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by Andy Dappen

At the 2022  Backcountry Ski Filmfest held on November 19, sponsors of the event, El Sendero Backcountry Ski and Snowshoe Club, announced some big wins regarding the creation of new Wintertime Non-Motorized Areas in the Wenatchee Mountains. Working through recreational processes driven by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and Chelan County over the past decade, El Sendero effectively advocated for the creation of two new local wintertime non-motorized areas: one encompassing about a square mile of terrain around Clara and Marion Lakes (as well as the fall line slopes funneling into these lakes), another encompassing several square miles of slopes, bowls, and forests just east of the Mission Ridge Resort in the Stemilt Basin.

In higher traffic areas like the Clara Lake environs and the Stemilt Basin, it’s not unusual for non-motorized users and over-snow vehicle (OSV) users to be at odds — the experience each enjoys often differ. Non-motorists generally dislike the noise, fumes, and speed associated with OSVs. Snow machines can also track up as much powder in an hour as ten skiers in a day, meaning that slopes a non-motorist exercised hard to reach, may not be skiable if an OSV arrived first. Furthermore, non-motorists can feel endangered ascending (or descending) steep slopes when a snowmobiler suddenly arrives and powers up (or down) the slope, increasing the avalanche hazard on the slope being navigated. On the other side of the aisle, OSV users can find themselves startled or endangered when they are powering along a road or up a slope only to find a slow bipedal recreationalist lumbering through the snow occupying the very place their machine is headed.

Although the process is almost always contentious, it often makes sense to separate these users in high traffic areas. This has happened in various winter zones around the state including the Blewett Pass area where the Tronsen Meadows Winter Non- Motorized Area immediately north of the pass gives cross-country skiers, snowshoers, backcountry skiers and winter walkers a quiet zone of their own.

Now, because of El Sendero engaging in long and protracted governmental processes, the residents of our region have two more official wintertime non-motorized areas recognized by the DNR, WDFW, Chelan County and the local snowmobile club. The attached map (see bottom of post or very top of the post for access to the map) and the brief description of the different wintertime play zones will allow recreationalists to find and better appreciate these areas.

Clara Lake Wintertime Non-Motorized Area. Most of Section 23 (see map), managed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW ) and containing the slopes draining into Clara and Marion lakes, is now a wintertime non-motorized area.  The northwest corner of this section is excluded from the non-motorized area and can be used by non-motorists and over-snow vehicles alike. The typical access to this non-motorized area is via the Clara Lake Trail leaving from the outer edge of the Mission Ridge parking lot (use parking stalls as close to the trail as possible). The trail to Clara Lake starts on Forest Service lands and enters state lands after about a mile. Popular outings for backcountry skiers and snowshoers are visits to the lakes, skiing of the powder slopes above the lakes, and skiing/snowshoeing to the summit of Mission Peak.  The route to the lake has relatively little avalanche hazard while the slopes above the lakes and those leading to Mission Peak are avalanche-prone and require snow-stability knowledge to navigate safely.

Upper Stemilt Basin Non-Motorized Area.  The higher-elevation portion of the Stemilt Basin Non-Motorized Area is composed of slopes and bowls offering backcountry skiers powder turns in winter and corn to carve in spring. Snowshoers enjoying the exploration of steeper ground will also want to visit the area. These slopes are avalanche-prone in winter and require snow-stability knowledge to navigate safely. When the Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort has Windy Ridge open, skiers with valid tickets or passes can access the Upper Stemilt Basin by traversing southeast about a half mile beyond the microwave tower. Those without lift privileges must comply with Mission Ridge’s Uphill Policy if they intend to traverse out of the ski area, toward Windy Ridge, and into the Stemilt Basin. A route to the Upper Stemilt Basin, without the restrictions of the Uphill Policy, leaves from the Mission Ridge parking lot, skirts the eastern edge of the ski area along The Outback, and then climbs forested slopes to reach the Upper Stemilt Basin. Finally, an enjoyable longer outing to the upper basin travels through the Lower Stemilt Basin Non-Motorized Area (see below) to the Wheeler Reservoir and then heads in a southwesterly direction upward from the reservoir.

Hut Rental. New for the winter of 2022-23, El Sendero will be booking nighttime rentals of the Weatherport hut they have erected at the top of the Stemilt Basin in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). For information on how to rent the hut, visit the El Sendero website. Details are still being finalized.

Snowshoeing above Clara Lake

Lower Stemilt Basin Non-Motorized Area. Cross-country skiers, casual snowshoers, winter walkers, dog walkers, and winter photographers will enjoy the roads crisscrossing the rolling forest lands in the lower portion of the Stemilt Basin Non-Motorized Area. The snowed-over roads here are ungroomed and poorly suited to ultra-light track skis. With sturdier cross-country skis or snowshoes, however, these roads give visitors some six or seven miles of avalanche-free terrain to wander through forests managed by the DNR, WDFW, and Chelan County. The lands of Section 20 can be accessed quite easily and quite pleasantly from Squilchuck State Park by following snowed-over roads south out of the park leading into the northwest corner of Section 20 (see map).

As of December 2022, the shortest entry point into the lower lands of the non-motorized area, however, is the Orr Creek Road, which branches off the Stemilt Loop Road at milepost 5.5 and enters the non-motorized area through Section 16. Park at the intersection of Orr Creek Road and the Stemilt Loop Road.  At the time this article was posted, the county is not yet plowing a pullout here, so we recommend you bring a snow shovel with you in case some snow must be moved to create a parking spot for yourself.  Also, there is still no signage designating the road as being non-motorized in winter so it is possible you’ll still see limited motorized use of the road. El Sendero is working with the county and land managers to address these issues, but it will help the cause of non-motorists to start using this area so it becomes apparent there is a need for adequate parking and proper signage.

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