Lonesome Lake at dawn in Cirque of the Towers, Popo Agie Wilderness Wind River Range Wyoming #78372

Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range

Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range

Lonesome Lake at dawn in Cirque of the Towers, Popo Agie Wilderness Wind River Range Wyoming #78372Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range #78372  Purchase

The Cirque of the Towers is one of the most popular destinations in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Only Island Lake and Titcomb Basin come close in popularity. Both locations are mind-bogglingly beautiful with plenty of features to lure the outdoor enthusiast. The Cirque of the Towers however is more of a draw for rock climbers. Its numerous spires and big granite walls with dozens of routes are a climber’s dream.

This summer I made my third trip to the Cirque of the Towers with the goal of coming back with some great new photos. The previous trips were difficult and only partially successful for photography due to widespread wildfire smoke. So I’ve been waiting for the right time to make a return. As with my last trip to the Cirque, my plan was to also include a few days at nearby Deep Lake.

Mitchell Peak reflected in stream flowing into Lonesome Lake in Cirque of the Towers, Popo Agie Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingMitchell Peak Cirque of the Towers #78320  Purchase

This is also the second part of two backpacking trips to the southern Wind River Range. The first segment was a 7-day trip to Pyramid and Shadow Lakes. Shadow Lake sits on the backside of the Cirque of the Towers and is often part of a loop trip to the cirque that crosses over Texas Pass.

Some people may wonder why I didn’t just do that loop hike or one of several other longer scenic loops. The reason is that since my main goal is photography I need both flexibility and plenty of extra time built into my trips. Often I end up waiting for several days at a location for the right light for photography. So while most loops in the area can be done in 4-7 days, I would need more like 9-14 days. And going solo with lots of camera gear means I’d be carrying an unholy amount of weight.

Evening storm clouds refelcted in Big Sandy Lake, Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingBig Sandy Lake Wind River Range #78267  Purchase

Big Sandy trailhead to Big Sandy Lake & Jackass Pass

After a few days in Pinedale, I returned to the Big Sandy Trailhead. This trailhead was also the start of the first trip and is the jumping-off point for many other destinations. One look at the parking area might shock a first-time visitor. The lot is big, always full, and often overflows nearly a mile back down the road. But again this trailhead is the starting point for many different destinations, so not everyone parked there is going to the same place.

The approximately 5.5-mile hike to Big Sandy Lake is pleasant with minimal elevation gain. And it’s entirely possible to continue from Big Sandy Lake into the Cirque in one day. However, Big Sandy is a nice place to spend the first night if you got a late start. Or if like me you enjoy hiking at a leisurely pass and would like to photograph evening light at the lake. There are plenty of campsites along the west and north sides of the lake. But if you arrive late in the day you may be out of luck finding one.

Clouds refelcted in Big Sandy Lake at sunset, Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingBig Sandy Lake Wind River Range #78299  Purchase

On the second day, I got a crack of dawn start to tackle the climb to Jackass Pass and down to Lonesome Lake on the other side. The pass is only 2.4 miles from Big Sandy Lake with about 1100′ of elevation gain. However, there is a surprising amount of significant ups and downs along the way. Plus much of the trail is over rough rocky terrain. Starting up in midday sun and heat is not recommended.

At a little over the halfway point, there is a junction with a trail marked “Climbers Route”. This trail climbs through a boulder field along Arrowhead Lake to a lower pass SW of Jackass Pass. I’ve never done it but although it looks like a quicker route I’ve heard it’s very difficult and tiring. Most hikers follow the main trail, even though from here on it’s often steep and in a few spots easy to lose. From the pass, it’s a descent to Lonesome Lake with stupendous views at every step.

War Bonnet and Warrior Peaks reflected in Lonesome Lake at dawn in Cirque of the Towers, Popo Agie Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingDawn at Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range #78372  Purchase

Lonesome Lake Cirque of the Towers

Though it was a short hike up and over the pass I was ready to find a campsite near Lonesome Lake and relax a bit. Most of the better sites are east of the lake on both sides of the North Popo Agie River. Hanging food or using bear-proof canisters is absolutely necessary. Not so much because of bears but for the bold thieving squirrels!

*It must be noted here that camping is not permitted within 1/4 mile of Lonesome Lake.  It would seem pretty obvious that an area that receives such heavy use would need a little extra love and consideration. Most people follow that rule but not all. It seems some hikers that get a late start, or thru-hikers that travel from dawn to dusk are too tired to bother, or even care.

Cirque of the Towers reflected in stream flowing into Lonesome Lake, Popo Agie Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingCirque of the Towers Wind River Range #78418  Purchase

Mitchell Peak and Cirque of the Towers reflected in Lonesome Lake, Popo Agie Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingLonesome Lake Wind River Range #784448  Purchase

As usual, after setting up camp I scouted the area around the lake for photo compositions. One of my favorite spots is near the outlet on the south side of the lake. There are plenty of partially submerged boulders in the water to aid in composing photos. Another good spot is on the NE side of the lake by grassy meadows and streams. Both offer different views of the Cirque and give some variety to your images. During one morning with particularly good light, I first set up by the boulders and then ran to the other end while the light was still good, and back again to the start. It was exhilarating, and went a long way to make up for days of boring light!

Pingora Peak reflected in pond. Cirque of the Towers Popo Agie Wilderness. Wind River Range Wyoming #78532Pingora Peak Wind River Range #78530  Purchase

Upper Cirque of the Towers

Aside from Lonesome another fantastic area is higher up and closer to the towers of the Cirque. This is where most of the climbers set up camp. And once again it is advisable to arrive very early in the day to find a suitable campsite. Being almost above the tree line this area can be problematic for hanging food. Again, bears aren’t much of a problem in the Cirque, as far as I know, but smaller critters are. Bear-proof food canisters are a good idea in the upper Cirque. An alternate ingenious method is to hang food from a long branch secured on a big boulder.

There are several features in the upper Cirque attractive for photographers. The first is a small wide waterfall pouring over a smooth rock face. You’ll need an ultra-wide lens here though to get a good composition. Behind the waterfall are several small ponds which when still perfectly mirror Pingora Peak and the other towers.

Cirque of the Towers waterfall. Popo Agie Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingCirque of the Towers Waterfall #78490  Purchase

A little further back and a short scramble up is a glacial tarn beneath the walls of Warrior Peaks. It has a greenish-blue color from glacial flour. Again, you’ll need a wide-angle lens for compositions here. Plus, lighting can be tricky since the towers are mostly in full sun or total shade. Of course dramatic sunrise or sunset, clouds make the task much easier.

For just about any visitor whose sole destination is the Cirque of the Towers I definitely would advise spending at least two nights. For serious photography, I would double or treble that.

 

East Temple and Temple Peaks reflected in Deep Lake. Bridger Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingDeep Lake Wind River Range #78599  Purchase

Deep Lake

After spending time in the Cirque my next destination was Deep Lake. From the Cirque it’s less than a 6-mile hike, but first, a climb back up and down Jackass Pass is necessary.  So to beat the heat and get a campsite at Deep Lake another sunrise start was in order. I was already higher up so the climb wasn’t too bad. But the hike back down the pass to Big Sandy Lake was still tiring, due to all the ups and downs and rough terrain along the way.

From Big Sandy to Deep Lake the trail is mostly pleasant and easy. The last mile or so is a bit exciting as you must route-find your way up and across an extensive slab of granite. Once at Deep Lake the views are again stupendous. The rocks and lake make a perfect frame for the backdrop of East Temple and Temple Peaks. Behind you is another impressive sight, the peaks of the Cirque of the Towers in the distance.

View towards Cirque of the Towers from Deep Lake. Bridger Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingCirque of the Towers from Deep Lake #78568  Purchase

The area around Deep Lake doesn’t see as many visitors as the Cirque but finding a campsite is generally more difficult than at the Cirque. Mainly because of the lack of suitable flat spots. Many backpackers set up tents on the broad flat granite slabs near the lake outlet. Tents are then anchored down with large rocks.

Temple Peak, Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingTemple Peak (L) and Lake #78649  Purchase

Temple Peak and Temple Lake

While Deep Lake can be a destination in itself there is far more to explore and see. Along the west side of the lake, there is a good trail that climbs up to a saddle on the long ridge. It’s only about a twenty-minute hike to the broad pass with even more impressive views and more exploring. A short and easy trail leads down to Temple Lake and the rock and flower gardens surrounding it. The more ambitious can continue up to Temple Pass and then the long ramp to the summit of East Temple Peak.

