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The woods in winter can be a magical place.
Two feet of snow transforms a clear-cut into a meadow. Douglas firs and western hemlocks look best when decorated in white. A half-mile away from the parking lot can seem like a wilderness.
While it’s necessary to drive to Mount Hood to enjoy downhill skiing and snowboarding, there’s plenty of winter recreation on this side of the Columbia River.
The U.S. Forest Service has a dozen sno-parks with almost 500 parking spots clumped in three areas of the southern Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Hundreds of miles of snow-covered roads and winter trails offer a plethora of choices for cross-country skiers, snowshoers and snowmobile riders.
Each of the winter recreation areas has its positives. The south side of Mount St. Helens is the closest to most of Clark County, while skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers have separate areas at Upper Wind River. The trails north of Trout Lake on the south side of Mount Adams are the farthest away, yet generally have the best weather, best snow and most solitude.
Here’s a look at the winter recreation options in the southern Gifford Pinchot. A Washington state sno-park permit is required to park at Gifford Pinchot sno-parks. The cost is $20 per day and $40 for the season. Vendors also may add a $1 service fee.
Mount St. Helens — Cougar and Marble Mountain sno-parks are along road No. 83 on the south side of the peak.
Cougar is at 2,200 feet elevation and has parking for 30 vehicles. It is used mostly by snowmobile riders, although it provides access to the little-used Kalama Ski Trail.
Marble Mountain is at 2,700 feet and has two parking lots, with a combined capacity of 130 vehicles.
Marble Mountain’s large and popular warming hut burned to the ground in mid-April. Initial efforts to rebuild the shelter have stalled.
Snowmobile riders, skiers, snowshoers and even mountain climbers depart from this parking area.
Both sno-parks normally get snow in early December. At such a low elevation, winter can end by February. Yet some years, it extends into May.
Upper Wind River — Oldman Pass, Koshko, McClellan Meadows, Rush Creek and Lone Butte sno-parks all are accessed from Wind River road No. 30 leading north from Carson in Skamania County.
Oldman Pass (3,040 feet elevation, 40 parking spots), Koshko (3,080 feet elevation, 60 parking spots) and McClellan Meadows (2,980 feet elevation, 30 parking spots) are fairly close together and used by cross-country skiers and snowshoers. There’s also a sliding hill accessible from Oldman Pass.
Rush Creek (3,030 feet elevation, 10 parking spots) and Lone Butte (3,140 feet elevation, 50 parking spots and a warming shelter) are used by snowmobile riders who head north and east toward the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields and Mount Adams.
Mount Adams — Five winter parking lots are within a few miles of the community of Trout Lake on the south side of Mount Adams.
Atkisson (2,760 feet elevation, 30 parking spaces) and Flattop (2,600 feet elevation, 30 parking spaces) both are west of Trout Lake and have warming shelters.
Pineside (2,700 feet, 25 parking spaces), Snow-King (3,250 feet, 25 parking spots) and Smith Butte (3,900 feet, 25 parking spaces) are northeast of Trout Lake.
Atkisson and Flattop are used primarily by snowmobile riders, while Pineside, SnowKing and Smith Butte get used by all the groups.
Smith Butte, the highest elevation sno-park in the Gifford Pinchot, often is not accessible. During periods of heavy snow, the road generally is plowed only to Pineside and SnowKing.
Some years, such as in 2009, Road No. 82 is plowed to its junction with road No. 190, about a mile south of Smith Butte Sno-Park.