Winter fun in Washington: a trip to Elk Ridge
written by Adam Sawyer
For whatever reason, many of us living in the upper left corner of the country have yet to recognize that the real Elysium of this region lies just over the mountains. There’s a sweet spot on the eastern side of the Cascades that is simultaneously home to ample sunshine, verdant forests, wide open spaces and pristine flowing waterways. You’ll find far fewer people, a commensurate amount of traffic, and seasons that are more defined—including a proper winter.
Yakima is no longer the “Hidden Valley” it was considered to be just a handful of years ago. If you like beer or wine at all, you’ve no doubt imbibed an adult beverage derived from something grown there. And the outdoor adventure in and around the area is sublime, with the Elk Ridge Campground earning a base camp gold star.
As the crow flies, the Elk Ridge Campground is about 35 miles due east of Mt. Rainier, and just as far of a drive from Yakima. Sitting on the banks of the Naches River just off of Highway 410, it is accessible in winter via either the Snoqualmie or White passes. There are RV spots, a spa, nine eclectic, character-rich cabins with kitchens and sno-parks in every direction, including Bald Mountain directly across the street. It is perfectly situated as the ideal home for a winter retreat.
Last season I booked a cabin known as the “Whiskey Still” for a weekend. If you stand in one place long enough somebody is bound to tell you that moonshine was once produced beneath the Prohibition-era cabin’s floors. Whether the anecdotes of well-seasoned locals possessed a shred of truth mattered not. I had secured my own provisions just in case.
Being January and a particularly good snow year, I arrived into magic. The forest was proudly showing off a fresh, clean layer of white. A few families were enjoying sled runs and their excited laughter echoed gently as a welcome to the property. Tim and Julie Hoefer purchased the camp in January 2015 and have been busy since, maintaining the camp’s charm but making some necessary updates. Two such betterments include the onsite spa and a fire pit—both of which I had almost aggressive intentions of using.
That cozy Washington cabin life at Elk Ridge
After settling into my cabin, I walked down to the river with a hot, whiskey-infused drink, helping me settle in just a little more. I explored a bit and walked off any stiffness that remained from the drive, then headed back to the cabin to make dinner. After some quiet time, I finally made it out to the fire pit for some easy conversation with fellow guests who were there to take advantage of the area’s snowmobiling options.
The Bald Mountain Road staging area connects more than 60 miles of groomed trails that launch into the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Tight tree lines, exposed ridges, remote valleys as well as other sno-parks are all accessible from this jumping-off point. And because things tend to get more popular the farther west you go from there, it’s a convenient, less-crowded portal, just across the highway. It’s an invigorating way to spend your days at Elk Ridge, but this time around my stay was geared to less adrenaline-inducing pursuits. Steady, quiet breaths and solitude were on the next day’s agenda. For the time being though, more fireside whiskey.
When I woke, I embraced the morning casually. Stretching, coffee, breakfast, hygiene, more coffee. I packed a lunch and drove to Bumping Lake to go snowshoeing. The roads were in great shape, and there were no other cars at the trailhead. I was hoping for this, and it was kind of the point. A thigh-pumping ascent to a viewpoint that gazes into infinity is great, and I love those. But so do other people.
It was a good, strong, windless cold, the kind that steals the sound from the air and allows you to warm up without getting hot. Not quite needing to remove a layer, I proceeded steadily around the lake and campground area. Again, there were no magnificent vistas to be had, but there was plenty of chill and calm—the perfect accompaniment to the welcomed silence.
That afternoon I would enjoy a long massage, hearty dinner, and once again the fire pit with all of its glorious trappings. This was real winter and the exact sort of adventure I needed. For now, places like Elk Ridge will satiate that need. At least until I can find a way to move to Yakima.