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Feb. 4, 2023

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Savor snow on skis in Southwest Washington

Washington offers options for beginners trying winter recreation

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A cross-country skier takes the Natural Bridges loop near Trout Lake.
A cross-country skier takes the Natural Bridges loop near Trout Lake. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Mention cross-country skiing or snowshoeing and the responses often revolve around the long drive and crowded conditions at popular Teacup Lake or Trillium Lake on Mount Hood.

But it’s just not necessary to cross the Columbia River to find decent places to enjoy the beauty and quiet of a snowy forest.

Opportunities to ski and snowshoe on the south side of Mount St. Helens are only a little more than an hour’s drive from Vancouver, and even less time from central and north Clark County.

Two more locations — the Wind River area north of Carson and the south side of Mount Adams near Trout Lake — take about two hours to reach and offer multiple snow routes easily negotiated by winter recreation beginners.

Snow tires or traction devices are advised. The roads and parking lots are plowed and some trails groomed with the money paid for by a Washington Sno-Park permit ($25 a day or $50 for all winter).

On the web

Maps of the ski roads and trails out of each Sno-Park: www.parks.wa.gov/614/South-Cascades

Periodic Forest Service updates on road and Sno-Park conditions: www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/giffordpinchot/recreation#conditions

Road plowing and trail grooming updates from the main grooming contractor: www.facebook.com/Backcountryplowingandgrooming

Periodic updates from the Skamania County Department of Public Works regarding plowing of road No. 30 to the Wind River Winter Recreation Area: www.skamaniacounty.org/departments-offices/public-works/upper-wind-river-recreation-area

A list of where to buy a Sno-Park permit in Southwest Washington: www.parks.wa.gov/147/Sno-Park-Permit-vendors

There are no Sno-Park vendors in Vancouver, although the permits are sold in Chelatchie Prairie, Cougar, Woodland, Carson, Stevenson, Trout Lake, BZ Corner and White Salmon, plus online.

Here’s a guide for beginners to winter recreation in Southwest Washington.

The gear

Mountain Shop, REI and Next Adventure — all in Portland — rent snowshoes.

The downtown REI store, 1405 N.W. Johnson St., has about 200 pairs, which rent for $18 a night for members and $27 for others. Youth snowshoes rent for $8 per night for members and $12 for others. Additional time costs much less per night.

Nonmembers must make a $100 to $200 deposit.

Snowshoe rentals include free poles when inventory exists.

Next Adventure, 426 S.E. Grand Ave., rents snowshoes for $20 per day and $10 per additional day, plus poles for $8 a day and $5 extra days.

Mountain Shop, 2975 N.E. Sandy Blvd., rents a snowshoe-poles package for $18 for two nights.

Next Adventure and Mountain Shop also rent cross-country skis. Next Adventure’s cost for a package (poles, boots and skis) is $40 a day for adults, with each subsequent day costing $20. For juniors, the first-day cost is $25 and $15 for each additional day.

Mountain Shop’s cross-country ski rental cost is $20 for a youth package for two nights and $30 for a basic package for two nights.

To buy snowshoes, costs range from about $150 to $300. To buy a cross-country ski package (skis, boots, bindings, poles) costs about $500.

Where to go

Marble Mountain Sno-Park on the south side of Mount St. Helens is about 15 miles northeast of the community of Cougar. From Cougar, head east on state Highway 503 Spur to Gifford Pinchot National Forest Road No. 90, then turn left on Road No. 83 and go 6 miles.

Marble Mountain has a large parking lot, with a large overflow lot. There are toilets and a warming shelter.

The easiest and simplest way to start snowshoeing or cross-country skiing is to park at Marble Mountain and head east beyond the gate on Road No. 83.

The road is groomed frequently to accommodate the healthy numbers of snowmobile riders. The snowmobilers provide de facto grooming, too. The snowmobiles compact the snow, so you don’t have to break the trail. The machines also slightly chew up the surface of the snow, which is particularly helpful for allowing cross-country skis to grip rather than slip.

