Happy holidays from the Friends of the Columbia Highlands!
Now through December, witness a unique wildlife-watching opportunity in the Columbia Highlands.
The creek offers plenty of year-round wildlife viewing. A healthy population of cutthroat trout swim the creek, which has also been designated key habitat for recovery of the endangered bull trout.
At the headwaters of Harvey Creek, Bunchgrass Meadows Research Natural Area protects a rare high-elevation sphagnum bog that is home to a host of wildlife, including the only population of northern bog lemmings in the region.
Conservationists have proposed that two roadless areas bordering the creek, Harvey Creek and Grassy Top, be protected as Wilderness, which would preserve the creek for its aquatic and terrestrial inhabitants.
From Metaline Falls, follow State Highway 31 north for 2.4 miles to the junction of Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345). Turn right (south) and follow the Sullivan Lake Road for 3.2 miles to the Mill Pond Historic Site entrance and Elk Creek Falls trailhead.
Driving directions: From Republic, travel approximately 8 miles west on Highway 20 to Sweat Creek Picnic Area, on the north side of the highway. The trail system begins approximately 50 yards beyond the outhouse, past a wooden gate. The loop is easiest to follow if hiked counterclockwise; turn right once through the gate.
Driving directions: For the north trailhead at East Sullivan Campground, follow Highway 31 north from the junction of Highway 20 for 3 miles to Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345). Follow Sullivan Lake Road for 12.9 miles to Forest Road 22 (Sullivan Creek). Turn right (east) and drive 0.25 mile to campground entrance. For the south trailhead at Noisy Creek Campground, follow Highway 31 north for 3 miles from the junction of Highway 20 to Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345). Follow Sullivan Lake Road for 8.2 miles to the campground entrance on the south end of the lake.
Mild, sunny days and cold nights mean that autumn colors are peaking in the Columbia Highlands. The star of the show, of course, is western larch. With its glowing gold needles, a panorama of these deciduous conifers is one of the iconic images of autumn in northeast Washington.
Below, two classic scenic drives for some of the best fall-color viewing in the Northwest:
Sherman Pass Scenic Byway
Sherman Pass Scenic Byway offers the best fall-color show in eastern Washington. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive sites allow travelers unobstructed views over thousands of acres of rolling, pristine forest.
Just east of the pass, Sherman Overlook’s short intrepretive trail offers several great vantage points of postcard-quality panoramas of the southern half of the Kettle Crest. The best time for viewing is in the morning, when low-angle sunlight illuminates the swaths of larch on the eastern slope of Sherman Peak.
Driving directions: About 4 miles west of Kettle Falls on Hwy 395, cross the bridge over the Columbia River. Almost immediately (1/10 mile), turn left (west) on Hwy 20, toward the town of Republic. Drive approximately 21 miles to the Sherman Overlook, on the right (north) side of the highway.
West of the pass, the White Mountain Fire Interpretive Site surveys a forest quickly regenerating from the 1988 White Mountain Fire. Because it is the fastest-growing conifer in the region, western larch can quickly colonize areas of disturbances such as wildfires, meaning that larch viewers can see a sweeping expanse of vigorous young larch from this overlook. Visit at sunset to see a dazzling light display.
Driving directions: From Republic, drive east on Hwy 20 for 12 miles. The interpretive site is on the left (north) side of the highway.
Sullivan Lake Loop
On the Sullivan Lake Loop, in the heart of the Selkirks, the fall-colors display mixes the Rockies with a touch of hardwood forest reminiscent of the northeast. For the best views, follow the Noisy Creek Trail 0.5 mile from Noisy Creek Campground, on the south end of Sullivan Lake. Here, western larch color the background, while the bright birch, aspen and cottonwood leaves command your immediate attention.
Driving directions: One mile south of Ione, turn east onto Sullivan Lake Road 9345. Travel 8 miles to Noisy Creek Campground, on the right. The Noisy Creek trailhead is on the east end of the campground. Scenic Sullivan Lake Road continues 8 more miles, past Sullivan Lake, Mill Pond and numerous trailheads, terminating 1 mile north of Metaline Falls.
The 10.1-mile Bangs Mountain scenic loop offers roadside geologists and wildlife watchers a pleasing sidetrip off the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway.
Beginning at Canyon Creek Campground, drive south on Bangs Mountain Road. Much of this area burned in the 1929 Dollar Mountain fire, creating a dense forest of Douglas-fir, western larch and lodgepole pine.
At 2.2 miles, enter Donaldson Draw, a half-mile long steep-sided canyon lined with lush vegetation–willow, aspen, birch, and aquatic grasses–and home to a beaver-dammed pond. This, like many similar canyons in the Kettle Range, has a turbulent history: as ice-age glaciers that covered the area melted, the rushing meltwater scoured out deep channels in the bedrock. Now such canyons are home to interesting rock formations and a myriad of plants and wildlife. Much of the area on either side of the canyon has never been logged, so the view before you is much the same as it’s been for thousands of years.
At 3.3 miles, the road splits. Take the upward-climbing road to the left. The road immediately ascends into an upland forest of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. The low vegetation–fescue, snowberry, currant–allows long views over deer- and turkey-rich habitat.
At 5 miles, the road splits again. Take either way: the route forms a small loop. From the open meadows at the apex of the loop can be seen Lake Roosevelt’s shores in the distance.
The site of a successful restoration thinning project by the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, Bangs Mountain is a model healthy forest, with big views and watchable wildlife to show for it.
