Pilot Ridge - N F Sauk Loop
The Glacier Peak area has some
of the most spectacular backpacking country available. In all my years of
hiking I had never done more than day trips here. Several trips were changed
at the last minute due to weather. When Gary recommended a 3 day hike I
was more than ready to go. Ten years ago we day hiked up Pilot Ridge and
had some terrific views. This time we would hike Pilot and continue around
to White Pass and head out the North Fork Sauk River. We hoped that a Saturday
to Monday trip would minimize the crowds. Saturday morning we were at the
2200' trailhead by 9:00 and had to squeeze into a parking space. There was
a little more than a dozen cars parked. The morning was already warm with
much more heat forecast for the rest of the trip. The forecast was correct.
It was very hot by Sunday. The first 1 3/4 miles goes very fast. This section
is noted for the largest skunk cabbage leaves I have ever seen. They didn't
seem as large as I remembered but some were more than 3' long. Last time
we had to ford the river coming and going. It was deep enough then to be
difficult. A recent trip report mentioned a big log and we hoped to find
it. At the crossing a small way trail goes up stream to the log. It is plenty
large enough to safely cross on. We scrambled down stream again and picked
up the trail. The Pilot Ridge trail climbs at a steady grade in forest to
the ridge top. It's not a trail of endless gentle switchbacks but it is a
consistent grade as it switchbacks up the ridge. We planned a counterclockwise
loop so we would have a north facing wooded slope while we gained the
bulk of the elevation. Three miles and 3000' later we crested the ridge.
There was one creek in the forest below the ridge with good water flow. This
is the last easy water for many miles.
We had lunch with great views of the Monte Cristo peaks
and Sloan Peak. We were now out in the sun and it was very hot. For the
next 4 miles the trail is mostly on the ridge top. Sometimes on the north
side and more often on the south. The entire hillside is lush green meadows
much of the way. Many dozens of flower varieties are still in bloom. Some
of the lupine and paintbrush combinations were outstanding. Did I mention
bugs? They became much worse on the ridge top. While we kept moving they
were only quite annoying. When we stopped they descended on us in hordes.
Gary wore long pants the whole trip but I could not manage it with the heat.
I just kept swatting and walking. The great part about hiking is that the
pain of a few hundred bites is fading but my memories of the scenery will
live on for years. We had hoped to camp on the ridge top instead of pushing
on to Blue Lakes. As we neared Johnson Mountain we headed up to the ridge
top and found a small tarn. With this water supply we were set. When the
last of the snow melts this will no longer work. It was 8 1/2 miles with
4500' gained to our camp. Glacier Peak was across the valley from us. The
sky was clear except for a few clouds just around Glacier. There was just
enough breeze to allow us to remain outside our tents with the flies and
mosquitos. I was tired from our exertions but Gary wanted to try for Johnson
Mountain after dinner and I agreed. We didn't leave until 6:45 and we took
headlamps. There were still a few small snowfields on the trail but the snow
was soft and no trouble to cross. To this point we had seen one single woman
backpacker all day. At the intersection of the trails to Blue Lakes and Johnson
Mountain we saw a tent. We did not see the owner. Gary also saw two helium
balloons high above the trail. We took the Johnson Mountain trail and climbed
on up with steadily expanding views. We saw one small patch of paintbrush
that was a color I have never seen before. It was somewhere between yellow
and orange. Continuing on, we soon reached the summit. We camped at 6100'
and Johnson Mountain is at 6721'. As the sun was setting the views were spectacular.
We could see Blue Lakes just below us and mountains in all directions. Stuart,
Daniel, Lemah, the Monte Cristos, Sloan, Bedal, Three Fingers, Glacier,
White, and many more. At 8:10 we reluctantly headed down. On the descent
Gary saw the balloons below us and we scrambled down and retrieved them.
For the next day Gary had them tied to his pack. It was entertaining to
see the looks on the faces of the few people we ran into. One couple didn't
even seem to notice. We managed to get back just before dark. Surprisingly,
our tents and packs were soaked by a very early dew. This was my first trip
with my new Henry Shires Tarptent
and even with the dew it performed very well. At just under 2 pounds it
was a major factor in getting my pack weight down to 28 pounds.
I got up at 5:00 am to take sunrise photos of Glacier
Peak. A little later a small herd of deer came by. It was nice to see one
go right by my tent. We were up, packed, and on the way by 8:10 am. The
trail contours towards Johnson and drops a little. It then climbs to a ridge
top and drops down to Blue Lakes. The main trail goes by Little Blue Lake
and climbs the ridge before turning and heading for Dishpan Gap and the
Pacific Crest Trail. Another less used trail goes to Blue Lake, climbs straight
up the ridge and drops down to meet the other trail. It has 200' more elevation
gain but cuts out 2 1/2 miles. We opted for short and steep. We could see
the route from Johnson Mountain the night before and so we knew it was snow
free. We met a couple coming down just before the lake and another couple
at the lake. How they were able to stand around with bare arms and legs
with all the bugs was a mystery to me. The climb up to the ridge was short
and steep. We went between several snowfields but had only a short easy
section with snow. The trail was fine even with a backpack. At the top we
had great views to the east and south. After the climb up Pilot Ridge we
were almost entirely out in the open. This meant great views but nowhere
to escape the heat. I am not very good in hot afternoon heat and this was
as difficult as the elevation gain or the bugs. A quick steep descent and
we met up with the Bald Eagle trail which is the route the trail to Little
Blue Lake would take. Shortly thereafter we met the crest trail at Dishpan
Gap. Dropping from the gap we found a fast flowing creek where we replenished
our water supply. Later in the season water will be a bigger concern but
we took no chances on finding more soon.
