Home Trip ReportsBackpacking Copper Ridge Loop, Part 2: the Misery

Copper Ridge Loop, Part 2: the Misery

by Amanda Phillips

Last week, I posted about our first half of the Copper Ridge Loop in the North Cascades National Park (part one of this backpacking trip is here). Part one covered a gorgeous ridge walk, a fire tower, bears and a spectacular campsite on an alpine lake.  Part two, however, covers the miserable slog down to the river that angered my shin splints and a long, hot walk to the car. The second half of the trip had some really beautiful elements, but it earned the title “the misery”.

Day 2

13 miles, ~3000′ elevation loss

The Descent

We left off just before descending to the Chilliwack River, after traversing along Copper Ridge. My legs were already rather unhappy with me, but I was soon to discover how unhappy they could truly be. After eating a few snacks, we shouldered our packs and began the descent into the forest.  The grade was such that my knees, hips, ankles, and shins started to ache with each step. Whenever it leveled off, the pain disappeared, only to reappear with a steepening grade.

I had visions of crawling until we reached the level river, and started calculating how to ration food in case we couldn’t make it back out. In a few places where it was too painful to continue, I turned around and walked backward.  Switchback after switchback, I grew more and more panicked.  When I stopped to rest, my muscles would seize, making it difficult to start again.

At this point, we were the furthest distance from any trailhead, and there didn’t seem to be any option except continuing to put one foot in front of the other until we made it to the river.  I couldn’t speak or think of anything besides step, step, step.  A persistent bile continued to rise in my throat whenever a particular step was especially painful, which did not put my mind at ease. Feeling like I had little control of my legs, I worried about breaking an ankle or becoming truly immobile.

When we spotted the river through the trees, I immediately burst into tears. I vaguely remember yelling “I cannot afford hope!” while sobbing, fearing that it was a mirage or just a stream, rather than an end to the descent. Always one to add a little drama and hyperbole to a straightforward hike.  Knowing that the significant elevation loss was over, the relief was more than I can describe.  We hurried to the river’s edge, took off our shoes and began to ford, enjoying the cold water on our aching feet.  First, we crossed the Chilliwack River, then through an island to Indian Creek.  When we stepped through the bushes at Indian Creek, was saw the telltale sign of spawning sockeye salmon as bright red fish dotted the white pebbles below.  I sunk to the rocky bank and lay down for several minutes, popping up now and then to watch the salmon.

Sockeye Salmon and the River

Blue river with rocks

First sight of the river.

Man fording small river

Crossing the first ford

I spent time in Alaska studying Sockeye Salmon, and I have missed the days spent in a river with the almost dead fish.  Michael had never seen spawners and when I initially planned for this trip in March, I chose a month that would maximize our chances of seeing salmon. I was really excited to share this with him and constantly pestered him to make sure that he “loved it enough” because I like to ruin moments when I am excited about something.

We watched the salmon dart around while I droned on about salmon biology and the modifications their body go through for spawning.  This was much more fun with live salmon in front of us, and we are able to see the hump and kype on the males, and the bright red and green that is so unique to sockeye salmon. We also saw some small jack salmon among the larger males, and they were pretty fun to watch.

Two sockeye salmon in a river

Sockeye salmon pair!

There were about 20 salmon around this log

The stretch of river where we watched the salmon

We could have stayed for hours, but we were only at the halfway point for the day and hoped to reach our campsite before dark. So we continued on the bushy, forested trail with the occasional whiff of rotting salmon. My legs felt much better now that we were on level terrain, and we hurried along.  After a few miles, we came across a suspension bridge.

I am usually not a fan of suspension bridges. I think they are the coolest, but my brain has a difficult time in situations where my body can register movement but my eyes cannot.  This is mostly an issue on boats with seasickness, but suspension bridges often trigger it as well.  Luckily, this bridge bounced significantly with each step and there was no disconnect; my eyes and brain both believed the bridge was bouncing way more than it should.  It was probably the sketchiest bridge I have crossed, and I just put my head down and barreled through. In reality, it was pretty safe and fun, once I was on firm ground on the other side.

