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Hiking up Manastash Ridge with Jack Powell feels like a tour of someone's home. He greets many of the people coming down the trail by name and shares memories of New Year's celebrations spent there with his wife. He urges hikers to look out for rubber boa snakes and picks up the few pieces of trash to be found along the trailside.

He notices small details that are out of place and can identify the parts he built with his own hands.

Powell, a Washington Department of Natural Resources geologist, first began hiking the ridge with Gene Prater in 1965 at the age of 15. Since then, he has logged more than 1,000 trips up and down the ridge.

Today, Powell believes that about 50 people probably claim the climb as a regular workout, with hundreds more making sporadic trips to the top each year. Hiking the ridge is a rite of passage for many in the Kittitas Valley, and people often celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and New Year's Day by venturing up the trail. A loose community of users bonds over its dramatic views and its difficult, steep terrain.

The trails

The trail system's main route, the Westberg Trail, starts to rise into the sky almost immediately after hikers leave the parking lot. Over about two miles from the parking lot to the summit, the trail rises 1,740 feet in elevation.

The trail was named for former wrestling coach and teacher Ray Westberg who frequented the route. Powell describes Westberg as a "Marine type" who used to write magazine short stories and take in kids who couldn't live at home.

"It's just a fun place to come work out," regular Rick Johnson said as he descended the exposed hillside along the Westberg Trail, sweat showing through his shirt.

Johnson lives about a mile from the trailhead and believes he has logged around 4,500 miles in the Manastash trail system.

Johnson has a family connection with the trail. His son built a series of birdhouses along the trail as an Eagle Scout project. The Audubon Society has since recorded GPS coordinates for all of the birdhouses and maintains them as habitat for the mountain bluebird.

Trail conditions

As Powell moves up the ridge, he points out a dry streambed crossing the trail. The ribbon of dirt is one of two streams in the area, both of which Powell says only have water a few weeks a year.

"That doesn't mean there are no erosion problems," Powell said. "This country is not very forgiving as far as erosion goes, but it will forgive in time."

Powell pointed to now-closed Jeep roads in the area as an example. The roads, which have been closed for about 20 years, are now overgrown with brush and grass.

Though both DNR and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife own land in the area, no government agency maintains the trails. The community of regular trail users has largely taken it upon themselves to maintain the area.

Most of the trails in the area, including the Westberg Trail, began as cow or game trails. They often split into two paths, and especially since a large storm in 1998, have suffered from erosion. Last spring's heavy flooding damaged the area as well, Powell said.

Trail users have constructed about 20 waterbars across trails in the area to help stave off erosion problems, and Powell said Ellensburg High School Assistant Principal John Graf sometimes leads groups of students into the area to work on trails.

Powell used to do extensive maintenance on the trail system, but he suffered a knee injury in 2009 and had to take an extended leave from the work. When Powell returned he found signs that other visitors had taken some of the trail maintenance responsibilities upon themselves.

"Thank goodness for the people who took over for me," Powell said.

The view

Toward Halfway Pine, the Westberg Trail's middle point and a turnaround for those seeking a shorter walk, Powell gestures across the Kittitas Valley spread out below and describes otherworldly clouds that often obscure the view at night. Powell remembers one night in college glimpsing red hues running in streaks across the sky before exploding along the northern horizon.

"The whole sky turned blood red with the northern lights which was kind of scary and very memorable," Powell said.

In the wintertime, the glow of moonlight and city lights from Ellensburg below reflect off the snow sometimes creating enough light to eliminate the need for hikers to use a flashlight.

Winter can bring an added level of danger to the trail, though. Snow covering the trail remains packed most of the time, eliminating the need for snowshoes or skies, according to Powell. Treacherous patches of ice frequently cause slips and falls. Many hikers have stories of broken bones and other injuries suffered after slipping on ice in the Manastash Ridge trail system.

Date potential

At the top of the ridge sits a book signed by most visitors, and many people know the summit simply as "the book," according to Carl and Rebekah Birens of Naches who climbed the ridge Tuesday for their second anniversary. The couple had both been on hiking dates on Manastash Ridge before they met each other, and wanted to spend the day there together.

"This is the spot you go for," Carl Birens said of Manastash Ridge's date potential. "If you like hiking, you take them up here."

In addition to the book, visitors at the summit are greeted with panoramic views of the Yakima and Kittitas valleys and Cascade peaks including Mount Stuart and, at times, Mount Rainier. Memorials dot the summit, and a flat, bowl-like rock allows those traveling with dogs or horses to pour a drink for their companions.

"Everytime you do it, you feel like you really did something," Julie Johnson said as she reached the top of the summit Thursday and began chatting with Powell, who was tending to his horse, Sue. "It's the best workout ever."

Julie Johnson's father used to hike with the Prater brothers.

As evening light began to grow dim, Powell descended the ridge along the gentler slope of the Boy Scout Trail. The Boy Scout Trail sees much less use than the Westberg Trail, and it's not uncommon for hikers to go the entire route without seeing another person.

Often times during the evening, deer and elk can be seen and coyotes heard along the trail as hikers descend.

 

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