Making Trails

the travel blog of Lauren Nishizaki

Glacier Peak Wilderness: Hike to White Pass

Washington, USA

On Labor Day weekend, Jake and I went on our first backpacking/camping trip together through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. We hiked up to and stayed overnight at White Pass, 3600 feet above the trailhead and the North Fork Sauk Trail. The first five miles of the trail follow the North Fork Sauk River to Mackinshaw Shelter. About three miles of rapid, steep switchbacks get you up the ridge. The last three-quarters of a mile of the trail is along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

We were probably the least experienced people to camp at the pass that weekend. The trail is popular among people attempting to summit Glacier Peak; we passed many groups carrying ice picks, ice climbing boots, and helmets. Although we didn’t talk to him personally, there was a guy camping near us who had started at the Mexican border and was one week from finishing the PCT.

Trailhead Sloan Creek Campgrounds
Campground White Pass
Total distance 9.15 miles per day (18.3 miles total)
Total elevation gain 3600 ft

When we were hiking alongside the river, the ridges on either side of the trail were completely obscured by the trees growing on them. As we climbed up the switchbacks, more and more of the rocky and windswept areas of the opposing ridges became visible. The following picture was taken about two-thirds of the way up the switchbacks. The changing view was extremely gratifying, as it was tangible evidence that our tiring trek up the side of the mountain was getting us somewhere!

As we approached White Pass, the redwood and cedar forests gave way to alpine meadows. Because of the impending sunset, we briefly attempted to locate a place to camp in this area, but everywhere ended up being too steep (and full of low, dense brush); the ground also kept getting steeper the further we went. We ended up really booking it for the last mile to the pass - it got dark just as we arrived at the campsite.

It started to sprinkle just as we were getting ready to sleep, but we never imagined that the world would be white when we woke up! About two inches of snow fell between midnight and 7am. I was awoken by what sounded like rope sliding on nylon. The source of the noise was snow sliding off the top and sides of our tent, rather than one of our neighbors packing up his gear. The morning view from (aptly named) White Pass made the entire trip worth it.

Looking back at the campsites below White Pass, you can see that the snow didn’t extend very far down the ridge. Our campsite was one of the lowest places completely covered by the overnight snow fall. We set our tent up right behind the clump of trees at the center of the image; if you look really closely, you can see the bare footprint left by our tent.

The trail was a bit muddy to start with; the snow was already starting to melt. We had no trouble finding the trail though, since we had strategically waited long enough for others to leave first. For awhile, we could even follow a set of footprints left by our neighbors’ extremely friendly dog.

Compared to the hike up to White Pass, the return journey seemed as if it was on a completely different trail. The ridge on the opposite side of the valley was at times completely obscured by the fog. The world was silent and peaceful and oh so beautiful.

The rapid switchbacks down the ridge to the Sauk River went much more quickly than the ascent (about 3 hours descending, versus 4 hours ascending). After that, we thought we’d be done with the hard part! However, we underestimated how tired our legs and feet could get.

The last couple of miles were arduous, as our muscles were complaining non-stop. We rejoiced every time we saw a familiar landmark, although we had a hard time determining where the landmarks were relative to the trailhead. We reached the trailhead at the same time as another group of hikers (groups kept sneaking up on us from behind; we were taking our time/going as fast as we could). This group of three had wanted to summit Glacier Peak and were equipped with all the necessary ice climbing and safety gear. The bad weather conditions meant they had to turn around after reaching base camp; they ended up hiking a measly 32 miles in two days. We were impressed!

After reaching the car, we resolved to try car camping as our next outdoor excursion (we were just so tired by that point). We also resolved to eat takeout Thai food for dinner, have a long soak in the tub, and sit around and watch TV — anything that minimized movement. On my part at least, there was a lot of staggering and groaning once we got back to Seattle and had to walk the single block from the car to Jake’s apartment. I gingerly crossed the street and even had to let a taxi go in front of me because I was walking so slowly.

Although the entire trip was a bit stressful and painful (after the fact), the whole thing was absolutely amazing. The views were spectacular (including the derpy field mice) and I couldn’t believe the amount of gratification I got when I stood at the top of the trail and looked out over the mountainside we’d scaled. I’m hooked on this whole camping/backpacking thing.