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Trip Report    

Backpack - White Pass, Blue Lake & Bald Eagle Loop

High-elevation travel on the Cascade Crest and other ridges, with superb views on all days, wildflower meadows and luscious berries (in season). A strenuous 4 or 5-day backpack of 36 miles and 7,500 feet elevation gain, with wonderful and varied high-elevation campsites; White Pass, Blue Lakes and Bald Eagle Ridge, side trips to Red Pass, Kodak Peak, Johnson Mt.

  • Road suitable for all vehicles
  • All travel was on standard, numbered/named National Forest trails. Only 2 major water crossings, both on bridges.

    Fires. It is important to check the National Forest website for information on fires and fire closures: none was near or of any concern for our trip. However, on the last day, the wind shifted and there was some slight smell of smoke, and a distinct haze over all of the mountains. There was a fire closure (no campfires) over the entire Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

    Snow. On Aug. 24-7 we had no snow at all on any of the trails (though several small snow patches nearby). Sections of the Bald Eagle Trail below June Mt. and Bald Eagle Mt. are reported to have snow late. These sections are narrow trail, steep slope, limited or no runout: if snowy, they would require care to cross. In late season, with soft snow, poles and boots sturdy enough to kick good steps would be sufficient. Earlier, with hard snow, an ice ax would be strongly indicated.

    Trail conditions, campsites, water sources

    North Fork Sauk River Trail: beautiful old-growth forest in the first 2 miles. Mostly soft dirt, a delight for feet. Last 3 miles is a steady but well-graded ascent. Ends at PCT about 0.3 mile before White Pass.

    You could camp at the Mackinaw Shelter location at about mile 5.5. Good water (Sauk River), large area. Stay away from the shelter: it looks like a rat's nest, probably has lots of rodents. We elected to do all of the initial elevation gain in one day.

    White Pass camp is down about 100 feet from the pass. Nice location, good campsites with tree shading are scattered throughout the area. A toilet with a view. Adequate water on Aug. 24, with 2 streams in the lower area providing a low but steady flow of clear water. (There were also 2-3 rivulets on the PCT before the ridge.) There is no camping allowed on the ridge, so this camp could get crowded on a busy summer weekend.

    Pacific Crest Trail. Well marked, easy to follow. Much of the trail is getting badly trenched. In many places the trench is knee-deep and narrow, hard to walk: hikers are now walking up on the surface next to it.

    Indian Pass and camp. The location is a big meadow, lots of bugs. The only water we saw was a small, very stagnant, icky pool. I would not recommend staying here in late August; on this trip I planned for a slight diversion to use Meander Meadows (see below).

    Little Wenatchee River Trail. We took this 1.1 mile to a campsite at Meander Meadows. This had a section of about 300 feet where the trail had failed, requiring sidehilling on steep slope. Some brush. Even grade.

    Meander Meadows camp had at least 4 good campsites, most well shaded; there is a toilet. Much of the area is on a bluff/cliff above the river, but at the up-valley end an easy trail led to a good flow of clean water on Aug. 25. Beautiful meadows, riparian plants and flowers, grouse. Most of the meadow is dry in August, but earlier it would be squishy and very fragile. The location is only 6.25 miles from the Little Wenatchee trailhead, so it seems that it could get crowded in mid-summer.

    Bald Eagle Trail. Started at Dishpan Gap. Clearly, this is less used than the PCT or Sauk River trails; it hasn't had much maintenance in a long time. A couple of places had some tilted, failing trail. After June Mt., open areas can be brushy; the trail is extremely brushy in places between Curry Gap and the trailhead.

    Pilot Ridge Trail. Traveled 1.4 miles to and from Little Blue Lake. Has a section of 50-100 feet where trail has failed  and you sidehill on top of slippery plants.

    Little Blue Lake had at least two-three good camping sites. While it is 500 steep feet and about 2.8 mile round-trip to use this camp, it is beautiful, and gives a nice lake to swim in. Lots of clear water on Aug. 26. No one else camped there that night.

    June Mt./Spring Camp. This is mentioned in Craig's book, and in some trip reports. In coming down from June Mt. we did not find this, nor any water source. It might be problematic if you counted on this instead of going down to Little Blue Lake.

