by Hal Opperman and Andy Stepniewski

revised by Hal Opperman

Fifty miles east of Seattle on Interstate 90, Snoqualmie Pass is the most traveled and accessible crossing of the Cascades. The pass is super wet, with about 100 inches of precipitation annually, including an average of 450 inches of snow. Wet, mild conditions prevail eastward from the crest for many miles along the upper east-slope Cascades, favoring development of a once-impressive conifer forest, much of which was clearcut in the final decades of the last century. One hundred and fifty years ago, Congress granted alternate one-square-mile sections of land to the Northern Pacific Railroad in a wide corridor on each side of the proposed right-of-way. The railroad was built up the Yakima River valley from the Tri-Cities to the crest at Stampede Pass, then down the Green River drainage on the west slope, reaching its terminus at Tacoma in 1887. The checkerboard of remote, rugged timberlands remaining in railroad ownership was left largely unexploited until the 1980s, when a massive logging program was initiated. Even the Spotted Owl crisis of those years could not slow the rush to “get the cut out.” Fortunately, the sections in public ownership have been managed less aggressively, while the forests on the logged-off land-grant sections are now slowly regenerating. Under the visionary leadership of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, land exchanges have consolidated ownership in public hands—largely erasing the checkerboard pattern and ensuring that areas of beauty and ecological diversity with thriving birdlife will remain even near I-90. The higher elevations to the north on both slopes of the Cascades are formally protected in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.



Snoqualmie Pass (elevation 3,022 feet) is not high enough to reach the subalpine, but the combination of forests, fake “meadows” of ski slopes, and some clearcuts has produced varied habitats. The summit area can be reached from any of three I-90 exits. Coming from the Seattle side the first is Exit 52, signed West Summit. (However, there is no offramp for westbound traffic at this exit, so those coming from the Ellensburg side should use Exit 54 or Exit 53 instead.)

If you have time for a hike, the Commonwealth Basin Trail goes through an uncut forest of Silver Fir on the west slope of the Cascades, out of range of traffic noise, with decent birding possibilities. Go left from the West Summit offramp onto Alpental Road, passing under the interstate. In 100 yards, turn right and drive a short distance to the large trailhead parking lot for the northbound Pacific Crest Trail (America the Beautiful or Northwest Forest Pass required). Follow this trail as it climbs into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. In 2.5 miles (elevation 4,000 feet), Trail 1033 branches off to the left and drops down into the basin of Commonwealth Creek, then climbs into the subalpine, with a series of switchbacks, to Red Pass (2.5 miles, elevation 5,300 feet). Sooty Grouse, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Hermit and Varied Thrushes nest here, along with most of the familiar species of Puget Lowlands forests. From Red Pass, high crags of the Cascades can be seen across the deep valley of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, to the north, with Mount Baker in the distance. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches nest in rock clefts along steep, treeless slopes in the high country here and throughout the wilderness area, usually well away from trails. For experienced off-trail hikers, a challenging traverse westward from Red Pass to Lundin Peak (elevation 6,067 feet) and Snoqualmie Mountain (elevation 6,278 feet) may turn up a few, but there are far more comfortable ways to see this species.

Many mountain birds can be found closer to the interstate, although traffic noise can be an unpleasant distraction. A couple of hundred feet right (south) from the West Summit offramp is an entrance sign for The Summit at Snoqualmie, on the right. Turn in, then go straight ahead into the upper parking lot for the Summit West chairlifts. Slate-colored Fox and Lincoln’s Sparrows sometimes breed here in wet, brushy spots at the edge of the ski slopes, as do Willow Flycatchers and White-crowned Sparrows. A gravel road out the far end of the parking lot swings left and up to a parking area for the Pacific Crest Trail southbound (0.3 mile; Northwest Forest Pass required). A two-mile hike to Lodge Lake in the lower subalpine runs through intact forest, brushy ski slopes, and marshes (high point 3,600 feet), offering more chances to find Fox and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Red-breasted Sapsuckers nest in snags along the crest (sometimes in mixed pairs with Red-naped).

Turn right from the Summit West entrance and proceed along SR-906 (the old highway) through the small commercial district. The USFS Information Center on the right (0.1 mile; open seasonally) has maps and parking permits. On the right in another 0.2 mile, scan the trees near the entrance to Village at the Summit, across the road from the WSDOT restrooms, for Band-tailed Pigeons that are seen regularly in spring, sometimes in sizable flocks.

Return to SR-906 and continue south. Roadside brush may have singing MacGillivray’s and Yellow Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows. In 0.1 mile, turn left and go under I-90 (this is Exit 53, East Summit). In 0.2 mile, swing right onto the frontage road on the other side of the interstate and park at a gravel pullout on the left in 0.1 mile. Walk the road both ways. The forest is dense, with houses tucked among big conifers. Sooty Grouse, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, and Pine Siskin are usually here in late spring and summer.

