Misinformation caused me to miss out on years of exploration on the Kettle Crest. Well-intentioned people told me the trails were too dry, had too little shade, and were not that interesting. After I finally went to check it out, I felt I had to make up for lost time.
I started small, and at different times of the year: a hike to Columbia Mountain in summer; a snowshoe outing to Sherman Peak in winter. Later I branched out, exploring the numerous feeder trails up to Kettle Crest #13, a National Recreation Trail and a portion of the Pacific Northwest Trail, learning how to connect the trails to form long loops.
Then I started to make my routes bigger. I realized that the trail south from Sherman Pass to the White Mountain trailhead, when taken as an out and back, resulted in the same distance as a marathon. As a next logical step, I tagged along with a group of friends to hike the entire 43-mile length of the Kettle Crest in a single day, a feat I’ve since repeated a total of four times.
Sometimes I don’t understand the full depth of my own motivations, and I’m certain that the Crest as a multi-day backpack trip would be even more fulfilling than a one day assault. However, sometimes I only have enough time to devote a day to the Crest, and I can think of no better way to experience it all than to hike from one end to the other, soaking it all in. Call me a binge hiker.
Sunrise is spectacular along White Mountain and Barnaby Buttes, where snags from the 1988 White Mountain fire cast eerie shadows alongside giant larch survivors and new growth of lodge pole pines. It works equally well at sunset if hiking the trail in the reverse direction.
Crossing beneath Bald Mountain, I’ve consumed so many huckleberries I feared I might make myself sick. Since no one was there to witness it, I had a five minute conversation with a pika on the edge of Snow Peak, where the rocky slopes provide excellent habitat for this most adorable of mountain dwellers.
At Sherman Peak I have spooked young black bears out of the huckleberry patches. At Columbia and Jungle Hill I have actually run into a handful of other people over the years; it’s nice to know they’re out there enjoying it, too, but it always reminds me how much I savor the solitude the Crest provides. I’ve had weekends where I didn’t see another human once out of the parking lot.
The south side of Walpaloosie is the beautiful section, with big views into the distance and fragrant sage. North of Walpaloosie and around the edge of Scar reminds a hiker that even beautiful hikes have their rough edges, and if hiking south to north it is a doubly dark section since it approaches the major climb of Copper Butte. It’s easy to forget the pain of the climb when standing on Copper Buttes’ summit, the highest point on the Kettle Crest Trail.
North of Copper Butte is a bit of a question mark to me now, as the trail was profoundly affected during the Stickpin Fire of 2015 and closed for all of 2016. Midnight and Lambert mountain had been impacted by other blazes of the recent past. As of my last visit, just two days before the 2015 fire, they were among my favorite sections: open grassy slopes, gorgeous aspen groves, and stark skeleton trees from the old burn. It may take a few years, but it will no doubt return. From Mt. Leona to Profanity Peak I am bracing myself for the look of a freshly charred forest, but I’ve already hiked near Sentinel Butte this year. The trail was nothing like how it exists in my memory, but already the wildflowers were returning and there were a few untouched stands of trees. Out of the ashes, the lush greenery will return. If anyone says the Kettle Crest is too anything aside from beautiful, don’t trust them, and instead check it out for yourself. //
Holly Weiler is an avid hiker and trail advocate who works for Washington Trails Association and pens OTM’s “Hike of the Month” column. She wrote about Thunder Creek loop in July.