Boulder River Wilderness, Washington

Majestic peaks rise in all directions in Washington's Boulder River Wilderness -- elegant, jagged, draped in snow.
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Majestic peaks rise in all directions in Washington's Boulder River Wilderness -- elegant, jagged, draped in snow.

Little-Known Fact: Boulder River Wilderness contains the only virgin forest in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie.

On this blustery autumn afternoon, I find myself riveted to a ladder, surrounded by a landscape of extraordinary beauty and trying to look anywhere but down. Just one more ladder to go.

Finally I duck inside the cabin to escape the wind, which is noticeably stronger at the top. Majestic peaks rise in all directions ~ elegant, jagged, and draped in snow. To the west, across Puget Sound, the Olympics are silhouetted in a hazy, blue profile.

Three narrow spires shape the summit of Three Fingers, forming a landmark recognizable throughout the Cascade Mountains. Atop the southernmost spire (elev. 6,854 feet) is a Forest Service lookout cabin that seemingly defies gravity on its precarious perch of rock, snow, and ice. The cabin crowns the highest point in Washington's Boulder River Wilderness and is accessible, to those so inclined, by a series of dizzying ladders.

With only 25 miles of trails, the Boulder River Wilderness may seem small by western standards, but it offers remarkably diverse terrain. This is one place in the Cascades where you can travel above a glacier without needing technical climbing skills or ropes. And although the trek to the lookout is relatively strenuous ~ depending on the snow level ~ you get to hike from dense forest to alpine meadow, and then above timberline to glacial terrain, all in a single day.

My companion and I linger in the cabin, soaking up the panoramic view and thinking that it would be grand to spend the night here. But we're already committed to camping at Goat Flats some 2,000 feet below, and getting down isn't going to be easy in the dark. So we start our descent, negotiating the ladders slowly. Below, the full length of the glacier unfolds in a labyrinth of crevasses. We glissade down the only remaining summer snowfield, then scramble to the path that winds up and down the ridge.

With the trickiest part of the descent behind us, we reach Tin Can Gap (elev. 6,400 feet) just before sunset. From this scenic opening in the rock above the glacier, we catch the last clear view of Three Fingers and the cabin perched on its summit. Hikers who want a less-strenuous taste of the views need go only as far as Tin Can Gap.

We pick up the trail that switchbacks down a steep, rocky basin and winds along the ridge to the classic alpine meadowlands of Goat Flats, still covered with heather and flaming blueberry bushes. Crisscrossed by a network of volunteer trails made by berry hunters, the flats can be a popular place in summer. Because of the overuse, rangers ask that you stay on existing trails and campsites.

But tonight we're lucky. With the last traces of light closing in behind the Olympics, we arrive at our solitary campsite. We have this wonderful wilderness and a full moon all to ourselves.

Contact Information:

Darrington Ranger Station

1405 Emmens Street

Darrington, WA 98241

360/436-1155

Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Hotline: 800/627-0062

Office Hours: Monday - Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

Darrington Chamber of Commerce

Box 351

Darrington, WA 98241

360/436-2127

The Boulder River Wilderness is located within Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the western side, just south of Darrington and east of Granite Falls.

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Getting There:

From Seattle, take I-5 north to the Steven's Pass exit (Hwy. 2). Following the signs to Granite Falls, head north on Hwy. 9 and east on 92 to Granite Falls. Pick up the Mountain Loop Hwy. At 6.5 miles east of Granite Falls, go left on FS No. 41 (marked Tupso Pass), then go another 18 miles to the trailhead.

Seasonal Information:

The route to Three Fingers lookout is negotiable mid-July through October, when temperatures are a mild 70 to 90 degrees.

Winter ascents to the lookout are possible, but climbers should be roped and prepared for adverse weather conditions. Check at the Darrington Ranger Station for conditions.

Spring brings plenty of rainy days.

Wildlife:

Deer and many species of birds inhabit the area.