Temple Peak and Temple Lake. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingTemple Lake #78625  Purchase

I was hoping to be able to spend a night or two in the vicinity of Temple Lake for more photography. However, I only had one night left and I was still waiting for some good light back down at Deep Lake. Oh well, another excuse to come back in the future!

That evening back at camp and the lake some nice clouds were hanging around during the first part of golden hour. They didn’t stay for a nice sunset glow but it was productive anyway. In the morning there was a bit of a repeat light show but in reverse.

Packing up and hiking down the trail back to my truck I again had that satisfying feeling of wrapping up another great trip and returning home warm set of memories. Not to mention lots of new images!

East Temple and Temple Peaks reflected in Deep Lake. Bridger Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingDeep Lake Wind River Range #78674  Purchase

If You Go to Cirque of the Towers and Deep Lake:

Distance: ~31 miles round trip
Elevation: ~2300″ not including numerous elevation gains and losses
Difficulty:  Moderate
Red Tape:  As of 2022, no permits are needed
Maps: Wind River Range South; Beartooth Publishing
Guidebooks: Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains

*Please be courteous and think of future visitors, respect the signs, and don’t camp within 1/4 of Lonesome Lake. Also, camp at least 200′ of lakes and trails and 100′ from rivers and streams.

Trail signs Bridger Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingBig Sandy Trail signs Wind River Range #78683  Purchase

The Big Sandy Trailhead is located about 56 miles south of Pinedale. The last eight miles or so can be rough and slow going but is passable for ordinary passenger cars. Adjacent to the trailhead there is a small campground, and there are also scattered sites along the last few miles of the road. Like most trailheads in the Winds, parking can be at a premium, get an early start.

Make sure you take along plenty of insect repellant. The Winds are notorious for their ravenous hordes of mosquitoes and flies. Although they weren’t too bad during my trip in early August. Also, be prepared for dramatic weather changes. Summer thunder and lightning storms are very common along the Continental Divide. Because of this stay off high ridges and summits during the afternoon.

The town of Pinedale makes a great base for multiple trips into the Winds. It has everything you’ll need, from good food and lodging to one of my favorite outdoor recreation stores, the Great Outdoor Shop. It’s stocked with everything needed for a successful trip, including a very knowledgeable and friendly staff. Don’t visit Pinedale without dropping in! Right next door to the great Outdoor Shop is the best place to go for a post-trip meal, the Wind River Brewing Company. They have excellent burgers and great brews!

Pingora Peak Wind River Range #78384  Purchase

Leave No Trace

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). The Wind River Range and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Photo Gear Used On This Trip

Nikon D850
Nikkor Lens:
14-24mm 2.8G ED
24-70mm 2.8E ED
Gitzo 1532 Tripod
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
B+H Polarizing Filter
Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release

East Temple Peak and trail along Deep Lake. Bridger Wilderness Wind River Range WyomingEast Temple Peak and  Deep Lake #78557  Purchase

If you enjoyed reading about the Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range please share it with your friends and family.

Also, check out these other Wind River posts!

Wind River Range Pyramid and Shadow Lakes
Central Wind River Range Backpacking
Bonneville Lakes Wind River Range
Island Lake Wind River Range
Titcomb Basin Wind River Range
Indian Basin Wind River Range
Green River Lakes Wind River Range

All photos appearing in Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range

Ambush Peak, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range Wyoming

Wind River Range Pyramid and Shadow Lakes

Wind River Range Pyramid and Shadow Lakes 

Shadow Lake and view of the backside of Cirque of the Towers. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingShadow Lake Wind River Range #78151   Purchase

The Wind River Range is a mountain range in western Wyoming. It encompasses 40 peaks over 13,000′ in altitude, over 1300 named lakes, and is home to the largest glacier in the American Rockies. While not as well known as nearby Grand Teton National Park, the Winds nonetheless attracts an increasing amount of backpackers, climbers, photographers, hunters, and fishermen. An extensive network of trails, and easy cross-country travel, give access to nearly every corner of the range. All of this offers outdoor enthusiasts a lifetime of wilderness adventures.

My first visit to the Winds was in 2002, and I’ve been coming back for more adventure ever since. On this summer’s return, I visited the Southern part of the range on two separate backpacking trips, each lasting from 6-9 days.

Peaks and ridges of East Fork Valley seen from tarn above Pyramid Lake. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingAmbush Peak Wind River Range #78047  Purchase

The first trip would take me to views of the awesome peaks of the East Fork Valley, also known as Desolation Valley. Then moving on to Shadow Lake for views of the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. The second trip, coming in my next post, would be to the Cirque of the Towers itself, and then to Deep Lake with views of East Temple and Temple peaks.

Big Sandy Trailhead parking area. Wind River Range WyomingBig Sandy Trailhead #78182  Purchase

Big Sandy Trailhead Wind River Range

For both trips, the start would be from the Big Sandy Trailhead, one of the main access points for the southern part of the range. Getting to the trailhead is itself an adventure. It is about 56 miles from the nearest town of Pinedale with about half that distance on unpaved roads. The last 8 miles or so can be pretty rough and bumpy but is passable for regular passenger cars without four-wheel drive.

First-time visitors will be amazed, although possibly disheartened, by the huge amount of cars in the parking lot and overflowing nearly a mile down the road. However, it’s worth noting that the Big Sandy trailhead gives access to many other trails and destinations. So rest assured, not all of those vehicles belong to people heading to the Cirque.

Fremont Trail alongside Marms Lake Bridger Wilderness WyomingMarms Lake Wind River Range #78176  Purchase

Hiking to Pyramid Lake Wind River Range

My first destination was  Pyramid Lake and a small nearby pass with views of the East Fork or Desolation Valley. It’s about a 12-mile hike from the trailhead to Pyramid Lake and is part of the popular Hailey Pass Washakie Pass Loop. After gradually ascending through the open forest for the first few miles, the trail enters wide open meadows. This is some of the most pleasant hiking imaginable. Soon the trail passes Mirror Lake, then Dads Lake, and finally Marms Lake.  All of these are very picturesque and inviting for fishing and camping.

Subalpine pond at sunset. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingSubalpine Pond Wind River Range #77976  Purchase

Being the first day of an 8-day trip and loaded with camera gear my pack was pretty heavy. So upon reaching some lovely subalpine ponds just beyond and above Marms Lake I decided to set up camp. It was a very scenic area set amid meadows and polished rock outcroppings. All the other hikers on the trail passed up this spot so I had it all to myself! Plus I was able to make some nice photographs here during the golden hour light.

The next day’s hike was a bit shorter, although with more elevation gain. Shortly after starting the trail began to climb and enter the actual mountains. Up to this point, travel was along a high benchland running parallel to the big peaks along the Continental Divide. And once again along the way, there was a string of picturesque lakes along the way.

Pyramid Lake, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingPyramid Lake Wind River Range #77995 Purchase

Pyramid Creek, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingCreek flowing from Pyramid Lake Wind River Range #78011 Purchase

Pyramid Lake and Pass Wind River Range

After one last short but steep climb Pyramid Lake came into view. Sitting at 10,500′ and bordered on three sides by tall granite peaks it is a stunning scene. Although my main goal of a small pass was only a short hike further I decided Pyramid Lake was a worthy spot to spend the night and do some photography.

After setting up camp I did my usual location scouting in preparation for evening photography before making dinner.  Even though the middle of August was approaching, mosquitoes were still a nuisance and hindered the enjoyment of evening photography.

Raid Peak seen from tarn above Pyramid Lake. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingRaid Peak Wind River Range #78055 Purchase

The next day I moved camp the short distance higher up to the small pass overlooking the East Fork River valley. The views here were especially stunning. In addition, there was even a small tarn in a perfect location to aid in composing photographs. I only had to sit back, enjoy the surroundings, and wait for some good light for photography.

My original trip plan was to descend into the East Fork or Desolation Valley and photograph there for a few days before doing the entire Hailey Pass/Washakie Pass Loop. However, after consulting the map I felt that Shadow Lake needed to be a part of this trip. But allotting enough time at Shadow Lake for meaningful photography would mean a major altering of my itinerary.

