Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

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Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by finkmartin » September 20th, 2022, 8:35 pm

Buck Creek Trail #1513; Buck Creek Pass Trail #789; Miner's Ridge Trail #785; PCT Section K; Indian Creek Trail #1502; White River Trail #1507; Boulder Pass Trail #1562; Little Giant Trail #1518.

Glacier Peak may be a little far afield for this forum, but I know it has been covered before, so here's a recent account. I came across this hike when looking for alternatives after failing to get a Wonderland Trail permit for Mt. Rainier. The Glacier Peak loop is nearly identical in mileage, elevation changes and terrain to the Wonderland Trail, but without the crowds and regulations (although also without opportunities to cache food). I didn't even know about Glacier Peak before this year. It is the easily overlooked fifth major Cascade peak in Washington. Unlike St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, and Baker, it doesn't stand out from a distance because it is surrounded by the full glory of the north Cascades and literally dozens of other lesser but still spectacular mountains.

I hiked almost exactly the loop described by Douglas Lorain and Mark Wetherington in Backpacking Washington. I originally planned a slightly shorter loop that would have taken me clockwise from the White River Trailhead, returning over High Pass and down the upper Napeequa Valley. Unfortunately, the White River Trailhead has been closed for several weeks due to the Wenatchee Fire. The trails are open, but the trailhead is closed because it is at the end of the road that is the primary access for fire crews to the fire area. So, I shifted to a clockwise loop starting at the Little Giant Trailhead on Chiwawa River Road. This dirt road is rough but perfectly passable by passenger cars when dry. Some spots look like they could get challenging when wet.

Day One

Leaving my car at Little Giant Trailhead, I walked up the road about four miles to the Trinity Trailhead, and headed up the Buck Creek Trail. This trail ascends from 2800 feet to just shy of 6000 over the course of about 10 miles. The lower miles are gentle as you follow the Chiwawa River. About two miles up, the Buck Creek Trail splits off to the left, with a good campsite at the junction (the Chiwawa River Trail continues to the right). The bridge is out at the Chiwawa River crossing shortly after. There is a log about 50 feet upstream, or you can shimmy down the remaining support beam of the former bridge, or probably wade or rock-hop at the stock ford just downstream. I opted for the upstream log, which could have been wider and more stable but was passable.


The trail then ascends over several increasingly steep miles to Buck Creek Pass, but it is well-designed with switchbacks and never overly burdensome. There are a few brushy crossings of avalanche tracks and occasional blowdown, but generally the trail is excellent.

The smoke and haze that were present in the lowlands when I started disappeared above about 5000 feet. The pass area is beautiful, even with slightly hazy views. Marmots and ptarmigan abound near the pass. I did not hike down to the campsites at the pass, which are below the trail, but they look lovely. I later had another hiker tell me that they had heard from someone else that the water source at the pass was no longer reliable, but I can't say yes or no. I did encounter several other parties coming downhill who were completing the Spider Gap loop, which starts and ends at the Trinity Trailhead. If I lived closer, that loop would definitely be on my list.


After the pass, I continued downhill for another mile or so, and about 1000 feet, to Small Creek (its actual name, apparently, not just a description) where I camped for the night. There is room for several tents here, and the camp is sheltered with immediate access to good water.

Around 7:00 pm, as it was getting dark, a trail runner passed through carrying a light daypack/hydration pack. He did not stop to talk. I assume he was doing a one-day circuit of the Spider Gap Loop and heading back to the Trinity Trailhead in the dark, 15 miles away, more power to him.

Day Two

My second day began with a 1000 foot climb from Small Creek to Middle Ridge. There is a large but dry campsite at the trail crossing of Middle Ridge, where I found a group of three who were on the Spider Gap Loop. The trail then drops 1500 feet across avalanche chutes and along a creek before intersecting with the PCT. A bear was foraging high above the trail in the largest of the avalanche paths. The trail throughout this section is in good condition.

I continued to pass Spider Gap Loop hikers until switching to the northbound PCT, where I began to be passed by northbound thru-hikers zipping along as if we weren't on any kind of upgrade. Their packs all seemed absurdly small. I thought I had a pretty good ultralight outfit, but clearly I still have much to learn. The PCT actually had more blowdown than the Buck Creek Pass trails, as well as a tangle of trees from a substantial avalanche that has not yet been cleared, resulting in an awkward work-around.

