Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop
By Michael Lanza
I step one foot from the dry rock onto the snow and find it frozen solid on this chilly early morning in late July. Ahead of me, a line of boot tracks, undoubtedly created yesterday afternoon, after sunshine and warm temperatures had softened the snow, leads up to Spider Gap. Below me, this broad, hooked finger of white ice undulates downhill like a frozen water slide—one that runs for hundreds of feet between high walls of stone and ends not in a big, deep pool, but on rocks.
This isn’t a water slide with any commercial potential.
Very slowly and carefully, I shift my weight onto the boot that’s planted on the frozen snow, lift my other foot from dry rock, and step forward into the next, hard-frozen boot print. Then I take another step forward.
I want to reach Spider Gap to assess the wisdom of hiking with my wife and our kids, age 12 and 10, over this pass later this morning. I’ve skirted most of this dangerously firm snow by hiking along the mostly snow-free ridge on one side of it. But cliffs now block that route. Just a few hundred horizontal feet of frozen water slide separate me from the pass. It looks close, anyway.
One cautious step at a time, my feet find minimal purchase in each slick, frozen boot print. Within minutes, I’m dozens of steps from the safety of dry rock, focused on balancing, keenly aware of how much I don’t want to slip and fall. Fortunately, I’ve walked on firmly frozen snow many times; and these boot prints are just deep enough to feel like I won’t slip out of them.
But then, I’ve been wrong before.
Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop
With my family and three other friends—all asleep in our campsite, now some two miles and 1,800 feet in elevation below me, when I left there early this morning—I’ve come to backpack the five-day, 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. Actually not quite a loop—the starting and finishing trailheads are a 15-minute drive apart—it has been on my to-do list for several years. Having backpacked and scrambled peaks in this area, I know we’ll get five-star views of Glacier Peak and the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it. Plus, this route has earned a reputation among Pacific Northwest backpackers for scenery and a somewhat more adventurous flavor than many backpacking trips—which helps keep the crowds down.
The latter character comes mostly from the stretch I’m inching through right now. The route over Spider Gap does not follow any maintained trail. It holds snow all summer, and the descent off the steeper, north side of the gap can be challenging, depending on the firmness of the snow and the skill level of the backpackers.
With relief, I reach dry ground at Spider Gap, at 7,100 feet, and look down the north side. While the first couple hundred feet look moderately steep, the angle eases back quite a bit below that. I can see a way to get the kids down it safely—once the snow has softened up under the July sun, as it should by the time we start up the currently frozen snow on the south side.
Less than an hour later, I stroll back into our campsite to find everyone making breakfast: my wife, Penny, our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, and our friends Larry Gies of Seattle and Jeff Wilhelm and his 21-year-old daughter, Jasmine, of Boise. I give them two thumbs up about our prospects of making it over Spider Gap—even though it could be a little adventurous. But that’s what we anticipated when planning this backpacking trip, when we contemplated—as we occasionally find ourselves doing—the gray area between taking kids on inspiring wilderness adventures and making sure you don’t place them in harm’s way.
Spider Meadow and Spider Gap
Our hike began yesterday on a trail our kids have seen before and remember nothing about.
Nate was a couple months shy of his third birthday and Alex was four months old the first time we hiked the Phelps Creek Trail. With friends who live in Leavenworth, we pushed baby joggers as far as the beginning of Spider Meadow before turning back. On that day, a big, furry, old marmot perched atop a boulder in the meadows, looking down on us like the king of the Cascade Range. I remember Nate staring at it, fascinated. He doesn’t remember it, of course. Still, I think that’s the kind of early experience that creates a positive association with the outdoors for kids, building a bank of good feelings that helps them look forward to getting outside as they get older.
Another gorgeous day gets underway as we start the steep hike up to Spider Gap. The sun warms us from a flawlessly blue sky, with a temperature around 70° F and a slight breeze. Within minutes after leaving our campsite in a big clearing, we pass the signed trail junction pointing left for Spider Gap and Lyman Lake and right to Phelps Basin.