Raid and Bonneville Peaks above East Fork Valley, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingRaid and Bonneville Peaks Wind River Range #78043 Purchase

Peaks and ridges of East Fork Valley seen from tarn above Pyramid Lake. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingAmbush Peak Wind River Range #78046  Purchase

After a lengthy debate, I made the difficult decision to stay at the pass before moving directly to Shadow Lake. Unfortunately, Desolation Valley and the Hailey Pass/Washakie Pass Loop will need to be part of a future trip. I should note here that since my main goal on backpacking trips is photography, I often need to have the flexibility to be able to change plans, so I have enough time to wait at a location for optimum lighting conditions. And this soon proved essential.

Shadow Lake and view of the backside of Cirque of the Towers. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingClearing storm at Shadow Lake Wind River Range #78077   Purchase

Shadow Lake Wind River Range

Shadow Lake is a notable destination in that it sits on the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. It’s a truly beautiful lake situated below impressive granite spires. For most backpackers, it is at the beginning or end of an exciting and scenic loop trip over Texas pass to the Cirque. For me, however, it was the actual destination.

The hike from Pyramid Lake to Shadow Lake was a breeze. It was mostly downhill for several miles to the Shadow Lake trail junction. From there it was less than 3 miles on a pleasant trail with minimal elevation gain. Once at the lake I scouted for a campsite located near the best photo opportunities. This turned out to be below the lake outlet. Nearby were some pretty pools set among boulders and grassy tussocks, perfect for creating photo compositions. Once again, all I had to do was wait for ideal lighting conditions.

Trail alongside Barren Lake, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingTrail along Billy Lake River Range #78104   Purchase

Barren Lake Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range Wyoming Barren Lake Wind River Range #78097  Purchase

I ended up spending three nights at Shadow Lake. At first, I once again debated if maybe I should alter my plans. It was entirely possible to continue over Texas pass and then photograph at Cirque of the Towers. This would make for an impressive trip. However, that would leave me only one day, two at the most for photography in the Cirque, and no time at all to visit nearby Deep Lake. But the photographer in me advised that it would be more prudent to sit tight at the lake, which I did.

Patience Pays Off

On the second day at Shadow Lake, I day hiked to the upper lakes and below Texas Pass. This area was a stark and dramatic alpine landscape among granite boulders and small grassy meadows. The next morning I was tempted to move my camp the short distance to the upper lakes. A cloudless morning soon gave way to an overcast sky which was soon followed by showers. It then rained for most of the day, eliminating all thoughts of moving camp and photographing in the upper valley.

Shadow Lake and view of the backside of Cirque of the Towers. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range WyomingShadow Lake Wind River Range #78112   Purchase

Shadow Lake and view of the backside of Cirque of the Towers. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range Wyoming #78143orEvening at Shadow Lake Wind River Range #78143   Purchase

Even though I was stuck in the tent all day everything turned out for the better.  Just before sunset, the clouds began to part and some beautiful light began to illuminate the peaks. It was just the kind of condition I was waiting for and did much to reaffirm my decision to stay and be patient.

The next day I packed up and hiked back out to the trailhead, with the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes at the end of an enjoyable backpacking trip. And also that I was returning with many great photos.

Backpacker on trail Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingBackpacker Wind River Range #77923  Purchase

If You Go to Pyramid and Shadow Lakes:

Distance: ~34 miles round trip
Elevation: ~3500″ not including numerous elevation gains and losses
Difficulty:  Moderate
Red Tape:  As of 2022, no permits are needed
Maps: Wind River Range South; Beartooth Publishing
Guidebooks: Beyond Trails in the Wind River Mountains

The Big Sandy Trailhead is located about 56 miles south of Pinedale. The last eight miles or so can be rough and slow going but is passable for ordinary passenger cars. Adjacent to the trailhead there is a small campground, and there are also scattered sites along the last few miles of the road. Like most trailheads in the Winds, parking can be at a premium, get an early start.

Make sure you take along plenty of insect repellant. The Winds are notorious for their ravenous hordes of mosquitoes and flies. Although they weren’t too bad during my trip in early August. Also, be prepared for dramatic weather changes. Summer thunder and lightning storms are very common along the Continental Divide. Because of this stay off high ridges and summits during the afternoon.

The town of Pinedale makes a great base for multiple trips into the Winds. It has everything you’ll need, from good food and lodging to one of my favorite outdoor recreation stores, the Great Outdoor Shop. It’s stocked with everything needed for a successful trip, including a very knowledgeable and friendly staff. Don’t visit Pinedale without dropping in! Right next door to the great Outdoor Shop is the best place to go for a post-trip meal, the Wind River Brewing Company. They have excellent burgers and great brews!

Shadow Lake Camp, Wind River RangeThe author at Shadow Lake camp

Leave No Trace

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). The Wind River Range and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Photo Gear Used On This Trip

Nikon D850
Nikkor Lens:
14-24mm 2.8G ED
24-70mm 2.8E ED
70-200mm 2.8E FL ED
Gitzo 1532 Tripod
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
B+H Polarizing Filter
Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release

If you enjoyed reading Pyramid and Shadow Lakes Wind River Range please share it with your friends and family.

Also, check out these other Wind River posts!
Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range
Central Wind River Range Backpacking
Bonneville Lakes Wind River Range
Island Lake Wind River Range
Titcomb Basin Wind River Range
Indian Basin Wind River Range
Green River Lakes Wind River Range

All photos appearing in Pyramid and Shadow Lakes Wind River Range are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Pyramid and Shadow Lakes Wind River Range

Mount Baker seen from Goat Lake on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73706

Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness

Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness

Mount Baker seen from Goat Lake on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73706Mount Baker and Goat Lake #73706  Purchase

This post is the next installment of Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations. This time, we will discuss two hikes that start in Heather Meadows, Lake Ann, and Ptarmigan Ridge. These hikes are unusual in the North Cascades since the trailhead is higher up in the sub-alpine. Most trails in the North Cascades involve considerable elevation gain to reach the alpine. Heather Meadows and parts of Mount Rainier National Park are a few areas where trails start high.

Another bonus is that both of these trails lead to close views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. These mountains display two geological features that define the North Cascades, volcanism and complex metamorphic terrane. Even if you’re not a geologist there is plenty of material here to pique your interest in the subject.

Essential Tip: Both of these trails are among the most heavily used in the Northwest. Expect to see plenty of people, every day of the week. Get to the trailhead parking very early in the morning or you may not find a parking spot.

Evening clouds swirling around Mount Shuksan North Cascades, Washington #73588Mount Shuksan seen from Ptarmigan Ridge 73588  Purchase

Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Length: 9 miles roundtrip to glacier overlook at the Portals
Elevation Gain: 1800′
Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway, SR 542, about 58 miles to its end at Artist Point. The last section beyond the ski area usually is not plowed until late June, and some years not until August. If the road is still under snow come back a few weeks later since the trail itself will still be buried in deep snow.

Ptarmigan Ridge is hands down one of the most scenic trails in the Northwest. You would be hard-pressed to find another trail in the North Cascades which travels through the alpine as long as this one. If you hike only the first mile or go all the way to the glaciers of Mount Baker, every step brings fantastic views. That said, this trail is suitable for day-hikes and overnight-night backpacking. It is also one of the approaches for climbing Mount Baker, although it’s probably the longest one. And even in late summer, you’ll see people packing skis and searching for more turns.

Essential Tip:  Due to its elevation and proximity to Mount Baker, the weather maker, this trail is usually deep under snow until mid-August. A few sections never melt out. Crampons or micro-spikes and an ice axe will come in handy for early-season hikers.

Essential Tip:  Do not confuse this trail with the Ptarmigan Traverse. The Ptarmigan Traverse is a climbers-only route which starts south of Highway 20, at Cascades Pass in North Cascades National Park.

Backpackers on Ptarmigan Ridge Trail Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle are in the distance. Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #73720Hikers on Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, Mt. Baker (L), Coleman Pinnacle (R) #73720  Purchase

Hiking Ptarmigan Ridge

For the first mile, the trail is mostly level and traverses open slopes below Table Mountain. Soon after is a junction with the Chain Lakes Trail, another outstanding hike. Then the trail drops down a few hundred feet and crosses numerous streams before beginning to climb through a vast slope of volcanic rock. This last section, before gaining the ridge again, is usually under snow until late in the season. Just pick the easiest way to the ridge or follow tracks from other hikers.