After gaining about 1000 feet, I left the PCT to head west on the Miner's Ridge Trail, which follows a contour along Miner's Ridge until gaining another 500 feet on good switchbacks to reach the level of Image Lake. The trail gives occasional glimpses of Glacier Peak to the south and proceeds across the high, open meadows before reaching the lake.

The Image Lake basin is beautiful but not exceptional. I did not take the high loop around the northern side of the lake, from which a terrific photo of Glacier Peak in the background and Image Lake in the foreground is supposed to be possible. Glacier Peak would not have been clear in the haze, and I could see a bear foraging high on the far side of the lake near where the trail would have passed. I still enjoyed a half-hour break at the lakeshore before continuing along the ridge to the fire lookout.

The ridgetop affords wonderful views to both the south (Glacier Peak) and north (North Cascades and Mt. Baker). The fire lookout was closed but still worth the short walk to its base.

At this point, I had a choice: return to Image Lake and camp for a very short day, or dive downhill 5-6 miles to the Siuattle River to camp. I opted to continue. There is one, dry campsite about half way down on the Miner's Ridge Trail if you need to break up the ascent or descent, at the junction with the Miner's Cabin Trail. I kept going and camped at a well-established area on the PCT just south of its junction with the Miner's Ridge Trail, and about 100 yards from good water. By the time it was dark, 10-12 thru-hikers were camped here, also, and every spot that was flat and large enough to hold a tent was taken. This site, as well as a few others along the PCT, also had an outback toilet.

Day Three

From the camp, I followed the PCT downstream along the Siuattle River about two miles to the bridge, and then upstream along the other side about the same amount to Vista Creek. The trail downstream to the bridge was in good condition. Across the bridge, the trail goes through wonderful old-growth forest with enormous cedars, but also a lot of blowdown. The blowdown continues as the trail proceeds up Vista Creek and begins to climb up Vista Ridge. There are good campsites at the Siuattle River crossing, and 3-4 miles up along Vista Creek before the trail heads up the ridge.

The trail then ascends the ridge out of the Vista Creek valley, with continuing blowdown. As it gets higher, the blowdown fades and the trail enters brushy meadows full of flies, bees and other bugs. The trail also becomes quite narrow and brushy. As will be the case at many points going forward, the trail has often become a watercourse and so has wound up being a 1-2 feet deep trench. This is okay, but forces your steps into a narrow path with your feet bent inward at every step. Once you leave Vista Creek, there is little or no available trailside water.

After cresting the ridge, the trail winds around into the basin that contains the headwaters of the East Fork Milk Creek. In the center of the basin, a use trail leads down to 2-3 campsites about 100 feet below the trail, and next to a clear stream. Further along, near the northwestern exit from the basin, another good campsite is adjacent to the trail. I camped at the campsites in the center of the basin below the trail, along with two northbound section hikers doing Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass.


Day Four

It rained overnight, so I had to pack up a wet tent. I pinned the clothes and socks I had rinsed the night before to the outside of my pack, but they would not actually dry for another two days. From the basin where I camped, the trail winds around and then heads steeply downhill to the main course of Milk Creek. This descent may have been the worst on the loop. It switchbacks down through 2000 feet, much of which crosses and recrosses the same avalanche path, overgrown with wet brush, and a trail tread that is either rocky or loose earth sliding down the mountain.

Once down, the path crosses Milk Creek on a good bridge and then begins the long climb to Fire Pass. This trail is in generally good condition with appropriate switchbacks. It's a long climb, but not overwhelming. About 1/3 of the way up, the trail crosses a clear creek with good water. Blowdown is noticeable but not excessive. As you climb higher, there is a good campsite a few hundred feet below Mica Lake. Mica Lake itself is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen: a reflecting pool so perfect that I was confused and bewildered at first as to where water ended and land began.


From Mica Lake, the trail climbs steeply over another 800 feet to go over Fire Pass, and then descends on good switchbacks to good water access at Fire Creek. Another couple of up-and-down miles pass through the upper Pumice Creek and Glacier Creek basins. I grabbed a campsite near the trail crossing of Glacier Creek. Just before, the sun broke through at the end of the day and revealed the northwest face of Glacier Peak in all its glory.


