Adventure Guide: Glacier Peak Wilderness

Like crowded campsites and easy trails? Then by all means avoid this deafeningly quiet expanse of rugged, wildlife-rich mountains and forest in Washington's North Cascades.
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Like crowded campsites and easy trails? Then by all means avoid this deafeningly quiet expanse of rugged, wildlife-rich mountains and forest in Washington's North Cascades.

How do you hide a 10,000-foot, snowcapped volcano? There's really only one way: Tuck it away inside a mountain redoubt so vast and rugged you'll have to hike hours just to see the peak. Unlike Rainier and Hood, solitary massifs visible from urban areas, Glacier Peak lies deep within Washington's North Cascades. Its namesake 570,573-acre wilderness area was special enough that lawmakers set it aside in 1964 as part of the Wilderness Act's inaugural class; the land is a vast sanctuary of deep, heavily forested valleys and sawtoothed mountains that hold about half of the Lower 48's glacial ice. And despite 450 miles of trails--plus an abundance of four-star cross-country routes--this wilderness remains utterly wild. Mountain goats, cougars, elk, and black bears are commonly seen, and the area is home to some of the Northwest's few remaining grizzlies. In the following pages, we'll present three ways to see Glacier Peak, each GPS-scouted and mapped so you can focus on your photography, not navigation.

Glacier Peak Sampler

Get climbers'-eye views on this adventurous ramble to the peak's base--or summit.

This foray onto Glacier Peak's southern flanks has something for everyone. Game for some off-trail hiking? Trek cross-country to a stunning camp beside an alpine tarn with in-your-face views of the mountain. Got good routefinding, scrambling, and snow-travel skills? Tack on 9,755-foot Disappointment Peak. Want to pad your mountaineering resume? Stay another day to tag Glacier's 10,541-foot crown on a route that's grueling--10,000 feet of vertical gain, as much as Rainier--but technically easy.

To begin this 24.7-mile lollipop loop, follow North Fork Sauk Trail 649 along its namesake river--rarely visible through dense Douglas fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock--for 5.4 miles to decrepit Mackinaw Shelter. (There are tent sites, too.) Then climb 3,000 feet in less than 3 miles to alpine slopes that go kaleidoscopic with aster, paintbrush, and lupine in July.

As you approach the Pacific Crest Trail, views open up to Pilot Ridge (south) and Sloan Peak's glacier and sharp summit (west). Continue to 5,904-foot White Pass, 9.4 miles from the trailhead (campsites nearby). Just north of the pass, take an unmarked user trail 1.5 miles across grassy slopes east of White Mountain. Head for the saddle just above Foam Creek, then descend less than a mile to a nice campsite beside an unmapped tarn (10U 0639125E 5323433N). Or continue northeast to a rocky saddle with ponds, campsites, and photo-contest views of Glacier Peak. To return to your car from the unmapped tarn, backtrack south for .3 mile, then head 3 miles west across the White Chuck River basin to Trail 2000 below Red Pass, and follow it 1.7 miles to Trail 649.

Summit Option: From the tarn, it's roughly 11 miles round-trip and 3,800 feet to the top, via Glacier Gap on the mountain's long south ridge, where the White Chuck and Suiattle Glaciers meet. (Note: The White Chuck Glacier is now much smaller than maps show.) You'll need an ice axe, crampons, and experience climbing class IV talus to reach Disappointment Peak's bird's-eye view of Glacier Peak, and all but expert parties will want a rope to climb or descend Cool Glacier.

The Way: From Darrington, follow the Mountain Loop Hwy. (FR 20) about 16 miles, then turn left onto FR 49. Continue about 4 miles to trailhead 649 at Sloan Creek Campground.

Buck Creek Pass

Explore pristine alpine terrain on dayhikes from a high, scenic basecamp.

Backpackers looking for phenomenal views without the challenge of cross-country navigation should choose this hike. It's the easiest multiday route described here. The 14-mile out-and-back leads to a remote camp with side-hike options of varying difficulty. To reach Buck Creek Pass, you'll follow Buck Creek Trail #1513, ascending 3,100 feet over nearly 10 miles through forest with steadily improving views of the cliffs of Buck Mountain and other peaks across the lush valley. Watch your step at the 5,932-foot pass: You'll round a bend in the trail to a view of Glacier Peak so stunning you may trip over your own feet.

Pitch your tent in one of the several wooded campsites at the pass, then choose the next day's adventure. Flower Dome is an easy 2 miles round-trip north; its summit meadows offer a great perch for gawking at Glacier Peak across the deep, broad slash of the Suiattle River valley. Taller Helmet Butte is a steep, strenuous off-trail scramble, but its crown presents a 360-degree sweep that includes Fortress and Clark Mountains, a sea of peaks to the north, and, of course, the volcano.

