By Michael Lanza
Within minutes of starting our hike north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Harts Pass in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, one truth quickly crystallizes: This northernmost section of the PCT stays true to its middle name—Crest. A well-maintained footpath, it traces a long ridgeline for miles, gently rising and dipping with the contours of the land but never falling off the mountains. Luckily for us, the PCT’s excellent condition probably saves us from injuring ourselves tripping and falling as we keep panning our eyes over classic North Cascades panoramas of endless, jagged ridges stretching to far horizons.
Having arrived here in the first week of September—a glorious time to walk through the Cascade Range—by our first afternoon, we lose count of the number of PCT thru-hikers we pass (or rather: who pass us). Easy to spot for their ultralight packs, blazing pace, and outward appearance of living estranged from civilization for a very long time, they’re blasting through the final miles of a months-long journey from Mexico to Canada. After tagging the border, they must backtrack more than 30 “bonus” miles to the trailhead and road at Harts Pass and hitch a ride to the nearest town—where they’ll undoubtedly draw more than the average person’s joy from a long, hot shower, perhaps an entire pizza or similar caloric feast, and a bed.
Nearly all are friendly—though, to a person, they all make clear they are done with the trail and ready to be off it. As we all filter water from the one flowing creek we’ll see along roughly 10 miles of the PCT this entire day, one fit, young thru-hiking couple says to us, laughingly repeating words they have obviously recited together many times already: “Just say ‘no’ to thru-hiking.”
My wife, Penny, our friend Jeff Wilhelm, and I are on a much shorter and very different journey: a five-day, 44.3-mile loop from Harts Pass, following the PCT on a long, high walk north for about 20 miles, then looping back to Harts Pass via much less-traveled trails that descend into a river valley and ascend a long, rugged ridge on an often-steep trail with taxing ups and downs.
Despite the number of thru-hikers we will run into on our first two days out here, it never feels too busy: For most of our time walking the PCT, we’re quite alone, even in what must be one of this section’s busiest weeks of the year. Once we turn off the PCT, our route will gift us with a sampling of the remoteness and solitude we expect in the Pasayten—plus an almost continuous stream of those classic North Cascades vistas.
And rather than testing our resolve to finish this hike—the apparent challenge facing several thru-hikers we meet—these five days will only whet our appetites to explore more of the Pasayten Wilderness.
North of Harts Pass, the PCT seesaws through named mountain passes that seem to materialize every few miles—four of them, Buffalo, Windy, Foggy, and Jim on our first day—without big climbs and descents. Between the passes, we walk through quiet forest and cross sprawling meadows that have passed their wildflower peak. Scudding clouds dash across the sky faster than the thru-hikers on the ground.
Not surprisingly on a high, ridgeline trail, we find little water. After filling every bladder, bottle, and water bag we’re carrying at the one creek we find today, I get ahead of Penny and Jeff and reach a handful of established, trailside campsites protected in forest.
Nearby, one backpacker stands alone outside his tent. Not wanting to pass up this spot, I say to him, “We’re going to stay here, hope you don’t mind.” He waves off my concern about imposing on his solitude, giving me a thumbs-up. As dusk looms, a thru-hiker rolls in and asks whether there’s space available. We point to a spot 20 feet away and he grabs it. By nightfall, at least three more solo thru-hikers stop to camp, all of them returning from the Canadian border. All will be gone by the time the three of us crawl from our tents early in the morning.
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The Pacific Crest Trail to Rock Pass
We begin our second day with a few hours of hiking mostly through quiet forest on a 1,000-foot descent to Holman Pass, the air cool enough that we start the day wearing jackets. Crossing the open terrain of an old burn, we can see surrounding peaks whose names we don’t know without looking at a map—and even then, we don’t recognize any of the names. Even to many avid backpackers, the Pasayten’s vast wilderness remains mostly anonymous, a mystery.
After eating lunch in the pass—where a few more PCT thru-hikers cruise through on their way to or returning from the border; we’ll see several of them today, but fewer than yesterday—we start the uphill hike to Rock Pass. The PCT slowly emerges from forest to broad meadows rolling toward grassy mountainsides, cliffs, and rocky, abrupt summits. The trail rises onto the south face of Holman Peak’s west ridge, contouring above treeline, where we gaze across the compact valley draining Canyon Creek to the cliffs and jagged crown of 7,830-foot Skull Mountain and south to a sea of blue waves of mountains.
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Near 6,500-foot Rock Pass, a bit over eight miles from our first camp, we find a small meadow out of sight of the trail with space for our two tents—and tonight, no one else around. Then Jeff and I carry all of our bladders, bottles, and water bags to find a reportedly reliable spring just south of Woody Pass—more than a mile-and-a-half from our camp. It turns out to be harder to find than we expect.