Day Five

A fog day. Clouds were low throughout the day. The day started with a 2-3 mile descent to the crossing of Kennedy Creek. This barren, brutal creek valley has no bridge. At present, there is a log that is either slightly underwater or slightly above water, depending on the flow, that seems to be the best crossing. After considering other options, I used the log, which was over-topped by about 4 inches of water at the time. I made it across, and was glad of my waterproof shoes and treking poles.


The trail then winds through a couple of miles of lowlands, crossing Sitkum Creek and generally following the White Chuck River before crossing the White Chuck and heading uphill to Red Pass. There are a variety of campsites in this lowland section. The grade through here is reasonable and moderated by appropriate switchbacks. By 5000 feet I was in dense fog with no more than 100 yard visibility, which continued over the pass and down the other side. There appears to be a good camping area about 1 mile short of the pass. At Red Pass, which should have afforded some of the best views on this loop, I could see nothing, except one marmot about 10 feet off the trail who sat and watched me pass. I think the fog may have made this climb seem shorter, as I couldn't see what was still ahead of me.


By this point, PCT thru-hikers had disappeared. A wildfire had closed Stevens Pass a few days before, and I think I had passed everyone who got through the pass before the closure. The next wave would have to find a workaround. Sadly, the thru-hikers I did encounter already knew that the last 50 miles before the Canadian border were closed due to fire and that they were likely to have to stop short of the end of the trail.

From Red Pass to White Pass, I made my best time of the entire loop. This is a long, moderate downhill section on very good trail. Plus, with the fog, no views distracted from my progress. I passed two 73-year-old women who were hiking the section. At Reflection Pond, I saw a very organized group with pavilion-style tents set up across the pond. Around the corner I encountered two young women collecting huckleberries, who explained that they were part of a Western Washington University first-year orientation outdoors trip. Ripe huckleberries were a fixture of the trip, whether from stunted, six-inch high plants above 6000 feet or lush shrubs in the river valleys.

My good pace allowed my to reach the Indian Creek junction and head about 1/2 mile down the Indian Creek trail before camping for the night at a good campsite on trail left. It's another 1/2 miles down the trail to good water. Note that no water crosses the PCT from Red Pass down to Indian Pass. There is pond water at Reflection Pond and an unnamed pond on the east side of the trail in the same area.

Day 6

I had read many condition reports expressing caution about the Indian Creek Trail, but it remains passable, which is the most important thing. Although the upper section is brushy and poorly maintained, I never lost the trail. For long sections, you cannot see the trail surface or your feet, which is hazardous when there are roots, rocks, animal burrows, or abrupt drops into small watercourses. There is also a very slippery section of old boardwalk across a marshy spot, where I fell hard on my backside but fortunately also onto my pack. Two small streams cross the trail about a mile down from the PCT junction. Beyond that, easy water access is limited to 2-3 spots where the trail comes close enough to Indian Creek to allow access. The valley itself is beautiful, however.


About 2/3 of the way down, the trail is in better shape, with signs of maintenance and greater use. A mile or so above the White River junction, Indian Creek drops sharply down to the White River through about 600 feet. The trail works its way down through a set of switchbacks that are in good condition before crossing Indian Creek on a solid bridge. Two miles of easy walking brings you to the White River bridge and trailhead. The trailhead is currently closed due to the Wenatchee fire, not because the fire is nearby but because the trailhead is at the end of one of the primary access roads to the fire area. I could smell smoke in the White River valley, but would never have known that a major fire was nearby from Indian Creek. Aside from a little bit of extra haze, there was no sign of fire from the upper valley.

Once across the White River bridge, the White River trail heads back upstream for about four miles to a junction with the Boulder Pass Trail. The Boulder Pass Trail then ascends quickly through a series of switchbacks before contouring into the lower Boulder Creek basin. There is a good campsite here, where I stopped for the night. Covering the first third of the Boulder Pass ascent was a great idea rather than leaving it for the next day. This is a dry campsite. The trail doesn't cross Boulder Creek for another .4 miles. The creek is visible below the campsite but only reachable by a difficult scramble that probably wouldn't be consistent with "Leave No Trace" principles.

Day 7

From the lower basin camp, the trail continues to ascend steadily on an often brushy course until reaching the upper basin. The brushy sections have a lot in common with Indian Creek: can't see the trail or your feet, resulting in hazardous rocks, roots and grade changes. Once in the upper basin, however, with several good campsites, the trail returns to well-designed switchbacks that take you the rest of the way over the pass.

