- Location: North Cascades National Park
- Start: Hannegan Pass Trailhead
- Distance: 49.8 miles
- Duration: 5 days
- Type: Loop (with out-and-back section)
- Map: Nat Geo Trails Illustrated: North Cascades National Park
- References: Backpacking Washington by Douglas Lorain; Washington Trails Association
It seems that most all of our biggest and/or longest adventures this summer have taken place in Washington (Glacier Peak, Leave No Trace Master Educator Course in the San Juan Islands, Mount Rainier, and Backcountry Rise preview run). As if all that wasn’t enough, I planned our final vacation of the summer to be a five day backpacking trip in the North Cascades, a place I’d been dying to explore since looking out over the expansive mountain range from the summit of Baker the previous summer. Simply put, it did not disappoint. Five days hiking stunning ridge lines and meadows, visiting alpine lakes, climbing up and down over mountain passes, bush whacking through a river valley, and experiencing a few “firsts” (keep reading!) was the perfect way to close out the most incredible summer we’ve ever had.
Day 1: Hannegan Pass Trailhead to Egg Lake, with side trip up Hannegan Peak (10.6 miles; 6 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)
By the time we started our hike, we’d run 30+ miles (Backcountry Rise run two days prior), spent three nights sleeping in the car, and hadn’t showered in two full days. We probably already smelled like we’d been in the backcountry for a couple of days. At least we were wearing different clothes now. Since we’d decided to spend the previous night sleeping at the trailhead after picking up our permits in Glacier, we had kind of a lazy start and didn’t hit the trail until 10 am. The forecast called for cool temps, but the lack of shade and unrelenting sunshine made it feel much warmer.
The climb up to Hannegan Pass (with the exception of the final half mile or so) was moderate even with our heavy packs. A cakewalk compared to our hike in for Glacier Peak! Below us flowed Ruth Creek. Nooksack Ridge and Mount Sefrit towered above it while Ruth Mountain dominated the views to the southwest. We hadn’t even reached the most scenic portions of the route and already we were blown away by the immense beauty of the area. It was 12:15 pm when we reached the pass. We dropped our packs and, after some deliberation due to our later than anticipated start, decided to do the two mile (round-trip) detour up to the summit of Hannegan Peak. We unpacked our handheld water bottles, I grabbed my camera, and we headed up the trail, keeping our fingers crossed that nobody robbed us while we left our packs unattended.
We were flying up the trail without our packs weighing us down, passing through wildflower meadows and grassy slopes as the trail switchbacked higher and higher. Mountain views continued to improve as we rose above the trees. The grade steepened and the terrain became a little more technical, but by this point we were nearing the summit.
There were only two other people hanging out on the summit when we arrived. They were using a map to identify the numerous surrounding peaks, ranges, ridges, and valleys. I knew there was something I’d forgotten to bring up with us! We circled the summit area, soaking in the mountain views from every angle. I made mental notes of the peaks that caught my eye so I could try to identify them once I had my map handy. I still couldn’t believe we were only a couple of hours into our trip. After a decent amount of time, hunger pangs reminded us that it was probably time for some lunch. We slowly made our way down the steep, sketchy section then jogged the remaining switchbacks down to the pass.
Back at the pass there were a few hiking parties taking a break. Everybody appeared to be carrying gear for a multi-day trip. We chatted with a few folks and found out many of them were doing the same loop we were planning. Some were going the same direction (Copper Ridge then Chilliwack Valley, the most popular choice), while others intended to hike it the opposite way. Maybe we’d see some familiar faces in the coming days…
After lunch, we continued another mile to Boundary Camp where we officially entered North Cascades National Park. Just over three miles to go until Egg Lake! However, packed within those three miles was a good deal of climbing to gain the ridge line. Maybe it felt difficult because of the weight of our packs. Maybe it was because we’d run the hardest 30 miles of our lives just two days prior. For whatever reason, this uphill section through the forest was more strenuous than I’d anticipated. Our hard work paid off though once we broke out of the trees and onto the meadow covered Copper Ridge. Not only were we treated to fields of alpine wildflowers, but we were surrounded by a plethora of magnificent peaks, stretching as far as the eye could see. My idea of heaven on earth.
The next mile on this glorious ridge top hike took us to the junction with Egg Lake, a somewhat hidden gem surrounded by trees within a small basin. We made our way down the short, rugged side trail and found a relatively concealed (designated) campsite at the other end of the lake. It was 4:45 pm. The sun was still shining on the basin, so we decided to make the most of it and take a brief (and I mean brief) dip into the lake. It was definitely far from the lukewarm waters of Havasupai! Nonetheless, it felt good to wash away the sweat and dirt of the day, as well as the previous two days for that matter.
