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Boulder River Wilderness, Washington

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.

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