Gaining the ridge the trail then begins a grand tour winding along ridges in alpine heaven. At around 3.8 miles the trail takes a sharp right turn and starts up a steep grassy slope below Coleman Pinnacle. This is also where you can leave the trail to visit beautiful Goat Lakes, just to the south.

Mount Baker seen from Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73714Mount Baker, The Portals are seen as black butte on right #73714  Purchase

The last section crosses a sort of ridge plateau made of volcanic boulders and ash. Some of the best camping spots on the trail are here. Finally, the trail ends just below the Portals, a crumbling volcanic hill. Rough paths climb to the top where there are close-up views of Mount Baker and glaciers in nearly every direction.

This is about as far as a hiker can safely go, and it’s a great spot to have lunch before heading back.

Essential Tip:  Do not attempt to travel on any of the nearby glaciers unless you have the proper equipment and training.

Sunset over Mount Baker at backcountry camp on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73634Campsite on Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness #73634  Purchase

Camping on Ptarmigan Ridge

I can’t imagine anyone hiking this trail without thinking of how great it would be to camp somewhere along the ridge. There are only a few sections on the route which are flat enough to spread out a tent. And some of those are close to heavy traffic areas. The best spots are around Goat Lake, about 4 miles in, and at the trail end on the 5790′ volcanic plateau.

For Goat Lake find a faint path heading down and south where the trail veers to the right below Coleman Pinnacle. The first short section is very steep on loose rock, and it’s essential to make sure you’re on the correct path. Once it levels out there are good sites on the way to the lake. Although the lake isn’t far it’s a longer walk than it looks. Also, keep in mind that this is one of those areas that retain snow long into the summer. Some years the lake doesn’t even completely melt out.

Mount Baker sunset seen from Goat Lake on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73622Mount Baker and Goat Lake #73622  Purchase

Photography on Ptarmigan Ridge

There are excellent photo opportunities along the entire length of the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. Indeed,  only a few steps from the parking area at Artist Point are some of the most iconic views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.

For wildflowers enthusiasts, there are a few areas worth checking out. The first basin beyond the Chain Lakes trail junction has many streams with mossy borders and yellow and purple monkeyflowers. Another good location is the northeast side of Goat Lake. It’s worth mentioning that due to the heavy snowpack, most wildflowers in the area will be late bloomers.

My favorite area for photography is Goat Lake. Spending the night here rewards the photographer with a beautiful evening and morning light. This is also an outstanding location for night photography. Plus, there are plenty of elements around the lake which can you can use in compositions. These include lake reflections of Mount Baker, patterns of ice on the lake, and wildflowers.

I would suggest bringing along a full kit of lenses, from ultra-wide to medium telephoto. A longer focal length lens can isolate patterns of crevasses on glaciers. And if you’re lucky, a telephoto is useful to catch wisps of steam emanating from the crater below Sherman Peak on Baker.

Mount Shuksan seen from partially frozen Lake Ann, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #58150Lake Ann and Mount Shuksan #58150   Purchase

Lake Ann

Length: 8 miles roundtrip to Lake Ann / 10 miles roundtrip to Mount Ann
Elevation Gain: 1900′ roundtrip to Lake Ann / 2800′ roundtrip to Mount Ann
Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway, SR 542, about 57 miles to Austin Pass. The last section beyond the ski area usually is not plowed until late June, and some years not until August. If the road is still under snow come back a few weeks later since the trail itself will still be buried in deep snow.

About a half mile before the road ends at Artist Point is the small saddle of Austin Pass. This is where the trailhead for Lake Ann is. Parking here is more limited than at Artist Point, so get here early.

Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #58134Looking north from summit of Mount Ann #58134  Purchase

The journey begins by dropping about 500′ below the pass into a lovely subalpine basin at the headwaters of Swift Creek. After winding through streams, wildflowers, and rock gardens the trail enters the forest for the next mile or so. The first camping area is at a crossing of Swift creek, where the trail emerges into subalpine meadows.  From here it’s about a 900′ switchback climb to the saddle above Lake Ann. Take your time here as the rocky meadows are very picturesque. This is a perfect place to see and hear pikas among the boulders.

From the saddle, the trail drops into the lake basin. Shortly before arriving at the lake a trail branching off to the left heads to close views of Curtis Glacier. From here you are at the base of Mount Shuksan and can gaze up at its immense walls and hanging glaciers.

Mount Shuksan North Cascades Washington #58136Mount Shuksan and Lower Curtis Glacier #58136  Purchase

Hiking to Mount Ann

While most people only visit Lake Ann on a day hike or camp along its shore, there is more to explore. A worthwhile destination above and to the south of the lake is Mount Ann. From the saddle above Lake Anne climb the steep slope to gain a long ridge. Hike along this ridge to the south side of Mount Ann and pick your way through boulders and up gullies to the small summit.

From the summit of Mount Ann impressive views are in every direction. See Shuksan Creek emerging from lower Curtius Glacier. To the west is Mount Baker and the entire length of Ptarmigan Ridge. Looking south are Mount Blum, Hagan Mountain, and Bacon Peak. And far below is Baker Lake. On a clear day, you can see Glacier Peak far to the south, and maybe even Mount Rainier.

Essential Tip:  Just like on Ptarmigan Ridge this trail is usually deep under snow until mid-August. Lake Ann will often have ice on it well into autumn. Crampons or micro-spikes and an ice axe will come in handy for early-season hikers.

Backcountry camp above Lake Ann, Mount Shuksan in the background, Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades #58125Tent on Ridge above Lake Ann #58128   Purchase

Camping at Lake Ann

An overnight trip to Lake Ann is truly something special. From camps along the lake, the imposing face of Mount Shuksan is so close you can almost touch it. But to find a spot to set up your tent will require some planning and flexibility. The few campsites at Lake Ann are among the most heavily used in the Mount Baker Wilderness.

Essential Tip:  Your best bet would be to arrive on a Sunday or Monday morning, when people are heading home for the week. For a weekend stay, you’ll need to arrive at the lake very early on Friday morning. Later on Friday and Saturday, you’ll probably be out of luck.

Most of the established sites are on the east side of the lake and near its outlet. However, I feel the best sites are on the long ridge of Mount Ann above the lake. I like the view of looking down on the lake with Shuksan as a dramatic backdrop. There are several bare dirt sites on the ridge, and plenty of flat areas on snowpack to set up a tent. As a bonus, you may have the ridge to yourself compared to down at the lake.

Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #58162Mount Shuksan #58162  Purchase

Photography at Lake Ann

A combination of Lake Ann and Mount Shuksan are the main elements for photography. Ice floes on the lake offer some interesting abstract patterns, and there are some small areas of wildflowers. You’ll definitely need a wide-angle lens of around 20mm to fit all of the lake and Shuksan into the frame.

From the ridge above the lake, you also have great views and compositions of Mount Baker. While most hikers prefer sunny blue sky days, clouds and weather can be a photographer’s friend. An ideal situation would be to photograph at Lake Ann, or on Ptarmigan Ridge, as a storm or weather patterns begin to clear. Clouds and fog swirling around jagged peaks give the North Cascades its trademark mysterious and primordial look.

Misty clouds swirling around peaks of the North Cascades in Heather Meadows Recreation Area, Washington #73538bClearing storm over North Cascades #73538b2  Purchase

More Info for Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge

When to go:  Both of these hikes and the North Cascades generally receive more snow than just about anywhere else in the lower 48 states. Most higher elevation trails are under the snowpack until early to mid-July. Of course, you can go sooner but be prepared for some route-finding. Some steeper slopes higher on the ridge may need crampons and an ice axe to negotiate safely.

Most wildflowers don’t appear until late July or early August. The exception would be avalanche lilies that begin to shoot up while still under snow.  By mid-August, most of the snow will be gone and water sources may be an issue for some overnight trips. Late July through August is also the buggiest time of the year.

Both Ptarmigan Ridge and Lake Ann are very popular destinations and receive heavy use. It’s always a good idea to get an early sunrise start if possible. That way, you’ll have the trail to yourself and avoid the day’s heat and bugs.

Permits:  A Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. However, Washington State Discover Passes are not valid. There are currently no additional permits needed for day-hiking or overnight trips.