The sweetest side hike off Buck Pass follows an unmarked but excellent trail 4 miles south to High Pass. Pick up the trail at the south end of Buck Pass's designated campsites. It switchbacks up and around Liberty Cap, then follows an open ridge, with Buck Creek below to the east and Glacier Peak to the west. Just before High Pass, you can descend a broad, gentle ridge, with some scrambling down granite ledges, to Triad Lake (not named on some maps), a blue beauty tucked into an alpine basin below a small glacier.

The Way: From US 2 at Coles Corner (between Leavenworth and Stevens Pass), turn north onto Lake Wenatchee Rd. (WA 207). Cross the Wenatchee River Bridge and continue straight onto Chiwawa River Loop Rd. In 1.4 miles, turn left onto Chiwawa Loop Rd. and follow it about 23 miles to its end at the Buck Creek trailhead.

Entiat Mountains/Upper Ice Lake

Take this rugged, mostly cross-country hike only if you like your summits and scenery served up with a big helping of solitude.

Hankering for real wilderness challenge? It's just 14 miles long, but this loop in the more arid Entiat Mountains is, step for step, the stiffest outing described on these pages, with difficult routefinding, exposed scrambling, and 2,000 vertical feet of bushwhacking. Which means: There's no one out here. If you like the sound of that, you'll love the unimpeded views of Glacier Peak and its sprawling wilderness, plus the opportunity to bag one of the highest non-volcanic Cascades summits, 9,082-foot Mt. Maude. The camping beside cliff-ringed Upper Ice Lake, which sits in one of the prettiest cirques in these mountains, is unforgettable, too.

Start by hiking 3.2 miles up Phelps Creek Trail 1511. At 4,200 feet, on Leroy Creek's south bank, turn northeast off-trail. Look for a faint but continuous user path; finding it makes this steep bushwhack much easier. Emerging from the trees at about 6,000 feet, angle up and right and look for an unmapped yet surprisingly clear trail--it's even marked by cairns--that traverses the talus southward at around 6,400 feet. A mile farther, at a small basin with campsites, climb straight up to the 7,300-foot saddle west of Point 8033. From there, swing north to another pass, this one about 300 feet higher, then descend to Upper Ice Lake. Pitch camp and hike Maude's south ridge for summit views that stretch as far as the distinctively fractured skyline of North Cascades National Park.

The next day, regain the 7,300-foot saddle and contour south across talus and scree. At 1.5 miles, aim for a gully (not as steep as it looks) splitting the cliffs above a small basin of enormous boulders. A rough, unmapped trail continues south, traversing a narrow, exposed ridge, to Rock Creek Trail 1509. Climb a few minutes on 1509 to a pass, where a good user trail leads (in 15 minutes) to Carne Mountain's 7,085-foot summit and wraparound views. Descend 3.5 miles on Carne Mountain Trail 1508 to the trailhead.

The Way: Follow the Buck Creek Pass directions to Chiwawa River Rd.; travel 22.5 miles and turn right onto Phelps Creek Rd. (FR 6211). The trailhead is at the end of the road.

Trip Planner

Getting Around

All three trailheads are 100 to 150 miles from Sea-Tac International Airport. Get supplies near Seattle, or stock up in Leavenworth. There are numerous campgrounds at or near trailheads. Some trails and major access roads were heavily damaged in October 2003 floods and remain impassable, including a stretch of the PCT and the White Chuck and Suiattle River Roads (no hikes described here are affected); see the Glacier Peak Wilderness Web site (below) for details.

Season

High passes and trails are usually snow-covered until mid-July. Good hiking conditions usually extend through September and sometimes into October.

Cautions

Creeks and rivers may be impossible to ford until mid- or late summer; inquire before you set off. Off-trail routes above treeline may be snow-covered well into summer and, depending on slope angle, may require an ice axe. Hang or store food properly to protect it from bears and other animals.

Don't Miss

The breads, cookies, and pecan caramel bars at Home Fires Bakery, off Icicle Road in Leavenworth, are fitting post-hike rewards.

Regulations

A parking pass is required at most trailheads; there are various pass options (see Web site). Backcountry permits are not required.

Maps

Get the following Green Trails maps, which show many unmaintained paths (206-546-6277; www.greentrails.com):

Glacier Peak Sampler: Sloan Peak 111 and Glacier Peak 112

Buck Creek Pass and Entiat Mountains: Holden 113

Guides

100 Hikes in Washington's Glacier Peak Region, by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning ($16.95). 75 Scrambles in Washington, by Peggy Goldman ($18.95).

Contact

Glacier Peak Wilderness: www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/recreation/special/wilderness/glacier_peak.shtml. For hikes on the west side of the wilderness area, contact Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest: (360) 436-1155; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs. For east-side hikes: Wenatchee National Forest (509) 664-9200; www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee.