Returning to the Holy Land
In a surprising turn of events, my summer of 2020 was wrapping up without a single trip to my favorite place, the Glacier Peak Wilderness. I almost felt ashamed; how could I pass on the lupines, glaciers, and pumice fields of this particularly magical part of the Cascades? So as the mountains gave into fall, I made plans with Chris to return to the holy land. And a grand return this would be.
I often tell people that the best trail loop in Washington is not the Wonderland, Loowit, or Grand Loop, but the 45 mile loop on the east side of Glacier Peak from Little Giant Pass, over High Pass, Buck Creek Pass, Cloudy Pass, and finally Spider Gap. It has a bit of everything: the virgin little Alaskan Valley (Napeequa), grand single track around High Pass, old growth in the Suiattle, a mirage of colors at Cloudy Pass, and silty glacial lakes around Spider Gap. I have done this loop separately in portions: a 3 day backpacking trip of the Spider Gap Buck Creek Loop and a day trip through the Napeequa. Time to link it all together.
Chris and I drove in the night before in his Euro Van. We left bikes at the base of the Phelps Creek Road, not wanting to drive any further in his van. Is there a road with more sharp rocks and roots than the Chiwawa River Road?
Leading up to the run, I felt a genuine excitement that I rarely feel anymore. Usually, I only get it before exploring new places, like the Alpine Lakes Crest Traverse. I knew what this run would deliver. But it still had me giddy. It’s just that good.
We got started in the dark, knowing it would be a long day. I love how this run starts with an ice cold fold of the Chiwawa River. It was knee deep, rather deep for this time of year, but not bad considering it had just dumped 5 inches in the mountains the week before.
The Little Giant Trail wanders around before heading straight up. We reached the upper meadows right after sunrise.
Granted, I have not been to that many fall meadows, but the Little Giant Meadow just might be the most incredible field of red and orange anywhere in the Cascades. With warm sunrise lighting, it was absolutely magical. It was going to be a good day.
There was a little bit of fog sitting down low in the Chiwawa River Valley, the only cloud visible. Everything was so crisp and clear.
People say that the view of Dragontail and Colchuck Lake for the first time is like a religious awakening, but I think the Napeequa from Little Giant Pass is even more enlightening. There is no other valley in the Cascades that is completely treeless at the bottom. It is simply the most unique valley in the range. Little Alaska. Shang-ri-la. Call it whatever you want.
It was too early in the morning to get good photos of the shaded valley floor. Regardless, I could tell that the valley was not as yellow as my first time here, almost exactly two years ago to the date. I guess the fall colors were coming slightly later this year.
The trail down into the Napeequa is nowhere near as bad as people say. Yes, I wouldn’t take a horse but it is still mostly joggable for a runner.
The flat valley bottom was a cold sink and frost and ice covered the ground. We moved swiftly, longing for the sunlight. It did not take us long to reach the sun further up valley.
With all the recent rain, I knew that the “Bog of Eternal Stench” would be bad. It was about shin deep muck and absolutely rancid! This is the true initiation to the Napeequa.
While the valley floor of the Napeequa is nearly flat, the walls on both sides are very steep. You can gaze up to hanging glaciers, waterfalls, and even a few larches.
The climb up into the Hanging Valley of the north fork went much better this time, since I bothered to follow the trail instead of schwacking through the alder.
The trail mostly disappears through the Hanging Valley, so we just wondered back and forth, taking pictures and marveling at the landscape.
People ask me what is my favorite place in the Cascades, but that is a difficult question to answer because it varies depending on the season. Really, the question should be what my favorite place is in four dimensional space time. The memories are still fresh, but I’m definitely leaning to this Hanging Valley of the Napeequa on a crystal clear fall day at the end of September.
An explosion of colors, a rushing aqua blue stream, and a picture-perfect framing of Clark Mountain – this is a spot that feels too perfect to be true. Even an artist could not conceive of a spot so grand and beautiful at so many different levels. But perhaps nature is the greatest artist?
As we climbed into the upper basin beneath High Pass, we transitioned dramatically from fields of red and yellow to complete snow coverage from the last storm. It felt like passing through fall straight to winter.
The snow depth varied depending on aspects, but was often 6 inches or more of painful breakable crust. It appeared no human had crossed High Pass since the storm (but a cougar or some big cat had). Our pace slowed greatly.
In the warm midday sun, we took a break at High Pass. I was feeling pretty worked considering we were nowhere near halfway through the mileage, but this run is front loaded with elevation gain and difficult terrain.
In the fall, we get such incredible clarity on days of high pressure. Peaks as far away as Baker stood out in great detail. The fresh snow on the high peaks and colorful meadows beneath accentuated every curve and detail in the landscape. Fall is only a few weeks long here, and you need some luck to get high pressure before the snow cloaks everything, but when the conditions align, it is pure magic. Drop everything and run for the hills.
The traverse past High Pass was a mess of 12 inch deep post holing on loose boulders. Chris was glad to let me go first and try to not to twist my ankles. The trail on the backside of 7276 also had inconvenient snow lingering on the trail. We did our best to “run” this descent.
However, as the snow faded, we began to cruise. The descent from High Pass to Buck Creek Pass is one of the easiest, most scenic runs anywhere. Perfect single track cutting through the hills thousands of feet above deep valleys, in reverence of the greats around.
I particularly love the view of Fortress Mountain across the Buck Creek Valley. With a white veil and red dress, it was as magnificent as I have ever seen.