Gear:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Gear Tips for suggestions and tips on hiking, backpacking, and photography gear.

Photography tips:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Tips for suggestions and tips on what camera gear to bring and for tips on making better photos during your trip.

More information about these hikes can be found on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website.

For more hikes in the Mount Baker Wilderness and North Cascades National Park check out these posts:
Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations
Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park

Backcountry camp on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73641The author at camp on Ptarmigan Ridge #73641

Leave No Trace in the Mount Baker Wilderness

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are willing to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Mount Baker Wilderness and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children, grandchildren, and the Earth will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

Photos appearing in Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge

Ruth Mountain and Hannegan Peak Wildflowers North Cascades Washington #54332

Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness

Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mt Baker Wilderness

Ruth Mountain seen from Hannegan Peak, Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades #54364Ruth Mountain seen from Hannegan Peak #54364  Purchase

The North Cascades is a mountain range with some of the most rugged and dramatic scenery in the lower 48 states. In its northwest corner is the Mount Baker Wilderness. And within this wilderness are two destinations that represent the best of the North Cascades, Hannegan Peak, and Ruth Mountain. Both routes pass among old-growth forests, wildflower meadows, and rushing streams and waterfalls. Both peaks have tremendous open views of rugged mountains and glaciers. And while Hannegan Peak is a moderate hike, Ruth Mountain is more difficult, adding some mountaineering adventure to the mix.

Both destinations utilize the scenic Hannegan Pass trail for access, the starting point for many wilderness adventures. Among them include ascending Hannegan Peak, Ruth Mountain, or continuing on into North Cascades National Park. The latter option leads into some of the wildest parts in the North Cascades. In this post we’ll explore the first two options.

Essential Tip: In summer the Hannegan Pass Trail can be one of the buggiest in all of the North Cascades. I’ve been on this trail several times when the black flies are so thick it’s like something out of an Arctic horror story. While other times there were very few flies. It’s usually best to start out very early in the morning to beat the heat and flies.

Essential Tip: The area around Hannegan Pass has a long history of encounters with black bears. Hang your food or better yet use bear-proof canisters.

Ruth Creek Valley from Hannegan Pass Trail, North Cascades Washington #58067Ruth Creek Valley from Hannegan Pass Trail #58067  Purchase

Hiking the Hannegan Pass Trail

Access to the trailhead is via Hannegan Pass Road, Forest Service Road 32. Towards the end of the road you get a real sense that the Ruth Creek Valley is something special. In the last mile the road passes avalanche gullies with glimpses up to rugged Nooksack Ridge. Early in the season the road here is often blocked with piles of snow and huge trees brought down avalanches. Check with the Forest Service in advance for road conditions.

The large trailhead parking area is usually filled with cars and is often a bustle of activity. Even before daybreak there are often parties sorting through gear for the long climb up to Ruth Mountain and other destinations. You’ll also see groups with large packs giddy with excitement ready to start long trips into the National Park.

Hannegan Pass Trail, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #61790Backpackers on Hannegan Pass Trail #61790  Purchase

It’s a little less than a five-mile hike to Hannegan Pass on a well-maintained trail. Along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to pause and take in the scenery. Most notably is a spot about two miles in which traverses through an open rocky area with cascading streams. This is where the snowy bulk of Ruth Mountain first comes into view. Somehow the view up and down the wild valley has a primordial feel to it. Unless you are in a hurry, and you definitely shouldn’t be, this is a prime spot to take a short rest.

The last mile or so the trail re-enters the forest and begins climbing to the Hannegan Pass. About a half-mile below the pass is a small camp area among streams and small meadows. The trail then switchbacks up through a few open meadows thick with wildflowers. The pass itself can be a bit of a let down though since it has a limited view. However, this is where the real adventure begins!

Ruth Mountain and wildflower meadows on Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #54332Wildflowers on summit of Hannegan Peak #54332  Purchase

Hannegan Peak

Continuing on the trail beyond the pass will take you to the Copper Ridge trail, or down the Chilliwack River trail, and on to Whatcom Pass. Both of these destinations are in the North Cascades National Park and will require permits for overnight trips.

For Hannegan Peak take the path which branches off to the left at Hannegan Pass. This steep but easy trail climbs 1000′ in a little over a mile to the summit of Hannegan Peak.  Soon after leaving the pass the trail opens up into beautiful meadows thick with wildflowers. Also along the way are those stupendous views you were expecting below at the pass.

Mount Shuksan and pink heather on Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #54307Pink Heather on Hannegan Peak #54307  Purchase

Upon arriving at the summit of Hannegan Peak you are greeted by amazing views in every direction. Looking south is the snowy pyramid of Ruth Mountain. To the right of Ruth is Mountain Shuksan and sprawling Jagged Ridge above Nooksack Cirque. Following the crest of Nooksack Ridge to the southwest is Mount Baker and its cloak of glaciers.

Copper Ridge and Copper Mountain are north of the summit in the National Park. Beyond them, across the border in British Columbia is the fantastic fang-like Slesse Mountain, Mount Rexford, and the Illusion Peaks. They are part of the northern limit to the North Cascades. Finally to the east is Mount Redoubt, then Mount Challenger, and the northern part of the Picket Range.

One can sit here all day with a map attempting to identify all the mountains in these views. Another fun pastime is to watch climbers slowly ascend the snowy slopes of Ruth Mountain. It’s also common to watch some of them ski back down in summer.

Backcountry camp on Hannegan Peak overlooking Mount Shuksan, North Cascades Washington #54316Camping on Hannegan Peak #54316  Purchase

Camping on Hannegan Peak

While most people day-hike to the summit of Hannegan Peak, overnight trips are extremely rewarding. Although the summit and adjacent ridge are fairly broad, established campsites are sparse. The best site is within a circle of stunted trees on the summit. However, this site is almost always taken. It can also be busy since this is where most day-hikers stop to have lunch.

Follow the ridge west below the summit for several more established sites. If you can’t find any open sites then your best option is to set up camp on snow or scree. There are also one or two spots halfway down the trail to Hannegan Pass. Snowfields are the only source of water anywhere above Hannegan Pass.

Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades Washington #54325Ruth Mountain, Point 5930′ bottom left  #54325 Purchase

Ruth Mountain

Looking out to Ruth Mountain from Hannegan Peak, it is easy to dream of a visit to its summit. And standing on top of Ruth Mountain is an experience you’ll remember your entire lifetime. Ruth is also one of the few peaks in the area that is within the reach of the average hiker with the proper gear.

Essential Tip:  Hiking to the summit of Ruth, or even only to the ridge below the glacier, traverses some difficult sections. Turn around when the terrain goes beyond your comfort level.

If you have time and energy after Hannegan Peak you can also include a climb up Ruth Mountain as part of your trip. Some people summit both Hannegan and Ruth as part of a day trip but that’s a lot to take in for one day. I would recommend an overnight camp on one and do the other the next day. Or you can always come back on a separate trip.

This trip starts at Hannegan Pass. But some parties opt to begin from the small camp area just before reaching Hannegan Pass. Route-finding and complex terrain make this approach more difficult.

From Hannegan Pass travel south about a 1/4 mile on a path to the first obstacle, a wickedly steep climb below Point 5930′. This short section will test your mettle as it ascends straight up a muddy rocky slope. Branches and roots are often needed to pull yourself up. At the top you’ll traverse east across and over the north side of Point 5930′. There is some mild exposure on this stretch and is usually covered in snow late into the season. This is a good place to use your crampons and ice axe. As you cross over to the south side of Point 5930′ a good trail appears which you can follow all the way to the base of Ruth’s snowfields.

Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan from Point 5930 North Cascades Washington #17110Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan from Point 5930′   #17110  Purchase

Camping and Climbing Ruth Mountain

There are good campsites along the open ridge extending between Ruth and Point 5930′. But perhaps the best site is at the summit of the Point itself. From there you’re close to Ruth and can also take in a better view of Mount Shuksan than from Hannegan Peak.

The climb/hike up Ruth is fairly straightforward. There is about 1400′ of ascent from the base ridge to the summit. Basically, you follow the pick the easiest way straight up to the summit pyramid, on a sort of spine on the snow. Traveling too far to the right or left crosses more dangerous areas on the glacier. Stay clear of a large wedge-like rock which usually has some hidden crevasses and bergschrunds nearby.