Dusk seemed to arrive quickly. We enjoyed the colors of twilight reflected on the lake as we ate our dinner of instant mashed potatoes topped with nutritional yeast, a meal I’ve come to love a little too much both out in the backcountry and at home. The only downside to our entire day (though comical in retrospect) came as we were getting ready to turn in. As I mentioned in my Glacier Peak post, the zippers on our tent have been getting more and more unreliable since getting bombarded with desert sand in Havasupai. On our Glacier Peak trip, the rainfly zipper on Mack’s side finally broke and the only way we could close it was with safety pins. Mack’s mom sewed it up for us when we returned. As we sat in our tent this evening, I noticed Mack fiddling with his tent door. Uh oh. It took him 40 minutes to finally get it to close! We decided that for the remainder of the trip we would only use my door to get in and out. Ugh. It’s really time for a new tent.
Day 2: Egg Lake to Indian Creek (11.8 miles; 8 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
We awoke to clear, sunny skies. What a relief since earlier forecasts called for clouds and rain! In the last year, Mack and I have made more of an effort to enjoy hot meals in the backcountry. It usually ends up happening for dinner, but not for breakfast. I wanted to change that this trip. Instead of packing up right away, we made oatmeal and topped it with huckleberries that we picked near our campsite. Lovely way to start the day. A far better alternative to the tortillas or protein/energy bars I used to eat instead. Even with the extra time spent making breakfast, we were still hiking by 8:15 am.
The surrounding peaks were absolutely radiant in the early morning sunshine, particularly Mineral Mountain, the mountain I’d been making googly eyes at since yesterday afternoon. “One day,” I told myself. “One day.” It was our last day on Copper Ridge, so I made sure to savor every moment of it. I guess I can see the appeal of hiking the loop in the opposite direction. You get to end with the most beautiful section.
Remember those “firsts” I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Well the first one of the trip happened as we were climbing the switchbacks to Copper Mountain Lookout. The sun was shining directly in our eyes during certain sections. At one point, as we turned up a switchback, the sun was suddenly obscured and we weren’t being blinded. Mack stopped dead in his tracks and said calmly, but firmly, “Bear.” I peered over his shoulder and there it was just a few feet in front of us directly on the trail, its face buried in a huckleberry bush. Had this bear somehow not heard us coming? We’d been making noise (talking loudly, hitting our trekking poles together) every few minutes since we left Egg Lake. Or maybe it just didn’t care/wasn’t scared? My guess is the latter because as we spoke calmly to it and started slowly backing down the trail, it didn’t even look at us. It just kept gorging on berries.
We walked back down to the switchback below, watching the bear above us. Now that we’d put some distance between us, I was actually enjoying the experience. How often do you get to spend ten minutes watching a bear go about its business seemingly unaffected by human presence? Of course, it was still on the trail, so we couldn’t continue on. Suddenly, we heard movement coming from the switchback below us. The trees covered the trail so we couldn’t see who/what it was. Oh god. What if it was another bear and we ended up getting caught between two of them? Fortunately, it was two other hikers who were totally unfazed when we told them there was a bear up ahead. We hiked together past the bear, who was now a few feet off the trail. For the first time since the encounter, it looked up at us with curiosity and I finally got to see its face before we were out of sight from each other. Our first ever encounter may have been a little close for comfort, but it was memorable experience nonetheless. We wouldn’t see another one for the remainder of our trip.
Following our exhilarating bear sighting, the second highlight of the day came when we reached Copper Mountain Lookout, the highest point of the Copper Ridge-Chilliwack River loop. Although we’d only hiked two miles since Egg Lake (and spent a good deal of time trying to navigate around the bear), the incredible mountain views (literally the best of the entire trip) warranted a long break here. Just outside of the lookout was a small lock box containing a summit register, as well as a booklet detailing the native flora in the area and photos of the surrounding peaks labeled with their names! We used the booklet to identify as many of the peaks as we could, including Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Ruth Mountain, Icy Peak, Mineral Mountain, Whatcom Peak, Bear Mountain, Glacier Peak, Mount Redoubt. I could’ve sat there for hours ooohing and ahhhing, but we still had plenty of miles to hike before we could call it a day.
