Surrounded by national forest on all sides, Packwood is an outdoor lover’s paradise, home to backpackers, climbers, skiers and more. But the wealth of natural treasure doesn’t mean the expansive forests are available to everyone — yet.
To get to most of the trails near Packwood, hikers often need a high-clearance vehicle that can handle rough forest roads. They need superb fitness to deal with the steep climbs up mountainsides. In the winter, they usually need gear to traverse the snow that collects above 2,000 or so feet in elevation.
The Packwood Trail Project is hoping to change that. The nonprofit group envisions a new network of trails, connected to paved roads, cut into relatively flat terrain and low enough in elevation to remain accessible year-round.
“Everyone we’ve talked to realizes that we need a recreational trail resource that meets these criteria,” said Stefan Lofgren, the group’s president.
Lofgren envisions myriad benefits from the additional trails. Local residents would have outdoors access all year long, allowing them to stay active without driving up treacherous roads or strapping on snowshoes or skis. Visitors would have another potential activity in town, a boon on days like Saturday, when Packwood was full of visitors milling about after the White Pass Ski Area closed due to wind gusts. Races for high school cross-country teams and recreational runners could become an option. New trails could be connected to existing routes to form loop hikes.
“Hiking is one of the No. 1 reasons people come to our area,” said Mary Kay Nelson, marketing consultant with the White Pass Scenic Byway, a tourist group that the Packwood Trails Project counts as a partner. “They want to explore the area, they want to have some outdoor recreation experience. Not everyone has the ability to climb. Most of the hikes accessible from Highway 12 require hard elevation gains. We want to be family-friendly.”
The Packwood Trail Project has a series of potential trail routes in its inventory, totaling as much as 50 or 60 miles. On Dec. 20, the group held a community meeting to seek public input on its first proposed trail, a 7.5-mile path connecting the La Wis Wis campground to Packwood.
With 50 or so people in attendance, the nonprofit laid out the proposal. The trail would run roughly parallel with U.S. Highway 12, never straying more than a mile from the road. It would end at Mile 2 of Snyder Road. The path would never gain or lose more than a few hundred feet at a given time. In addition to its accessibility, the trail would be a destination hike in its own right.
“It’s very much old-growth forest, across some canyons, past several pretty waterfalls,” Lofgren said.
The trail, like most of the routes the project will propose, would be open to hikers and bikers, but not motorized transportation.
“It was very thorough, they had done their homework,” Nelson said. “They’ve done a lot of work in the last two years to make it a possibility.”
According to Lofgren, the group chose the La Wis Wis trail as its first priority because it’s entirely within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, avoiding potential conflicts with private property owners that have surfaced along other proposed routes. The feedback at the meeting for the possible new trail was overwhelmingly positive, he said.
Community buy-in is an important first step, and one the Packwood Trail Project says it’s still undertaking. But getting new trails built is an arduous process. First, the group must get the approval of the U.S. Forest Service, which will conduct environmental reviews and evaluate potential benefits and drawbacks.
If the agency gives the go-ahead, the Project will still have to come up with money to get the trail built and maintained. For the La Wis Wis project, that could involve funding part of the government’s environmental review, building new parking areas and pit toilets, and constructing bridges across waterways. In all, the cost for that one trail alone could come to something like $500,000, which the group is hoping to pay for with donations and grants.
Lofgren said the nonprofit is hoping to submit its first trail proposal to the Forest Service this year, possibly within the next few months. After that, it will take a group effort from the community, area organizations, government partners, donors and volunteers to make it happen.
“The Packwood Trail Project doesn’t assume that we’re going to be able to do this all ourselves,” he said.
Though there’s been nothing official to discuss yet, Lofgren said Forest Service officials have been generally supportive of the group’s efforts, acknowledging that the objectives it seeks to meet are worthwhile.
“The need is trails that exist in wintertime,” he said. “There is nothing that exists in the wintertime in Packwood or even anywhere near here. This would fill that niche. … The government organizations from the state and local level, to the federal government, are looking towards this as a good idea.”
While it might be a some time before the project’s vision turns into hikeable trails, backers see promise if it’s able to move forward.
“People are coming to our area looking for hikes and activities,” Nelson said. “Once they’re here, they’re saying, ‘What else is there to do today?’ We haven’t had the product here to keep people in town.”
Lofgren said project members are hopeful that success with the La Wis Wis trail could generate more support for future endeavors.
“That would get the ball rolling. People would see what’s possible,” he said. “If folks could see that, they would naturally be able to visualize other opportunities.”