Monday, June 1, 2020

Sherman Peak Loop

Larch-filled valleys of the Kettle River Range
6 miles loop, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Every October, the Kettle River Range in northeastern Washington State explodes into color as the forests of western larch here display their autumn foliage; the Sherman Peak Loop is an easily reached loop that provides some incredible views of the range itself and the larch forests as well. The hike does not visit the summit of Sherman Peak, instead utilizing a stretch of the Kettle Crest Trail as it makes a loop around the mountain, giving nice views on all sides of Sherman Peak. On a clear day, this is a rare hike where you can see both the Cascades and the Rockies at the same time. Although the hike itself is not too difficult, visitors coming to see larches in October should check for snow conditions- the peak itself is around 7000 feet so snow is possible on the trail during the peak color period for the larches.

I hiked the Sherman Peak Loop during an October road trip to the Kettle River Range and the Selkirks; my goal was to come out to see the fall foliage of the western larches in this part of the state. The Kettle River Range is a long drive from Seattle- it's 6 hours from Seattle- and is still a 2.5 hour drive from Spokane, so it receives far less foot traffic than the trails of the western slope Cascades. I reached the trailhead at Sherman Pass from Omak: I took US Highway 97 north from Omak to Tonasket, then turned right onto Washington Highway 20 and followed it east through the former gold mining town of Republic. After passing the Republic, Highway 20 began to climb into the Kettle River Range, passing through a former burned area that had great views of western larch forests at the foot of snowcapped Sherman and Snow Peaks. Arriving at Sherman Pass, I made a left turn onto a short unpaved road for the Kettle Crest Trailhead and immediately entered a large parking lot. A moderate snowstorm had already moved through the area that fall, so there was a bit of snow on the ground at the trailhead. I donned microspikes immediately and used them for the entire hike. There were no other cars at the trailhead and I saw no other hikers all day.

Sherman Peak and the larches of the Kettle River Range
The southbound Kettle Crest Trail left from the east side of the road just before the parking area itself. The trail started by making an immediate descent into a ravine that was snow-coated during my October trip here before crossing the bottom of the ravine and ascending back up the other side to meet Highway 20. Be careful crossing the highway, as cars often are moving quickly coming down from the pass.

After crossing Highway 20, the trail made a sustained switchback ascent up the slopes of Sherman Peak. About a mile from the trailhead, I came to a junction: the Sherman Peak Loop trail led to the right, while the Kettle Crest Trail continued to the left. I stayed on the Kettle Crest Trail, choosing to hike the loop clockwise. Soon after leaving this junction, the Kettle Crest Trail began to wrap around a ridge and the forest opened up to the first views of the hike: ridge after ridge of western larch stretching to the east, with snowcapped Abercrombie and Hooknose Mountain in the Selkirks in the distance.

Distant Abercrombie Mountain with Sherman Pass larches
The Kettle Crest Trail stayed in low, dense forest as it traversed a basin on the northeast side of Sherman Peak while climbing gently. There were views from this stretch of Sherman Peak's rocky east ridge rising above. The trail turned east as it continued to wrap around the mountain while gaining elevation and then made a switchback before coming to a saddle between Sherman Peak and a small bump in its east ridge, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. Passing through the saddle, I pushed myself until just a little further on where the trees cleared up a bit and views to the south began to open. The first view was of the Kettle River Range peaks south of Sherman Pass: Snow Peak was the next peak down the range, while White Mountain was visible farther to the south. The valleys below us were completely coated in forests of golden western larch, an incredible sight.

Larches of the Kettle River Range
This stretch of trail stayed out in the open as I headed southwest along the Kettle Crest Trail, affording continuous good views of nearby Snow Peak. The Kettle Crest Trail runs the length of the higher stretch of the Kettle River Range, its 44 miles tracing the backbone of the range; the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from the Olympic Coast to Glacier National Park, partially utilizes the Kettle Crest Trail on its east-west route. The Kettle River Range is named after the Kettle River, which flows along the eastern side of the range before joining the Columbia River at Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls is today submerged by Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake but was once one of the greatest salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest; native tribes from throughout the Northwest congregated here as salmon swam up the rapids during the summer and fall to fish the river's incredible bounty. The completion of Grand Coulee Dam flooded the valley of the Columbia River up to the Canadian border and submerged one of the most culturally important spots in the Northwest.

