Our Hiking Time: 3h 45m
Total Ascent: 2200ft
Highest Point: 4600ft
Total Distance: 4.7 miles
Location: N 47° 16.9380, W 121° 10.6500
Required Permit: None.
Sometimes it seems that the more hiking we do, the more trails we discover. For all the trail miles we’ve put into the I-90 corridor, there are always more trails on our list to hike. Recently we had the chance explore Kachess Ridge, a somewhat lesser-known trail that scales one of the many ridges surrounding Lake Kachess.
Sometimes known as “Little Kachess,” the highpoint on Kachess Ridge is probably best known for its abandoned airway beacon. For a short time beginning with the installation of beacons on Mt. Catherine and McClellan Butte in 1934, a series of lighted beacons were strung across Snoqualmie Pass every 10 miles, allowing pilots to deliver mail and cargo after the sun went down. The “lighted airway” was part of a nationwide effort that began in the 1920s and sought to modernize air traffic by installing around 1,500 beacons.
Within a few years, the rise of radio quickly made lighted towers obsolete, prompting the removal of two of the Snoqualmie beacons in 1940. The FAA officially shut down the last beacon in 1973, though Montana still operates its own lighted route. The Kachess beacon, likely manufactured by IDECO, features a small shed below a 20ft tower that held a small electrical plant or acetylene tanks to power the beacon.
The Kachess Ridge Trail #1315 immediately begins to ascend the steep slopes of the Silver Creek drainage. Firs, pines and underbrush line this first portion of the trail, but quickly thin to reveal glimpses the rocky cliffs of nearby Easton Ridge. Occasional talus fields offer wider views. Depending on the time of year, your first taste of the hike’s wildflowers appear here, and hint at the abundance to come.
As you continue upwards, at about one-and-a-half miles, start looking for a faint path leading off toward a vista at the end of a switchback. It may have rocks or branches blocking the path, but it is otherwise unmarked. Once you find it, you have a choice. You can take the official route that switchbacks to the right and follows Silver Creek to the Kachess Beacon Trail junction. Alternatively, you can continue straight ahead on the faint path to a challenging and relentlessly direct route up the edge of the ridge to the beacon that offers stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The official route is longer but has long stretches of level ground before climbing up to the ridgeline. We recommend heading straight ahead for quick access to the views and to avoid a very steep descent. This is also the best approach in the spring, when the official route will still be mired in snow.
Whether you choose to enjoy broad vistas or the roar of Silver Creek, both routes climb approximately 1,200 more feet of elevation before you reach the beacon. Dig in and push up to the top for your reward. Kachess Lake spreads out below, dwarfing nearby Lake Easton. To the west, rising from the base of the lake is Amabilis Mountain. On a good day, you’ll see Mt. Rainier poking up over mountains to the southwest. Directly to the south is Easton Ridge, followed by Domerie Peak and Mt. Baldy as you continue east. Pick out your other favorite mountaintops and peaks as you settle in for a break. If you still want more, you can continue along the ridgeline for another mile to reach Kachess Ridge’s 5,194ft highpoint.
Kachess Ridge has a great deal to offer – it is easily accessible from the freeway, but surprisingly few hikers are to be found along the trail. And, because it is east of the Pass, it is an ideal early season hike. A word of caution however; the spring route up the ridge is steep and challenging, so we don’t recommend it for the inexperienced. Either approach makes for a hard hike, but we think the views are worth the extra effort.
To get there, take I-90 to Exit 70. Take a left over the freeway and turn left onto West Sparks Road. Continue for a half-mile to FR 4818 (signed Kachess Dam Road) and take a right. Follow FR 4818 for a mile to an unmarked road on the right. Follow this road for a half-mile to the small parking area at the trailhead. -Nathan
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