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Tempted by the Okanogan

Succumb to the Pleasure of Riding North central Washington

Published in the September 2008 Issue Published online: Sep 20, 2008 White Out & Wide Open—The Blog LANE LINDSTROM
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"Our group takes a rest from hillclimbing near what the locals call the Pothole. It's just north a bit from Little Tiffany Lake, another great hillclimbing spot in Methow Valley.
" This sign describes a different forest fire that went through practically the same area as a fire just a few years ago.
"Looking across Rainy Lake to the north. Rainy Lake (elevation 4,793 feet) is south of Highway 20 and south of Rainy Pass.
"This is near Rainy Pass, off Highway 20 west of Winthrop. Lots of wide open boondocking and hillclimbing are the specialties here.

Sometimes we don't know how good we have it, especially when it's close to home.

That's about the only way to describe what we experienced during a three-day snowmobile trip in Washington's Okanogan County.

We enjoyed some of the state's best snowmobiling all by ourselves. Don't get us wrong, we like to ride where and when the crowds are thin but we were a bit surprised at how we had the place pretty much all to ourselves.

Of course, who can blame Washington sledders for bypassing the great riding in Okanogan County, which is about as remote as you can get in Washington state. After all, the county is surrounded by famous riding areas. First, there's all the excellent riding north of the border in Canada, as well as good riding in northern Idaho to the east and to the west on the other side of the Cascade Range near Mt. Baker. Then there's the very popular Lake Chelan just down the road to the south. With all that in the neighborhood, it's tempting to overlook a place like Okanogan County.

 

RESIST THE TEMPTATION

There's more than plenty enough of everything snowmobilers like to satisfy your sledding indulgence in the Okanogan. Plenty enough of everything except the crowds. In our three days in the Okanogan we saw just a handful of other snowmobilers and that was mostly in the sno parks.

Of course we rode during the week (hint, hint) and had to battle some cloudy skies, but hey, that works for us. We still enjoyed some sun and lots of untouched snow.

 

OKANOGAN WHO?

There could be some snowmobilers, especially from Washington, who have made it this far into this article and are asking themselves: Snowmobiling in the Okanogan? That sounds kind of familiar.

How about if we mention the Methow Valley? Oh yea, that place. The Methow Valley is familiar to many western snowmobilers who know it for its rugged terrain, excellent snow conditions and long riding season. The Methow Valley is just one part of Okanogan County and the place we spent our three days playing on the snow.

The Methow is home to a majority of the groomed trails found in the county, so it sees the most traffic, when there is snowmobile traffic.

Looking at the bigger picture when it comes to winter in the Okanogan County, there are more than 400 miles of groomed trails scattered all over the area, all accessed by 10 different sno parks. Just looking at that sno park information shows how varied the riding is around the county. Trail systems range from 134 miles of groomed paths to as few as 33-mile systems and elevations range from 2,050 feet (Boulder Creek Sno Park north of Winthrop) to 4,500 feet (Crawfish Sno Park, located east of Riverside in the eastern part of the county). Most of the sno parks are in the 2,000-foot plus elevation range. All that doesn't even include two additional sno parks in the southwest part of Okanogan County where there's another 100 miles of groomed trails, part of which spill over into Chelan County. So there's no shortage of groomed trails or access to them.

There's also no shortage of off-trail riding, which we quickly found out our first day of riding out of Winthrop and more specifically, Eightmile Sno Park, just north of the Chewack River Guest Ranch.

 

GAIN SOME ELEVATION

The first order of business was to gain some elevation and see the surrounding area-which includes the some of the most rugged mountains and ranges Washington has to offer. We stopped on Sweetgrass Butte, which sits at a little more than 6,100 feet, so we gained nearly 4,000 feet from the sno park in no time at all. It's an easy ride via the trail to the crest of the butte, which offers a sweeping view in all directions from its bald top. To the west you can see into the Sawtooth Range. A little southwest and there is Goat Peak (elevation 7,001 feet), on top of which is a lookout that is visible from miles around. Goat Peak sits between Sweetgrass Butte and the Sawtooth Range. Many of the mountain peaks you see to the north of Sweetgrass Butte generally mark the southern border of the Pasayten Wilderness, a sprawling Wilderness area that makes up part of northern Okanogan County and is off limits to snowmobiling.

A particularly striking view from Sweetgrass Butte is down the Goat Creek drainage, which leads the eye to the Sawtooth Range in the distance. That drainage is east of Goat Peak. A groomed trail follows Goat Creek up the drainage from the Goat Creek Sno Park, where you can eventually get to Sweetgrass Butte over Banker Pass.

We pretty much ditched the trail after leaving Sweetgrass Butte and made our way through parts of "The Burn" as the locals call it. The Burn is a section of the forest that was ravaged by forest fires more than a half dozen years ago. The limbless trunks left behind by the fire make for a stark contrast to the white blanket that surrounds them. We stopped on the edge of yet another creek drainage that provides an outlet for the several feet of snow (nearly 10 feet this past winter) that melt each spring and flow to the various rivers nearby. At that stop we were looking squarely into the Pasayten Wilderness, which sat behind McLeod Mountain (8,099 feet), one of the tallest peaks along the ridge that marks the Wilderness boundary. After a short ride, we rode up the ridge to just below McLeod, where we sat on the edge of the Wilderness and again got a stunning view of the surrounding ranges and peaks, including dozens inside the Wilderness. There's some fun hillclimbing and boondocking on the non-Wilderness side of the forest near McLeod.

From there it was back to The Burn where we played on several hillsides and boondocked through the sticks that were formerly trees. The Burn has created some wide open riding opportunities that will be appreciated by boondockers who like to ride the trees.