Just over a mile later, we arrived at Copper Lake. Another long break (this time for lunch) ensued. This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to get in one final alpine lake swim, especially with the sun to warm us after, but we still had over eight miles to cover to get to our next campsite. I stared longingly at the tropical blue waters. It was our final stop on Copper Ridge. Trading mountain views and alpine lakes for forest and river views honestly didn’t sound quite as appealing. At least I could look forward to climbing out of the valley again the following day for our side trip to Whatcom Pass.
As we entered the forest to begin the neverending switchbacks down to the river, we were greeted by a large downed tree. It was one of those trees that’s too fat to get your legs over but also too low to the ground to walk or crawl underneath. I don’t remember what we ended up doing but the ordeal meant I was not looking forward to the remainder of this section. A moment later two female hikers came hiking up from the opposite direction, heading toward Copper Ridge. We mentioned the downed tree we’d just dealt with. To our dismay, one of the ladies informed us that we could look forward to at least 30 more before we reached the river.
The minutes dragged on into hours as we hiked down switchback after switchback and walked over (or under) the large number of downed trees. We actually kept track of the number so we knew when we were getting closer to the river! Once at the river, we realized this wasn’t a bridged crossing (not sure how I missed this detail in the trip description). I groaned as I sat down to unlace my boots. I just wanted to be at camp already! Mack crossed first and walked ahead a short ways to scout. There was still another crossing we had to do, so we kept our sandals on. Before we reached the crossing though, Mack stopped and peered into a shallow, slow moving section of water near the trail. “What is that?” A bright orange fish swam in place beneath the surface. A Koi fish in the Chilliwack? “I think it might be salmon,” said Mack. I decided to try out the underwater features on my camera for the first time to get a better look. Sure enough, we’d come across a salmon! After snapping a few photos, we continued to the crossing, thinking that that would be the only one we’d see. To our surprise, there was an entire group of them spawning in the shallow parts of the river! Another incredible “first” to add to our list. The river valley was finally becoming more enjoyable.
After the excitement of seeing so many salmon, our next thought was “Where are all the bears?” We put our boots back on and hurried along, not wanting to find out the answer to that question. We arrived at camp shortly after and welcomed two other couples who arrived a couple of hours later. As much as I enjoy solitude, I definitely felt a little safer having camp neighbors in bear country. They were fun to talk to as well. When you’re miles and miles away from the nearest trailhead, the only people you tend to run into are the ones who also enjoy hauling their bare necessities around on their backs while walking in the wilderness. Being able to swap tales from the trails with people who don’t think you’re crazy is a beautiful thing. A great conclusion to a long second day.
Day 3: Indian Creek to Whatcom Camp, with side trip to Tapto Lakes (10.1 miles; 8 hours 20 minutes, breaks included)
The weather didn’t look promising when we awoke the next morning. Skies were grey and heavily clouded. The rainfly was soaked from a little rain the night before. Would it be worth making the day long side trip up to Whatcom Pass/Camp? The junction with Brush Creek Trail wasn’t for another 2.7 miles, so we could decide then. We packed up and left at 8 am. After a surprisingly bouncy suspension bridge crossing to start off the morning, the rest of the time was spent bushwhacking through damp, overgrown vegetation, climbing over more downed trees, and clacking our trekking poles whenever we came across bear scat (which was quite often).
Once at the Brush Creek junction, we still hadn’t fully committed to a decision. It wasn’t raining, but the trees blocked our view of the sky. Were those ominous storm clouds still lingering? We agreed to push on to Graybeal Camp, just over two miles into the Brush Creek Trail. If weather started to deteriorate, we could always turn around and hike to U.S. Cabin Camp (which we had listed on our permit since Whatcom Camp, our intended destination, is first come-first serve). The trek to Graybeal was relatively flat. We arrived quickly and stopped for an early lunch. A little bit of sunlight was streaming through the trees, but we still couldn’t see the sky. A few hikers came down the trail while we lunched, so we inquired about the weather. Everyone remarked that it hadn’t been great the afternoon and evening before but that it was starting to clear up when they’d departed from Whatcom Camp. A glimmer of hope! We finished our meal and pressed on.
Although we were hiking mostly uphill again, the sight of blue skies, as well as Easy Ridge and Easy Peak towering above Brush Creek, put a spring in my step. Huckleberries and wild blueberries had a similar effect on Mack. Despite lingering clouds, the sun was definitely forcing its way through. Thank goodness we’d decided not to back out! We arrived at Whatcom Camp at 1:10 pm. Plenty of time left to explore above the pass. We set up our tent and munched on a few more snacks before getting back on the trail.