    Long John Mt. Camp. We found this one, right on the trail, but more where Green Trails locates it, toward the western end of the mountain. (Craig Ramano's description and map place it further east. There was a nice location that we saw that seemed to fit it, but it had no water.) The camp is small, centered around a big fire ring. There is a stream just east of the camp with a steady, clear flow on Aug. 27. A second, smaller stream/rivulet is about 100-200 yards west of camp. This could provide an alternative to camping at Little Blue Lake in late August.

    Curry Gap. There was one established campsite, exposed to the hot sun in early afternoon. A second use area was on a grassy area nearby. Otherwise, the whole area is waist-high or higher in very heavy plant growth. The supposed sure water source along the Quartz Creek Trail could not be found in the first quarter mile of the trail on Aug. 27. (The trail is hard to follow; see below.) There were two rivulets back upslope on the Bald Eagle Trail that we backtracked to in order to refill water bottles. On hiking out, we also found water in the Cadet Creek watercourse starting at the first footbridge down from the Gap. It would be a bother to go this far for water, but does make the Curry Gap camp viable even in late August.

    Quartz Creek Trail. This starts at Curry Gap and goes down in the opposite direction. Didn't use this trail, but scouted along it about a quarter-mile for water. Extremely overgrown and brushy; very hard to follow.

Trip Highlights: There are so many highlights on this trip! There is high-elevation travel and camping, superb views on all days and in all directions, and wildflower meadows (though the flowers would be better earlier than this trip). Luscious berries to eat were everywhere (we hit close to the peak of the season). The campsites were good, and were a nice variety of ridge, meadow and lake locations.

This backpack route is not in any of the guide books per se. It can be pieced together from two or three different described routes (cf. "White Pass, Blue Lake & Pilot Ridge Loop" and "Bald Eagle-Pilot Ridge Loop" routes on this site; routes 52 and 53 in Craig Romano's Backpacking Washington).

Different guide books and maps will give different mileages in total and between points; the variance is 0.2-0.5 mile. The mileages below are my best reconciliation of these data. (N.B. There is a Green Trails map that combines the four separate maps of this trip. This map has an error on the mileage from Curry Gap to the Bald Eagle trailhead: it says 2.5 mi., but it is really 4.1 miles. The map consolidation failed to include 1.6 mi. from the Monte Cristo map.)

Our itinerary (and several possible alternatives)

 Trip totals: 4 days, 3 nights. 36.1 miles, 7,500 feet of elevation gain.

Day 1 is 9 miles and 3900 feet of gain. Start at Sloan Cr. Campground, pass Pilot Ridge trail junction at 1.8 miles, cross Red Cr. on a bridge at 4.5 mi. and reach Mackinaw Shelter at 5.5 mi. About ¼ mile past Shelter the trail starts up steeply. Reach PCT junction at 8.6 miles (8.3-9.0) and 6,000 feet. Go right for 0.3 mi. to White Pass (5900 ft.); camp just below the pass (no camping on the ridge).  (A side trip to Red Pass and return is an option. This would be a round trip of 3.8 miles and a gain of about 500 feet from White Pass.)

Day 2 is 8.2 miles and about 1,100 feet of gain. Hike 3.1 mi. to White R. trail junction, 2.0 mi. to Indian Pass, 1.3 mi. to Kodak Pk. junction, 0.6 miles to the cutoff to Meander Meadows. Go 1.1 mi. on Little Wenatchee R. Trail to Meander Meadow Camp.  (An optional side trip is to go to the top of Kodak Peak for photos. About 420 feet gain, and round trip of less than a mile.)

Day 3 is 6.2 miles and a gain of about 1,100 feet. Regain 500 ft. & 1.1 mi. to return to the PCT. Hike 1.0 mi. to Dishpan Gap. The trailsign is actually 20 feet down the Bald Eagle Trail, where the Skykomish Trail splits off. Go 0.8 mi. to a junction for a shortcut trail to Blue Lake, then 1.9 to the junction with the Pilot Ridge Trail. Turn right on this, hike steeply down 1.4 mi. to Little Blue Lake camp. (Side trips could go to Blue Lake or to  Johnson Mt.)

