Snowshoes, snow geese, and maybe a snowy owl

Forterra’s former director of forest conservation, Charlie Raines, returns with three more recommendations for where to walk.

This fall Charlie Raines shared his recommendations for seasonal walks. He’s back with a few more, this time selected with winter in mind. Raines officially retired in October, but after a 50-year career in conservation, the last 14 of which were at Forterra, it’s not surprising that he is still connected as resident sage, offering counsel to new employees and perspective to older ones and at our request, offering ideas for where to go and what to look for when you’re out and about in winter. Lucky us.

For these and all hikes, check road access and trail conditions before heading out. And, of course, bring masks and social distance.

Gold Creek

1: Gold Creek

Come for the snow and beautiful mountain and lake views. About an hour outside of downtown Seattle, most of the way on I-90, easy access makes this destination popular. Plan to come early, or midweek, for a good parking spot. Raines recommends two outings in this complex of trails perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. For the first, park at the Hyak trailhead southwest of I-90; follow the Palouse to Cascades Trail which traces the western edge of the Keechelus Lake along the old Milwaukee Railroad grade, which is flat, groomed, and perfect for novice skiers.

Alternately, exit I-90 at the Gold Creek Sno-Park on the northeast side of the highway at the exit 54 interchange. For access to the trail to Gold Creek Pond, park along Forest Service Road 4832 about a mile southeast of the interchange. Get on your skis or snowshoes and follow the snow-covered road north to Gold Creek Pond. This route is not groomed, but there’s usually a track set by early in the day. And speaking of tracks, keep your eye out for those left by wildlife here and at Hyak, perhaps the prints left by a snowshoe hare, weasel, or even a wolverine. This secretive animal has recently made a reappearance in the Cascades. Forterra owns properties in the valley that provide connectivity to the wildlife crossing structures on I-90.

It’s always wise to be prepared when entering wilderness but especially so in winter when snow can make navigation more difficult, so pack food, water, an aluminum blanket, and GPS.

Discover Pass required. No pets on the Palouse to Cascades Trail. Observe the closures on areas near I-90, which provide undisturbed routes for wildlife.

Stillaguamish Estuary

2: Stillaguamish Estuary

Thousands of snow geese gather here in the dormant fields to glean corn and stubble. The sight of such an enormous flock, lifting in an undulating, flickering mass and resettling nearby, is something to behold. In addition to these geese, Raines, who visited in October, saw a golden-crowned kinglet in some brush, Canada geese on the high tide, and a female kestrel perched on the lookout for small mammals. Watch for eagles too and the giant trumpeter swans who arrive by the dozens, he urges, and if fortune is on your side (or else diligent internet research beforehand) — snowy owls. Every three-five years, with unusually harsh weather or a particularly successful breeding season, they’ll expand their winter foraging southward. They are birds of the tundra, so prefer the familiar openness of the estuary to the enclosure of the surrounding forest.

Explore the marshes and mudflats of the estuary from The Nature Conservancy’s 4,122-acre Port Susan Bay Preserve. To visit, contact the Conservancy a week in advance for a reservation. Or visit the estuary via the 13,000 acres managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Skagit Wildlife Area (hunting is permitted here, so time your visit accordingly). The Stillaguamish is one of our region’s great rivers, says Raines. Originating in the Cascades, the river finishes in a vast alluvial plain, the view of Mount Baker on a clear day the only indicator that its 70-mile journey might not have been entirely placid. Both the Skagit and Stillaguamish Rivers support Chinook salmon and other anadromous fish species.

Discover Pass required at Skagit Wildlife Area. No pets allowed at The Nature Conservancy preserve.

Carbon River

3: Carbon River

At the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park, just 40 miles outside Tacoma, the Carbon River region offers easy access to old-growth forest. This ancient ecosystem stands in stark contrast to the clearcuts just outside the park border. Forterra helped the National Park Service acquire the 100-acre Carbon River Ranch, owned by John and Yolanda Thompson, which was part of a larger 755-acre park expansion. The visitor center and ranger station occupy the Thompson’s onetime home, itself a former schoolhouse.

The drive is a scenic experience in itself. The route along Highway 165 south takes you past the historic town of Carbonado (named for the coal mined in the region) across the one-way steel-lattice Fairfax Bridge 250 feet over the Carbon River. Turn on to Carbon River Road/Fairfax Forest Reserve Road E. to the visitor center. This road is closed just outside the park entrance, so park at the juncture of Forest Service Road 7810. From here walk, bike, or in the less common but wonderful scenario of snow at 1,900 feet, ski through groves of giant conifers in this old-growth rainforest to the entrance station and beyond. There’ll be no cars to disturb you. This is also the summer hiking route to the Carbon Glacier (nine miles upriver). Marvel at the power of the wild Carbon River, flowing off its namesake glacier on the north flank of Mount Rainier. In season, salmon return to spawn in this constantly evolving river.

Dogs are not allowed on the trails or in wilderness areas in the park. Leashed dogs are allowed in campgrounds, parking lots, and on paved roads.

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