We continued to stroll through the forest, making our way to U.S. Cabin Camp.  The scenery remained mostly unchanged, but it was nice to be in a shaded forest after our ridge walk the day before. Eventually, we reached the final river crossing for the night.  This crossing utilizes a cable car to pull ourselves across the river. I was really looking forward to this trail feature and was disappointed when the ranger said there was a wasp’s nest on the platform. The people we passed on the trail all said they took the horse ford rather than the cable car to avoid the wasps.  We weren’t willing to risk wasps on top of everything else, so we opted for the horse ford as well.  In the end, given the supersize nature feeling of this trip, it was nice not to add too many human elements in the mix.

Final ford of the day

The horse ford was gentle and easy, though a bit chilly. We laced our boots back up then made our way down the trail to U.S. Cabin Camp. We arrived shortly after and found a myriad of available campsites.  After so many of our hiking trips recently involving sleeping at whatever spot is open, it was great to have a bunch of choices, even if most of them were almost identical.


U.S. Cabin Camp is in that patch of woods

We found a nice, large space with easy access to the river and set up camp.  After a short trip to the river bank, hobbling on our tired feet, we made dinner and fell asleep.

River next to U.S. Cabin Camp

Upstream view from U.S. Cabin Camp

Our cozy tent site, nice and woodsy

Day 3

10 miles, ~3000′ elevation gain

We woke and were back on the trail by 8:30.  Our third day was our shortest day for mileage, but we still needed to gain 3,000′ to make it back to Hannegan Pass.  It was already starting to get hot by the time we started up on the trail, but the shade kept things nice and cool.  We continued on a flat forest path for a few miles, then the elevation gain began. Sections were fairly steep, but all within stock grade. The trail followed a pattern with of an uphill pulse followed by a longer, flat traverse, which was appreciated.   Eventually, we crossed a large bridge then reached Hell’s Gorge and saw a gorgeous waterfall in the distance.

60% of the trail looked like this on day three.

Large waterfall in the distance near Hell’s Gorge

We could see Hannegan Pass getting closer as we continued hiking and eventually we made it to the fields below boundary camp. The hot, open slopes were the only thing between us and the easy downhill back to the car.  Gathering our strength, knowing it would be the final push to the end, we started hopping from shade spot to shade spot. Miserably hot, tired and ready for the car, my face, as I looked upon switchbacks, summarizes the feelings of the moment.

The final push

Terrified to leave the shade, maybe dead inside

Approaching Hannegan Pass

Eventually, we reached the pass and stopped for a half hour rest.  Too tired to fend off the flies any longer, I lay in the shade and allowed myself to be ravaged while hoping this half hour rest would be enough of a break for my body to completely heal.  It was not.

At this point, we only had 4 miles of moderate downhill hiking to the trailhead. Unfortunately for me, the previous day’s elevation loss and its impact on my legs meant that as soon as we started going downhill, the pain returned. Our “easy four miles” turned into another miserable slog, where I barely looked up from the trail for the entire four miles.  The hot talus slopes were devoid of shade and we frequently crossed into hot spots where the air hung heavy and humid, like walking into an oven. Determined to get to the car where I could sit for a long time, we eventually made our way out of the oven trail of misery and tears and to the car.  I stripped off my boots and sweaty hiking gear and sat for a good chunk of time in the back of the car.

The descent to the trailhead. Long and miserable.

We had an abundance of blisters, Michael’s best dirt-line yet and a great sense of accomplishment.  This trail tested our limits, particularly after coming back from an injury and we were proud to have finished. I would have liked to finish a little more casually, instead of feeling like I was fighting to the last step to make it to the car, but it was also fun to test our limits.

We returned to the Ranger Station and turned in our bear sighting sheets. Then we continued on to for a post-hike meal at Graham’s, which was filling and delicious.  Highly recommend. A few hours driving later, we made it home to Seattle for a shower and early bedtime.

Additional Information:

WTA information

North Cascades Backcountry Permit Website

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AP September 7, 2017 - 8:16 pm

Wow great adventure and nice update!

Garron September 9, 2017 - 10:36 am

Great Job Guys!!! Thanks so much for sharing it!

Scott Welch July 31, 2018 - 8:50 am

Im doing the same hike but over 4 days. Thanks for sharing your trip. Very helpful!! Im getting excited for it


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