Hiking Glacier Peak Wilderness

The Loop Makes for Great Backpacking
Colors of the North Cascades
Colors of the North Cascades
Want to see part of this loop, but don't have time to backpack?

It's possible to dayhike up the North Fork Sauk River to Red Pass (20.0 miles round trip) or up the White Chuck River to Lake Byrne (15.4 miles round trip, Trip 89), but these are marathons that will severely test your mettle. If you have only one day and are bursting with energy and desire, go for it. You'll see the scenery. You might even attain a greater sense of physical accomplishment. What you'll miss is ephemeral: a sense of intimacy with the land, the feeling of having lived there. Visitors rarely get to know a place as well as residents. Dayhikers are visitors. Backpackers are temporary residents.

We recommend starting the loop by hiking up the North Fork, as described here, because you can ease into it this way, rather than immediately grinding straight up to Round Lake and flinging yourself at the mercy of Lost Creek Ridge.

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St. Peter's is not Rome. Disneyworld is not Florida. Glacier Peak is not Glacier Peak Wilderness. Landmarks often deceive. Overshadowed by a dominating mountain, the scenery in this immense wilderness is more marvelously varied than you might think. That's why this is a premier backpack trip. Your enjoyment won't depend on seeing Glacier Peak. It's only one of many powerful sights.

And this loop is only one of several you can choose from in the area. Our favorite covers 46 miles in four to seven days, linking Pilot Ridge, Blue Lake, Dishpan Gap, Indian Pass, White Pass, 1: Red Pass, White Chuck River, Kennedy Hot Springs, Lake By and Lost Creek Ridge. For a shorter, three- to five-day version, start by hiking up the North Fork Sauk River, then continue the loop from Red Pass north. That's the trip described here. If you hiking the longer loop, also read Trip 91.

As you set out, you'll be greeted by nobility: giant cedars and gargantuan Douglas firs. The trees are so tall it's hard to look at them while carrying a big pack. For a shoulder-season dayhike, keep in mind this section along the North Fork, between the trailhead and McKinaw Shelter. It passes through an exceptionally grand ancient forest.

Above, on the Pacific Crest Trail, is a 3.5-mile stretch between Lower White Pass and Red Pass that's one of the supreme, sustained-high-elevation hikes in the North Cascades. The other, is on Miners Ridge, east of Image Lake (Trip 94).

Then there's the view from Red Pass. Wow! Make sure you hit it in good weather, or you'll miss one of the most impactful scenes in the United States: the alpine vastness of the White Chuck, River's headwaters valley, with the White Chuck Glacier beyond. After surveying this ethereal valley, you get to walk through it. The tussocky meadows, rock gardens, lyrical, omnipresent meltwater streams, and particularly the elegant, swooping walls are more typical of the Canadian Rockies than the gnarly North Cascades.

Once you're below the upper basin, you could happily walk to Kennedy Hot Springs during a rainstorm an occurrence so common here you should expect it. The trail descends through prelapsarian forest, beside the raging White Chuck River whose lusty roar resounds. Try to include a side trip up to the White Chuck Glacier for a rock-and-ice extravaganza.

Kennedy Hot Springs is the Grand Central Station of Glacier Peak Wilderness. The trails radiating from it lead to wilder, lonelier environs: Red Pass, Kennedy Ridge, Fire Creek Pass, and Lost Creek Ridge. In the vicinity of the springs and on the slopes above, you'll find berries galore.

If possible, allow a full day for the 8.6-mile side trip from Kennedy Hot Springs to Kennedy Ridge, where you'll see the Kennedy and Scimitar glaciers. But if all you have time for is the first 2.0 miles, even that's worthwhile. The ancient forest decorated with sphagnum moss is enchanting. Half a mile before joining the PCT, the trail surprises you by suddenly dancing along a knife-edge ridge.

Fire Creek Pass is another excellent side trip from Kennedy Hot Springs. Fit, determined hikers can make the 19.0-mile round trip in a day if you're here when the days are long, and you start close to sunrise. But its worth allowing two extra days. Less ambitious hikers can camp at Glacier Creek, 4.3 miles up, then dayhike a 10.4-mile round trip to the pass. Or hike all the way the pass on day one, camp on the other side at Mica Lake, then hike back over and down on day two. You might also, consider arranging a shuttle, so you can hike over Fire Creek trail, down past Mica Lake, and exit via the Milk Creek trail. But don't that if it means missing Lake Byrne and Lost Creek Ridge.

Lake Byrne, atop the eastern end of Lost Creek Ridge, is as pretty as any place in the North Cascades. Ideally, you should backpack the whole ridge, but only if you're strong and experienced. The route is sketchy in spots, rough in others, and always works you hard. It straps you in and thrashes you around like a bucking bronco. But the challenge can be enjoyable, the continuous views exhilarating, the relative isolation rejuvenating.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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