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Lanham Lake Explorations


Photo: Nearing the divide between the Mill Creek and Whitepine drainages.

Jim Hill & Lanham Lake Explorations by Andy Dappen

We’re trying to ski, but the snowshoe trail is so steep in places our skins slip frequently, so troughed we can’t step out of the ditch. “Man, a lot of people must snowshoe this trail,” Adam Vognild observes as he uses his gym-honed arms to hold his weight from backsliding as he muscles his way uphill.

It’s true. Leaving right from the Stevens Pass Nordic Center, lots of traffic follows the 1.75-mile trail to Lanham Lake. The old-growth forests dissected by the trail are beautiful and the views from the shores of the mountain-rimmed lake aren’t shabby either. The trail is not too long, too steep (for snowshoers anyway), nor too difficult to follow – which makes it perfect for families and urban dwellers wanting a little taste of wild.

“Don’t worry,” I tell Adam, “where we’re headed isn’t in any guidebook. Beyond Lanham Lake we’re unlikely to see signs of anyone.”

Sure enough, all traces of traffic stop dead at the near shore of the lake. No one has even ventured out onto the well-frozen lake – and where outliers fail to lead, the masses fail to follow.

We stride across the frozen lake, spaced out for safe measure. On the far side, we climb through groves of old trees that impress us with their size, spacing, and stature. Many urbanites find their inspiration in the airy heights of inanimate cathedrals, but our trio finds much more inspiration in these groves of living giants that have been rooting, growing, and falling here for uncounted centuries. On any given day, these groves can hardly fail to impress, but we make special note of the fact that on days following storms they have the spacing, pitch, and exposure for a religious powder experience. Our explorations have already yielded fruit.

We climb onward and, several hours after leaving the car, reach the divide separating the Mill Creek and Whitepine drainages. The map shows large avalanche paths where we should find good south-facing skiing during this sunny December drought that has stabilized the snowpack and established a weak early-season corn cycle on sun exposed slopes.

Above:Adam Vognild getting ready to lunch on corn. Below: The view from Adam's stool.

We’ve timed our arrival for noon, the time, we hope, when the big slopes below will be soft, but not too soft. As we cross over the divide and contour toward the launching point of our descent, the ski edges slide smoothly through velvet. “It must be lunchtime,” Adam says, “I’m feeling hungry for corn.”

Our corn meal starts on open slopes that have, in deed, been groomed clean by snowy bulldozers slipping off the sides of Jim Hill’s satellite summits. But the bulldozers have not visited the lower slopes nearly as often as we envisioned. New growth chokes some of the open runs we envisioned from the map, whose data was updated in the mid-80s. We find adequate open leads to hunt-and-peck- our way down, but we don’t find the unobstructed 2,000-vertical-foot drop of our daydreams. “This could be such a great run,” Tom Janisch mentions as we sideslip through one cluster of straining trees searching for another open lead, “if only we’d gotten here 20 years earlier.”

Next three photos below taken on the descent to Whitepine Creek.

At Whitepine Creek, we skin up and climb 2,000 vertical up to a different pass in the same ridge system separating us from Mill Creek. Upon reaching that pass, it’s apparent we’re racing darkness. We strip skins, take a compass bearing and pushoff quickly. For 500 vertical feet we ski ankle deep powder coating a firm underlying crust. Nirvana.

 In a small meadow we wrestle with a tough decision: We can drop directly down a steep, wooded drainage that may or may not have small cliff bands complicating the descent, or we can skin-up for about 15 minutes of undulating terrain to reach a much easier wooded ridge system descending to the groomed trails of the Stevens Pass Nordic Center.

There’s much truth to expression that the longest distance between two points is a short cut. But with darkness falling like a curtain, the longer route will definitely have us skiing awful snow in thicker forests by headlamp. With luck the short cut might get us out of the woods and onto groomed trails before it’s pitch black. We take the sucker’s pitch and  swing for quick deliverance from evil by dropping the direct line.

Photo: Survival sideslipping -- an essential backcountry technique along with kick turns and hop turns.

The drainage we follow rolls steeper and steeper and its sidewalls squeeze in closer and closer. Soon we’re in a natural halfpipe side slipping more than skiing. As we drop all manners of awful snows slide under us – breakable crust, glop, rock hard concrete -- but we make steady progress. Soon the drainage is a slot too narrow to squeeze through but a fortuitous traverse leads out of the gulley onto steep forested slopes. A combination of jerky hop turns and awkward kick turns keep moving us downward.

Eventually we hit trees too thick to ski efficiently. We pop off the boards and plunge straight downhill until we emerge under the high-voltage power lines descending Mill Creek Valley. Skis go back on and a few more long traverses with precarious turns through breakable crust deliver us onto the Nordic Ski Trails as the last licks of light bleed out of the sky.

Exploration over the past hour has been all manners of horrible. We beat darkness but we’ve descended terrain none of us will willingly repeat. That, of course, is the flip side of exploration – there are plenty of bad discoveries to offset the good ones.

Below: Out of the crud and into the groomed.

We pull out the headlights so we can enjoy skating the three miles of groomed trail leading back to the car parked at the start of the trail system. Frankly, we’ve had enough exploration for one day. Adam shoves off with a sentiment we’re all feeling, “Thank God for machine-groomed snow.”



Details, Details: Lanham Lake /Jim Hill Options.