We meandered our way back to the truck, crossing Cub Pass and playing on the hillsides, just generally enjoying the snow and exploring the terrain, which is as easy or as hard as a rider might want it to be. The Burn has actually made some of the terrain a little less challenging as it has opened some hillsides up, but it has also provided access to some areas that were pretty tough to get to prior to the fire.

 

MISSED SOME SPOTS

As is the case with most places any sledder rides, once you get back to the truck and look at the trail map or any map of the area you just snowmobiled, you realize all the area you didn't ride and get to see. That is certainly the case when we got back to Eightmile Sno Park. We basically went as far as the Long Creek-Goat Peak Loop but didn't touch any of the area closer to Hart's Pass (farther west), which the locals tell us is spectacular riding, as is down off Highway 20 past where the road isn't plowed. Then there's all the riding out of Twisp. What we did was a drop in the bucket.

Part two of our Okanogan adventure was over near Conconully, which by road is quite a drive. By sled, you can leave Boulder Creek Sno Park, just north of Chewack River Guest Ranch, head east over Baldy Pass, go to Conconully for lunch and ride back. It's about a 75-mile roundtrip via sled. Or you can leave from the Loup Loup Sno Park and head to Conconully over Buck Pass and do the same thing for a different change of scenery. The biggest chunk of groomed trails in Okanogan County are in the Winthrop and Conconully area, which, as we mentioned before, is better known as the Methow Valley.

Although you can ride right from the snowmobile-friendly town of Conconully, we opted to head to one of two sno parks near the community and ride from there. Kerr Sno Park is four miles north of town and is very easy to find. You just take the main road through town headed north and stop where the sno park is.

However, if you opt to ride from town, the Mineral Hill Trail leaves from the west edge of Conconully, where Silver Street, Bernice Avenue and Lake Street all meet. The trail follows Mineral Hill Road and the trail map might show that it's ungroomed but it is groomed. You can ride sleds on city streets in Conconully, but sledders are asked to obey all the same rules that apply to automobile traffic and yield the right-of-way to motor vehicles.

 

FOGGY

We admit we didn't have very high hopes for a sunny day of riding when we left Conconully for the sno park as it was more than just overcast; the entire area was pretty much fogged in. Our guides were a little more optimistic, sure that we would ride through the cloud cover and find sun at higher elevations.

Score one for the guides as that's exactly what happened. In fact, we rode above the clouds for most of the day and from various strategic vantage points, could see the clouds socking in the valley below. Just one more great thing about riding in the mountains.

According to the altimeter on the Ski-Doo Summit XP we were riding, the cloud layer was about 700 feet thick. That means, at about 3,800 feet (Kerr Sno Park sits at 3,050 feet), we broke out of the clouds and were surrounded by glorious sunshine as we sat on Mutton Ridge and took in the view.

We dropped back off Mutton Ridge, went through Salmon Meadows and headed up the Honeymoon Trail toward Tiffany Mountain. None of the guys in our group seemed to know how Honeymoon Trail got its name, or if they did they weren't saying. The trail goes over Honeymoon Pass and leads to some excellent viewing spots to see Middle Tiffany (7,967 feet) and Tiffany Mountain (8,245 feet), two of the highest peaks in the area. One more observation about the Honeymoon Trail. You'd think you were just working your way through the trees, not following a trail-so that definitely adds to your boondocking/tree running experience. Along most of the trail it's one-sled width, although it does open up in some spots so you can play a bit. The trail is marked, if you're looking for the markers, just not groomed. Once you get out of the trees toward the top of the trail, it opens up to where you can see the surrounding peaks.

 

TRYING OUT TIFFANY

After taking in the impressive view of the Middle Tiffany and Tiffany Mountains and the area we rode the previous day over near Winthrop, we headed toward Little Tiffany Lake (the locals call it Upper Tiffany Lake, presumably because it sits higher than Tiffany Lake by about 900 feet) to climb the bowl that surrounds roughly two-thirds of the lake. Little Tiffany Lake sits below the summit of Tiffany Mountain and the scenery is simply spectacular, as is the climbing.

Before we really even tired of climbing about Little Tiffany Lake, we dropped off the hillside to what the locals call the Pothole, which is really just a swamp in the summertime, and climbed another bowl just above it and just below and to the side of Little Tiffany Lake. The hillclimbing there might have been a touch better than above Little Tiffany Lake because it's a larger area and more wide open.

Then it was boondocking through an area ravaged by the Tripod Fire, which burned more than 175,000 acres in 2006 (the snow was particularly good in this area), before crossing Parachute Meadows and hitting the Bottle Springs Trail. The Bottle Springs Trail is very similar to the Honeymoon Trail in that it's not groomed and you really wouldn't know you were on a trail. It's these types of trails where going with locals is such a good idea.

We hit part of Skull and Crossbones Ridge (how cool a name is that?), Finney Flat and passed Twin Peaks and Cougar Mountain (5,649 feet) as we made a huge loop on our way back to the truck.

 

A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING

When the day was done, we had sampled a little of everything this area near Conconully had to offer, from meadows to hillsides to boondocking and tree running to challenging hillclimbing to groomed and ungroomed trails and forest roads.

Riding with the folks in Okanogan County was somewhat of a bittersweet experience for some of them. Sweet in the fact that they get to show off the great terrain and snow they have in this part of Washington, and bitter in that once more people discover this spectacular riding area, the "secret riding spots" won't be secret anymore.

After spending a few days sampling the riding in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, we're pretty confident in saying that if other sledders do the same, they won't be so quick to pass by this sweet slice of Washington on their way to other snowmobiling spots.