From the pass between Boulder Creek and the Napeequa Valley, the trail descends sharply downhill and sheds about 2000 feet in roughly 3 miles. The trail is fair, with some brushy spots and limited blowdown. At the bottom, the Napeequa River bars the way forward. By this time of year, it is low with a gentle current. The ford came up to my hips, about three feet deep, but wasn't worrisome.


Once across the ford and after a brief scramble uphill to the junction, you meet the Napeequa Valley/Little Giant Trail. I followed the Little Giant trail down-valley about 1.5 miles. It was generally easy to follow, though I was uncertain at some points through the river-side meadows. You don't need the trail through the meadows--just go downstream. You do need the trail through the riverside thickets of alder and other brush: look for an opening into the brush and head for it, and you'll probably be in the right place. Some of the brushy parts also include swampy traverses, and some of these are ankle-deep or more. Be careful not to have a shoe sucked off into the muck. Although the Napeequa Valley is supposed to be plagued by flies, apparently that's a problem for earlier in the year, as they weren't an issue for me. I can say from personal experience that there is some stinging nettle hiding in the brushy sections.

After about 1.5 miles, the Little Giant Trail begins to climb out of the valley. It is as bad as described in other trip reports or trail descriptions: a steep, unplanned, overgrown, eroding boot path that gains 2000 feet in less than 2 miles. But, it is passable. I made it up in about two hours, with a pack that was still heavier than I would have liked (as always, I overpacked food). While the trail was lousy, the view of the Napeequa Valley made it all worthwhile.


Once at Little Giant Pass, the path improves, and is clearly recognizable as an official, maintained trail. It's still very steep all the way back to Little Giant Trailhead, losing about 4000 feet in 4.5 miles. Some of that is on good switchbacks, and some is just plunging down the side of the mountain. There are good campsites about a mile down from the pass, with water nearby, a couple of more in the middle, and multiple sites at the bottom near the Chiwawa River.

The last obstacle is a ford of the Chiwawa River. With my car so nearby--about 50 yards beyond the river--I simply strode right through, knowing I had dry shoes waiting. The water was less than knee-deep, but I could feel the pressure of the current. Gratefully, I found my car undisturbed, although now surrounded by other vehicles. I had left it with only one other car at the trailhead a week earlier. I suspect some hunting season started in the interim. Despite the cars, I had not seen anyone since leaving the PCT, except for one hunter in the Napeequa Valley who waved to me in the distance as I started to climb.

Overall, I recommend this loop, especially as an alternative to the Wonderland Trail if you can't get a permit. Weather and smoke limited my views, but it was still pretty spectacular. My Gaia app says I covered 113 miles, with 24,600 feet of elevation gain (and the same of loss, of course). Happy hiking!
Last edited by finkmartin on September 21st, 2022, 7:06 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by retired jerry » September 21st, 2022, 5:49 am

that is an epic trip - 113 miles in 7 days - nicely done

I see you have figured out how to do pictures except I can't see the fifth one

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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by bobcat » September 21st, 2022, 7:07 pm

Excellent, epic backpack. It certainly trumps the Wonderland Trail in terms of obscurity! Thanks for the report!

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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by texasbb » September 21st, 2022, 7:57 pm

What a great trip and very informative report!

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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by Born2BBrad » September 22nd, 2022, 7:59 am

Very detailed and informative TR. I love it!

While the Wonderland Trail has its moments, I wouldn't do it again. Not enough bang for the buck. The Glacier Lake loop might have better overall views, based on your report.
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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by keithcomess » September 22nd, 2022, 4:59 pm

Outstanding report. Really fine photos. Thanks for posting!

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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by sgyoung » September 22nd, 2022, 7:16 pm

This is an exceptional report. The detail is so valuable. I hadn't really considered a loop around Glacier but you've made a good case for moving ahead of the wonderland trail on a to-do list. Being in Seattle, it's at least a little bit less remote for me too.

From the pictures it looks like this route covers some fairly diverse and interesting terrain, which is often the case in North Cascades. My favorite shot is the Day 3 photo (into the Mill Creek basin, I think?).

Thank you taking the time to write this up. What a great trip!

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Re: Glacier Peak Circumnavigation, Sept 9-15, 2022

Post by drm » September 23rd, 2022, 6:34 am

Brought back some memories since I did the Spider Gap loop some years ago.

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