Last night, after dinner, some of us had walked the 15 minutes up to Phelps Basin. Alpenglow lit up the cliffs and spires ringing the cirque. A creek crashed loudly through a boulder-strewn valley bottom sprinkled with wildflowers and lushly green with brush and heather. Two tents already occupied the small campsites there.
In the wind rushing down forcefully from the cirque headwall above us, Alex turned to me and said, “It’s weird to think some people never see places like this.” I agreed with her—it’s very weird.
Phelps Basin earned a place on my list of the best backcountry campsites I’ve missed out on. As it happens, an hour later on our second day, shortly before reaching the start of the snow finger below Spider Gap, we pass another occupied campsite overlooking Spider Meadow that I added to that list, too—an indicator of the kind of scenery you find along the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop.
The hot sun reflects intensely off the snow, but a breeze helps cool us as we start the climb to Spider Gap. As I expected, the snow has softened on top enough that we’re in no imminent danger of taking a big slide on the fairly low-angle snow finger. Still, I let Nate kick steps for us up the sun-cupped snow mainly so I can follow right behind him in case he falls and slides, and I ask Larry to trail Alex. But the kids have no trouble with it.
Penny and I have had that conversation about acceptable risk levels with our kids when deciding on several past trips; a few that come immediately to mind are sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay and backpacking the Gunsight Pass Trail in the grizzly country of Glacier National Park, both when our kids were nine and seven, and descending a technical slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park when the kids were 11 and nine. It’s not always easy making those judgments; the wilderness harbors some dangers. We try to assess the risks objectively and err on the side of caution, while also trying to satisfy the desire we all have to see beautiful places and seek a little thrill.
It’s a tricky balance to achieve. But we usually find that by the time we decide our kids are ready, physically and emotionally, for some challenge, they are actually more than ready for it. (See my story “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself.”)
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Upper Lyman Lakes
We reach Spider Gap by early afternoon and start down the north side, where the snow has received less direct sun and is firmer but not frozen hard. I kick steps and guide the kids, one at a time, through about 100 vertical feet of the steepest snow, and walk with them across some scree to avoid more snow. Then the angle eases and we all walk casually down an expansive snowfield into the basin of the Upper Lyman Lakes.
Nate and Alex glissade on their boots, their smiles speaking volumes about how pleased they are with themselves for being capable of crossing a pass like Spider Gap. As is often the case, the most challenging part of the trip becomes the thing that my kids get the most excited about.
Before us spreads a cirque released from the tomb of glacial ice only in recent decades, leaving terrain still mostly barren of vegetation. What remains of the fast-receding Lyman Glacier pours down the cliffs of Chiwawa Mountain into a lake brilliantly emerald green with glacial flour—rock pulverized to fine powder by eons of slowly shifting ice. Snow and bare rock evenly divvy up the mountainsides. Water liberated by summer barrels downhill through the tiers of the three Upper Lyman Lakes. Alex walks with me, lightly dancing over the loose scree that slides out from under our boots.
Just as the kids are growing tired, we pick up Trail 1256B and follow it across glacial moraine and through patches of fir trees to an idyllic campsite on a grass-covered knoll. We have an unimpaired view of the entire basin, including Spider Gap now more than a thousand feet above us. (The view earned this site a spot on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.) Wind keeps the abundant and tenacious mosquitoes and horseflies down—for now.
Late afternoon, all the boys—Jeff, Larry, Nate, and me—walk down to the outlet creek pouring from the upper lakes. Beside a small waterfall, we all strip down and leap into the water, which is no more than a few degrees above freezing, having sprung from the glacier and snowfields just a half-mile from our pool. Nate lets out a belly laugh after we both jump in together and surface, our heads throbbing from the frigid bath. Clambering out of the water onto the sun-warmed rocks above the pool, he sits beside me and throws an arm around my shoulder, and I wrap one around him, both of us still laughing and . When we return to camp gushing about how good it felt, Penny and Alex head down to take their own freezing swim.
