- Associated Press - Saturday, February 27, 2016

SHERMAN PASS, Wash. (AP) - The snowshoers started their trek uphill through the forest and morning gloom. But within an hour they were climbing into untracked powder and brilliant sunshine in the Kettle River Range. Fog filled the valleys below, but the big-footers were above it all.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Mark Turner, leader of the Inland Northwest Hikers Meet Up group.

In snowshoeing terms, reaching such rewards in an hour is instant gratification, and a reason why Sherman Pass on State Route 20 is the region’s king of the road for winter backcountry recreation.

The highest mountain pass maintained and open year-round in Washington is a launch pad for muscle-powered travelers on skis, snowshoes and splitboards.

The highway crests at elevation 5,575 feet over the pass between Kettle Falls and Republic. The plowed lot - open to vehicles with Washington Sno-Park Permits - and a vault toilet provide the staging area for adventures along Kettle Crest Trail 13.

A pair of backcountry skiers donned their packs, shovels and avalanche transceivers and headed north from the Sno-Park lot up Columbia Mountain.

Turner’s group chose to go south, staying wary of traffic as they crossed SR 20 toward Sherman Peak Loop Trail 72. This 6-mile trek offers several choice options, such as scrambling up to the peak’s summit at 6,998 feet.

The Colville National Forest has marked the Sherman Peak Loop and the Kettle Crest Trail, but trekkers will encounter huge unmarked gaps in winter. Map reading and navigation skills are essential, especially in fog or whiteout conditions that suddenly engulf the crest.

Turner’s group branched off the Sherman Peak Loop for a side-trip to briefly visit the Snow Peak Cabin, a destination that lures overnighters from around the region and beyond. Completed in 1995 after three years of volunteer effort, the 17-by-19-foot cabin sleeps four and can be reserved for $30 a night.

Reservations are accepted up to six months in advance at (877) 444-6777 or online at www.recreation.gov.

The cabin is popular despite the 10-mile, round-trip trek visitors must be capable of making through variable backcountry snow conditions. All but a few nights are booked through winter into April.

Heading south from Sherman Peaks on Kettle Crest Trail 13, the snowshoers eventually reached the cabin at 6,400 feet. They weren’t surprised to see three men on the porch holding packed-in canned beverages relaxing after they’d devoted the morning to shredding the slopes on Snow Peak.

“I often incorporate winter camping into my overnight backcountry trips, but it’s nice to occasionally take a break from dealing with the cold, cooking in the snow and waking in the morning with frozen boots,” Jason Hershey said.

The Spokane County man and his friends had reserved the cabin for several nights and were having a ball.

“This is absolute luxury to not have to carry pots and pans, stove or tent and have firewood available and a wood-stove to dry out your gear each night,” he said. “We carry in better food than when we’re camping. It’s mind-blowing to be able to ski right from the porch of the cabin.”

With an industrial grade vault toilet outside, the cabin is equipped with solar-powered lights, a table, sleeping cots, propane cook stove, basic cookware and cutlery.

It’s not total luxury, though. Snow and icicles off the roof must be melted for water.

That morning, while the snowshoers were driving from Spokane to Kettle Falls, the cabin group had geared up before daylight to make a sunrise run of about a thousand feet in a bowl below the cabin. Then they skinned up and returned to the cabin for coffee and breakfast.

“In a day trip, we could play only a fraction as much as we can based at the cabin,” Hershey said. “We’d already made several laps to the top of Snow Peak and down before our visitors arrived.”

Clouds were moving in as the snowshoers and skiers visited. One group was thinking about having another beer while the other group knew they couldn’t delay much longer before making tracks for two hours back to Sherman Pass.

“Relative to slogging up logging roads for miles before reaching the high country, a plowed highway through the Kettle Range is a real treat,” Hershey said.

The snowshoers waved goodbye as they left, more than content with their lot in life as day trippers. They were traipsing through high country so lovely they were tempted to pause every few hundred yards to snap another photo.

“I love this area for the quick access to remoteness,” Hershey said.

Pass the winter recreation

Highway passes noted for giving winter recreationists higher elevation launch points include:

IDAHO

Fourth of July Pass, elev. 3,173 feet, 12 miles east of Coeur d’Alene on I-90

Lookout Pass, elev. 4,711 feet, at the Idaho-Montana border on I-90.

WASHINGTON

Blewett Pass, elev. 4,102 feet, southwest of Wenatchee on US 97.

Sherman Pass, elev. 5,575 feet, between Kettle Falls and Republic on SR 20.

Snoqualmie Pass, elev. 3,022 feet on I-90.

Stevens Pass, elev. 4,061, west of Leavenworth on US 2.

White Pass, elevation 4,500 feet, west of Yakima on US 12.

CANADA

Kootenay Pass, elev. 5,823, between Salmo and Creston, British Columbia, on Highway 3.

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The original story can be found on The Spokesman-Review’s website: bit.ly/20JsdaK

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Information from: The Spokesman-Review, https://www.spokesman.com


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