One of our favorite hikes any time of the year is the Ray Westberg trail in Eastern Washington. The trail was named for the late Ray Westberg, a legendary high school wrestling coach who died too young – only 47 years old.
Even driving to the trailhead is a scenic experience as you head east over Snoqualmie Pass and onto the outskirts of Thorp where this popular hike begins. In the spring it’s one of the best places to look for early-blooming wildflowers, views of the Kittitas valley, Mount Stuart and oft-sunny skies. The trail is steep enough that locals use it for conditioning hikes and the trail is dog-friendly. In addition to the Ray Westberg and Gene Prater memorials (Prater is known for his snowshoe designs and his book “Snowshoeing” (Mountaineer Books, 1974) you’ll find other memorials.
We often hike this trail in spring to see the early-blooming grass widows, death camas and the golden blaze of balsamroot. We returned for a winter hike in January; the weather had been cold, foggy but clearing in the afternoon so we anticipated views of Mount Stuart which begin well before you get to the high point. On our way to the trailhead we explored a couple of back-roads to photograph old barns and the nearby Thorp Cemetery. It was so icy it looked like glitter had fallen from the sky as frost sparkled on every conceivable surface ranging from fence-posts to foliage gone to seed. The sun made a valiant attempt to break through the fog that clung to us like damp clothing most of the day.
There was only one other vehicle at this oft-busy trailhead (the trailhead is well-signed). From the parking area the obvious trail bypasses a homestead (right), crosses an irrigation channel on a bridge and starts up, up and up. If this is your first visit you’ll see several paths heading up; take the most obvious path but if given a choice avoid damaging the vegetation as much as possible.
In January the trail was not at its best, in places a gumbo of mud and melting snow and in other spots glare-ice had formed. Wear good boots, gaiters and take trekking poles for balance (consider traction devices). Be prepared for anything and everything on this trail as conditions can change from day to day (it’s up to Mother Nature, not us!). Even with these caveats, it’s a worthy endeavor.
On the way up we were denied those yearned-for views of The Stuart Range so we focused on the beauty at our feet; desiccated balsamroot leaves, glittering frost on sage-brush and other vegetation. About the three-fourths of the way up note another obvious trail (this is the unsigned Boy Scout Trail) heading right – we continued straight (more up!). However hikers often make a loop out of this hike by taking the Boy Scout Trail back to the trailhead as we did.
The trail relents and contours below the ridge-crest at a gentler gradient. At the high point we bundled up, lingering over lunch and allowing time to ponder the memorials while waiting for the fog to clear. Cheerier, was a flag for the 12th Man on the high point and a giant cairn with a summit register inside a metal box.
By the time we finished lunch the fog retreated into the valley and we were mesmerized by the beauty. We could just make out Mount Stuart and other peaks of the Stuart Range in the distance, like a white paper cut-out silhouetted against a sherbet-colored sky. However just about the time the sun broke through the fog returned, rolling over the hills as if it was a living entity and the scenery changed second-by-second.
Though it was hard to tear ourselves away from this transitional splendor we packed up and started down, not wanting to descend in the dark. When we got back to the Boy Scout Trail junction (it is not signed but it’s hard to miss) we turned left and took that trail back. The Boy Scout Trail is more forested with Ponderosa pines, vine maple and shrubs, some festooned with thick neon-green clumps of moss and lichen. We picked up the pace as we were beginning to lose the light as we followed the wicked gleam of the icy trail twisting through the darkening forest. I slipped and fell once; my partner also fell (thankfully without injuries). Our friends managed to avoid a tumble by duck-walking (straddling both sides of the trail where there was just enough vegetation to keep them from slipping). A fall on ice can be hazardous and at the very least embarrassing. Despite the Three Stooges pratfalls we stopped for more photography in the gloaming and turned on our head-lamps for the last quarter mile or so. The trail ends on the road that parallels the irrigation ditch – here we turned right and were soon back at the trailhead.
Additional Information: The Westberg Trail/Boy Scout loop is about 4.3 miles round trip with about 1,700 feet gain. There is not a Green Trails map for this hike.
To get there: From Seattle take I-90 east to Exit 101 (Thorp). Turn south (right) on the Thorp Highway to Cove Road, turn right and follow to road’s end at the trailhead. Apparently a Discover Pass is not required but we displayed ours anyway just to play it safe.