Insects:

Contact the Darrington Ranger Station for insect precautions.

Plant Life:

Although the wilderness is fairly green with ferns and many trees, visitors may also find heather, blueberry bushes, and wildflowers.

Facilities:

  • There are no designated campsites within the wilderness.
  • The town of Darrington offers lodging at the Stage Coach Inn and numerous bed-and-breakfast locations. Locals recommend dining in Darrington at Backwoods Cafe and Michelle's Deli.

Trail Descriptions:

Boulder River Trail #734

Located off road #2010, this trail offers a pleasant hike along the Boulder River to a waterfall after one mile. The trail continues on for 4 miles ending at a ford crossing the river. This scenic trail is thick with magnificent stands of virgin timber.

Canyon Lake Trail #720

Located off road #4111, this short 0.1 mile hike leads to a popular five-acre lake.

Deer Creek-Kelcema Lake Trail #717 & #718

Located off road #2060 from the Darrington Side or from road #4052 on the Verlot side, this trail is a short 0.6 mile hike and easily provides access for fisherman. The 23-acre lake is set in a subalpine setting and the views are spectacular.

Eight Mile Trail # 654B

Located off Clear Creek Road #2060, this trail climbs steeply up to Squire Creek pass. Cascading waterfalls from the numerous streams located along the way make for an enjoyable hike. The trail is 2.5 miles long and connects with the Squire Creek Trail at the pass.

Goat Flat-Saddle Lake Three Fingers Trail #641

Located off road #41, this trail passes four-acre Saddle Lake at 2.5 miles. Follow the trail 2.3 more miles and you'll pass a meadowy area called Goat Flat, which can often be very crowed on weekends.

The trail continues and reaches Tin Pan Gap after 6.2 miles. It is a technical climb requiring the use of equipment and climbing expertise to climb Three Fingers.

Martin Creek Trail #713

Located east on the Mt. Loop Hwy, this 3.3 mile hike climbs steeply and than follows an old mine road which once served the Martin Creek Mine, until the trail eventually disappears in the brush and the route becomes a matter of a cross-country travel.

Meadow Mountain Trail #715

Located off Tupso Pass road #41, this 5.8 mile hike leads to Saddle Lake and access to Goat Flats-Three Fingers Trail. This is an alternate route accessing trail #641 and is not always maintained.

Niederprum Trail (Whitehorse) #653

Located off Mine road from Hwy 530, this 1.4 mile trail is used primarily by climbers seeking the summit of Whitehorse Mountain. Only experienced mountaineers should venture beyond the trail end.

Squire Creek Trail #654

Located off road #2040, this trail begins climbing gradually through grand timber and boulder fields. The trail is 3.7 miles in length ending at the pass. For views to the south, climb up to the ridge and to the right, passing small tarns along the way.

Parking:

Parking is available at Barlow Pass in the northeast corner of Darrington Ranger District.

Permits:

No permits are required for camping.

Policies:

  • There is no camping in revegetation areas
  • Motorized and mechanized equipment is prohibited (including bicycles and hang gliders)

Hazards:

The route to the lookout does not cross the glacier or require roped travel, but hikers should have route-finding experience. An ice ax is recommended above Tin Can Gap. Several trails result in climbs that require expertise and/or equipment.

Leave No Trace:

Groups are limited to 12 people.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

USGS 7.5-minute topos "Whitehorse" and "Meadow Mountain." Maps are also available at the Darrington Ranger Station.

Other Trip Options:

Adjoining are Glacier Peak Wilderness (576,865 acres and more active glaciers than anywhere else in the lower 48) and Henry M. Jackson Wilderness (103,591 acres; 49 miles of trails).

Nature lovers may want to come out of the wilderness for the annual Wildflower Festival in June, held at Darrington High School and sponsored by the Forest Service.

You may want to check out the Timberbowl Rodeo in June, and the Bluegrass Festival and National Archery Tournament in July.