Winter Wanderings in Washington’s Kettle Range

Snow PeakNamed after the roiling falls near where the Kettle River enters the Columbia River, eastern Washington’s Kettle Range is deceptively mellow. Although this range in the far northeast corner of the state features a half-dozen of eastern Washington’s highest peaks, it tops out at just over 7,000 feet. No cloud-piercing spires here, just a mosaic of old-growth forests and open sagebrush meadows, from which shimmer distant vistas of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains.

Bald_Snow10At just over two hours from Spokane, eastern Washington’s largest city, and a five-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle in ideal conditions, the Kettles are quiet country. But this off-the-beaten-path mountain range offers plenty for winter wanderers. In the heart of the Kettles, Sherman Pass, the highest maintained highway pass in Washington, rates as one of the state’s premier snowshoeing destinations. Winter-weekend warriors pack the Sno-Park at the pass, with snowshoers exploring the 45-mile Kettle Crest National Scenic Trail, eastern Washington’s premier high-country route. Although snow begins falling in late October most years, the winter conditions usually peak around springtime; it’s not unheard of to be able to snowshoe right out of the Sherman Pass Sno-Park lot in early June.

Below, three choice snowshoeing routes in the Kettle Range.

2010 February 105The Thirteenmile Trail wends its way through forests of lofty old-growth ponderosa pines and open grassy knobs on the drier western edge of the Kettles. The San Poil River canyon cuts a jagged stripe to the south. Beyond are the fir-clad peaks of the Colville Indian Reservation. The Cougar Trailhead, four miles from your starting point, makes a great turnaround spot, but the trail continues for another 13 miles. Rusty and faded Forest Service signs indicate this trail was once part of the Center Stock Driveway, over which sheepherders moved their flocks from the dry country of central Washington up to the high country for summer forage. Today, four-legged critters of all sorts use this thoroughfare to descend to lower elevations during the winter; visitors are all but guaranteed fresh, untouched tracks, of chipmunk, squirrel, snowshoe hare, bobcat, coyote, cougar, deer, elk, moose—even wolf.

Driving directions: From Republic, travel south on State Highway 21 approximately 13 miles to Thirteenmile trailhead, on the left (east) side of the highway.

2010 January - Bald Snow Snowshoe Trip 024One of the top snowshoe treks in the state, the 8-mile roundtrip snowshoe to Columbia Mountain takes trekkers back in time. Hike north on the Kettle Crest Trail from Sherman Pass across the southwestern flank of 6,780-foot Columbia Mountain, through a unique ecosystem where sagebrush intermingles with subalpine fir. The high point of this eight-mile loop is the broad, open summit, the site of a recently restored historic fire lookout cabin. One of the oldest still-standing lookout structures in the state, the Columbia Mountain lookout was built in 1914 and re-constructed two years ago using subalpine firs growing on-site. Stash your gear in the cabin, pitch a four-season tent in the shelter of surrounding subalpine firs, and enjoy one of the state’s finest winter-camping experiences.

Driving directions: About 4 miles west of Kettle Falls on US 395, cross the bridge over the Columbia River. Almost immediately (0.1 mile), turn left (west) on Hwy 20, toward the town of Republic. Drive approximately 22 miles to the Kettle Crest Trailhead, on the right (north) side of the Highway. Look for the trail on the south side of the Highway. Washington Sno-Park Pass required; purchase at Department of Licensing in Kettle Falls.