Day 4 is 12.5 miles and a gain of about 1,400 feet. Retrace 1.4 mi. and 600 feet to the Bald Eagle Trail. Continue to the right, ascending up and around June Mt. Take a few moments to go to the top for  the views. Go about 2.3 mi. to Long John Mt. Camp. Hike another 2.0 mi., ascend steeply to skirt the north-facing slope of Bald Eagle Mt. Continue traversing, reaching a point where the trail decidedly starts downward. Continue until you reach a steep switchbacking descent of about 500 feet to Curry Gap (our camp) at 8.4 miles. It is then a 4.1-mile brushy descent to the trailhead.

Alternative Itineraries

 1) You could camp at Curry Gap, going out the last 4.1 miles  on day 5. We elected not to do this because of the heat, bugs, and water situation.

2) You could camp at Long John Mt. at the end of day 3, making that 9.9 miles and a gain of about 1,500 feet. Then go out to the trailhead on the 4th day, about 8.8 miles and a gain of about 1,000 feet.

3) You could make the trip shorter by using the Pilot Ridge Trail between Bald Eagle Trail and Sauk Creek Trail, skipping most of the Bald Eagle Trail. This route is about 29 miles 5300 feet, and is described in our trips ("White Pass, Blue Lake & Pilot Ridge Loop") and in some books (such as Don't Waste Your Time in the North Cascades). No water on Pilot Ridge after the snow melts: it's about 12 miles between reliable water locations in late summer.

4) You could combine the Bald Eagle Trail, Pilot Ridge Trail, and 2 miles of the Sauk Trail. This is described on our site as "Bald Eagle-Pilot Ridge Loop" (and in Harvey Manning and Ira Spring books as Bald Eagle Loop), about 27.3 miles and 5700 feet gain. See 3) above for notes on water.

5) You could add a day (or two) to the trip, allowing the party to stay another day at a campsite and day-hike out. From White Pass, for example, you could do a trip to Red Pass, White Chuck Cinder Cone, Glacier Meadows, and beyond.

Driving. This was easy. You can reach the Mountain Loop Highway either from the south or the north (the north is more straight-forward, through Darrington). Drive to Road 49, clearly marked. (In early July, the road was blocked by a washout, noted on the Forest website. This was cleared within a week, promptly noted on the website.) Drive Road 49 to the Sloan Creek Campground and the trailhead for the N. Fork Sauk River Trail. About 2 to 2-1/2 h from Seattle to the trailhead. The trailhead is popular on weekends. A National Forest pass is necessary. It's easy to place a car at the Bald Eagle trailhead, about 2.5 miles from the Sloan Creek Campground. There is plenty of parking area there. Putting a car here allows you to shuttle to the campground, avoiding a final 2.5 miles of walking on a road.

Information on trail conditions, campsites and water sources are in the section above.

About our backpack.

 There were four people on the trip. All had the necessary experience and conditioning and gear. We carpooled in two cars, which enabled us to put a car at each trailhead (2.5 miles apart). We met at 8:30 a.m. and started hiking around 9:00 a.m. We started on a Thursday and finished on a Sunday, Aug. 24–7.

We were lucky with the weather: on our first day, with 4000 feet of elevation to gain, we had mostly overcast sky, cool temperatures, and a strong breeze: ideal hiking conditions. The North Fork Sauk River Trail is a pleasure to walk. The first 2 miles has beautiful, large old-growth western redcedar, Douglas Fir and western hemlock trees. It was just as beautiful as some of the sections along Big Beaver Creek in the N. Cascades park. The trail is soft on the feet. But you'll definitely know when you've started the big ascent. It comes out of the trees about half-way up, and the views get better the higher you go. Way up high is the junction with the PCT, and here is where the berries (blueberries and huckleberries) started. I've been in this location twice in berry season, and there's no place like it. Luscious berries everywhere! From the PCT junction it's only a traverse of 0.3 mile to the camping area, which was quite comfortable (and bug-free due to the weather).

