easy terrain. The ski to Red Rock Pass gains some elevation initially, and is fun coming down.

The Gotchen Creek Guard Station loop is for intermediate skiers. The difference between a beginner and intermediate skiing being the conditioning to go longer distances.

It’s time for a final trip, then we’ll put away the skinny skis and dig out the hiking boots.

Red Rock Pass

THE BASICS: This is a 2.88-mile ski from Cougar Sno-Park to Red Rock Pass on Gifford Pinchot National Forest road No. 83. The elevation gain is 1,267 feet from 1,859 elevation to 3,126 feet. Round trip is 5.76 miles.

A state sno-park permit ($21 daily or $41 season) is required to park at Cougar Sno-Park.

GETTING THERE: From the junction of state Highway 503 and 503 spur at Yale, go east on Highway 503 spur for 5.2 miles to Cougar. Continue east on the main road (becomes Forest Service road No. 90) for 6.8 more miles to the junction with road No. 83. Turn left and follow road No. 83 for 3 miles to the junction with road No. 81. Cougar Sno-Park is just up road No. 81.

MISCELLANEOUS: The ski trip up the road begins with a steady climb. You will pass the junction with Kalama ski trail loop C at 1.2 miles and the junction with road No. 830 to Climbers Bivouac at 1.66 miles.

The elevation gain is steepest at the beginning. After you’ve reached the junction with road No. 830 the grade gets very gradual.

This is a fun downhill ski back to the car. Under icy conditions it can be fast, but mostly it has enough grade to maintain a steady descent without falling.

Red Rock Pass is where road No. 83 passes from the Lewis River watershed into the Kalama River drainage.

At the pass, there will be a trailhead for the Butte Camp trail. Drop your skis and climb the incline to get a view of Mount St. Helens.

McClellan Meadow

THE BASICS: This is a 2.9-mile out-and-back on road No. 3053 from McClellan Meadows Sno-Park. There’s only 30 feet elevation gain on the route, so it’s almost flat and a great place for novices to try cross-country skis.

GETTING THERE: From the stoplight in Carson, follow the Wind River Highway and Wind River road No. 30 for 26.5 miles to McClellan Sno-Park.

MISCELLANEOUS: Ski up the road for 1.44 miles to its end. You reach a spot where you can see McClellan Meadows off to your left at 1.08 miles. If you want more mileage, a snow trail map because there are many miles in the Oldman Pass vicinity.

Gotchen Creek Guard Station

THE BASICS: This is 3.95-mile trip into the Gotchen Creek Guard Station, built in 1909. The cabin, in a grove of aspen, is the oldest structure in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The elevation gain is only 300 feet from 3,374 to 3,677 feet. Round trip is 7.9 miles. This is an intermediate, rather than a beginner, trip, not due to the difficulty of the terrain, but because 7.9 miles is a long trip for novice cross-country skiers.

A state sno-park permit ($21 daily or $41 season) is required to park at SnowKing Sno-Park.

GETTING THERE: At the Chevron station in Trout Lake, take the right fork and follow the signs up road No. 82 leading to the sno-parks. SnowKing Sno-Park is 6.4 miles beyond the gas station.

MISCELLANEOUS: From SnowKing, head west on the Lava Loop trail. The route is almost flat. Stay on Lava Loop at the first junction with the Pipeline Loop (road 744 at 0.9 mile) and continue to the second junction with the Pipeline Loop (road 110 at 1.32 miles). Leave Lava Loop and head up Pipeline (road 110) climbing to a junction at 2.04 miles. At this junction, the Pipeline Loop heads east (right) on road No. 181. You’ll want to go west (left) following road No. 181 to its end at 3.4 miles at road No. 8225. Turn right and follow 8225 to its junction with road No. 060 at 3.8 miles from SnowKing. Ski slightly east on road No. 060 and Gotchen Guard Station will appear on the left.

There’s a bench on the front porch with a southern exposure, making it a sunny place to eat lunch before returning to SnowKing. There’s also an outhouse a short distance behind the guard station

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