SEARCH
HOME
CONTENT & COMMENTS
ABOUT
WOS
ABA
 

SECTION CONTENT

WHITE PASS HIGHWAY

by Andy Stepniewski

revised by Andy Stepniewski

One of the better Cascades birding routes is the 34-mile stretch of US-12 that ascends the Tieton River to 4,500-foot White Pass, along a transect from arid Garry Oak and shrub-steppe vegetation at the lower end to tall, wet subalpine forest at the Cascade Crest southeast of Mount Rainier.

 

OAK CREEK AND LOWER TIETON RIVER

Head south and west with US-12 at the junction with SR-410, about four miles west of Naches. Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Bullock’s Orioles frequent Garry Oaks at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area headquarters (2.0 miles). An extensive Elk-feeding program makes this a winter tourist attraction; several thousand animals can sometimes be observed. Nearby, an out-of-view carcass dump for road-killed animals attracts numbers of Turkey Vultures (summer) and Bald (winter) and Golden Eagles. Watch for them overhead.

West on US-12 in another 0.2 mile is Oak Creek Road, on the right. This gravel road runs uphill alongside the creek into the heart of the 42,000-acre wildlife area, passing through Garry Oaks, Ponderosa Pines, and riparian vegetation. For the first four miles, look for Golden Eagle, Common Poorwill, White-throated Swift, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Least Flycatcher (rare but regular in aspen groves), Rock and Canyon Wrens, Veery, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock’s Oriole. Western Gray Squirrels still occur here—one of the relatively few places in the state where this declining species may be seen.

Another access to the wildlife area is one mile farther along US-12, on the left. Park here (Discover Pass required) and take the path leading right toward the river. Cross the swinging bridge to the Tieton River Nature Trail, which follows the river beneath towering cliffs of andesite for several miles both up- and downstream. Habitats include riparian woodland, Garry Oak and Ponderosa Pine groves on slightly drier sites, and finally a zone of Bitterbrush on yet drier slopes. Look for Sooty Grouse, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Nashville Warbler, among many other species. At times in migration the trees here are filled with birds, especially on mornings following a storm.

Another 3.4 miles west on US-12—just beyond the Wenatchee National Forest boundary sign—turn off right onto gravel FR-1301 and park at the gate (America the Beautiful or Northwest Forest Pass required). A good walk goes uphill from here into cliff-rimmed Bear Canyon. The slopes are grown to picturesque Garry Oak, Ponderosa Pine, and Douglas-fir, while the canyon bottom has tall cottonwoods and willows. Bear Canyon is one of Washington’s premier spots to observe butterflies (more than 60 species have been noted here) and is also good for bird species typical of the lower east slopes of the Cascades, such as Golden Eagle, Common Poorwill, White-throated Swift, Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Violet-green Swallow, Canyon Wren, Townsend’s Solitaire, Nashville Warbler, and Western Tanager.

Continuing west, US-12 parallels the rushing Tieton River. Check for Harlequin Duck (best mid-April–early June), Prairie Falcon (nesting on cliffs), and American Dipper. Trout Lodge (5.9 miles) has a small restaurant with several hummingbird feeders visible from the dining room, attracting Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds. Please offer a word of thanks to the owners for providing this service. Between three and five miles west of the lodge on US-12, several forest service campgrounds are set in Ponderosa Pines, Black Cottonwoods, and willows along the Tieton River. All offer the chance to see White-headed Woodpecker.

 

BETHEL RIDGE

Continuing west on US-12, watch on the right for FR-1500, the Bethel Ridge Road (4.7 miles from Trout Lodge). This graded, though often washboarded, gravel road steeply ascends the south slopes of Bethel Ridge, the eroded remnant of an ancient volcano. After gaining over 3,500 feet in elevation and passing through various types of colorful volcanic rock (tuffs and breccias, mainly) and a succession of forested habitats (Ponderosa Pine to mixed-conifer to subalpine), the road tops out in 7.5 miles at over 6,000 feet elevation. It is open in summer only. Species to be found along the way include Flammulated and Northern Pygmy-Owls, Common Poorwill, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, White-headed Woodpecker, Cassin’s Vireo, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill.