Most descriptions of climbing Ruth advise crampons, ice axe, and ropes due to hidden crevasses. On my solo trip, I wore crampons and carried an ice axe. However, I saw people ascending without either, and none were roped together. And at least one person was wearing just running shoes.

Mount Shuksan with view of the Nooksack Cirque seen from summit of Ruth Mountain, North Cascades #17151Mount Shuksan and Nooksack Cirque #17151  Purchase

The summit offers some of the most eye-popping jaw-dropping views in the North Cascades. Dominating the view is the incredible Nooksack Glacier below Jagged Ridge, tumbling into the wilds of Nooksack Cirque. From here Mount Shuksan with its hanging glaciers and Nooksack Tower is even more awe-inspiring than the classic view from Heather Meadows. Closer up is Icy Peak, a kind of compact version of the bigger peaks of the range. West is the fantastic Picket Range and Mount Challenger. Looking north is Hannegan Peak and Slesse Mountain in the distance.

Slesse Mountain and Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #17196Slesse Mountain (L) and Hannegan Peak (R, foreground) #17196  Purchase

If you enjoy a threadbare bivouac there is just enough room on the summit to spend the night. But make sure the weather is in your favor. On your way down make sure to follow the same route and don’t stray left onto the broad glacier face.

Icy Peak and Mount Blum from Ruth Mountain, North Cascades Washington #17168Icy Peak, Mount Blum (L), and Glacier Peak (L, in distance) #17168

If You Go

Hannegan Peak
Length:  From trailhead parking,  10.5 miles roundtrip to summit
Elevation Gain:  3100′ to summit

Ruth Mountain
Length:  From trailhead parking,  12 miles roundtrip to summit
Elevation Gain: 4000′ to summit
Essential Tip:  This trip is best made in late spring or summer. After the winter snowpack has melted the bare ice of the glacier makes travel more dangerous. Also, on cold nights the snow can harden up and become very icy.

Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway (SR 542) 46 miles to Hannegan Pass Road (FR 32),  just before the Nooksack River bridge.  At 1.3 miles take a left and follow the road 5.4 miles to the Hannegan Pass trailhead parking lot. There are some primitive campsites and a shelter at the trailhead.

Full moon rising over Mount Challenger, North Cascades National Park Washington #54366Full moon over Mount Challenger #54366  Purchase

Hiking and Photography Info for Hannegan Peak and Ruth Mountain

When to go:  Both of these hikes and the North Cascades generally receive more snow than just about anywhere else in the lower 48 states. Most higher elevation trails are under the snowpack until early to mid-July. Of course, you can go sooner but be prepared for some route-finding. Some steeper slopes higher on the ridge may need crampons and an ice axe to negotiate safely.

Most wildflowers don’t appear until late July or early August. The exception would be avalanche lilies that begin to shoot up while still under snow.  By mid-August, most of the snow will be gone and water sources may be an issue for overnight trips. Late July through August is also the buggiest time of the year.

The Hannegan Pass Trail is very popular and receives heavy use due to the multiple destinations it accesses. It’s always a good idea to get an early sunrise start if possible. That way, you’ll have the trail to yourself and avoid the day’s heat and bugs.

Permits:  A Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. However, Washington State Discover Passes are not valid. There are currently no additional permits needed for day-hiking or overnight trips.

Gear:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Gear Tips for suggestions and tips on hiking, backpacking, and photography gear.

Photography tips:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Tips for suggestions and tips on what camera gear to bring and for tips on making better photos during your trip.

More information about these hikes can be found on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website.

Information on climbing Ruth Mountain can be found at Summitpost.org

For more hikes in the Mount Baker Wilderness and North Cascades National Park check out my posts:
Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations
Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park

Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #54339Pink Heather on Hannegan Peak #54339 Purchase

Leave No Trace in the Mount Baker Wilderness

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are willing to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Mount Baker Wilderness and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children, grandchildren, and the Earth will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

Photos appearing in Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mt Baker Wilderness

Mount Baker, seen from Heliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #54421

Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations

Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations

Mount Baker, seen from Heliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #54421Mount Baker seen from Heliotrope Ridge  #54421  Purchase

With winter waning and spring just around the corner, a hiker’s thoughts turn to hatching trip ideas for the summer. Lately, I’ve been busy working on updating my website where I constantly come across memorable photos from past trips. Almost instantly I start making plans to revisit that place. One of my favorite destinations is the Mount Baker Wilderness, which just happens to be almost in my backyard.  And because of this over the years I’ve explored nearly all of its trails on day hikes and overnight backpacking trips.

The North Cascades contains one national park and several wilderness areas, all of which have their unique elements.  Among them, the Mount Baker Wilderness is the most northwestern. Because the Mount Baker Wilderness receives a huge amount of rain and snow its main features are cool dense old-growth forests and active glaciers. In the center of it all is Mount Baker, a 10,786′ dormant volcano covered in massive glaciers.

Wildflower meadows on Heliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #54537Heliotrope Ridge Wildflowers #54537  Purchase

Hiking in the Mount Baker Wilderness

If there is one thing that can characterize the North Cascades it would be rugged terrain. Its valleys are steep and deep, with junglelike forest undergrowth. The alpine is steep and rocky with large snowfields and glaciers barring the way for most casual hikers. Without trails hiking into these mountains would be a grueling ordeal.

Fortunately, the Mount Baker Wilderness has many trails leading to some of the most breathtaking scenery in North America. However, all but a few start low and involve large amounts of elevation gain to reach those views. In this post, I’ll discuss two of the more scenic destinations, along with tips to make your hike more enjoyable.

Both of the trails in this post receive a LOT of traffic. If you are looking for solitude it would be hard to find it on these trails. There are plenty of other trails and little-known routes which are less crowded, and some trails where you’ll be mostly on your own. However, these are generally more difficult in nature, and some may require route-finding skills.

Bastille Ridge and Coleman Glacier from meadows onHeliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades Washington #54533Coleman Glacier and Heliotrope Ridge Wildflowers #54533  Purchase

Mount Baker Wilderness Heliotrope Ridge Trail

Length: 5.5 miles roundtrip to glacier overlook
Elevation Gain: 1400′  to overlook and about 2300′ to climber’s camps
Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway 34 miles to Forest Service Road 39, Glacier Creek Road, then another eight miles to a large parking area.

Heliotrope Ridge trail is one of the main approach routes for climbing Mount Baker. And for that reason, you’ll be sharing the trail with plenty of climbers and skiers. It’s also very popular with day-hikers whose destination is the close-up view of Coleman Glacier. This is one of the few places outside of Mount Rainier National Park where you can easily hike to the edge of a massive glacier.

The well-built trail initially travels through a forest of beautiful old-growth trees and crosses several rushing streams. Around two miles in is the site of Mount Baker Clubs‘ long gone Kulshan Cabin. Only one or two rotting timbers and a conspicuous opening in the forest remain.  From here the forest begins to open up and soon you come to a junction with the Hogsback climbing route and the Heliotrope Ridge /Glacier Overlook trail.

Crevasses on the lower parts of the Coleman Glacier, Mount Baker North Cascades Washington #565Coleman Glacier on Mount Baker  #565  Purchase

Coleman Glacier Overlook

Taking the left fork brings you to the Coleman Glacier overlook. You’ll first need to cross Heliotrope Creek, which except for late in the season is always a rushing torrent.

Essential Tip: During the early part of the hiking season the creek is covered in snow. As the season progresses this snow bridge becomes thinner, and it is easy to break through and get caught in the stream underneath. Use utmost caution during, especially on warm days.

From the crossing, it is a short walk to the edge of the moraine overlooking Coleman Glacier. At first, your eyes will be glued to the massive crevasses in front of you. Then slowly you’ll follow the ice higher and higher to the bulky summit of Mount Baker. It’s an amazing view you won’t soon forget. It’s easy to just sit here all day taking it in, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all!

Tent illuminated at climbers camp on Heliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #54432Heliotrope Ridge Camp #54432  Purchase

Above the Hogsback

After taking in the glacier view, or if you’re doing an overnighter, head back down the trail to the junction with the Hogsback Ridge trail. This super steep trail takes you to climber’s camps adjacent to more snowfields and glaciers. The campsites here have outstanding views of Mount Baker. This is also a great place to view wildflowers and mossy meltwater streams.