 The second day started warmer and clearer, and we started the high-elevation hiking. This section of the Cascade Crest is wonderful, with vivid and varying colors, interesting land forms, high mountains and glaciers. Once you ascend from White Pass, Glacier Peak becomes visible. The trail stays high for three miles until it starts dropping on its way to Indian Pass. After the pass it climbs back up to the intersection of Wenatchee Ridge and the Crest, which is Kodak Peak. We went up this, and it affords great views of Glacier Peak and all points around. (Note that the PCT and the access trail parallel each other for a good distance: just follow the PCT, then walk up 30 feet to the trail just below where the ridge starts to abruptly rise. You'll avoid needless winding in the trees and bushes.)  We then continued on, and descended 500 feet to Meander Meadows. Why lose that elevation? Because it's a great place to camp! Very different from the first night's camp, lots of water, wetland flowers, beautiful hanging valley with meandering stream (just like the name says).

Next morning (third day), we made a quick return to the PCT, then continued a mile further to Dishpan Gap. Here's where we left the PCT. (It was also the last time we saw anyone else on the trail.) The sign identifying the Bald Eagle Trail isn't at the junction, but 30 feet beyond, where the N. Fork Skykomish Trail splits off. Then there is a gain of about 200 feet, and you are on a high mountain shoulder. You can see your route for the next several hours from here. Wow, you are traversing 1500-2000 feet above the river, with a very steep slope dropping away almost from the edge of the trail! This is the kind of walk that I love to find in the Alps, a high "belvedere" (an open terrace with a commanding view) walk. And here is a great one: fabulous! After 0.8 mile is a junction with a high route that could take you to Blue Lake. (But unless you are taking the Pilot Ridge Trail, and you are in a rush or can't bear to lose any elevation, I'd argue against it. It's steep with loose rock and scree, and slightly exposed—not the place to take the inexperienced. Plus, you would miss the major part of the scenic traverse!) Continue hiking until you reach a small gap just before June Mt., where you take the first part of the Pilot Ridge Trail steeply down to Little Blue Lake. This third camp was altogether different from the first two, with a very nice pocket lake to wade or swim in or to lounge around.

On the morning of the 4th day we left camp earlier than on the previous days in order to complete the steep uphill in the shade and coolness of morning. From the junction, we ascended to traverse the north side of June Mt. slightly below the top. There are steep slopes below, with minimal or no runout: caution and an ice ax would be necessary earlier if the snow were hard. But we had no snow, just a beautiful walk. At other side of the mountain, you can walk a few easy steps to the top of the mountain, for great views. On descending, we did not find June Mt./Spring camp or a water source. The path follows the ridgeline down a thousand feet to a saddle, then ascends a bit along Long John Mt. There are several beautiful high meadows along the trail in this section. Near the far side of the mountain, reach Long John Camp, where there was water. Then the trail continues a long way through forest and openings, until it starts to rise sharply for several hundred feet. Around a corner you skirt along the rock of the north face of Bald Eagle Mt., again with steep slopes below. (Again, we had no snow, but see the comments above for June Mt.) From there the trail descends a bit, then traverses in the trees for a long way until it quite abruptly begins to descend. It continues for a long way, until you reach a section of steep switchbacks that take you down the remaining 500 feet to Curry Gap.

We had planned to camp here, but it was quite hot, the biting insects were thick, the only good campsite was in the hot sun, and the supposed sure water could not be found. (See the previous section: water can be found either up or down the Bald Eagle Trail, so that Curry Gap does have water, just not very close on Aug. 27.) So we decided to hike another couple of hours to cover the last 4.1 miles to the trailhead. It is all downhill, and much of it is shaded, but it is very brushy for much of the way. This made for a longer day, but was a good conclusion to the trip. (Possible alternative itineraries are discussed above.)

We traveled loosely together at a pace that was roughly a moderate 2 MPH, slowing to around 1.5 on the steeper sections. People on the trip liked the spectacular scenery that greeted us each day, and the great campsites at which we stayed. We all had a lot of fun.

Route-finding: No difficulties at all.

Directions for driving, finding trailhead: these were clear, and GPS coordinates mapped accurately.

Things to know. See information about snow, fires, campsites, water sources, and mileage variances, above.

In late August, surface snow is nearly gone everywhere, and most small streams and wet areas are dry. Trip planning needs to fit mileages to locations with camping and assured water. Earlier in the season, when some snow and surface water are more abundant, there are more possibilities for camping, including along Pilot Ridge.

 

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Michele Ritala
Michele Ritala says:
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 7:11 PM

Fantastic trip report. Thank you so much!