After searching for about an hour, inspecting every campsite along the PCT before Woody Pass (all of them, I notice, unoccupied in late afternoon) and finding no water, I look down into a meadow basin well off the trail and tell Jeff, “I think I can see small pools down there.” Walking down to check, I find several pools, so Jeff joins me and we filter 10 liters of water to carry back—strolling into camp three hours after we departed on our water run.
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Rock Creek Trail
After a night of seeing the Milky Way ablaze across the dark sky, we awaken to another bluebird day, milder than yesterday morning. After packing up camp, Jeff and I make a 45-minute, up-and-down hike 300 vertical feet and nearly a half-mile up onto a shoulder of Holman Peak, east of Rock Pass, where we get a broader panorama of mountains reaching in every direction and see numerous distant, spiky peaks in North Cascades National Park to the south.
Descending the north side of Rock Pass—a magnificent stretch of the PCT—the three of us hike to the junction with Rock Creek Trail 473 below Woody Pass. No sign marks it and the trail could easily be mistaken for a side path to a campsite; but our GPS apps confirm our location.
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The upper mile or so of the Rock Creek Trail gives us no warning of its horrible condition farther ahead—but we encounter the first blowdowns before too long.
At first, they’re sporadic. By the time we start running into multiple piles of trees down atop and across one another, we’ve gone far enough to not consider turning back. But the frequency of blowdowns keeps increasing, reaching a point where it feels like a relief when we get to walk at least a hundred feet between episodes of clambering over more downed trees across the trail. (The next day, we will meet a trail worker who tells us Trail 473 had been cleared of blowdowns the summer before and it gets maintained every other year. Our timing was simply unlucky.)
Penny trips at one point and badly twists her ankle. Fortunately, it’s a minute from a cold creek, where she sits and soaks the swelling sprain for as long as she can bear the frigid water and it undoubtedly helps minimize the swelling. She announces that she can get her boot back on and hike; and there’s little choice, with no obvious place to camp in the rugged terrain along this trail. So we push on.
Over the five or six hours we’re on the seven-mile-long Rock Creek Trail, we must bushwhack around, climb over, or crawl under trees—repeatedly taking off our backpacks to pass them over or under a downed tree—well over 50 times to get around probably 100 or more trees. It’s a misery, a purgatory. By the time we reach the trail’s bottom end, we’re wasted. We stop at the first possible campsite we come across, a short walk from the West Fork Pasayten River.
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We awaken on our fourth morning to the sound of raindrops drumming softly on the tent, the shower lasting a couple of hours, with the rain stopping as we start hiking. Penny’s right ankle has turned purple overnight and developed a lump the size of a kiwi; but she reports that she can hike on it.
Not far up Buckskin Ridge Trail 498, we meet three backpackers coming down. One says they camped at Buckskin Lake the night before. He also reveals cryptically that the previous day’s hike—what awaits us today—“was a workout.” That will prove to be a theatrical understatement. As if to convince us that yesterday wasn’t so hard, today morphs into the trip’s most strenuous day of hiking as we backpack most of Buckskin Ridge, some 11 miles with nearly one-third of the entire trip’s vertical gain and loss packed into one day—more of it uphill than down.
There’s one other fact about that short conversation with those three backpackers that stands out, though it won’t become known to us until much later: They’re the last people we’ll see out here until the last couple of hours of our trip—and we’ll end up having had three of our four campsites entirely to ourselves, with no other parties within sight or earshot. (But that makes sense to me because this hike and the Pasayten itself check off at least half of the tips in my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”)
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We make a 2,000-foot climb spread out over nearly six miles to a very windy Buckskin Lake, in a forested bowl below cliffs and green mountainsides. We fill up on water and continue uphill to a pass at 7,300 feet an d another panorama of mountains stretching as far as we can see in every direction. Under gray clouds, harassed by a cold wind, we pause for a quick bite and move on.
See all stories about backpacking in the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
Gear Tips Trekking poles are indispensable for this route’s steep descents and ascents. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.” Many backpackers will find the backpacking boots or shoes they normally use will be fine on most Pasayten Wilderness trails; see all of my reviews of hiking shoes and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”
The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, tent, down jacket, sleeping bag, air mattress, headlamp, and water bag I used on this trip.
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“Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist”
“The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
“The Best Ultralight Packs”
“The 9 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents”
“24 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories”
“The Best Base Layers, Shorts and Socks for Hiking, Running, and Training”
“The 10 Best Down Jackets”
Find the best gear, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews at my Gear Reviews page.
See all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside, including these:
“How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking”
“8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking”
“5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking”
“7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry”