What better way to experience the Glacier Peak Wilderness than by hiking round-the-mountain from old-growth glacier valleys to airy alpine ridgelines? This classic volcanic circumnavigation serves up the miles and elevation gain and is best given at least 5-10 days to complete without accounting for side explorations and bad weather.
Accessing the loop around Glacier Peak is reasonable from a couple of different trailheads that are many hours of driving apart so location may be the main determinate for where you begin. The most direct access begins on the south side of the mountain at the White River trailhead and is described here heading clockwise. Access points on the other sides of the mountain are described in the “variations” section. If planning a longer trip it is possible to drop a re-supply at one of the alternative trailheads to keep pack weight down. The trails are generally clear of snow from July through October, however, swarms of insects are a nuisance mid-summer making September the ideal time to attempt the full loop.
White River Trailhead
From the White River trailhead, immediately cross the river on a stout bridge and head north on the Indian Creek Trail. This leg of the loop is notoriously brushy where it passes through large open avalanche paths and may have underbrush obscuring both the sky and the trail at times. Options to camp along Indian Creek are available 4 miles in near the unofficial junction to Airplane Lake and at 7 miles in near the junction with Papoose Creek. At 11 miles, you’ll reach the PCT at Indian Pass with well established camps and good tread.
Head north along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) through patches of high meadows under the watch of Indian Head Peak. At mile 12.5, pass the junction with the White River Trail and a poor camp. When in season, blueberries are bountiful along this high stretch around the west side of Glacier Peak. The meadow rambling continues until you reach White Pass at mile 14.9.
Campsites are plentiful to the west of the trail and host the multitude of climbers on their way from the North Fork Sauk to the summit. An evening scramble to the summit of White Mountain or a ramble along the Foam Creek Climbers route to the White Chuck Glacier make excellent side trips. From White Pass continue along the PCT to Red Pass at 16.6 miles and descend into the White Chuck Valley. The reddish White Chuck Cinder Cone offers exposed camps near a tarn along its flanks as well as in copses of trees as the headwater valley transitions from barren rock and flowing water to forest.
At Red Pass
From Red Pass you’ll lose nearly 2600 feet of elevation on quiet forest paths to Baekos Creek at mile 21.1. This section of the Glacier Peak Wilderness gets very little traffic due to lack of access after extensive flooding along the White River. At mile 23.2 stay on the PCT past the junction with trails to Kennedy Hot Springs and Lake Byrne or add about 2 miles descending the White Chuck River Trail to the old hot springs site and then regain the PCT via the Lost Creek Ridge or Kennedy Ridge Trails.
Poor camps may be found as you begin climbing out of the White Chuck valley at the crossing of Kennedy Creek or near Pumice Creek at mile 27.8. However, better camps are available as you near Fire Creek Pass (mile 30.8). Fire Creek Pass rewards the climb with magnificent views of the rugged Kennedy Glacier above and the deep blue of Mica Lake below. Tarry for longer than you should before switch backing through rocky fields down to Mica Lake at mile 32.6 which has a few small but excellent camps.
Mica Lake to Suiattle
From Mica Lake the PCT drops 2000 feet to a crossing of Milk Creek at mile 36.8 before regaining all of it just as quickly. As you round the meadows above East Fork Milk Creek, look for a camp below you at mile 41.6 or continue to Vista Ridge at mile 42.3. Here a faint trail heads north (camps available) for two miles to the summit of Grassy Point which is rumored to have the best views of Glacier Peak. Along Vista Ridge the mountain, flanked in glaciers, feels close enough to reach out and touch. Take in the alpine exposure in this realm of wilderness that at present is reserved for those willing to put in the miles.
From Vista Ridge, the PCT descends steep switchbacks that mellow to a mind-numbing grade as you drop 3600 feet to the crossing of the Suiattle River at mile 51.1. At mile 48.5 you’ll pass the junction with the Upper Suiattle River (poor camp available) before heading through groves of old-growth cedar. The bridge across the Suiattle may seem over-built mid-summer but a trip to the upper watershed reveals the true force the river can pack during the spring snowmelt. You’ll meet the loop here if starting the loop from the Suiattle River Trailhead (see variations: Westside Trailheads).