The hike up to the pass took maybe ten minutes from the campsites. There are several paths you can take once you’re up there. Little Beaver Trail descends southwest from the pass. To the south is a side trail that climbs to the base of Whatcom Glacier, and to the north there’s another less obvious path that takes you up to Tapto Lakes. We took the Tapto Lakes option. It was steep, rugged, and sometimes rocky, requiring careful coordination as we made our way up. Eventually, it opened onto a beautiful wildflower meadow with absolutely stunning views of Whatcom Peak and Challenger Glacier to the south.
The trail, though not nearly as steep as the section prior to the meadow, continued to climb until we reached an overlook of the Tapto Lakes Basin situated below Red Face Mountain. Although the skies were still blue, the temps were anything but warm and the wind was starting to pick up. Guess we wouldn’t be swimming this time around. Instead we sat down and relaxed on a rocky perch looking out on the lake, enjoying the peace and quiet while filling up on yet more snacks. Once the chill started to get to us, we headed back down to enjoy a warm meal and a House of Cards episode while we curled up in our sleeping bags.
Day 4: Whatcom Camp to Boundary Camp (12.3 miles; 7 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)
Despite knowing this would be our biggest day in terms of mileage, we had a relaxing start and even enjoyed another hot breakfast. It was going to be our last FULL day in the park, so why not make it last? We were still able to start hiking by 8:30 am. The previous day’s clouds had disappeared and we had far clearer views as we descended Brush Creek Trail. Those five or so miles passed quickly. Before we knew it, we had reached the junction with the trail leading up to the cable car.
Herein lies the final “first” of our trip: pulling ourselves via cable car across a river. I was actually surprised how high above the water it sat! I only thought it would be a few feet, not several yards! Mack and I took turns pulling our little car across. It also required more effort than either of us had anticipated (as indicated by Mack’s facial expression). Nonetheless, it was a fun, exciting experience. Not at all terrifying. In fact, the scariest part of the whole thing was climbing down the sketchy wooden ladder once we reached the elevated platform on the other side.
The rest of the morning (and some of the afternoon) was more or less a gradual ascent out of the river valley. So many ups and downs over the past few days! My knees were feeling it even with a lighter pack. We stopped for a couple of short breaks to eat lunch and refill our water bladders. Otherwise we kept moving. The “gradual” turned to “strenuous” following our break at Copper Creek, but at least it was somewhat brief. Our destination was only about two miles away from the creek. Once we left the forest and entered an expansive meadow I knew we’d made it. I remembered the exact spot from the first day of the trip. It was starting to feel like the beginning of the end. The end of a grand adventure and the end of an incredible summer.
Despite being our highest mileage day, we finished by 3:40 pm, the earliest we’d finished all week. This left plenty of time to laze around, read some of the book I’d brought (my first time opening the entire trip!), and eat as much of our remaining food as possible. We talked about where we would go to get “real” food on the way back home (I’d been craving fish tacos since we started the trip) and looked at photos of Cassie on Mack’s phone. Not being able to take her on many adventures this summer was difficult. Although we were both sad to be leaving the backcountry, we were incredibly excited to see our beloved Cass dog again. I fell asleep to the lovely thought of puppy snuggles in the near future.
Day 5: Boundary Camp to Hannegan Pass Trailhead (5 miles; 2 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
Knowing how short our hike out would be, I wasn’t very motivated to get up. The alarm on my stop watch went off and I ignored it. I wasn’t craving more sleep. I was just so content wrapped up in my smelly sleeping bag, watching the sunlight start to wash over our dew-covered tent. How could this be the last day already? We dragged ourselves out eventually and started the short journey back at 9 am. I spent most of the hike looking behind me at the magical place I was leaving. The seemingly infinite layers of rugged peaks were no longer visible at this point, but I kept picturing them tucked away beyond the forested slopes.
The sudden influx of day hikers and backpackers about two miles from the trailhead quickly reminded us that it was a Saturday. It made me all the more grateful that we had started our trip on a Tuesday. We arrived at a jam packed parking area. Cars were literally lined up an additional quarter mile down the road leading out of the lot! It was 11:30 am and the backcountry solitude of the previous four days was officially over. At least we left the trailhead filled with so many incredible memories. I still couldn’t believe all we’d seen and experienced as I skimmed through the photos on my camera when we stopped for lunch. Mack and I both agree that this trip was by far (even over the Eagle Cap Wilderness!) the best backpacking adventure we’ve ever done. North Cascades, we’ll be back soon and often.