A song had been stuck in my head all day:
Castle glitter under Spanish skies,
But I’m just looking out for you tonight.
Snow white mountains in an ancient place,
Tell me someday we’ll get there –
Someday.Stranger Things, Kygo and One Republic
I’ve waited a long time, but I think we’re finally there.
At Buck Creek Pass, we made sure to drink from the Buck Spring and then continued forth. This was a bail option. Both of us were feeling pretty tired after not running much in the recent smoke, but there was no question if we were continuing. The mountains were calling – no, insisting – that we continue.
There was a campfire still smoldering at the Small Creek crossing, so we did our best to put it out a little more with our tiny soft flasks (if you are going to have illegal campfires, at least put them out!). Then we started up the sneaky thousand foot climb over Middle Ridge before a cruiser descent down into the Suiattle Valley. We passed quite a few backpackers here. It seems like mid afternoon is the perfect time of day for backpackers to be on this leg of the Spider Gap Buck Creek Loop.
I think we both hit our low points on the climb up to Suiattle Pass. Mentally, the second to last climb is the hardest for me. We still had 15-20 miles to go, but had already logged 10k of gain. I was definitely not feeling as good as I was earlier this summer. But I reminded myself: you’ve been here before and you made it through. Pushing through is a learned behavior, a habit you practice. Luckily, it doesn’t fade like fitness can.
I felt the excitement return to my body as we neared Cloudy Pass. Cloudy Pass is one of the most beautiful spots in the Cascades, and importantly, it offers a clear view of Spider Gap, our last pass of the day. The end was within sight.
Cloudy Pass is another one of those spots that feel too good to be true. Everything, from the colorful meadows, to the silty Lyman Lakes, to the red streaks around Spider Gap, merge into this image of alpine perfection. The Glacier Peak Wilderness is the confluence of the best of the Cascades – sprawling meadows, dense fir trees, hanging glaciers, rugged peaks, and alpine lakes.
We took a long break here, lounging in the afternoon sun and sublime meadows. I felt energy surging into me from the mountains around. There’s always energy to be found on long days like this if we open ourselves to the energy stored in the high glaciers, flowing in the streams, and giving life to these wonderful places. It’s the heartbeat of the mountains, inseparable and integral.
We took off towards the Lyman Lakes with fresh legs and minds.
The climb through the Lyman Lakes weaves and wanders. We returned to fields of red and yellow, with a even a few yearning larches as we progressed towards Spider Gap. Bonanza looks absolutely ridiculous across the valley. I love the time of day when the shadows grow long and it feels like a race against the darkness.
The climb up to Spider Gap goes through a pretty new moraine. With fresh snow, it was definitely slow terrain, but fortunately there was a bootpack through the fresh snow, unlike High Pass.
At Spider Gap, the uphill was all over. Now it was simply 13 long miles to our car.
On late fall runs out here, the Spider “Glacier” can be a challenge without traction. This time, the fresh snow worked to our advantage, allowing some nice boot skiing. September turns, baby!
I forgot how epic the spot is at the end of the hanging valley of the Spider Glacier – a terminal moraine perched thousands of feet above Spider Meadows with great views out to the Entiat 9ers. This would be a great place to linger, but the sun was setting and it was time to boogie.
Down at the flats of Spider Meadows, we began cruising once again. Before diving into the forest, I turned back and said goodbye to the Glacier Peak Wilderness. It was only one day this year, but it was the day of the year, a day I will never forget.
The trail to Spider Meadows is an old road, so it is incredibly straight and flat. We moved well, logging 9 minute miles and then 8 minutes miles on the Phelps Creek Road. Having enough strength to run efficiently on descents has been a huge advancement for me this year. For Chris, 40 miles is nothing, but I still have another 20 years to reach his level.
We were excited to reach our bikes for the final three miles. Even though my quads felt trashed from running, my legs felt great on the bike, flying up and down towards the car. Note to self: biking fatigue is completely separate from running fatigue.
We reached the van at dusk, just as it was becoming difficult for us to see rocks on the road without a light. Sunrise at Little Giant, dusk at the van, and not a cloud in the sky between all day. We could not have planned it more perfectly.
On this day, I “confirmed” my theory that the Little Giant Spider Loop is the best trail run in the state. And at this time of year, it might be the most beautiful run, anywhere. Usually, I’m driven by exploration and seeing new places. But this run was more about revisiting old friends and experiencing the same joy these places always give me. It might just have to become an annual visit.
- We measured 44 miles and 12.5k ft gain, of which we biked the last 3 miles. The bike shuttle doesn’t save time overall, but it is certainly enjoyable. It took us just over 13 hours. Don’t believe FKT.com, which calls this a 50 mile loop. It’s not even close.
- The two high passes, High Pass and Spider Gap, have very primitive trails. Don’t expect fast travel all day. Little Giant is also slow.
- In case you were wondering, I would never consider doing this loop in the other direction. Ending with the Napeequa instead of the cruiser Phelps Creek Trail would be absolutely insane.
- There was abundant water, even in the fall. It’s the Glacier Peak Wilderness, after all.
- The Spider Glacier could pose trouble for some runners less comfortable on low angle ice. Some might want some traction on normal years.
- For those not wanting to commit to a full day, both of the shorter loops exiting out Buck Creek are still fantastic and totally worth it.
- As a slower paced backpack, this loop offers endless incredible camps and lots of peaks to bag on the way. Highly recommend at any speed.