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Oval Peak #436,Summit #1259,Oval Pass #1259.5

Aug 30, 2005

by Franz Amador last modified Sep 10, 2008 02:37 PM
Type of Outing
Day hike
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Hike: Oval Peak
Region: North Cascades
Trails: Oval Peak (#436)
Avg Rating: 4.00
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Hike: Summit
Region: Central Cascades
Trails: Summit (#1259)
Avg Rating: 3.25
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Hike: Oval Pass
Region: North Cascades -- Sawtooth
Trails: Oval Pass (#1259.5)
Avg Rating: 2.50
Be Aware Of

We, two middle-aged parents and our eleven-year-old son, spent five days backpacking from the Scaffold Ridge trailhead on forest road 43/560, over Fish Creek Pass, to Tuckaway Lake and back, Aug 30 through Sep 3, 2005. The weather was perfect, mild and sunny during the days, chilly and clear at night. No bugs bothered us. The scenery was grand. This was by far the most ambitious hike our son had done, and he enjoyed it with minimal grumbling. Amazingly, we saw no people. Our only complaint was inaccuracies in the Green Trails map (Buttermilk Butte #83), which caused some anxieties about whether we were on the right trail.

Despite the apparent maze of logging roads on the map, we found the trailhead easily. The gate from road 500 to road 550 was open; it is closed only for hunting season according to the ranger in Winthrop. The most-traveled route goes from the gate to the trailhead, which has room for several cars and is clearly the end of the well-traveled route.

The trail climbs steeply from the trailhead to a ridgetop, then more gently switchbacks up the nose of the ridge through dense lodgepole pine. It enters the Wilderness and then contours across the beginning of Buttermilk Meadow, which is steep and mostly sagebrush with wildflowers and a few aspen. Great views of Oval Peak and up the West Fork Buttermilk Creek valley to the Sawtooth ridge peaks (first photo below). About three miles from the trailhead the trail bends uphill to follow the meadow (below the ""k"" in ""Buttermilk Mdw"" on the map), and we stopped for the night at a very good hardened site at the edge of the woods below the meadow. There was a little mucky pool in the meadow near camp, but we had brought water for the first day and a half and so didn't have to try it. The creek marked as beginning there was dry, or perhaps we didn't find it.

The next day we crossed the rest of Buttermilk Meadow and headed into more lodgepole forest. There is an unmarked path that branches right (uphill) near the end of the meadow, and there is another, heavily used unmarked trail that branches right shortly after entering the woods. That second trail is most likely the route to Duffy Lake, just over the saddle between Oval Peak and peak 7625. Up to this point, our route appeared heavily used and was very easy to follow. After the apparent Duffy Lake branch it became fainter, but there are frequent tree blazes all the way to trail #411, and some parts of the trail have cairns.

Not long after the apparent Duffy Lake branch the trail turns abruptly downhill and descends to a creek crossing, passes a swampy meadow, crosses another creek, and then steeply climbs the nose of a ridge. The map shows only the second creek crossing. At about the ""8.0"" just southwest of ""Buttermilk Mdw"", it shows the trail contouring around the head of a creek and then descending to a second creek, which it crosses before climbing many switchbacks. I suspect that in reality, the trail turns southeast at the ""8.0"" and descends parallel to the north side of the first creek, then crosses it at about the same level as its crossing of the second creek.

The following switchbacks are very steep and rocky and hardly ""switchback"" at all. The last leg heads straight up the bottom of a steep, shallow gully before finally topping out, then beginning a long, gradual descent. Somewhere near the top of the gully, larches appear and become common.

At the bottom of the gradual descent, the trail crosses an unmarked creek, probably in the dip northeast of the unnamed lake 6936. The lake itself is lovely, surrounded by larches with a view of Oval Peak. It is perhaps half-covered with floating marsh grass but still invites wading and foot soaking (though it was still cold even this late in summer). True to the map, the trail follows its southeast shore, and there are several hardened campsites.

After the lake, however, the map let us down. It shows the trail contouring easily to its junction with trail #411. That would have been nice. Instead, it loses several hundred feet fairly steeply, does a rolling traverse below numerous boulder fields, and then steeply regains its lost elevation before the junction. Plus, though this isn't the map's fault, there are many downed trees, mostly noteably three during the steep descent that we had to squeeze under with packs off.

Once on trail #411 (West Fork Buttermilk River), the going was much smoother. The climb to Fish Creek Pass is dusty, however, and we separated to avoid each others' dust clouds. Star Peak is lovely and impressive from the ascent, and the view from the pass down to Star Lake was grand and welcoming. Star Lake is surrounded by larches and meadows with craggy Star Peak looming just behind (second photo below, lake hidden ahead at base of peak). We camped at the fine hardened site just north of the lake outlet.

The next day we moved on to Tuckaway Lake. The trail from Fish Creek Pass joins trail #1259 slightly southeast of where the map indicates. It must have been rerouted, because there's still a signpost at the old junction. Trail #1259 climbs slowly across open slopes with many recently burned trees. There is no sign of the horse camp marked just north of the old junction; perhaps it was burned. Despite the mild temperatures and moderate grade, strong sun and yesterday's exertions made the climb long and slow, and we were glad to reach the excellent switchbacks that descend quickly to the horse camp marked just south of Tuckaway Lake. This camp is intact and in fine shape, with room for many. It even has a box toilet (very welcome).

We reached Tuckaway Lake in time for a late (slightly too late) lunch and set up camp at a hardened site above the northeast shore. Horseshoe Basin is pretty, but not as dramatic as the Star Lake/Fish Creek basin. We'd planned to hike up Gray Peak in the afternoon, but all but me voted to rest by the lake and skip the steep switchbacks up Oval Pass visible across the valley. Spurred by glowing descriptions of the views from Gray Peak I'd read here, after lazing about a bit I headed for the peak. The climb to Oval Pass is steep and rocky but not too long, and Grey Peak is an easy walk up a broad, open ridge. It took me half an hour from Tuckaway Lake. The views are everything advertized. Truly a top-of-the-world, sea-of-peaks experience. It reminded me of why I like to climb mountains.

After I returned, my son and I sat and watched the pikas in the boulder field across the lake. After a bit we moved closer and sat again. My wife said she could see them dashing away when we moved, but they got used to us and came back. We eventually were sitting on a flat rock right on the edge of the field. One of them was gathering grass and flowers for a stash behind a boulder perhaps ten feet away. We saw it running over and behind boulders with its mouth full of plants, then disappearing behind the near boulder, then dashing away with its mouth empty. Now and then it or its neighbors would climb a rock and look at us, and from all over the rock pile pikas seen and unseen were calling ""Eeep!""

The next day we hiked back out to the unnamed lake 6936, and the last day we rolled easily back to the trailhead, where we met the first people we'd seen all trip, though we had seen boot tracks apparently going to and from Duffy Lake in our absence. The people at the trailhead were heading in with a donkey in search of a pair of horses they'd lost at Star Lake the weekend before.

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