North Twin Sisters Mountain in the North Cascades. This mountain is a massive and rare occurence of Dunite rock (peridotite rock from the Earth's mantle) uplifted to the Earth's surface. Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #24451Twin Sisters Range North Cascades #24451  Purchase

Wandering west and up from here the terrain is mostly over barren rock and boulders. But it is also the way to a relatively easy route up to a ridge with views down into the Thunder Glacier basin. The crest of this ridge is shattered volcanic rock resembling something from Mordor. There are one or two small spots here to set up a tent for the ultimate overnight stay. From here you can also take in outstanding views of the Twin Sisters Range. This route is over permanent snowfields which may harbor hidden crevasses. Because of this, it’s a good idea to bring crampons, an ice axe, and a partner for this section.

Sunset on Mount Baker from Skyline Divide, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #49891Skyline Divide Mount Baker Wilderness  #49891  Purchase

Mount Baker Wilderness Skyline Divide Trail

Length:  9 miles roundtrip to end of the ridge
Elevation Gain:  2500′ to end of the trail
Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway 34 miles to Forest Service Road 39, then 12 miles on FR 37

Another extremely popular trail and destination is the ridge of Skyline Divide. Like the Heliotrope Ridge, the star attraction of this trail is Mount Baker. However, once above the treeline, the Skyline Divide trail travels for a greater distance along a pleasant ridge with wide-open views in every direction.

Part of the adventure on this hike is the access road. The road branches off almost immediately after turning onto Glacier Creek Road (FR 39). It then travels about 12 miles from the intersection to the trailhead over some of the worst potholes you’ll ever see. The worst section is on the first flat miles along the Nooksack River. There are plenty of narrow sections along the climb so be alert for oncoming vehicles. There is almost always at least one car speeding recklessly down the road.

Essential Tip: This is a very heavily used trail and trailhead parking is usually at a premium, every day of the week. To avoid oncoming cars and obtain a parking spot leave very early in the morning.

Mount Shuksan seen from wildflower meadows of Skyline Divide, Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #53322Mount Shuksan from Skyline Divide #53322  Purchase

During the first two miles, the trail is moderately steep as it gains 1500′ through fragrant old-growth forest to the open ridge. The last half mile or so switchbacks through pretty meadows dense with False Hellebore (Corn Lily) and Valerian. Suddenly breaking through the woods onto the ridge crest can be a shock. The views in every direction are some of the most spectacular in the entire Pacific Northwest.

To the south is the massive white bulk of Mount Baker, east is Mount Shuksan, and the heart of the North Cascades. North is Church Mountain and Excelsior Ridge, and beyond are the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. West is the Salish Sea, SanJuan Islands, Vancouver Island, and the city of Vancouver.

Mount Baker seen from wildflowers meadows on Skyline Divide, Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades Washington #54245Moon over Mount Baker from Skyline Divide #54255  Purchase

Hiking on Skyline Divide

Aside from the great views and enjoyable ridge hiking wildflowers are a big attraction. Early in the season just after the snow melts clear the first meadow is a carpet of yellow avalanche lilies. Time your trip well because these pretty flowers don’t last long.

After reaching the first ridge meadow the trail is a bit of a roller coaster. Passing the second of several knolls along the ridge it smooths out a bit and the views continue to improve. For the next two miles, every step takes you closer to Mount Baker. Along the way are more patches of wildflowers and a trail junction that drops to meadows of Deadhorse Creek, below Chowder Ridge. Take this trail if you want some solitude, however, the views of Mount Baker soon become obscured.

North Cascades seen from Skyline Divide, Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #53264Skyline Divide in the foreground, Mount Baker Wilderness #53264  Purchase

The last section of the trail climbs higher and higher to a small flat ridge immediately adjacent to Chowder Ridge. Just when you thought the views couldn’t get any better, they do! In front of you is a wild subalpine valley below Bastille Ridge with the Glaciers of Mount Baker seemingly close enough to touch. This is about as far as a hiker can travel, continuing on to Chowder Ridge requires some scrambling skills.

Sunset from Skyline Divide. Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #71746Sunset from Skyline Divide #71746  Purchase

Spending the Night on Skyline Divide

There are several great spots for camping along the ridge, but water can be a limiting factor. After the snow melts there are no dependable water sources. Although if you camp higher up near the end there are usually some permanent patches of snow.

It is absolutely essential that you choose a well-established site on bare ground. Do not under any circumstances camp on vegetation. Over the years I’ve seen the fragile vegetation and wildflowers slowly disappear under the boots and tents of thoughtless hikers.

Sunset on Mount Baker from Skyline Divide, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #49922Mount Baker at sunset from upper Skyline Divide #49922  Purchase

Wherever you choose to set up camp you’ll be in for a visual treat. As the sun goes down the colors of glaciers on Mount Baker progress from white to yellow, to orange, and finally to pinks and purples. In the eastern sky after sunset look for the beautiful glow of the Belt of Venus over Mount Shuksan. This is the shadow of the Earth moving across the sky.

Look to the west and watch the sunset over the Salish Sea, turning the water to brilliant gold. And although you probably came to escape civilization you’ll be mesmerized watching the lights of Vancouver turn on and glitter in the twilight.
Of course, you’ll need a clear sky for all this, but it’s just as captivating watching clouds and fog swirl among the peaks.

Crescent moon over Vancouver British Columbia #71787New Moon and Venus over Vancouver #71787  Purchase

Tips for Hiking in the Mount Baker Wilderness

When to go: Both of these hikes and the North Cascades generally receive more snow than just about anywhere else in the lower 48 states. Most higher elevation trails are under the snowpack until early to mid-July. Of course, you can go sooner but be prepared for some route-finding. Some steeper slopes higher on the ridge may need crampons and an ice axe to negotiate safely.

Most wildflowers don’t appear until late July or early August. The exception would be avalanche lilies that begin to shoot up while still under snow.  By mid-August, most of the snow will be gone and you may need to pack in your own water for an overnight trip.

Skyline Divide is a particularly nice destination in early fall. The crowds are smaller and the meadows begin to take on some lovely fall color. A light early snowfall can also provide a dramatic effect on the surrounding mountains.

Permits:  A Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. However, Washington State Discover Passes are not valid. There are currently no additional permits needed for day-hiking or overnight trips.

Gear:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Gear Tips for suggestions and tips on hiking, backpacking, and photography gear.

Photography tips:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Tips for suggestions and tips on making better photos on your trip.

More information about these hikes can be found on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website.

For more hikes in the Mount Baker Wilderness and North Cascades National Park check out these posts:
Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain
Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park

Twilight over North Cascades from Skyline Divide Mount Baker Wilderness Washington #71773Coast Range of British Columbia from Skyline Divide #71773  Purchase

Leave No Trace in the Mount Baker Wilderness

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are willing to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Mount Baker Wilderness and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children, grandchildren, and the Earth will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Mount Baker Wilderness Part 1 are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Squaretop Mountain Wind River Range Wyoming

Rocky Mountains Photography Tour

Rocky Mountains Photography Tour

Backpacker on Titcomb Basin Trail Wind River Range Rocky Mountains WyomingBackpacking Wind River Range #66803

Update 8/162021: Due to wildfires and heavy smoke and haze, this trip has been delayed.

This summer’s Rocky Mountains Photography Tour will start on July 9. I was once again hoping to head north to Alaska and the Yukon Territory. But since it looks like the border won’t be open in time, it is on to Plan B. So this year I’ll be revisiting some locations from 2019 and 2020.

These locations will mainly the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho, and the Wind River Range of Wyoming. I’m also planning a lengthy backpacking trip to the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. That location was on my itinerary last year but I swapped it out for Glacier National Park instead.

White Clouds Wilderness Rocky Mountains IdahoBoulder White-Clouds Wilderness  #68945  Purchase

Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Idaho

On last summer’s visit to the White-Clouds I was only able to visit the north section. This year I’ll be backpacking in to the south half to photograph the Boulder Chain Lakes Basin and the some of the highest peaks in the wilderness. This area is also part of the popular White Clouds Wilderness Loop. For my purposes though I will be doing an out and back trip instead of the loop. I’ll also have plenty of time budgeted for layovers at the best locations along the route.

