December is a fickle month for hiking. Time it right and you may be able to soak up a little sunshine; other times you may just end up soaked. Some favorite local trails can start the day as a skating rink and end in a muddy mess. Required footwear runs the gamut from Gore-Tex hikers to boots to micro spikes to snowshoes. Required gear almost always includes a headlamp, as the sun drops low on the horizon long before it’s reasonable to head inside for dinner. Hiking in the Inland Northwest during the shortest days of the year isn’t easy.
Despite all the potential trouble, I always find the trip is worth the effort. That’s why it’s great to have so many local trails that are close to town, where it’s possible to squeeze in a hike in the afternoon on a weekday, or devote extra time exploring on a weekend. One of these great close-in hikes can be found at Liberty Lake, where no special passes and permits are required for access, and several routes and distances are possible.
The requisite winter footgear is always the most difficult decision to make. Deciding if snowshoes will be necessary requires checking weather reports and snowfall depth ahead of time. Wearing micro spikes can be a tougher call, and I find it works best if I just keep some in my pack. Conditions at the trailhead are not always the same as conditions a mile or two up trail, and spikes are light enough to warrant the effort of carrying them, even if they don’t end up being necessary.
I recommend starting any trip at Liberty Lake by hiking the main trail to the Split Creek intersection, bearing left and staying on the Split Creek Trail until it rejoins the main trail. Along the way you’ll see the rusted remains of a 1930s-era car that was discovered by the volunteer crew that built the trail and chained to a tree by park employees after someone attempted to carry it out. It has been a long time since a road stretched all the way to such interesting trailside features as Moonshine Meadows, so the car should remain a permanent fixture. Rocky outcroppings along the way are sometimes encased in icicles, and the Split Creek Trail offers the best trailside views of Liberty Creek.
If you’re interested in a shorter hike, create a loop out by returning on the main trail for roughly 4 miles roundtrip. Make it about a mile longer by continuing to the cedar grove. If the snow is not too deep and the trail is not too icy, the waterfall is at its best in winter when surrounded by snow and icicles, a hike of roughly 7 miles. To extend the hike the most, proceed beyond the waterfall and past Camp Hughes Cabin to return via the Edith Hansen Trail for nearly 9 miles of hiking and the best justification for a few extra pieces of fudge. Roundtrip distance: Between 4-9 miles, depending upon the route.
Getting there: Take I-90 eastbound to Liberty Lake, taking exit 296. Take N. Liberty Lake Road south to Sprague, then travel east past the golf course. Sprague turns into S. Neyland Ave., then joins S. Lakeside Road. Watch for the signs for Liberty Lake Regional Park and S. Zephyr Road to the main parking lot. //
Holly Weiler is an avid trail runner, backpacker, and hiker. She is the race director for the Foothills Scenic Five fun run every June that supports a scholarship fund and community events.