Hiking Washington's Kettle River Mountains

Washington's gentle "forgotten mountains" -- The Kettle River Range -- are ignored by those in a hurry to reach the Cascades.
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Washington's gentle "forgotten mountains" -- The Kettle River Range -- are ignored by those in a hurry to reach the Cascades.

Consider the Kettle River Mountain Range as the point in Washington where the Cascades meet the Rockies. Granted, the Kettles lack the glaciers, rain-drenched glens, thundering rivers, and precipitous peaks I usually associate with the high country. But this leads many outdoor lovers to pass them by, leaving the Kettle Range's subtle beauty, abundant wildlife, guaranteed solitude, and 100 miles of interconnected trails to people like me.

The Kettles, located in the remote Colville National Forest, are Washington's forgotten mountains. These broad pine-and-scrub-covered mountains offer gentle terrain, inviting the backcountry visitor to explore freely in a wild environment without the threat of avalanches, rock slides, or extreme weather.

A good place to start is the 42-mile Kettle Crest Trail, which traverses the range through forest, fields, and across wide-open ridges. A score of feeder trails provides ample opportunities for extended loop hikes and overnight forays.

Wildlife is plentiful: Mule and white-tailed deer and black bear are quite common. Some of Washington's rarer residents-cougar, martins, lynx, prairie falcons and the occasional grizzly-also roam the Kettles, which is one reason the area is being considered for federal wilderness status.

The snow often melts by mid-May and returns in November, but my prime time is summer. The ponderosa and lodgepole pine forests are punctuated with meadows choked with blooming arrow-leaf balsomwort, anemone, and lupine.

Be forewarned: Summers can be hot here (carry plenty of water), and thunderstorms are common.

This is wildfire country, too, and its effect on the landscape, combined with the Cascades' rain, creates unique and surreal surroundings-eerie, ghostly snags piercing the sky, surrounded by feisty new, verdant undergrowth.

To some, the Kettles wouldn't be considered jaw-dropping mountains. That's fine, because those people can keep on driving to the Cascades, leaving the Kettle Range's solitude and wildlife to those of us who have a different definition of "natural beauty."

EXPEDITION PLANNER

ROAD TRIP: Sherman Pass trailhead is about 300 miles northeast of Seattle and 120 miles northwest of Spokane.

THE WAY: From Seattle, take I-90 east to Cle Elum. Follow WA 970 to US 97 north to the town of Tonasket. From there, follow WA 20 east to Republic, then for another 17 miles to Sherman Pass. From Spokane, drive US 395 north 70 miles to Colville. Then head west on WA 20 for about 38 miles to the pass.

TRAILS: More than 60 miles of trails connect with the 42-mile Kettle Crest Trail. The Old Stage and Midnight Ridge Trails to Copper Butte are exceptionally scenic. A challenging 16-mile loop to the top of Walpaloosie Mountain follows the Crest, Walpaloosie, and Albion Hill Trails.

ELEVATION: The low point is 3,900 feet at the Old Stage trailhead; the high point is 7,135 feet atop Copper Butte.

CAN'T MISS: The 3-mile Snow Peak Trail, which traverses a 20,000-acre burn now teeming with silver snags and new greenery.

CROWD CONTROL: What crowds? Equestrians sometimes outnumber hikers, and the Crest Trail is the busiest. Side trails in the north are usually deserted.

GUIDES: 100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest, by Rich Landers and Ida Dolphin (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; www.mountaineersbooks.org; $14.95) mentions a few area hikes. The Forest Service distributes the Colville National Forest Map ($4) and a free booklet containing basic trail information (see Contact below). USGS 7.5-minute quads Mt. Leona, Copper Butte, and Sherman Peak cover the heart of the range (888-ASK-USGS; www.usgs.gov; $4 each).

PIT STOP: Visit Republic Trading Post in the gold mining town of Republic.

WALK SOFTLY: July through September

can be very dry, so exercise extreme caution with fire. Historic structures dot these mountains, including remnants of a 1914 fire tower. Leave artifacts as you find them.

CONTACT: Colville National Forest, Republic Ranger District, (509) 775-3305. Kettle Range Conservation Group, (509) 775-2667; www.televar.com/~krcg/.