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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.

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.

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