February 17, 2016
Story and Photos by Craig Romano
Photo at right: The White Pass downhill ski area can be seen in the distance from some of the Nordic trails.
Skiers from every age have a favorite place to ski in the Northwest, and White Pass is often a favored place for snowshoeing and downhill skiing. White Pass is also one of the region’s top choices for cross-country skiing.
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At 4,500 feet, White Pass’s lofty elevation assures ample snowfall and being on the leeward side of Mount Rainier, the snow tends to be a little drier and fluffier than points farther west.
If you live in Yakima, this is your backyard winter playground. But, folks in the greater Seattle area shouldn’t let the three-hour drive be a deterrent. There are accommodations at the Pass and more options both west in Packwood and east in Yakima.
You can purchase a trail pass at the White Pass Nordic Center. The friendly staff at the Nordic Yurt can provide you with a map and information on the Center’s trails and rental equipment if you don’t have your own. The Center also offers both group and individual lessons for beginners as well as instruction for experienced skiers who want to perfect their technique.
Consisting of a series of loops of varying degrees of difficulty, the 18 kilometers of wide well-groomed trails are double-tracked with a center skating lane.
Beginners will like the Deer Creek Loop where they will glide along 1.4 kilometers through quiet groves of old-growth forest. It can be reached by skiing along the southern shores of Leech Lake, often referred to as just “The Lake.”
Branching off the Deer Creek Loop is the Dog Lake Loop. This 2.5 kilometer circuit offers a little more zip with a few short ups and downs. It traverses a forested ridge above Dog Lake and experienced skiers can veer off the loop to look at the frozen tranquil lake set beneath Spiral Butte.
If you want a thrilling downhill run, consider skiing down The Hill. This 0.6 kilometer trail is the hardest and steepest trail at the White Pass Nordic Center! Along with the exciting downhill run it offers lovely views of Spiral Butte and the lonely surrounding ridges.
The loop that will have you returning for another round or two is the Lake Loop. A moderately easy 2.3 kilometer route around “The Lake,” this trail not only hugs the shoreline of placid Leech Lake it also travels across glades of towering evergreens and traverses an open slope high above it.
The open slope offers breathtaking views of the frozen body of water below, and the bustling downhill ski trails at the White Pass Ski Area across the Pass. You’ll also enjoy a nice downhill run back to the Nordic Yurt on this loop, too.
Backcountry Adventure to Deer Lake
If you are interested in backcountry skiing, the Pacific Crest Trail passes through White Pass and the ski center.
Located north of the Pass just inside the sprawling William O. Douglas Wilderness is Deer Lake. It feels like it is deep within the backcountry yet it’s a mere 3 miles from White Pass. With fairly gentle terrain surrounding the lake, it makes for good beginning backcountry ski touring.
The most scenic route to Deer Lake is to follow the PCT from the Lake Loop Ski Trail. It’s well marked by a big brown sign you can’t miss. Head north on the famous long-distance trail. It makes a sweeping switchback left and then another to the right and gently climbs up a thickly forested slope graced with old-growth giants.
Cross the Kendall Konnecter ski trail and continue climbing. The trail soon eases up following a gentle shoulder shrouded in hemlocks and firs. Enter the William O. Douglas Wilderness and come to a junction with the Dark Meadows Trail which heads right 1.6 miles to Dog Lake.
To reach Deer Lake, continue straight on the PCT rounding the head of a small ravine. The trail traverses a short steep slope and bends left to make a short climb to a broad ridge. Continue along this forested route, which skirts pocket meadows on the left and goes past a small meadow on your right.
The route then briefly re-enters the forest before popping out upon a wide-open area. Here at 3 miles you’ve reached Deer Lake — but you’d never know it in the dead of winter. It appears more like a big frozen meadow. Surrounded by towering sub-alpine firs the scene is quite serene.
Wander around the lake basin leaving your tracks in freshly fallen snow—and look for the two- and four-legged tracks of those that have passed before you.
Nordic Yurt Comfort
After an exhausting day breaking tracks or skating to your heart’s content, head back to the yurt. Here you can warm up with a cup of hot cocoa, a hot bowl of chili, or a hearty snack.
If you’ve never cross-country skied and would like to, the Center offers Nordic ski lessons Thursdays and Sundays. It’s a perfect way to become acquainted with this healthy sport and a wonderful place to pursue it.
Distance: 18 kilometers (11 miles) of groomed trails
Trailhead Directions: From Morton, follow US 12 east for 55 miles to White Pass. Turn left and proceed to parking area near the Yurt behind the Village Inn Condominiums.
Green Trails Maps: White Pass No. 303
Notes: The Nordic Center is open Thursday through Sundays and holidays during the ski season from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. (passes required). Children under six and skiers over 73 can ski for free. It may be difficult to locate trail blazes along some of these loops, so be prepared and carry a map. Dogs are allowed on the trails after 3:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and all day on the trails Monday through Wednesday.
Craig Romano is Trails Editor of OutdoorsNW and is the author of 10 Northwest hiking guidebooks including Winter Hikes of Western Washington card deck (The Mountaineers Books).