2010 January - Bald Snow Snowshoe Trip 046The moderately difficult 5.3-mile Sherman Peak Loop surveys both subalpine forest and the silvery snags left standing from the 1988 White Mountain Fire, which scorched over 20,000 acres of the southern Kettles. Wildlife, wildflowers and wide-open views have taken the place of the trees, making this one of the scenic highlights of eastern Washington. Beginning on the Kettle Crest Trail in a climax forest of Douglas-fir, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine, the way climbs steadily to a junction with the Sherman Loop Trail. Right or left, it doesn’t matter, although heading right saves the possible summit sidetrip of Sherman for the end. Soon, the forest opens up to views over the foothills of the Kettle Range. Snowshoe hare tracks stitch the snow, and easily-spooked spruce grouse should get the heart pumping if the climbing doesn’t. A steep, wind-scoured spur route on the southeast side of Sherman offers the safest summit route, although well-worn skin tracks on the northeast aspect provide other summit options (just be courteous and stay out of the uptrack). Summit on a clear day to enjoy views of the far-off Cascades, a jagged contrast to the mellower contours of the Kettles.

Want to stay a few days? On the southwest flank of Sherman Peak follow the Kettle Crest Trail south 2 miles to the Snow Peak Cabin (reservations: Built by volunteer labor in 1995, Snow Peak Cabin remains a coveted reservation, with rustic ski-in/ski-out accommodations at the base of a bowl on the west flank of Snow Peak. Warm up by the well-stocked wood stove after a long day of ridgeline rambling.

Driving directions: About 4 miles west of Kettle Falls on US 395, cross the bridge over the Columbia River. Almost immediately (0.1 mile), turn left (west) on Hwy 20, toward the town of Republic. Drive approximately 22 miles to the Kettle Crest Trailhead, on the right (north) side of the Hwy. Look for the trail on the south side of the Hwy. Washington Sno-Park Pass required; purchase at Department of Licensing in Kettle Falls.

Après snowshoe

The border communities of northeast Washington have served as bases for mineral and timber exploration since the region opened to settlement almost 150 years ago. Located on the west side of the Kettles, the tiny town of Republic once boasted the most lucrative gold mine in the state. Today, the quiet community of just over one thousand citizens is still supported by area mines but has begun to cater to outdoor recreationists.

The Northern Inn (888.801.1068; offers clean and quiet accommodations within walking distance of groceries, restaurants and bars. The owners, strong supporters of outdoor recreation in the area, keep the front lobby stocked with area hiking guidebooks and adventure magazines and are themselves great resources for the inside line on trails.

One of eastern Washington’s largest certified organic retailers, Ferry County Co-op and Kettle Crust Bakery (509.775.3754; stocks natural and local groceries and housemade baked goods. Pile up a plate of food at the breakfast bar (menu changes daily), then grab a few fresh-baked scones for the trail.

Owing to its proximity to the Canadian border and distance from law enforcement, the tiny mining towns of northeast Washington were a hub for bootlegging in the Northwest during Prohibition. Today the liquor is flowing freely again, thanks to several high-quality microbreweries in the region. The family-run Republic Brewing Company (509.775.2700; brewery and taproom serves hand-crafted beers and regional wines and cider. Founded in 2011, the “RBC” has quickly become hub of Republic’s nightlife, with miners, back-to-the-landers and out-of-towners alike rubbing elbows and sharing peanuts at the bar. There’s no food menu, but feel free to bring your own bar bites.

The eastern gateway to the Kettles, Kettle Falls was named after a cauldron-like falls that served as a traditional fishing and gathering place of the Colville tribe. The falls have since been indundated by Lake Roosevelt, but the community is still a hub for timber and tourism in the area.

Stop by Northern Ales (509.738.7382; for a nice selection of beers brewed onsite and modestly priced pub grub. All the taps offer uniques takes on standard beer tropes, but the honey basil is the most off-beat. At around 14 percent alcohol, a small glass goes a long way. The proprietors describe the beer as a “love-it-or-hate-it” taste. This author falls in the former camp. For a meal, try the beer brats, which are made locally. Pool tables, open-air seating and frequent live music encourage lingering.

Featuring a complete selection of natural and organic groceries and products, Meyers Falls Market (509.738.2727; is a reliable stop for pre- and post-snowshoe snacks. Enjoy lunch in the small sit-down deli with soup, salads and other healthy items, and be sure to check out the market’s extensive array of beer and wine, including many local selections.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.