The Kettle Crest Trail is the granddaddy of long-distance, high-country routes in Eastern Washington. Over the course of its 44 miles, it presents a virtual highlight reel of dry-side beauty, from sage-scented meadows to subalpine parkland.
The Kettle Crest Trail is part of the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which extends from Glacier National Park in the east, to Olympic National Park in the west.
Located in the far northeast corner of the state, the Kettle Crest features a half-dozen of Eastern Washington’s highest peaks, some topping out at more than 7,000 feet. Nominally a ridge-running route, the Kettle Crest tallies up nearly 8,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain over its length. Yet there are no cloud-piercing spires here, just a mosaic of old-growth forests and open sagebrush meadows. Good views are available intermittently for the entire length of the trail. Equestrians sometimes outnumber hikers, and the Crest Trail is the busiest. Side trails in the north are usually deserted.
Running in a north-south direction, the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway 20 divides the 44 miles into a 13 mile-long southern section and a 31 mile-long northern section. The highway gives two common starting points to hike from.
Owing to its diversity of habitats and lack of human development, the Kettle Range boasts some of the best remaining wildlife habitat in Eastern Washington. Hikers should keep their eyes peeled for cougar, moose, mule deer (many mature bucks), black bear, pika, rarely lynx, the varied thrush, grouse all cruising the high country. But in summer, the dazzling array of wildflowers—buckwheat, lupine, aster, yarrow, paintbrush, hawkweed and others—will likely keep your attention focused on the foreground. Dependable water sources are rare.
Aside from a few wooded saddles, virtually the entire route offers up big views: to the south, the Colville Indian Reservation and northernmost reaches of the Columbia Plateau; to the west, the Okanogan Highlands and, beyond, the Cascades; to the north, the peaks of British Columbia; and to the east, Idaho’s Selkirks.
To the Colville tribe, whose ancestral lands encompassed the Kettle Range, the mountains bear sacred significance. On White Mountain, near the southern terminus of the trail, hikers can inspect cairns built by young members of the tribe during vision quests. Subsequent generations of visitors have also fallen under the spell of the Kettles, and a dedicated group of local conservationists has spent the last 40 years pressing for a congressional designation of wilderness for the Kettle Crest.
Water: Tapped springs, never more than a half-dozen miles apart, can hydrate hikers who plan refills carefully. Keep in mind this is open rangeland, and cattle congregate around the springs, some of which have been maintained in less-than stellar fashion by grazing leaseholders. Filter all your water. Other than these there are no water sources on the entire trail.
Possibly as a result of the water situation, few backpack the entire length of the trail. The section most commonly used by hikers is the 13 miles south of Sherman Pass as a day hike or short overnight hike. There are no campsites with water on the Crest, so if you are hiking the whole trail, you should consider access to the main trail from a side trail for overnight camping. The side trails also make convenient loops for hiking the trail in sections.
Elevation gain: 8,000 feet
Key elevations: Highest point 7140 ft on top of Copper Butte. Low point is 3,900 feet at the Old Stage trailhead.
Distance: 44 miles one way
Time: 1-5 days depending on length and section walked.
Season: late June to early October
Map: USGS Sherman Peak
From the South – White Mountain TH: From the town of Colville, drive 22 miles west on Hwy 20 (the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway).
0.0 miles. Make a left and head southwest on the S. Fork Sherman Creek Rd
6.5 miles. Take a slight left onto Barnaby Creek Rd/FR 2014
10.75 miles. Stay right at the fork with White Mount Rd (FR250)
14 miles White Mountain trailhead.
From Sherman Pass. From Kettle Falls, Washington, head west on State Highway 20 for 26¼ miles to Sherman Pass, elevation 5,587 ft. If doing the South Section from Sherman Pass, walk 200 yards east to find the TH.
South Section. From the southern trailhead, ascend through profuse wildflowers on White Mountain. Great vistas exist from the southern ridge of White Mountain, site of a demolished lookout. Young Indians from what now are the Colville Confederated Tribes made a pilgrimage to the top to White Mountain as a rite of adulthood. Here they built rock cairns to commemorate the visions of their ceremonial retreat. Today, one can still see a few cairns.
Then begin a view-packed stretch past Barnaby Buttes and Bald Mountain. The southwest slope of Snow Peak holds great camp spots near the shelter. The 3-mile Snow Peak Trail, which traverses a 20,000-acre burn now teeming with silver snags and new greenery.
Skirt Sherman Peak to the east and at 13 miles, reach Sherman Pass and Highway 20.
North Section. The Kettle Crest Trail North is the backbone of the Kettle Crest Trail System especially for mountain bikers. The North Section is 30 miles long with 11 peaks one has to go around and down to the next saddle with elevation changes from 300 to 1000 feet between peaks. It is very rocky with some smooth spots. Most of the smooth spots are the many trails that connect the trail to a road.
Very little hiking and mountain biking occur but there are signs of both. There are several small burn areas and hundreds of natural meadows with some of best wildflowers during late July. The only bugs were biting flies, no mosquitos. The stock including some cattle must be the cause of the amount of rocks. The trail was originally a cattle trail and cattle keep the grasses from covering the trail. It is used year around by the paved roads by snow shoers and Nordic skiers. It is totally epic and very remote.
Connecting Trails. They are about 10 or so connecting trails (60 miles of trail total) just in the north section of the KCT. Many are done as loops. They vary from old wagon roads or 1.5-mile to 7-mile trails and are most often used by mountain bikers. The mountain bike riding is fairly technical and difficult. Each trailhead has a free camping area with no trash or drinking water, but water usually for stock animals which are the main users. The Old Stage and Midnight Ridge Trails to Copper Butte are exceptionally scenic. A challenging 16-mile loop to the top of Walpaloosie Mountain follows the Crest, Walpaloosie, and Albion Hill Trails. Another recommended ride is the middle portion from Old Stage Road to Rand Hill trail then down to Albion Hill road and back uphill on the road to Old Stage Road. Except for Old Stage Road the single track is almost all downhill of about 12 miles or so. All the uphills are roads. Explore all the side trails for great downhills or climbs some 2000 feet down.
In many spots along trail, there are panoramic views of the Kettle River Valley both to the East and the West. From Sherman Pass, pass Columbia Mountain (take a side trip to the lookout on top), then traipse along a sagebrush lined ridge; camp sites are scattered along the way. The high point is 7,140-foot Copper Butte, where fragments of an old lookout remain.
Descend through a ghost forest of snags and settle in for open grasslands and lupine-filled fir forest, all the way to the northern trailhead at Boulder Pass. This is one of the sections of the trail that creep under ghostly silver snags left standing from past wildfires, most notably the 1988 White Mountain Fire, which scorched more than 20,000 acres of the southern Kettles. In these sections, wildlife, wildflowers and wide-open views have taken the place of the trees, making this one of the scenic highlights of the region. Some call this the “range land”, which is fine if you don’t mind cow pies everywhere. The water at Midnight Mountain was contaminated by cows in the mudhole in front of the trough.
Camping: free camping at Jungle Hill TH, Wapaloosie TH, Old Stage Coach/Copper Butte TH, and Stickpin/Ryan’s Cabin TH. The camping at Deer Creek/Boulder is cheap. There’s no outhouse at White Mountain TH, but if you know how to dig a proper cathole, you can camp for free there, too.