To Miners Ridge
Head upstream, passing camps at mile 53 and near the junction with the Miners Ridge Trail (mile 53.5). If pressed for time or energy, continue on the PCT (see variations: Middle Ridge Shortcut), otherwise take a left and grind up-hill on the Miners Ridge Trail reaching the ridgeline at mile 57.9. A quick jaunt west will bring you to the Miners Ridge Fire Lookout which may be staffed by volunteers during the summer. Once you’ve taken in the views, head east to Image Lake at mile 58.7 with plentiful camps and a postcard worthy view. Continue past the user trails around the lake to find the Miners Ridge Trail which gets its name from the many small claims along it. Quiet camps can be found along Miners Ridge near mile 60.0 as you near the tree line below Plummer Mountain.
At mile 62.4 Miners Ridge meets the PCT again. Heading left will take you to Suiattle Pass (see variations: Chiwawa River Trailheads) but to continue the loop take a right and head down-hill to a crossing of Miners Creek with a campsite at mile 64.2. At mile 64.7, leave the PCT, this time for good, and head south on the Buck Creek Pass Trail which works its way around the forested flanks of Middle Ridge. Pass a side trail to an old sheep camp at mile 66.7 and at mile 69.3 reach Buck Creek Pass. Take the side trail downhill to the pass proper and a large horse camp with a privy. Quieter campsites can be found away from the horse camp.
Buck Creek Pass to High Pass High Route
At Buck Creek Pass you’ll begin the High Pass High Route section of the circumnavigation. This section follows an old route through airy country that connects Buck Creek Pass to the Napeequa Valley. The route is unmaintained and requires crossing rock and snow fields that may be difficult or necessitate mountaineering equipment at times. For the most part the route follows good trail with well established tread, but route finding may be required. To avoid the High Pass High Route see variations: Chiwawa River Trailheads.
Head uphill toward Liberty Cap on an established trail that dishes out views of Helmet Butte and Fortress Mountain amid fields of wildflowers. The route ambles from the west to the east side of the ridgeline as you climb and reaches a bench at mile 72.4 above Triad Lake. Magnificent camps are available on lower rock benches around the lake. From here the trail becomes more obscure and sandy as you drop down to about 7000’ and contour around the steep SE side of Triad Lake. Early in the season this section will be snow and ice covered but reveals a rocky field in late summer. Carefully pick your way through this section and scramble up a short wide gully to reach the high point of the route at High Pass at 7071 feet and 72.9 miles. Sandy flat areas to camp are plentiful.
From High Pass, work your way down the sandy slopes into a large basin following paths when possible. Keep the snowfield (or tarn late in season) and the main water course draining the basin below High Pass to your left. At mile 73.1 begin heading steeply downhill into the valley that drains High Pass, following user paths when possible. Poor camps are available as you head down the valley at mile 73.7 (6080 feet) and near the head of a waterfall at mile 74.6 (5560 feet). Look for a trail at the apparent end of the valley that heads into thick slide alder. Follow the rough steep path downhill through the slide alder making use of the strong plant to steady yourself when needed. This section is rough in the best of years but is the easiest way to work your way around the waterfall and drop the last 800’ to the floor of the Napeequa Valley at mile 75.1.
Hop across the North Fork Naqeequa and pick up the Napeequa River Trail in the rocks. It may be faint at first but becomes more evident and may have flagging to point it out. Then stop, grab a snack, let your heart rate return to normal, and congratulate yourself. You just completed the High Pass High-Route! Follow the Napeequa River Trail down-stream. At mile 76.3 admire Louis Creek as it cascades down from calmer places below Buck Mountain. After crossing Louis Creek a side path leads to a small camp near the river. At mile 77.6 you’ll come to a faint junction with the Boulder Pass Trail. Take the Boulder Pass Trail down to a ford of the Napeequa River which is swift, cold, and deep early in the summer. In late summer and fall it is a mellower mid-thigh to waist deep crossing. Once across, the Boulder Pass Trail steadily climbs out of the Napeequa valley with increasingly spectacular views toward Little Giant Pass.