For snowshoers, walk up Road No. 83 for 0.84 mile to June Lake trail, then head north up the trail for 1.2 miles to June Lake, a frozen pond with a frozen waterfall dripping into it.

The June Lake outing makes for a nice 4-mile trip, and there will be enough other snowshoers on the route to offer confidence to beginners.

The corners and turns on June Lake trail are too tight and the elevation change is a too much for novice skiers, especially coming back downhill.

A better choice for new skiers is to continue up road No. 83. Stay on Road No. 83. It’s much easier than the trail paralleling Road No. 83 on its north side. Ski east until ready to head back and enjoy the slightly downhill grade returning to Marble Mountain.

A better spot: Why drive two hours to go to Atkisson Sno-Park in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the Skamania-Klickitat county line southwest of Trout Lake?

Because the snow is better, often a lot better, than on Mount St. Helens or at the Wind River Winter Recreation Area.

Mountain snow in Western Washington is often referred to as “Cascade concrete.’’ It’s decent snow — when fresh. But, at the 3,000-foot elevation of the Sno-Parks, temperatures often rise above freezing in the day, then below at night. The snow gets an icy glaze, especially under tree limbs. It is manageable on snowshoes, but can be frustrating on skis.

The daytime winter temperatures stay colder east of the Cascades. That preserves the snow better, resulting in less ice.

Road No. 24 heading west from Atkisson toward Peterson Prairie Guard Station gets groomed, plus gets the de facto grooming by the snowmobile riders. The road is wide and has a gentle grade.

A great trip for beginners is to ski Road No. 24 from Atkisson to Peterson Prairie, at the junction with Road No. 60. At the junction of roads Nos. 60 and 24, there’s a covered kiosk with benches. It’s a spot to take off the skis or snowshoes and sit on the benches while eating lunch.

Atkisson to Peterson Prairie is just shy of three miles, one way.

North of Trout Lake and not far from Atkisson are the Pineside and SnowKing Sno-Parks, both of which have some beginner terrain.

Road No. 82 was not plowed beyond Pineside Sno-Park last winter.

Dean Robertson of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s Mount Adams District said he expects the road to be open to SnowKing this winter.

The Wind River Winter Recreation Area is reached by driving east on state Highway 14 to the Carson junction, then north on the Wind River Highway-Gifford Pinchot National Forest Road No. 30 for 27 miles to Koshko or McClellan Meadows Sno-Parks.

There’s a nice loop paralleling road No. 30 that can be accessed from Koshko, McClellan Meadows or Old Man Pass Sno-Parks.

The trails and roads on this loop at Wind River are suited slightly better for snowshoes than skis. There are a couple of downhill stretches with curves at the bottom that can be challenging for skiers, but are easy on snowshoes.

With a map, the 2.7-mile loop is obvious. Whichever direction taken, make the northern crossing of Road No. 30 at McClellan Meadows Sno-Park to avoid a stream crossing.

Some final advice

A word about trail grooming: It matters.

Breaking trail with even as little as 4 inches of new snow turns into real work real soon.

Travis Larson, a program specialist in the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s winter recreation office, said the schedules call for grooming at Marble Mountain on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays.

The schedule includes grooming the Pineside and Atkisson areas every other Wednesday and the Wind River area every other Friday. The Forest Service grooms about 9 miles of trail out of Atkisson Sno-Park intermittently.

Snow conditions, downed trees and traffic at each Sno-Park can result in deviations from the schedule.

Backcountry Plowing and Grooming of Randle is the plowing-grooming contractor for the Mount St. Helens, Wind River trails and some of the Mount Adams routes.

A quick check of Backcountry Plowing’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Backcountryplowingandgrooming) to get the latest grooming update is time well-spent before leaving home.

A few last words: Don’t ski or snowshoe when it’s snowing hard.

Overcast conditions are normal. Light or intermittent snow flurries are great. But when the daytime sky turns almost dark, and the snow is falling at an inch an hour, skiing or snowshoeing somehow feels more like a task and less like fun.

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