Check the Ponderosa Pine woods in the general vicinity of the fork at 0.3 mile from US-12 for White-headed Woodpecker. Two areas of wet montane meadow—the first 1.5 miles from the fork, the second in another half-mile—have Red-naped Sapsucker, Warbling Vireo, and MacGillivray’s Warbler. Higher yet, FR-1500 leaves the Ponderosa Pine zone. Stop in 3.5 miles at a narrow band of mixed-conifer forest where Western Larch attracts Williamson’s Sapsucker. Cold, snowy subalpine habitats with Subalpine Fir, Mountain Hemlock, and Lodgepole Pine begin abruptly in another 1.0 mile. Turn right here on FR-324 to reach the microwave towers atop Bethel Ridge. The dark, dense forests on the north aspects of the ridge harbor a few Spruce Grouse, although they are rarely seen. The promise of a tough slog through the nearly impenetrable vegetation is enough to deter all but the most sure-footed hikers. Easier to spot are Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker.

The Bethel Ridge crest is another 0.7 mile up FR-1500. At 0.2 mile from FR-324, turn left from FR-1500 onto FR-199 to reach Cash Prairie (1.1 miles), a beautiful subalpine meadow where Ruby-crowned Kinglet is common and the Lincoln’s Sparrow bubbly song emanates from the tall, corn-like False Hellebore—a poisonous member of the lily family. Among the many raptors that soar over this meadow from late summer through fall, look especially for accipiters, Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon.

The road ends in another 1.0 mile at a trailhead for the William O. Douglas Wilderness from which views extend to Mount Adams, the Goat Rocks, and the summit of Mount Rainier. The exposed, steep south-facing slopes have a few shrub-steppe plants such as Big Sagebrush and Scarlet Gilia; look for Rock Wren here. Only a few yards away are equally steep, north-facing slopes mantled in snow-forest species such as Mountain Hemlock, Subalpine Fir, and Lodgepole Pine, plus scattered Alaska Yellowcedar, Engelmann Spruce, and Whitebark Pine. Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Townsend’s Warbler breed in these cold forests. Pine Grosbeak and White-winged Crossbill are rare wanderers.

Return to FR-1500 and turn left. Descend 3.5 miles to FR-190, turn left, and climb 2.6 miles to Timberwolf Lookout, at 6,400 feet.A small band of Mountain Goats is often seen on the nearby cliffs. Hawks sail by in the fall, most commonly accipiters and Red-taileds. Returning to FR-1500, you can take a left and go down FR-1500 to join SR-410, the Chinook Pass Highway, in about 16 miles (page 318). Otherwise, turn right and retrace your route up and over Bethel Ridge to US-12 in 11 miles.

 

AROUND RIMROCK LAKE

About three miles west of the FR-1500 intersection the Tieton River is dammed to form Rimrock Lake. US-12 follows the north shore of the reservoir closely. The deep, clear, cold waters are not inviting to birds, but you might see a few waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls (and many swallows at the dam). Tieton Road goes around the south side of the lake through forest and wetland habitats, departing from US-12 about 2.5 miles below the dam and returning to it in 16 miles, near the west end of the lake. Although it is nine miles longer, this paved road is by far the better birding choice if you are not in a big hurry to get to the pass.

Three-tenths of a mile west of the FR-1500 intersection, turn left onto Tieton Road (FR-1200). Cross the Tieton River to a junction with FR-1201, on the left (0.2 mile). The wetlands on both sides of the road near this junction host a nice variety of forest birds. Red-naped Sapsucker and Willow Flycatcher are common. Look for Gray Catbird and warblers around the small pond. FR-1201 climbs steadily to a turnoff for Jumpoff Meadows in about 3.5 miles. Turn left onto FR-557 and travel 0.3 to the beginning of the meadows. The mixed Ponderosa Pine and Douglas-fir forest alternating with alder-and-willow-lined meadows offers good birding possibilities, including Barred Owl and Lincoln’s Sparrow; Williamson’s Sapsucker is reasonably common in areas with Western Larch.

Back on Tieton Road, travel uphill past Goose Egg Mountain on your right (nesting White-throated Swifts) and Kloochman Rock on your left, and turn left onto FR-1202 (2.5 miles). Go 0.3 mile to a swamp by the road. In the numerous snags, watch for woodpeckers (including White-headed) and swallows. Many forest species occur in the surrounding pines, alders, and willows.

The turnoff for Peninsula Campground, on Rimrock Lake, is 0.2 mile farther along Tieton Road on the right. A marsh with Virginia Rail, Sora, and many blackbirds is on the right (north) side of the entrance road. Red-naped and Red-breasted (scarce) Sapsuckers nest in the Quaking Aspen and Black Cottonwood groves. Flammulated Owl occurs, if not in the campground, then along the steep, south-facing slopes of Goose Egg Mountain grown to Ponderosa Pines with an understory of Deerbrush, at the campground entrance. Continue west on Tieton Road. At a fork in 1.6 miles, where FR-1000 goes left up the South Fork Tieton, stay right with FR-1200 (aka Tieton Road). A steady increase in precipitation is reflected in the changing habitats as you proceed westward to the entrance for Clear Lake South Campground (7.0 miles), including riparian areas with lush Mountain Alder and willow thickets, meadows, and tall, moist forests of Grand Fir and Engelmann Spruce. A stop at any of several pullouts or gravel lanes on your left may yield Ruffed Grouse, Calliope Hummingbird, Willow and Hammond’s Flycatchers, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Orange-crowned, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Townsend’s Warblers. Open, south-facing slopes on your right have Douglas-firs and Ponderosa Pines. There, look for Sooty Grouse, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill.