Much of the wide, flat saddle of the pass was originally occupied by forest with broken-topped old trees, small pools, and patches of wet meadow. A remnant of this interesting habitat survives between the old highway and Interstate 90, laced with cross-country ski tracks. Red-breasted Sapsucker, Pacific Wren, Varied Thrush, and MacGillivray’s, Yellow-rumped, Townsend’s, and Wilson’s Warblers are typical of the species found here in May–June. An entrance track heads off left from SR-906, 0.8 mile south of the East Summit interchange; park in the ski-area lot on the right side of the road and walk back across. Or drive another 0.5 mile and park at the Silver Fir Chairlift, on the right. The overflow parking lot on the opposite side of the road affords access to several tracks into the forest.



Continue along SR-906 for 0.8 mile from the Silver Fir Chairlift to a 90-degree right turn, then a 90-degree left turn in 200 feet, alongside the Hyak sewage lagoons—worth a look for ducks (Barrow’s Goldeneye in summer), migrating shorebirds, and flocks of swallows. The pavement ends in 0.1 mile at the start of FR-9070, a good gravel road into the forests and clearcuts of the backcountry. From a trailhead in a switchback on the left 2.6 miles ahead, the easy, though rocky, Cold Creek Trail 1303 ascends initially through an old clearcut, then into old-growth forest (mostly Western Hemlock and Silver Fir), to the first of the Twin Lakes (0.8 mile, 100 feet elevation gain). Look for Barrow’s Goldeneye, Spotted Sandpiper, American Dipper, and the usual songbirds associated with wet forest, especially Varied Thrush.

Return to the old highway and cross under I-90 to the other side of the Hyak interchange. Beginning on the left in another 0.6 mile, a stretch of gravel flats with willows is a good place for nesting Fox Sparrows. Small trees for the next 0.2 mile, up to the Gold Creek bridge, are often aswarm with Yellow-rumped Warblers in migration, and Barrow’s Goldeneyes are sometimes spotted upstream from the bridge. In another 0.2 mile, potholed FR-142 (144 on older maps) turns off to the left. Travel 0.4 mile to the entrance of the Gold Creek picnic area, on the left (America the Beautiful or Northwest Forest Pass required). A short, paved, barrier-free interpretive trail leads to several ponds. Look for Barrow’s Goldeneye and other waterfowl, Black and Vaux’s Swifts, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, and Fox Sparrow (in willow growth on streamside gravel deposits). In fall, neotropical migrant songbirds move along Gold Creek; altitudinal migrants such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Dark-eyed Junco stage here on the way to lower-elevation wintering grounds. By scanning the ridgetops you might spy a Mountain Goat.



East of Snoqualmie Pass, the road to Stampede Pass (FR-54) starts from the south side of I-90 at Exit 62. In 0.2 mile a snag-filled swamp, on both sides of the road, is excellent in summer for Red-breasted Sapsucker (be alert for Red-naped and hybrids as well), Black and Vaux’s Swifts, Willow Flycatcher, Tree Swallow, and MacGillivray’s Warbler. Forest in the vicinity of the Yakima River bridge another 0.2 mile ahead, has nesting Osprey, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, American Dipper, and Yellow and Townsend’s Warblers. Proceed on FR-54. In 0.6 mile the road changes from asphalt to gravel and in another 0.2 mile intersects the John Wayne Pioneer Trail (Iron Horse State Park, the trackbed of the former Milwaukee Road transcontinental rail line). Just past the crossing, leave your vehicle at a wide turnout on the left. Eastward (to the left when approaching from I-90), this smooth, level, non-motorized trail (elevation 2,500 feet) passes through mostly third-growth forest, opening up in 1.0 mile to an extensive wetland of shrubby willows and snags as the trail crosses Stampede Creek on an elevated embankment. Woodpeckers, flycatchers, many songbirds, and various other species forage or reside seasonally in the swamp.

FR-54 and numerous other roads that branch from it give access to mountain forests on both sides of the crest, most of them in various stages of post-logging regeneration. Stampede Pass (elevation 3,700 feet) is reached in about 4.5 miles from I-90. Lizard Lake, just across the pass, attracts a variety of birds. Vaux’s Swifts sometimes afford close-up views below eye level as they pursue insects near the water surface. The road forks here; keep right on FR-54 (also signed 5400). The wide, well-maintained gravel road drops down into the basin at the head of the Green River drainage, to the site of the old railroad town of Lester (elevation 1,600 feet). Birding possibilities are much the same as at Snoqualmie Pass and elsewhere on the Cascade west slopes.