That evening, as dusk falls and we’re getting ready to turn in to the tents, I see Nate returning from the outhouse. He stops and looks into the dark trees; when I call his name, he shushes me with a finger to his lips, then points to a deer grazing 10 feet from him. Throughout the night, several deer, including two bucks with impressive racks, will wander through our campsite grazing. Watching them from our tent door, Nate gives me a play-by-play account of their every movement until we fall asleep.
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As we’re eating breakfast and packing up camp at Upper Lyman Lakes, on our trip’s third morning, the mosquitoes form thick clouds around us—some of the thickest I’ve ever seen. Penny tells Larry, who’s been hiking and climbing in the Cascades for more than three decades, that she doesn’t remember seeing so many skeeters on past trips. Larry and I respond simultaneously with the same words: “It’s that time of year.” The Cascades are named for the many waterfalls that dot this landscape, but they’re also home to hundreds of lakes, where mosquitoes breed prolifically and haunt humans and animals until late summer.
The Cascades spend most of each year buried in snow. Mount Baker Ski Area averages 650 inches of snow a year and holds the world record for snowfall in one winter: 1,140 inches, or 95 feet, in the winter of 1998-1999. The copious snowfall that enables those waterfalls, lakes, and mosquitoes also nurtures one of the most prolific and colorful wildflower displays in the country. And in late July, it’s just hitting stride.
We follow the Pacific Crest Trail through meadows riotous with flowers, climbing steadily to 6,438-foot Cloudy Pass, which today, fortunately, betrays its name. In every direction, we look out over row after row of jagged spires and rocky peaks, some covered in snow and glacial ice.
By 2 p.m., we find a campsite just off Trail 785, minutes west of its junction with the PCT, downhill from Suiattle Pass. We’ve stopped here deliberately to make a side trip that we don’t want to pass up.
That evening, Larry, Jeff, Jasmine and I set out with only water, jackets, and cameras, following Trail 785 west through dense, quiet forest and climbing through switchbacks. The trail emerges from forest and traverses a vast mountainside meadow riddled with marmot burrows and carpeted in wildflowers in full bloom. Marmots stand up ramrod straight in the entrance holes to their burrows, like soldiers in the open hatches of tanks, staring at us.
To the south, across the deep valley of Miners Creek and, beyond it, the even deeper, green trench of the Suiattle River Valley, Glacier Peak wears a heavy cloak of snow and several glaciers, towering above an endless sea of mountains. The most remote Cascade volcano, a hermit mountain, Glacier Peak secludes itself deep in the wilderness. You have to invest some effort and time into enjoying a view like this one.
It’s the very kind of scenery that made me fall in love with the North Cascades the first time I visited them 20 years ago.
We reach Image Lake, a calm gem tucked into a little mountainside bowl that gives it the appearance of having a seat at the edge of the world. Glacier Peak appears to rise just above the water and trees, framing thousands of backpackers’ photos. Retracing our route, we watch the sunset paint the thin streaks of cloud and the snow on Glacier Peak a salmon hue, before eventually following our headlamp beams back to camp.
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Buck Creek Pass
Comfortably cooler temperatures, a gentle breeze, and an air force of mosquitoes accompany us on our fourth morning hiking south, down to Miners Creek and up a 2,000-foot slog over Middle Ridge. We stop for lunch, descend to Small Creek, then climb another 800 vertical feet to Buck Creek Pass, at 5,787 feet, where Glacier Peak looks close enough to reach out and touch. As Alex and I catch up to the rest of the group, Nate calls out to us, “Great view of Glacier Peak here!”
On our final evening in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, while Penny and the kids play cards in our campsite in the shade of big trees below Buck Creek Pass, Larry, Jeff, Jasmine, and I follow a well-beaten user trail up Liberty Cap. A green dome right above Buck Creek Pass, Liberty Cap looks like the wildflower capitol of the Cascades. Having hiked up here once before, several years ago, I knew what to expect; but the floral display still astounds me and leaves my companions speechless.
