The starting point for this adventure varies based on season and road access. In the spring, access to Big Lake is more straightforward and includes a small private camp on the east side of the lake (do not park here in the summer when the camp is running).
Regardless of where you choose to park and begin you adventure, the goal is the same: You have to get to Pacific Crest Trail. Trails from the east and west side of Big Lake will connect to the PCT, but may require modest route-finding skills. Alternately, the PCT can be accessed directly from Old Santiam Wagon Road, it will simply add a bit more distance to the route. This historical wagon route was not a part of westward settlement. Instead, its purpose was to facilitate passage of settlers and their livestock eastward through the Cascades to the pastureland of Central Oregon.
Once on the PCT, continue south through the burn-scarred forest. The next milestone is a climbers trail on the left that will depart the PCT headed west. Distance will vary depending on the starting location, but this point is approximately 1.25 to 1.5 miles beyond where the trail from Big Lake joins the PCT. A cairn marks the trail, but it may be covered by snow depending on season. If you reach Coldwater Spring you have passed the climbers trail turn. Do not expect a well-traveled skin track to be present. Even in late summer with no snow, the climbers trail is difficult to distinguish at times.
From this point, the route of travel becomes much more of a choose-your-own-adventure through the forest. The goal is to ultimately gain the northern ridge ascending Mount Washington. Once on the ridge, skin travel will likely become difficult and give way to hiking. Crampons may not be required, but carrying them is recommended depending on season. Along the north ridge a multitude of ski descents are available into the northwest bowl.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.