From here the trail winds around to the head of Meander
Meadows. We saw one party far below in the valley. As we rounded Kodak Peak
we left the trail and headed to the ridge. There was a way trail along the
ridge to the top of Kodak. We brought along day packs and they proved very
useful. On Johnson, Kodak, and White Mountains it was a relief to
drop the backpack and put on the day pack. It was only about 350' to the
top of Kodak. In keeping with this weekend we saw nobody. The view of Indian
Head Peak and the other peaks to the south of Glacier Peak were fantastic.
The Poets Ridge was close by and
was easy to spot. I have done David the last two years. It was one of
the few times I have seen it from another peak. We were able to see many
miles of the crest trail from the summit. A few hikers inched by far below
us. We could also see White Mountain, above White Pass, our destination this
day. At 2:10 we headed on down. One patch of trees on the ridge provided
the first shade I had seen in many hours. It was tough to head back out into
the sun. We dropped cross country back to the crest trail and continued north.
We met a hiker at a stream crossing. He recommended we fill up here as there
were no more water stops until Red Pass. We made a point of counting the
ones we later saw. There were 8 clear flowing creeks by just beyond White
Pass. Oh well.... We took his advice and pumped our water bottles full. I
will fondly remember this place as the "hell hole of the crest". At
least a dozen flies were on me at any given time. I had half a liter bottle
full when a big fly flew right into it. A few curses later Gary dumped it
out and we started again. Chinese water torture could not be worse than this
was. With 2 liters of water and about a pint less blood we high tailed it
out of there.
The trail descended to Indian Pass, the low point of
the day, at 4950'. There were a few trees just before the pass and much
needed shade. From the pass the trail begins a slow steady climb. It contours
around Indian Head Peak and follows the east side of the ridge. The meadows
were nothing short of glorious as we had spectacular mountain views and
acres of wildflowers. This section seemed to go on and on forever. Each time
we rounded a corner we could see 1/4 mile down the trail with no end in sight.
Finally we reached White Pass around 4:30. We dropped 100' down to the camping
area and found we were the only ones there. Since it was Sunday evening we
had solitude that would have been very unlikely on Saturday. There was a
creek a short way from our site with plenty of running water. We could see
White Mountain looming 1200' directly above us. Originally we contemplated
climbing it on Sunday evening but the reality of the heat and the bugs left
me with far less vigor than I would have needed. Instead we escape the bugs
after dinner in our tents.
The next morning we woke early to tackle White Mountain.
It was forecast to reach 90 degrees in Seattle and we wanted to get out
before the afternoon heat set in. From White Pass it is about 1/2 mile and
1100' to the summit. There is a way trail all the way to the top. It is
steep in places but not technically difficult. A few hundred feet below
the ridge Gary noticed a deer on the ridge top. Two more followed. They were
up at 7000' in the early morning. I guess maybe we weren't up so early. We
reached the top at 6:50 after a 40 minute climb. There is no better time
to be on a mountain top than the early morning. The lighting was excellent
and we each took many photos. For the first time Baker and Shuksan were in
view. El Dorado was just above the ridge of Glacier Peak. We could look down
on many places we would like to hike to some day. Rainier was clear as well.
In fact, there was not a single. cloud in the sky. At first the wind was
blowing hard and I actually had to put on clothing to stay warm. After all
the heat it was a welcome feeling. We spent nearly 2 hours on top marveling
at the unmatched views. This was among the best summits I have ever been
on. Even the Olympics were visible in the distance. The 7040' summit of White
was the high point of our journey. We reluctantly descended back to White
Pass. I flushed a male and female grouse here and they kindly posed for photos.
Even at 9:00 am it was getting hot. We put our backpacks back on and headed
down. The North Fork Sauk trail is a nice walk with open switchbacks at first
then deep forest. It was a bit of a let down compared to the rest of the
trip. About half way down we reached Red Creek and a good source of water.
The creek is nearly as big as the Sauk River at this point. The old crossing
log is broken off and another downward sloping one is there. It is fine for
now but not anchored well. Hopefully the forest service will see fit to put
a new bridge or log here. It was deep and swift enough that I would not have
wanted to ford. After 9 miles of slogging we finally reached the car and
the long awaited air conditioning in Gary's car.
This was by far the best backpacking trip I have taken
in the last decade. The weather, while overly hot, was at least clear. The
flowers were phenomenal. The mountain views were extraordinary. I should
stop here as I'm running out of superlatives. The totals were 31 miles with
Click on thumbnails to get larger pictures.
Monte Cristo Peaks
Portal Pk & White Mt
Photo Page 2