As the sun sinks toward the horizon, smearing a blood-red film across a thin haze of clouds, we walk across meadows bursting in lupine, heather, and flowers in several colors, against a backdrop of Glacier Peak, its blue ice, white snow, and dark, rocky pinnacles glowering across the bottomless valley of the Suiattle River. In the other direction, we look down at our campsite and beyond to the cliffs of Helmet Butte and another distinctive, green hill, Flower Dome.
Tomorrow, we’ll have a long but easy downhill walk to the cars, knocking it off quickly just to stay a step ahead of the mosquitoes. Even on a hike replete with great scenery, this evening walk up Liberty Cap to watch the sunset may be the climax of the entire five days.
Some trips deliver a little more excitement than others; some offer a nice respite with family and friends from the crush of civilization. The Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop gives you both—maybe more excitement than you want at Spider Gap, although that’s all about timing—and scenery that just may make you fall deeply in love with Washington’s North Cascades region.
Note: See also my stories “Exploring the American Alps: The North Cascades,” “My Top 10 Family Adventures,” “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself,” and “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers at least moderately fit and experienced; it’s a fairly strenuous hike. It’s good for kids if they’re strong and comfortable on snow and adult leaders know how to get the kids through Spider Gap safely. The trail is well marked, so route-finding won’t be a problem for anyone with solid compass and map-reading skills. The ascent from above Spider Meadow to the base of the snow finger leading to Spider Gap gets steep, and there are several fairly long ascents and descents on the route.
Make It Happen
Season Mid-July through September is the prime season for this hike, to avoid a lot of hard-frozen snow. The season sometimes lasts into October.
The Itinerary The approximately 38-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop becomes 44 miles when you include the optional, 6.5-mile, out-and-back hike to Image Lake—which you shouldn’t really treat as optional because Trail 785 to Image Lake and the lake itself constitute some of the most spectacular scenery on this route. There is camping near but not on Image Lake. We camped our first night in the woods just below Phelps Basin (get an early start to beat other backpackers to the two campsites in Phelps Basin); our second night just below the Upper Lyman Lakes (maybe not as buggy as Lyman Lake); our third night in a campsite just off Trail 785, a short distance west of its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (and west of Suiattle Pass); and our last night at the campground at Buck Creek Pass.
Starting at Phelps Creek Trailhead and hiking the loop counter-clockwise to finish at Trinity Trailhead means your last day is a 9.5-mile, 3,000-foot steady descent, rather than your first day involving a hot, 9.5-mile uphill grind if you hike it clockwise. Hiking counter-clockwise also gives you an easier bailout early in the trip if the passage over Spider Gap is too icy—if the snow does not soften up by afternoon, as is typical on warm, sunny days—because you’ll be turning around early in the trip rather than near the end of it.
Getting There The hike requires shuttling cars between Phelps Creek Trailhead and Trinity Trailhead, or walking three miles of road with about 700 feet of elevation change. From US 2 about 20 miles east of Stevens Pass, turn north onto WA 207 toward Lake Wenatchee. After crossing the Wenatchee River, turn right onto CR 22, following it to a left onto Chiwawa River Road (FR 62). Follow this gravel road, passable to cars, for 22 miles. Turn right to drive two miles up Phelps Creek Road to the Phelps Creek Trailhead, where we started this hike; from the bottom of Phelps Creek Road, follow the Chiwawa River Road a mile to the Trinity Trailhead, where we finished. It’s 30-minute, round-trip drive to shuttle cars between the trailheads on the slow, winding Phelps Creek Road.
Permit None required.
Maps Green Trails Glacier Peak no. 112 and Holden no. 113, $8 each, greentrailsmaps.com.
• Even in mid-summer, nights can get cold enough for the snow to freeze on both the south and north sides of Spider Gap. Plan to cross the gap after noon and preferably on a sunny day, when the snow will be softened and much safer. Some people may want to bring an ice axe and crampons or microspikes, but hiking the gap when the snow is soft is the best strategy.
• Properly store food to keep it from bears.
• In mid-summer, bring insect repellent and consider head nets for the mosquitoes and horseflies.
Contact Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Wenatchee River Ranger District, Leavenworth, (509) 548-2550, fs.usda.gov/okawen.
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