U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers Rhonda Miller, left, and Mackenzie Williams, right, talk about some of the native wildlife that can be found along the trail during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers Rhonda Miller, left, and Mackenzie Williams, right, talk about some of the native wildlife that can be found along the trail during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Snowshoe with a Ranger’ makes the forest more accessible

A free Forest Service program teaches about local wildlife, natural history and winter safety.

STEVENS PASS — A nine-person caravan had snaked about a quarter of a mile through a snowy trail Saturday, when trees flanking the path opened to a clearing.

On the left, a steep incline loomed above.

On the right, the hillside dropped to reveal a white sea of treetops below and powdered mountains on the horizon.

The spot is popular for hikers to stop for a selfie, but it’s actually in an avalanche chute, Rhonda Miller warned the group behind her.

Miller, a wilderness ranger, was leading the pack for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest’s “Showshoe with a Ranger” program.

On a day with a higher chance of avalanche danger, Miller said they likely would have turned around to avoid crossing the chute. Even on a day with intermediate risk, she advised snowshoers to cross the clearing one-by-one.

Some of Snohomish County’s best views are nestled within its 663,000 acres of national forest land, wilderness ranger Mackenzie Williams said. These areas are open to the public, but costs of transportation and gear mean they’re not always accessible to everyone.

Rhonda Miller demonstrates how to use an avalanche beacon during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Rhonda Miller demonstrates how to use an avalanche beacon during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Showshoe with a Ranger program aims to ease the financial burden of getting outside in the winter. The U.S. Forest Service offers ranger-led snowshoe hikes at Stevens Pass, Darrington, Snoqualmie Pass and Mount Baker. The program is free. A $15 to $25 donation is suggested. Snowshoes are provided.

The Stevens Pass option, a 1½ mile jaunt along a portion of the 2,560 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, is the perfect choice for newbies hoping to get their snow boots wet. The excursion caught the eye of Seattleites Sarah and Meghan Manwill, who planned a trip Saturday for their father as a Christmas present.

“It opens up a door for people to see what it’s like,” Williams said. “And we hope it might inspire them to do it again.”

Upon arriving at the Stevens Pass Mountain Resort, forest service snowshoers can skip the ski traffic and head to Lot A. The lot was filled Saturday, but attendants still found room for hikers near the ranger station.

The journey began on a six-foot-wide trail hemmed with Pacific silver firs and western hemlocks. A pair of cross-country skiers preceded the group, providing a packed-down path that made walking on the eight feet of snow a breeze.

Rhonda Miller measures the snowpack with a snow probe during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Rhonda Miller measures the snowpack with a snow probe during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Some trees along the path stood straight. Others sagged under the weight of the previous night’s nine inches of snowfall. The droopy trees are hemlocks, Miller said at the first stop along the hike.

Despite their likeness to a Dr. Seuss illustration, the hemlocks are better at surviving the winter weather than firs, because their flexible branches let them shed snow easily. In spring, they’ll perk back up.

Williams and Miller both volunteer their time to keep the program going. To help guide the walks, Williams drove from the Midwest, where she resides during the off-season.

“I live for this,” she said. “Growing up in Kansas, you learn how precious forest like this is.”

After college, Williams joined the forest service in California. She hopes to teach people how to be good stewards while enjoying the outdoors.

Miller, a former mechanic, has been a ranger for about three years. She got involved with the forest service in between jobs. She heads out from Sultan to lead the weekend treks.

Growing up on forested property in the Woodinville area, Miller said she never had to seek out the wilderness. It was all around her. But working in Oahu showed her how much she needed the Pacific Northwest forest.

She started volunteering for the Washington Trails Association. The group connected her with the forest service, where she volunteered before being hired on as a wilderness ranger.

“I’m not a botanist. I don’t have the educational expertise that some other rangers here do,” she said. “I’m just an infinitely curious person.”

Snowshoe with a Ranger is somewhere between a guided tour and a hike with friends. The rangers “try not to talk too much,” Miller said. “We’re here to be interpretive guides.”

Miller stopped the group for an informative chat about every 20 minutes.

She also shared safety tips and pointed out signs of wildlife, like the three-pronged print of a snowshoe hare. Miller told hikers to look for scraggly “slide alders” — thin trees that thrive in recently disturbed soil. They signal areas susceptible to avalanches.

At the midpoint, Williams stopped to give a history of the trail.

The path follows the former Great Northern Railway, and is near where a powerful avalanche rammed into two trains over a century ago, killing 96 people. The disaster is detailed in Gary Krist’s book “The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche.”

Megan Manwill, left, and Sarah Manwill, right, hold a white ermine pelt during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Megan Manwill, left, and Sarah Manwill, right, hold a white ermine pelt during the “Snowshoe with a Ranger” program on the Pacific Crest Trail North on Saturday near Stevens Pass. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

On the way back to the ranger station, Williams passed around donated pelts of native stoats and pine martens for people to feel. She also showed how to use a snow stick to measure accumulation and how to estimate the age of a tree without harming it. After about two hours, the group arrived back at Stevens Pass for tea and hot chocolate.

The program has existed on and off since the 1990s, Miller said. It survives on donations from participants. The snowshoes were gifted by REI.

Miller took over the program last year. She hopes to expand the trail options at Stevens Pass.

“There’s all this public land and we want people to benefit from it,” she said. “And we want people to enjoy their forest in a way that’s sustainable and allows them to continue enjoying it for a long time.”

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

Try it out

“Snowshoe with a Ranger” at Stevens Pass is offered two times a day on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and once Sundays at 10 a.m. through March 31. The walks can accommodate groups of up to 20.

For more information or to reserve a spot on one of the trips, visit the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website, or contact Colton Whitworth at coltonwwhitworth@fs.fed.us.

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