One mile past the Clear Lake South Campground turnoff, at the intersection with North Fork Tieton Road, keep right with FR-1200. In 0.6 mile, turn right into the Clear Lake Day-Use Site (USFS fee area). Take the paved nature walk through open forest of Douglas-fir and Grand Fir (Hammond’s Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch) to observation blinds at the edge of Clear Lake. During summer, look for nesting Ring-necked Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Osprey. Diving ducks (including Surf and White-winged Scoters), loons, grebes, and Common Tern are regular, though uncommon, in fall migration.

Once again on Tieton Road, it is 0.7 mile to the bridge over Clear Creek. American Dippers often nest under the bridge. Snags and alder thickets have lots of Warbling Vireos and Yellow Warblers. American Redstarts, near the edge of their range, have been noted in the alders around the lake. Clear Lake North Campground (1.4 miles; USFS, primitive) is a fine spot to camp (you can scan Clear Lake from another vantage on the way there). Look for Northern Pygmy-Owl (uncommon) and Western Tanager in the surrounding forest.

Right from the campground, Tieton Road reaches US-12 in 0.4 mile. In September and October, head right (east) on US-12 for 1.7 miles to a historical pulloff with Rimrock Lake below. Nesting birds here include Common Merganser, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Spotted Sandpiper, and American Dipper. Tens of thousands of land-locked Kokanee Salmon spawn along the creek in fall. Hundreds of gulls, mostly California but also a few Ring-billed, Herring, Thayer’s, and Glaucous-winged, gather here for the fish feast. Bald Eagles also arrive, usually in November, to partake of this buffet, along with hundreds of Common Mergansers (sometimes a few Red-breasted). Sabine’s Gull and Parasitic Jaeger are among the rarities noted here.

 

WHITE PASS AND VICINITY

West and steadily uphill, US-12 traverses a hazardous rockslide area (stopping not advised, although Peregrine Falcons have nested on the cliffs right above the highway). At Dog Lake Campground (5.5 miles), check for Barrow’s Goldeneye on the lake, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers (Red-breasted also possible), and Gray Jay in the Western Larches.

Another 1.5 miles on US-12 brings you to the turnoff to White Pass Campground (USFS, primitive), on the shores of Leech Lake. Mountain species noted here in summer include Ring-necked Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Osprey, Northern Pygmy- and Barred Owls, Williamson’s (east of the lake around corrals) and Red-breasted (lakeshore snags) Sapsuckers, Pileated Woodpecker, Rock Wren (talus slides north of the highway), and Hermit and Varied Thrushes. “Thick-billed Fox Sparrows,” clearly disjunct from the Oregon population, have bred in brushy thickets near the corrals. Trails give access to extensive forests, subalpine meadows, and glacier-mantled peaks—for example, the Pacific Crest Trail south to the Goat Rocks Wilderness. The forest north up the Pacific Crest Trail may yield American Three-toed Woodpecker, and a hike of at least several miles reaches subalpine openings—good habitat for Pine Grosbeak (irregular). Boreal Owl has been found here in late summer.

West again on US-12 brings you to the 4,500-foot summit of White Pass (0.4 mile). The willow scrub and conifers around the lodge, and particularly north of the highway by the shores of Leech Lake, have yielded Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, many quite tame Common Ravens, Tree and Violet-green Swallows, and Lincoln’s and White-crowned (pugetensis) Sparrows.

Continuing west, Knuppenburg Lake (0.8 mile) is worth a short stop; Barrow’s Goldeneyes have nested here. Watch also for Gray Jays coming to beg for scraps. In 8.4 miles note a pullout to the left (south) for Palisades Viewpoint, overlooking a basalt cliff across the canyon. The lazy, wheezy song of Townsend’s Warbler is easy to hear from this spot, but the birds often remain high in the tall Douglas-firs and can be difficult to spot. It is 2.3 miles to a major junction where you may turn north and ascend SR-123 along the Ohanapecosh River to Mount Rainier National Park (page 225), or continue southwestward with US-12, following the Cowlitz River to Packwood and birding sites in Southwestern Washington.