Activity. Snowshoeing and Skiing


Skill:  1 (easy) to Lanham Lake. 3 (advanced) to the summit of Jim Hill or to Whitepine Creek.

Fitness: 1 (easy) to Lanham Lake. 2+ (strong intermediate) to Jim Hill Mtn. 3 (advanced) to Whitepine Creek.


Access. Drive 29 miles west of Leavenworth, turn left at milepost 70.3, and follow the Upper Mill Cut from your portion of the divided highway to the entrance of the Nordic Area. If coming from Stevens Pass, drive 5.75 miles east of the pass and turn right into the Nordic Area (elevation 2,980’).


Parking at the Nordic Area. No permit is needed to park here. Snowshoers and skiers who are not using the groomed trails should park in the outer parking lot (closest to the highway and farthest from the groomed trails). Please ski up the summer trail to Lanham Lake and not up the black-diamond Switchback Trail which may have Nordic skiers coming down at a fast speeds and with marginal control. Also, if you’ll be spending the night out and leaving your car overnight, check in at the lodge with the employees (leave a note at the lodge if no employees are present). This is not because a permission is needed, but to keep the ski patrol from mounting a search for a Nordic skier who, because a car is still present, might be lost (this has happened several times).


The Nordic Trail System. The skeleton of the groomed Nordic trails is formed by a series of old roads that lead from Highway 2 up to the lifts on the backside of the Stevens Pass Ski Resort (at the bottom of both the Jupiter and Southern Cross chairs). Various loops are formed by connectors between several parallel roads. In total, the system has roughly 25 kilometers of trails. See a schematicmap of the trails (supplied courtesy of Stevens Pass). Click here for our full report about cross-country skiing on the Nordic trails.


Snowshoeing. Snowshoes can be rented at the Cascade Depot (the lodge at the base of the Nordic trail system.


Lanham Lake Trail.  The trail to Lanham Lake can be snowshoed or skied. Find it by walking onto the first leg of the groomed Nordic Trails and immediately turning left rather than following the skiers who will be turning right and skiing uphill. In 30 or 40 feet, look for the trail heading uphill in the woods. The trail parallels the ski trail for about 75 yards, then hooks left and heads directly uphill. Generally speaking, this trail heads south and stays on the west side of Lanham Creek. It’s about 1.75 miles to Lanham Lake (elevation 4,143’).


Jim Hill Mountain. Immediately before Lanham Lake, skiers and snowshoers can switchback up a steep, west-facing avalanche slope and then enter heavy wood to reach a 5,500-foot gap in the north ridge of Jim Hill’s false summit. From the gap in this ridge, follow the ridge uphill toward the false summit, staying on or slightly to the side of the ridge crest. If you want to climb to the true summit of Jim Hill, ski to the 6,200-foot level along the false summit's north ridge; then move off the ridge by fading climber's right and climb the steep northwest-facing slopes leading to the notch between the false and true summit (6,640 feet). Leave the skis at the notch and boot the final short pitch to the summit (6,765 feet).

Many skiers forgo the true summit (steeper and trickier) and, at about the 6400-foot level, concentrate on the skiing prize: the big north-facing bowl. Ski the bowl until the vegetation thickens then climb back over the notch and descend to Lanham Lake. Or ski out Henry Creek. If you ski out Henry Creek don’t get sucked down near the creek bottom (thick and unpleasant vegetation). Stay well out of the bottom on either the west or east side of the creek.

Jim Hill via Henry Creek. Many skiers also approach Jim Hill from the north via Henry Creek. The parking information about Henry Creek is listed below. Use our topographic map and follow the ascent route shown on it.


Map. See our topo map of the area.


Henry Creek Parking. Many skiers used to ski/snowshoe both Jim Hill and Arrowhead mountains from the road near the bottom of Henry Creek (Milepost 71.2). A plow turnaround and parking for railroad employees working at the ventilator facility (East Portal of the railroad tunnel) is located just west of this road located at Milepost 71.1. Skiers and snowshoers used to park here and walk down the highway (or ski along  the south side of the highway) to the Henry Creek Road (Spur Road 687). In 2007, many of the parking stalls were signed ‘No Parking’ to general recreationalists and this was enforced. More about the original closure here.  As of 2014, there was space for a number of cars to park uphill (west) of the East Portal road in a plowed pullout (please park efficiently to maximize space for other skiers). There was also space to park a little farther west still in a plowed pullout near a road taking off from the north side of the highway.

All of this is to say that the parking here is a little sketchy. The pullouts are not designated winter recreation pullouts and, while you can use them if they are not signed 'No Parking', you do so at your own risk -- especially if it's snowing and plowing is taking place. Stay out of anything signed 'No Parking' -- it will be enforced. Wherever you park will entail a short walk downhill along the highway (or ski along the south side of the highway).


Not allowed. Dogs are not allowed on the Stevens Pass Nordic ski trails.


Snowmobiling. During the winter, the Stevens Pass Nordic Trails are closed to snowmobile use. Each year on April 16, however, Stevens Pass’ commercial permit expires and the parking lot and trails open up to snowmobile use. The scene here becomes quite different after that date.

More Skiing and Snowshoeing: Maps and details of over 100 ski tours can be found in our on-line backcountry skiing guide, while 80 regional snowshoe trips can be found in our on-line snowshoe guidebook.

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Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers--they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.