Snow Peak
Views over Sherman Creek and the lower peaks of the Kettle River Range to the east improved as I traversed the southeast slopes of Sherman Peak, passing the high elevation point of the hike. Soon, the trail began to descend a bit as it approached the saddle on the Kettle Crest between Snow Peak and Sherman Peak. At the three mile point of the hike, the Kettle Crest Trail met up again with the Sherman Peak Loop, just above the Snow-Sherman saddle. I took the right fork here to continue circling around Sherman Peak.

Western larches in the Sherman Creek drainage
The Sherman Peak Loop Trail stayed in the forest initially but soon entered a large clearing on the peak's western slopes. Incredible views opened to the west: the snowy Okanogan Mountains lined the distant skyline while Highway 20 snaked through larch forests below. As the Okanogan Mountains are a part of the Cascades and the Selkirks visible earlier in the hike are part of the Rocky Mountains, the Kettle River Range is a rare part of the US where it's simultaneously possible to see both ranges. The views here stretched to Mount Baldy, an isolated ski mountain in British Columbia.

Distant Cascades and the larches of Sherman Pass
There were many burnt trees in the forest below Sherman Peak: these were a result of the 1988 White Mountain Fire, which burned over 20,000 acres in the southern Kettle River Range. A major wildfire at its time, it has been dwarfed in size by events during more recent wildfire seasons in the Northwest, a number of which have burned more than 200,000 acres on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. The forest has begun regenerating since the fire, but the many clearings that the fire produced is still responsible for some of the nice views on this hike.

Sherman Peak is named after Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman's total war tactics were successful in bringing the Confederacy to its knees as he captured Atlanta and then marched to Savannah to cleave the South into two. Postwar, however, Sherman applied those same tactics in military action in the West, where he was responsible for leading the Indian Wars, in which the US government and Army worked together to push unequal treaties on Native tribes in the west and then used military force to push them onto reservations. Sherman traveled through the pass that today bears his name in 1883 during the Indian Wars; the peak today honors a man whose efforts helped bring an end to slavery but also suppressed countless Native cultures between the Great Plains and the Pacific (in an odd coincidence, three important Union generals- Grant, McClellan, and Sherman- all have ties to Washington State).

The trail began descending as it traversed the southwest aspect of the mountain, dropping downhill until it rounded the west ridge of the mountain about 4 miles into the hike. The remainder of the hike was on the north aspect of the peak, passing through partially recovered burn areas with plenty of western larch as it gradually descended. Forested Columbia Mountain, left untouched by the White Mountain Fire, rose to the north across Highway 20.

Sherman Pass larches
This section of the hike ended up having the densest larches, which were especially pretty in afternoon lighting. I had spent the day trudging through the snow and appreciated getting to see so many beautiful western larch trees up close.

Western larches
The western larch is one of three species of larch in North America and one of two found in the Pacific Northwest. Native to the boreal forests and the colder parts of temperate forests throughout the Northern Hemisphere, larches are unique among conifers in that they are deciduous conifers-
an oxymoron of sorts. Larches grow their needles each spring and then shed them each fall, when the needles turn brilliantly golden just before the approach of winter. In Washington State, the alpine larch grows in isolated patches on the high eastern aspects of the North Cascades and are among the most beloved trees in the state as they grow in harsh environments that can support few other trees. Western larches generally grow in more temperate climes, sharing forests with ponderosa pines and other drier-weather conifers throughout the eastern slopes of the Cascades and across the many mountain ranges in the northeastern part of Washington State. The Kettle River Range is one of the best places in the state to see western larches, supporting much more expansive forests of these trees than the Teanaway or the American River corridor near Yakima.

Western larches
The views ended as the trail reentered denser forest and passed near a small pond at the foot of a talus slope. The trail continued to traverse the north side of the mountain while descending gently until it came to the Kettle Crest Trail intersection I had passed earlier in the day to complete the loop at about 5 miles into the hike. The final mile of the hike descended down the switchbacks I had taken up that morning and then crossed Highway 20 to return to the still-deserted trailhead.

This trail was a little more difficult for me because of constant snow cover the entire way through the hike, but if you come in summer or before substantial snowfall during the autumn the trail should be reasonably easy to follow. Although the Kettle River Range lacks the drama of the spires and glaciers of the North Cascades, the glowing forested mountains of golden western larches each fall are also one of the more impressive sights of this extremely scenic state.

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