Every January, I sit down with my journal and outline the hikes and backpacking trips I hope to accomplish that year. Glacier Peak Wilderness has been number one on that list for four years now, specifically, the 44-mile loop including Spider Gap. I told people it is my favorite wilderness area without ever setting foot in it. I just knew it was my place.
I would hold it as my pinnacle route, to be completed in entirety the third week of August. That blessed time when bugs drop off, summer weather prevails and the perfect backpacking window emerges. I dreamt of seeing the trail with fresh eyes, each spectacular sight unfolding for the first time on my longest backpacking route yet.
But a lot can happen in August. Forest fires made the route impossible for two years, I was terrified of the road, and shin splints kept me away from long, difficult routes. Mostly though it was my crippling perfectionism refusing to compromise that kept me off the trail.
But a few weeks ago, when we looked at this open weekend in July, desperate to get to the high alpine and see something new, this trail emerged as a possibility. I was tired of waiting until everything was perfect. My attempts to create the ideal trip were keeping me out of an area that I was so excited to explore. So, we prepared our maps and set out to the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
The trail epitomized everything I love about backpacking in Washington, as we moved from forests to meadows, rocky cirques to glaciers, and ultimately lingering above glacially-fed tarns. Forgive me for the wait, I have come home.
Day 1: Spider Meadows
Michael and I had not made it to the Washington mountains for a backpacking trip together since last August in the North Cascades. Heading to the Glacier Peak Wilderness for the first time had me so giddy I could hardly sleep. Epic views! Hot summer trails with backpacks! New sights! In a way, it was comfortably familiar in the sense that the backbone of our time together comes from getting out on a trail for a weekend and exploring new places. And I was excited to be in familiar territory.
We woke up early, trying to get on the road by 6 am. I knew the drive would be long and the spot we planned on camping was likely to be crowded. It is not a permit-restricted area so I wanted to get there early and make sure we had a spot. By 6:30, we were out the door and on the highway, breakfast sandwiches in hand and dirtbag diaries podcast playing on the speaker.
We made it over Stevens Pass, past Lake Wenatchee and onwards towards Trinity. The well-paved road turned to a poorly paved road, in the process of being reclaimed by wildflowers and multiple families of deer. Then that paved road turned to a dirt road, with the occasional pothole. Which turned into a rocky dirt road that rattled the car and the nerves. Then we turned off for the last two miles of the trail, which was a deeply-rutted miserable drive.
I had avoided this route too afraid for my life and my car to brave the road. Finally, ready to face my fears we turned onto the steep, rutted forest road. As I chanted “yes we can” under my breath, I imagined Barack Obama, sitting next to me and encouraging me up the route. I began to imitate his cadence, giving me encouragement, “stay the course, we got this”. It helped me slowly move my way up the road without giving into panic, and provided a nice bout of fear for my sanity by Michael.
I parked the car and let out a sigh of relief. Hard part over, now we just had to backpack.
The trail set off at a barely perceptible incline, slowly gaining elevation. Starting in the forest, with small creeks to cross, we made good time. After about two miles, halfway to the meadow, we came across our first larger creek crossing. We scouted a few different spots and found a log wide enough to make it across.
We continued hiking through the increasingly beautiful trail, as it opened up to meadows filled with wildflowers and an abundance of greenery. We could see we were getting close to leaving the forest behind, and around 12:30 we popped off the main trail and onto the edge of Spider Meadows.
The view took my breath away. Rocky cliffs held tumbling waterfalls, punctuated by evergreen trees. The valley floor was blanketed in a rich, verdant green sprinkled with wildflowers, a dusty trail cutting through it all.
We stopped for lunch, took a look around and realized the area was already pretty full. Pulling out our map, we saw we could push another two miles to Phelp’s basin and perhaps have a little more solitude. So we shouldered our packs and set off through the meadow.
Day 1: Spider Glacier
We crossed Phelp’s Creek, which had dropped just enough that we could rock-hop instead of ford our way across. The trail gained in elevation, and we climbed with it before reaching the junction with Phelp’s Basin and upwards towards Spider Gap. We looked left, looked right, looked left again, and decided to continue climbing to Spider Gap.
