The Wolf Creek Trail takes you to an incredible place, but the journey requires incredible patience. This up-and-down trail covers 21 miles with a cumulative elevation gain of almost 4,300 feet round-trip. The first 8 miles, and the last, are through a forest impacted by the 2021 Cedar Creek Fire. Your reward for the effort is magnificent Gardner Meadows, a prairie-like valley set between towering peaks and jagged ridges.
What makes Gardner Meadows so magical is its park-like setting and the amazing diversity of life within it. The trail rolls into the meadows over gentle grassy hills dotted with old growth fir. Mountains and dramatic ridges ring the valley on three sides. To the north, the rocky slopes of Mount Gardner seem to lean over you. To the southwest, Abernathy Peak rises high into the sky. Immediately to the south, the teeth of a folded ridge gnaw at the horizon.
Throughout the meadows, Columbian ground squirrels scatter at your approaching footsteps, whistling warnings as they dive into their innumerable burrows. Deer wander down into the meadows at dusk and back up the hillsides at dawn. Signs of cat (perhaps lynx, perhaps something larger) abound. Across the rushing waters of Wolf Creek come the yips of coyotes (or perhaps wolves – from a distance, it’s hard to tell the difference). Bluebirds, owls and juncos may shadow you along the trail.
In late spring, nearly every wildflower imaginable explodes from everywhere – arrowleaf balsamroot, shooting stars, lupine, avalanche lilies, alpine strawberries, and wild rose, among others too numerous to name.
The trailhead conditions provide an introduction to the next 8 miles of hiking through the aftermath of the 2021 Cedar Creek Fire. About 90% of the forest was intensely burned, with a few unburned pockets of trees. Most of the campsites are either covered in blackened logs or surrounded by black snags waiting to fall. Lastly, the sound of the forest has changed to that of Wolf Creek and wind through the dead trees.
The trail starts by losing 250 feet in elevation (which of course means you re-gain that same elevation on your weary way out). Shortly thereafter, it enters the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. At 2.6 miles, you cross the North Fork of Wolf Creek by way of a fire-damaged log bridge. At 3.7 miles, the trail traverses a slope of basalt that has crumbled to black sand. After that, it is a long march, devoid of major distinguishing features.
There are a few camping spots along the way. Just after the crossing of the North Fork of Wolf Creek, a large meadow offers several places to pitch a tent, but this only takes you three miles towards your destination. A single camp site is available at 5.4 miles. There are several places to camp at the junction with the Abernathy Lake trail at 7.6 miles.
Not long after the trail junction, you begin to leave the trees as you head into an area blackened by fire some time ago (judging by the size of the new growth, at least a decade past). As you close in on the meadows, you pass through a grove of aspen, seemingly out of place in this otherwise coniferous landscape.
And then you arrive. From here, you have several options. Sit out on one of the large rocks or fallen trees and simply soak it all in. Follow the trail across Wolf Creek to its very end in a long abandoned mining claim. Find a spot in the trees to camp – there are several flat spots that make good sites. For the ambitious, an arduous climb to the summit of Gardner or North Gardner Mountain beckons.
No matter what you do, remember – it’s more than ten miles back to your car!