Had a ski date with my daughter Genoa recently. The day was full conditions. So instead of skidding north on the “goat trail” (highway 95) for several hours both directions, we chose to stay closer to home and do a mountain tour on nearby Moscow Mountain. The conditions have been excellent so far this season. As we geared up at the winter trailhead I recalled a story I had written about my first experience ski touring here 35 years earlier. I post it here for her to read and share with anyone else so inclined to get lost on Moscow Mountain. Enjoy.
Moscow Mountain, outside of Moscow Idaho, has long been the harbinger for a snowy winter escape from the lower elevation, sloppy winter days of the Palouse. My first fall at Washington State University, I was in search of an early season ski tour close to home. After migrating from winters in Grand Teton National Park, I was remised; and having watched the top of
Moscow Mountain go white with snow several times during late fall storms, it was my first choice. I was directed to “good access -maybe plowed” on the east end of the mountain by taking a left turn in Troy, Idaho. I was surprised by the amount of snow as the road climbed 1,500 feet; no snow had accumulated on the Palouse below. As told, the road ended at a plowed turn-around. I slapped my skis on for the first tour of the season.
Skiing up the unplowed road cut for a half-mile or so, rounding a long bend, the road leveled off. Being alone, on an unfamiliar mountain road, on a stormy day can be a little unnerving at times. Noises come from all directions as the wind swirls through the trees. The blowing snow and mist momentarily create characters larger-than-life, and then disappear. In a clearing, I could make out an A-framed building, the towers of an old T-bar ski lift, and other features of an old, man-made ski area. I stopped and for a moment the old ski hill came to life. The hum of the diesel generator, the ski lift cable screeching around the bull wheel, children’s screaming voices and laughter, a skier in 50’s style stretch ski pants zipped by, and smoke curled out the ski lodge chimney. I had stumbled across the old Tamarack Ski Area.
Tamarack Ski Area was created in 1965 by a group of local residents, most of which were associated with the University of Idaho. After gathering fifteen years of snow pack data for several sites in Latah County, the site six miles from Troy, at 4000 feet on Moscow Mountain’s east end, became Tamarack. Tamarack had problems from the beginning – snow plowing was expensive, power lines were non-existent, and weather and snow conditions were inconsistent. It went bankrupt around 1970. Several revival attempts failed to turn a profit. In 1992, the city of Troy turned a 100% profit when they bought and sold the lift to Cottonwood Butte, one of Idaho’s last remaining small ski hills outside of Cottonwood, Idaho. The A-frame building was scuttled and the foundation removed; today all that exists is a level spot where the lodge used to sit.
Continuing up the road for several miles, I wondered what else I might stumble across this snowy day. The road wound around to the north side of the mountain and continued to climb through dense cedars. Soon, I was
surrounded by giant cedar trees, their bark plastered with snow. I wondered how they had escaped the axe; perhaps they were too hard to get to, too big, or owned by someone who cherished their beauty. I stopped, and watch the cedars fill up with snow. Hearing no voices, no machines, and seeing no smoke, I felt at peace.
Unlike Tamarack, the cedar grove is still there. “They are a cathedral of trees” said Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Idaho’s ex-Governor, and a graduate of the University of Idaho. He was so inspired by them, he was married at that spot.
Largely spared from disturbance by its location on top of a steep 4700 feet ridge, this 300-acre parcel of state school trust land is home to an ancient grove of western red cedars estimated to be 600 to 1000 years old. It is one of the best preserved examples of western red cedar/larch habitat in Idaho.
Members of the local community have been working to protect these trees and their surrounding habitat for over twenty years. As part of the school trust endowment, the Idaho Constitution requires the land be managed for the maximum long term economic return to the trust – money that helps pay for Idaho’s public schools. To avoid turning ancient cedars into, posts, rails, and shakes; At one time the Nature Conservancy arranged a special use lease for the land, to gain time, while a land exchange between the conservancy or local government and the state could be worked out.
Also a past deal was struck between the State of Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) and Latah County Commissioners to work on short and long term management plans for the preservation of the cedar grove for social and educational purposes. There is still work to be done. (currently the land responsibility “wish I could say management” resides with IDL, is classified as research / educational, the next best thing to an Idaho National Park).
Moscow Mountain provides a great “close to home” winter experience for people in search of snow for ski touring or snowshoeing. The remains of Tamarack Ski Area no longer exist and as you travel up the road you will pass large clear-cut patches of timber (much of it cedar) before arriving at the “cathedral of trees”. Hopefully they will remain.
If You Go: (Go East, up 1,500 feet Rule)
Unfortunately, for much of the winter Moscow and Pullman have little snow on the ground due to their (snow / melt / freeze) climate pattern. All one has to do is go east or up 1,500 feet in elevation and you will find ample snow, most winters.
At over 5000 feet, Moscow Mountain receives the most snow in our vicinity, but access can be tricky during winter months. The best access for snow sports is via Tamarack road. It is plowed to about 3,500 feet most winters. This fits the “go east-up 1,500” rule well. Drive east on Idaho 8 to Troy. At Troy, take Randall Flats Road to Tamarack Road. Follow Tamarack Road until it’s no longer plowed. Tours follow snowbound roads and logging trails to the top of Moscow Mountain. The Giant Cedar Grove is about 2.5 miles out the main road (which is currently hard to follow with recent logging activity)