We turned off the the junction and began to climb the steep miner’s trail to Spider Glacier. Switchback followed switchback and we hiked to each sliver of shade. When we had about three switchbacks left, we found a cooler section of the trail and sat for 10 minutes, looking out over the valley. After having our heads down, pushing through, sitting felt amazing.
Then we were back at it, climbing higher and higher. Until we rounded the corner and saw spider glacier.
It was so much better than my imagination. We had been around so many very snowy glaciers that I had become accustomed to the ice being the main factor. But the rocky cirque was an incredible red color, waterfalls cutting through in every direction. The campsite we were hoping to snag was occupied so we stood about trying to see if there were any additional spots not covered in snow…
After winding around, following several dead ends, we found the greatest campsite of all time. With views into Phelp’s Basin, Spider Meadows and Spider Glacier, this easily falls into top five favorite places I have pitched my tent.
After finding our spot, setting up the tent and filtering water, we planned on hiking up to spider gap for sunset. But…my feet were exhausted, blisters a hot mess. So we opted to make it an early night, cook dinner and head to bed. We set an alarm for 1 am to look at stars and went to sleep by 8:00.
The 1 am wake-up call for stars came quickly, but as soon as the alarm went off my head shot out of the tent, faced towards the heavens. While not the brightest stars we have seen in the backcountry, the snow lit the surrounding peaks and the view from the ridge was phenomenal. I planned to attempt some astrophotography, but was enjoying the experience so much that I chose just lay and take it all in.
Day 2: Lazy Morning
I woke the next morning as the sun started peeking out over the Phelp’s basin. Watching the rays fill the valley, I was inspired to do a few sun salutations, then crawled back in bed for a second nap. Before long, sun flooded our campsite and the bluff was awake. A mule-deer wandered on the outskirts of camp and a marmot scurried about, sunning itself on the rocks.
It felt crazy that we would ever leave such a beautiful place, but I still wanted to make it to the top of Spider Gap and see beyond our valley, so we packed up our gear and headed towards the Spider Glacier. We filtered some water, stashed our heavy packs out of the way and headed up the snowy slope.
Day 2: Spider Gap and Lyman Lakes
At times steep, and other times meandering, we slowly made our way up the soft snow. We reached the false top, then pushed forward to the pass at 7050’.
The view of the lakes was more incredible than I imagined. Turquoise circles under a snowy swathe, surrounded by light grey rocks. It was a spectacular scene to behold. We sat on warm rocks and looked into the expanse for nearly half an hour. We stayed entertained by a very friendly marmot that moved near us. Ultimately, when we stood to leave, it paralleled Michael until he reached snow again.
Going down the snow field was far more fun than going up it. We glissaded where it was steep, and plunge-stepped the rest of the way down. Soon, we were back at the trail. After filtering a little more water, we shouldered our packs again and set down the switchbacks to return to Spider Meadows.
Day 2: Heading Home
The route down was hotter than the previous day, and miserable for slightly different reasons. Harder on the knees, easier on the lungs. We crossed Phelp’s Creek easily and were soon in the meadows.
The lack of trees in the meadow made for a very warm traverse as we moved through the green plants and wildflowers. Reaching the edge of the meadow, we found an established campsite that no one was using for the moment, plopped down our packs and I lay on the shaded rock, hot and tired. The cool boulder felt amazing against my bare back and I did my best Aslan impression.
A milkshake from Zeke’s beckoned, so we gathered our strength and continued on for the last 5 miles. Long, flat, boring miles. We worked at putting one foot in front of the other, the whimsy of the trail long gone as we wanted to be in the car and out of the heat.
At long last, we made it back to the sweltering car, which informed us it was 95 degrees. Or at least, I think that is what it said. The sunscreen melting off my face and into my eyes made it difficult to see and I finally took a full waterbottle and poured it all over my face.
Back down the terrible road we went; this time the road improving as we went on until reaching highway 2. Burgers, milkshakes and getting in line for the Sunday highway 2 back-up. Then home and sleep, feeling like our tent-spot on the bluff the night before was all a dream.