Driving directions: About 4 miles west of Kettle Falls on Hwy 395, cross the bridge over the Columbia River. Almost immediately (1/10 mile), turn left (west) on Hwy 20, toward the town of Republic. At 7.7 miles, turn left on Bangs Mountain Road (FS Road 136). Travel 0.1 mile to Canyon Creek Campground.
Travelers approaching Republic from the west via Highway 20 can easily spot the upturned nose of Fir Mountain less than 10 miles out of town. Often overlooked, however, is the trail that reaches its rocky summit. Easily accessed from Republic, this four-mile roundtrip hike provides quick, albeit brutally steep, access to panoramic views of the San Poil Valley and eastern Okanogan Highlands. Start early, and you can be back in Republic before the bakeries open.
Beginning on an old double-track, Fir Mountain Trail #320 immediately launches a calf-cramping ascent of Fir Mountain’s east flank.
Most of the route passes through a pleasant parkland of Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine and western larch. Pinegrass, Douglas maple, red-flowered currant, snowberry, thimbleberry and huckleberry comprise the open understory.
Open views, of the Aeneas Valley and the Kettle Range, are few, but chances are good of spotting wildlife, including white-tailed deer and woodpeckers.
At approximately 1.5 miles, the grassy understory begins to give way to basalt rock, smooth and dimpled , in contrast to the granitic hunks found in the Kettle Range
It may not have seemed possible, but at this point the way gets even steeper. The trail goes faint in some sections, but cairns mark the route.
The last several hundred yards of trail is cut directly into basalt; watch your step.
At 2 miles, reach the summit. Keep an eye out for remnants of an old lookout—anchors, insulators, an old outhouse. To the east, Republic and the Kettle Range. The camel-humped peak to the west is Bonaparte. The horseshoe-shaped array of ridges to the north bound the Sweat Creek drainage, at the heart of Clackamas Mountain Roadless Area. Beyond lies British Columbia.
Now is the perfect time to hike Fir Mountain, when autumn’s cooler temperatures and bright colors—western larch needles above, huckleberry, maple and currant leaves below—leaven some of the agony of the ascent.
Driving directions: From Republic, head west on Hwy 20. At 8 miles, turn left (south) onto FS 31, across from Sweat Creek Picnic Area. Follow FS 31 for 0.5 mile to the signed trailhead on the right. A small pullout 50 feet past the trailhead provides limited parking.
Over the course of its 16 miles, the Thirteenmile Trail covers the spectrum of western Columbia Highlands habitats, from the ponderosa and sagebrush hills at its west end to montane lodgepole and subalpine fir forests at the feet of the Kettle Range. And with four entry points, the Thirteenmile Trail delivers mix-and-match options for hikers seeking a quintessential eastern Washington wilderness experience.
The 11-mile hike described below takes you through a rolling parkland of huge old-growth ponderosa pines, western larch, Douglas-fir and lodgeppole pine, interspersed with granite outcroppings and moist, aspen-lined draws. Incredible views of the southernmost Kettle Crest and Moses Mountain on the Colville Indian Reservation are guaranteed, and you’re likely to spot signs of cougar, deer, moose, elk and brown bears in this important wildlife “superhighway”.
Beginning near a spruce bog, Bear Pot Trail #19 ducks into a quiet forest dominated by scraggly lodgepole pine.
In about 0.5 mile, enter a clearing claimed by a historic trapper’s cabin. This decaying structure has long passed fixer-upper status.
At approximately 1 mile, reach the junction with Thirteenmile Trail #23. The route to the right gradually drops through progressively drier ponderosa and Douglas-fir parkland until it reaches the westernmost terminus of the trail on the San Poil River.
At just over 3 miles, the trail gains the wooded saddle between Fire and Seventeenmile Mountains. A short off-trail scramble can bag you the rounded, glacier-ground summit of Fire Mountain. Admire the weathered granite rock underfoot; the Kettle Range shows its age here with some of the oldest stone in the state. Fire Mountain has been proposed as a Research Natural Area in recognition of its unique mix of habitats, including old-growth ponderosa pine and subalpine fir.
From here, Thirteenmile Trail rollercoasters 2.5 more miles through a diverse forest of western larch, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine, with aspens and birch lining the numerous creases in the hills.
The trail’s end at Hall Creek Road offers lightly used dispersed camping spots, but better to make it a day hike or set a dry camp on one of the rocky benches you passed earlier.
The cooler overnight temperatures of early autumn are beginning to usher in the changing colors of fall: the golds of western larch and aspen, and the reds of serviceberry, red currant and huckleberry. Plan your hike for the next few weeks and autumn’s peak.
Driving directions: From Highway 20 7.2 miles east of Republic, turn right (south) onto Hall Creek Road (FS Road 2050). At 5.3 miles, bear right at the junction with spur road 600; Hall Creek Road now becomes FS 2054. Continue 2.7 miles to the intersection with Refrigerator Canyon Road (FS 2053). Turn left to continue on FS 2054. At 0.7 miles from the intersection with FS 2053, turn left onto Bear Pot Road 2055. Continue on this road 3.5 miles to the undeveloped trailhead. (Note: although it still appeas on forest maps as a shorter route to the Bear Pot trailhead from Hall Creek Road, the section of FS 2053 that passes through Refrigerator Canyon washed out several years ago and is unlikely to be repaired.)