I got a taste of snow hiking last winter and loved it. Snow hiking is like snowshoeing, only the trail is so packed down or light with snow that you can get away without snowshoes and use gear like microspikes for traction. Armed with a new pair of microspikes from Mama Boots, I set out for this wintery gem of the Cascades.
In all honesty, I’m not sure if I’d do Franklin Falls when it’s not snowy. I’m sure the gushing water over the falls in spring is impressive, but outside of winter this is a short (1-2-ish miles) hike that’s mostly right near the mountain pass so you can hear semi trucks decelerating loudly around you. However, once snow builds up, the wide, fairly flat road to the trailhead is closed to vehicles but open to hikers, so in winter, it’s an easy, flat seven mile hike, perfect for beginners. However, do heed the snow–we saw people attempting this in jeans and tennis shoes, and I have to wonder how far they made it once the snow got deeper.
My friend Marissa and I set off early to beat the crowds. After exiting (your GPS will try to guide you further on I-90 but 47 is what you want), it was only a few hundred feet to the shoulder for parking. We made it fine in Marissa’s SUV, but one sedan was stuck in an ice pothole when we left, so be careful if not in a high-clearance vehicle. Once the trailhead is closed, you don’t actually need a pass to park along the side of the road before the closure (but in other months a Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required).
Conditions here can change rapidly, so I strongly encourage planning in advance and checking WTA trip reports often. It was rainy and slushy when we started, so I opted to bring my spikes and gaiters in my pack for when I needed them, but not start with them on. Marissa had amazing snow boots that had great grip, but I was surprised at how much I slid on the icy slush. Sticking to snowy areas was more work for my legs, but at least I wasn’t worried about falling on my rear! The snow around us did get thicker as the rain turned to sleet and finally fat, large snow clumps. We both opted to put our rain covers for our packs on quickly for protection from the rain and rapidly-melting snow.
Once the slush disappeared into compact snow, it was far easier to walk in the packed-down tire tracks than the fresher snow. However, after about two miles the road finally got difficult at the end. I had read directions telling you to ‘turn left at the privy,’ so we turned into the campground–turns out the actual road was a little further up the main road (oops), but a picnic table in the campground was the perfect spot for putting on my gaiters and spikes. We kept cutting through the campground until we re-joined the official road and saw signs for the trailhead and the rather large bathrooms (might not be in service in winter).
From there, it’s a short jaunt to the falls. It starts out fairly flat, with a few cabins across the river, including a brilliant red one fairly famous to local hikers. The official hiking trail did get steeper, which felt like a lot compared to the road, but is average for an easy hike. The trail was crowded, which was expected for this popular winter hike, even with our early start. At the very end of the trail for the falls, it is a steep downhill with stairs that is only wide enough for one person. The snow was so thick here we couldn’t actually see the stairs, so I was even more grateful for the traction from my spikes. Sometimes there are ropes in these places for you to use to rappel down (or climb back up), but only one of the two sections had a rope when we were there.
The falls were stunning. Surrounded by a curtain of icicles, they were breathtaking even with I-90 looming above and trucks loudly shifting gears. I was a little awestruck and didn’t notice the snow shelf I was on was over water (and I might have taken a mild tumble into the drink, oops). The freezing mist and splash from the waterfalls was a quick snap back to reality though. We toughed it out and admired the view, snapping pictures as long as we could stand, but our faces, hands, and cameras quickly got soaked by the spray. Extra layers are vital, even on a bluebird day at Franklin Falls! We both had warm jackets to change into once back at the car, which was great as we felt just how soaked we were as soon as we stopped. While I can’t promise I’ll come back in the summer, Franklin Falls might have to become a winter annual for me.
Distance: 7.0 miles (in winter if parking before road closure after exit 47. Can access from exit 52 potentially for shorter hike, with road open is more like 2 miles)
Elevation: 400 feet (Posted elevation from trailhead–in winter, from road closure is slightly more gain)
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful (not needed in winter)
Bathrooms: Pit toilets at official trailhead (2.5 miles from winter parking)–unsure if open year-round though.