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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”)

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.

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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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Image Lake

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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Note: See also my stories “Exploring the American Alps: The North Cascades,” “My Top 10 Family Adventures,” and “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

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13 thoughts on “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop”

  1. Appreciate the write-up Michael! Will be doing this loop in a few days so very excited! A few questions:

    – any other benefit of doing the loop counterclockwise vs. clockwise besides encountering spider gap early?
    – is it reasonably straightforward to get to high pass from buck creek pass? Looks like that area is really cool (awesome views of Triad Lake). would love to camp in this area
    – Typically use a BV 500 in the Sierras but know that canisters are not required here. What did you use to store food? thinking of using an Ursack for the first time.

    Thanks so much in advance!

    • Hey Jason, thanks for the compliment and the good questions.

      I don’t think there’s any logistical reason that favors either direction. More important is the timing of crossing Spider Gap if nights are cool enough to firm up the snow: It may be safer to let the snow soften up a bit, so waiting until late morning or early afternoon to cross it.

      My first trip to Buck Creek Pass I hiked (solo) out a pretty obvious user trail from the campground at Buck Creek Pass around Liberty Cap (beautiful wildflowers) to the High Pass area and reached Triad Lake. Gorgeous spot. Wasn’t hard to get there, although that ridge is exposed and could be rough in bad weather.

      I like the BV500 bear canister, too (I recommend it in my review of favorite backpacking accessories). I’ve used an Ursack in the past, it’s way tougher than a nylon stuff sack, but still requires hanging appropriately because a bear may still tear it open if it gets the bag on the ground. Yes, I think hanging food is fine in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, but you may find fewer trees that are good for hanging in areas like the Upper Lyman Lakes basin.

      Have a good trip!

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your dedication and detail my friend. The Spider Gap to Buck Creek Pass hike is now the front-runner for our annual hiking trip in 2018. We owe you an additional thanks for that!

    Two quick questions:

    1. I’d like to ditch the tent for a hammock trip this year. I realize this is higher elevation and stays cold throughout the year, but could we pull off a hammock trip on this loop, say, in late August? Really love to try this! If not recommended, this is not a deal breaker.

    2. No permits? Just confirming this statement still holds true in 2017/18. Seems like the last half dozen trips we’ve been on have required hard to get (major understatement) permits, many months in advance. No permits would be a major bonus.

    Thanks again, Michael!
    Derek (and the #BOD crew)

    • Hi Derek, thanks for the comment and questions. This is a great hike (one of my top 10 favorites: https://thebigoutside.com/my-top-10-favorite-backpacking-trips/).

      I don’t think it’s ideal for a hammock, for a couple main reasons:

      1. You’ll probably need rain and bug protection (which you can set up with a hammock, but I believe those two conditions make hammock camping less pleasurable).

      2. There’s not an abundance of convenient trees for hanging a hammock. Some potential camping areas are alpine or sub-alpine, with few to no trees; and where trees do grow, they are often conifers growing densely, with dense boughs making it difficult to get at the trunk or find adequate, open space between trees for a hammock.

      If you think you have a strategy for overcoming both of those obstacles, maybe it’s worth trying a hammock there; or at least bringing one to experiment. I doubt cold temps would be an obstacle, especially in August; you can bring a bag warm enough for that.

      I don’t know of any change to the permit situation in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. However, you may want to contact the national forest (see info under Contact at bottom of story, above) about that as well as to check on the conditions of access roads and trails before heading in there. I’ve read there was fire damage on the Buck Creek Trail in 2016, and I’m curious about whether the trail has been cleared of fallen trees, and whether any camping areas have been affected.

      Good luck.

  3. We were planning on doing this trip in a couple weeks, but saw a notice on the NPS website that a road washout 12 miles out makes both trail-heads inaccessible by car. Hoping they can get it fixed in two weeks. If not, we will try to get the very limited day-of permit for Enchantments. Any other ideas for a 4-5 day trip in the area around Leavenworth? Thanks!

    • Hi Brooke,

      Bummer about the road washout. Try for that Enchantments walk-in permit midweek for a better chance of getting it. But there’s a wealth of great hiking in that area. I’ve been in the lakes basin below Mount Stuart, a gorgeous area with a variety of trails to get you there. I’ve heard good things about Chiwaukum Lake and Larch Lake (lovely in fall when the larches turn yellow), just east of Stevens Pass. I have on my to-do list backpacking the PCT from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass, and backpacking the 45-mile traverse of the Icicle Divide, which begins in the area of Stevens Pass and finishes on the outskirts of Leavenworth. You can’t really go wrong in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Have fun.

  4. Thank you for this write-up and the pictures! This was the last backpack my nephew and I took where our pictures were on film, and I’ve yet to digitize them. We have so many great memories of this hike, and I’ve taken our oldest up to Spider Meadows. So much fun!!

  5. I appreciate your write-up. Some friends and I are taking 5-6 days on this loop this week and you’ve got me even more excited than I already was, and I’ve had my eye on this hike for years. We’re looking for any advice you may have.

    Having read your entry, I’ll suggest head nets to everyone (would you recommend avoiding camps at Lyman Lake because of bugs? was Cloudy Pass better?). We’ll also look for the camp sites at Phelps Basin. We hope to hit both Image Lake and Liberty Cap-Triad Lake as day hikes, but if you had to do only one, am I right to assume you’d do Image Lake? Any other suggestions on campsites, conditions, etc.?

    And thanks for the photos.

    • Thanks, glad you like this story. Head nets aren’t a bad idea. I think Lyman Lake would be even buggier than the Upper Lyman Lakes because Lyman campsites are in the woods. Cloudy Pass was very buggy when we stopped there for lunch, but there wasn’t any wind then, either. Basically, it was buggy just about everywhere.

      I would definitely not miss the hike to Image Lake. I hiked the user trail up Liberty Cap all the way to Triad Lake several years ago (on this more-recent trip, we only went up Liberty Cap), and it’s also really scenic, above the trees with long views all the way. It’s also not a maintained trail, and I had to scramble and find a route through rock ledges to get down to Triad Lake, although you’ll get a view of it from atop the ledges.

      If you hike counter-clockwise, as I’d suggest, definitely go to Image Lake if you have good weather for views. You’re not assured of clear weather for views when you get to Liberty Cap later in the trip, and you won’t be disappointed if you hike to Image Lake and then only have time for a short hike up Liberty Cap when you get there (which you can do in an hour in the evening, a nice time to go up there).

      Despite the bugs, you’re in for a fantastic trip, best of luck.