At Boulder Pass, mile 79.8, small camps with big views are available. Larger camps and water can be found about 200’ below the pass on its far side. Down the Boulder Pass trail, additional camps can be found until mile 81.1. At mile 84.5, reach the White River where good camps are available. Take a left on the White River Trail and let your knees enjoy the last few miles of relatively flat rambling along the river before reaching the end of your journey at mile 88.5
West Side Trailheads
If you live in the northwest part of Washington, spending an extra day hiking through primeval old growth along the Suiattle or North Fork Sauk may be preferable to a day spent driving to reach the trailheads on the south or east side of the mountain. Starting at the Suiattle River Trailhead will add 13 miles and 2,900 feet of elevation gain round-trip to access the loop. Starting at the North Fork Sauk will add 17 miles and 4,600 feet of elevation gain round-trip to access the loop.
Middle Ridge Shortcut
Bypassing the splendor of Miners Ridge and Image Lake will save 6 miles and 1,650 feet of elevation gain. At the Junction with the Miners Ridge Trail, stay straight on the PCT rather than heading uphill, which will cross Miners Creek after a mile and then slowly switchback up Middle Ridge in shady forest. 5.1 miles after the Miners Ridge Junction take a right onto the Buck Creek Pass Trail to rejoin the loop at mile 64.6.
Chiwawa River Trailheads
The Chiwawa River Road offers access to the east side of the Glacier Peak Wilderness via the Little Giant, Buck Creek, and Phelps Creek Trailheads. The main advantage of starting here is the ability to avoid the High Pass High Route by accessing the Napeequa Valley via Little Giant Pass and exiting the loop via the Buck Creek or Phelps Creek trails. The High Pass High Route may be treacherous and require crampons and ice-ax early in the summer. In late summer and early fall the snow has usually melted but some route finding may still be required to descend into the Napeequa valley.
Add 12.4 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation gain and loss to bypass the scenic and adventurous 8.3 mile High Pass High Route from Buck Creek Pass to the Napeequa Valley. Start the Glacier Peak circumnavigation at the Little Giant Pass Trailhead. Immediately ford the Chiwawa River, which can be deep and swift in early summer, and climb 4,200 feet in 4.1 miles to Little Giant Pass. From the pass, lose 2,500 feet of the elevation you just gained following 3 miles of narrow and unmaintained switchbacks to reach the junction with the Boulder Pass Trail along the Napeequa River at mile 77.6 in the standard loop. Good camps with water can be found on the far shore of the Chiwawa just after fording the river and 0.6 miles before reaching Little Giant Pass where the trail crosses a small creek. To complete the loop, take the Buck Creek Trail at Buck Creek Pass (mile 69.3 in the standard loop) downhill for 10.2 easy miles to the Chiwawa River Road at Trinity and then hike south along the gravel road for 3.5 miles to your starting point at the Little Giant Pass Trailhead.
Exiting via the Lyman Lakes and Phelps Meadows will add 16.9 miles and 4,400 feet of elevation gain and lose to the standard loop while winding through open country past alpine lakes and permanent snowfields. At mile 62.4 in the standard loop, take a left when you reach the PCT toward Cloudy Pass, rather than a right; the mileages that follow are given from this junction. Head NE on the PCT for 0.6 miles then take a right onto the Cloudy Pass Trail. Head uphill, reaching Cloudy Pass with views of Lyman Lake at 1.6 miles. The way then switchbacks down into the Lower Lyman Lake valley reaching established camps at 3.0 miles. Follow the trail around the east end of the Lyman Lakes to Upper Lyman with more camps at 4.4 miles. From Upper Lyman Lakes follow a faint trail or cairns to the Spider gap at 5.7 miles and the high point of this route at 7040 feet. Descend the rocks or the Spider Glacier to its snout where hanging camps (With a privy!) are available with views overlooking the meadowed basin of Phelps Creek at 6.4 miles. Descend into the Phelps Creek valley where dispersed camping is abundant and follow the trail, which eventually becomes a road to the Phelps Creek Trailhead at 13.4 miles. Walk the approach road downhill to the Chiwawa River Road and follow it south to the Little Giant Pass Trailhead at 18.6 miles.
Good camps can be found at the Phelps Creek and Alpine Meadows Forest Service campgrounds along the Chiwawa River Road. A bike left at one of the trailheads or a car shuttle can negate the road walk.