Squaretop Mountain Wind River Range WyomingSquaretop Mountain Wind River Range #66997 Purchase

Wind River Range Wyoming

Ah, what can I say about the Winds? This will be my seventh trip there and I still can’t get enough of this spectacular mountain range. It’s a backpackers’ dream. Thousands of lakes, 40 peaks over 13,000′, miles and miles of trails in the subalpine along the Continental Divide, plus easy cross country travel to boot!

This year my plans will include parts of the Hailey Pass-Washakie Pass Loop, Desolation Valley, and Baptiste Lake. Also on the itinerary will be a return to Cirque of the Towers and Deep Lake. I’ll also be returning to the Green Lakes area for more new photos of the Green River and Squaretop Mountain.

Castle Reef Mountain Sun Canyon Rocky Mountains MontanaCastle Reef Mountain Montana  #68136  Purchase

Bob Marshall Wilderness Montana

Known among locals and avid backpackers as “The Bob”, this wilderness destination in the northern Rocky Mountains has been on my must photograph list for decades. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is a huge swath of land straddling both sides of the Continental Divide. An important part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem it is home to the largest intact population of Grizzlies in the lower 48.

Last year It was on my itinerary but I took a pass due to an unusual opportunity to obtain backcountry permits in Glacier National Park. The destination on this trip will be a multi-day backpack to the famous Chinese Wall. This is arguably the signature feature of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 12 mile long 1000′ high limestone escarpment on the Continental Divide.

U.S. Highway 93 Lost River Range IdahoU.S. 93 Idaho #68984  Purchase

A Flexible Itinerary

For an ambitious trip like this several caveats need to be mentioned. First of all if it becomes clear the Canada border will open before the end of July it will be back to Plan A, as in A for Alaska.

Secondly, as with all of my trips that include multiple long backpacking excursions, some locations may be modified due to weather or time constraints. There are already indications of a major wildfire season in the making, so smoky conditions or closed off areas may change my plans.

Finally, if you are in any of these areas in July or August and would like to meet up in the wilderness, or in town for a coffee or beer, feel free to contact me!

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Photos appearing in Rocky Mountains Photography Tour are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Rocky Mountains Photography Tour

Meadows of Broadleaf Arnica (Arnica latifolia) at Boulder Pass, Glacier National Park Montana

Boulder Pass Glacier National Park Part 2

Boulder Pass Glacier National Park Part 2

Meadows of Broadleaf Arnica (Arnica latifolia) at Boulder PassBoulder Pass Glacier National Park #69880  Purchase

Read: Boulder Pass Glacier National Park Part 1 here

Glacier National Park is truly one of the great gems in the national park system. It has many attributes which set it apart from other parks. In addition to being a national park, it is also a biosphere reserve, world heritage site, and international peace park.  It is the home of one of the last strongholds of grizzly bears in the lower 48. And although it contains two dozen named glaciers, the park’s name reflects the sculpting of its terrain by ice age glaciation.

All of this and more attracts visitors from around the world, to the tune of 3,000,000 visitors a year, on average. The reasons visitors flock to the park are as diverse as the park’s features. Some come to marvel at the beauty of the mountains. Some hope to see wildlife close up. Others come solely to escape the crushing pressures of modern-day society. Unfortunately, the latter have little chance of doing so when touring the park by car.

Others like me come to the park to photograph the dramatic landscape of the northern Rocky Mountains. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been to Glacier many times over the years and photographed it in all seasons. Nearly all of those trips were to iconic front-country locations. But last summer I took the opportunity to visit a remote and special corner of Glacier National Park, Kintla Lake, and Boulder Pass.

First Day Along Kintla Lake

The remoteness of Kintla Lake and Boulder Pass in the northeast corner of the park looked appealing to me. It was a long hike and passed through areas with lots of photographic potential. But first I needed a wilderness permit, and it took me a couple of tries to obtain one. Even though it was August the park service just opened campsites at the pass the day before. So I was one of the first to stay there that season.

Kinnerly Peak Kintla Lake. Glacier National Park MontanaKinnerly Peak Kintla Lake  #69835  Purchase

The hike begins at Kintla Lake and reaches Boulder Pass 17.5 miles later, with about 3200′ of elevation gain along the way. Some hardcore long-distance hikers can make the trip in one day, but nearly everyone splits it in two. It’s also possible to continue down Boulder Pas, down to Waterton Lake, and exit the eastern side of the park. A popular loop trip would begin at Kintla Lake and exit at Bowman Lake, or vice versa. My plan was to simply do an out and back on the same route.

The first day was a pretty easy hike along Kintla Lake to Kintla Head camp. It’s a pleasant hike mostly through the forest with a few views of the lake along the way. The first day or two on a long hike is sometimes the hardest since your pack is full of food and fuel. At camp, it was a pleasure to sit around the food prep area with other hikers and swap stories and backgrounds. I usually travel solo so chatting it up with others is a welcome treat.

Kintla and Kinnerly Peaks Glacier National Park MontanaKintla Peak Glacier National Park #70050  Purchase

Kintla Lake to Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

The hard work would come the next day. It was another 11 miles to Boulder Pass camp, with nearly all of the 3200′ of elevation coming in the last miles. I got an early start to beat the heat and travel at a leisurely pace. Just past the head of Upper Kintla Lake, the work began. The trail wasn’t too steep or difficult, just a long constant uphill slog. At one point the trail passes through about a mile of thick shoulder-high brush. Often it was so thick it was hard to see the trail or rocks and roots.

It seems to take forever to reach the point where signs of the subalpine begin. And although the view across the valley to Kintla Glacier is rewarding it’s difficult to tell where the trail tops out at the pass. It was when I was just below the pass that I saw my first grizzly in the backcountry.

I’ve been backpacking for 40 years and this is my first bear encounter, go figure. The bear was a sow with two cubs about 25 yards uphill of the trail. Since I was following the book and making plenty of noise she saw me and slowly moved away. But proceeding further would have brought me closer to the next switchback. So I waited and continued to talk loudly. The bear eventually moved on and I continued up to the pass. A couple of passing hikers, who apparently felt close bear encounters weren’t anything to worry about, lightheartedly kidded me for talking so loudly to ward off the bear.

Wildflower meadows at sunset. Boulder Pass, Glacier National Park MontanaBoulder Pass Wildflowers  #69886  Purchase

At Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

Finally, the trail reached the pass with all its glorious views. At this point, an oddity struck me. Everywhere you go in Glacier Park you’re passing by or walking over colorful layers of sedimentary rock. However, at Boulder Pass, I was walking over a vast expanse of ancient lava.

Afterward, I did some geology research and found out that it was Purcell Lava.  Long ago when the area was still beneath an ancient sea molten rock squeezed up from below and flowed onto the sediment forming rocks. It was also interesting to see that this lava exposed at the pass was smooth and bore striations from past glacial activity.

Meadows of Broadleaf Arnica (Arnica latifolia) at Boulder PassThunderbird Mountain from Boulder Pass   #69907  Purchase

The Boulder Pass camp has three tent sites, a food prep area with hanging poles, an outhouse, and one very aggressive marmot. I’ve never come across a marmot that was so intent on obtaining food or salt from sweaty backpack straps. You have to be on guard since marmots can easily chew through straps, shoelaces, and other important items in search of nutrients and food. This guy had the appearance of having seen quite a few winters and fortunately eventually gave up on his pursuits.

I had three days to explore and photograph the area, and after a bite to eat I was eager to get to work. It turns out that Boulder Pass is a pretty big area with a few adjacent benches and basins below Boulder Peak. There was everything from lush meadows, streams, and tarns, to glacial moraines and debris. Plenty of subject matter to keep me busy.

Meadows of red paintbrush wildflowers at Boulder Pass. Glacier National ParkWildflowers at Boulder Pass  #69947  Purchase

Hello Bear

After some exploring, it was getting towards golden hour in the evening. The best option was to go back to the meadows teeming with wildflowers. The compositions I wanted meant shooting very low to the ground with an ultra-wide-angle lens.  With the setting sun shining through the trees and colors glowing all the elements were coming together. I was absorbed in photographing the moment.

It was then I heard a noise and looked up from the camera to see a large grizzly bear. It was just rounding a corner and coming up the trail about 50′ away. We both saw each other at the same time and the bear jumped back a bit in surprise. Very slowly I stood up while at the same time reaching for my bear spray. At this point, I remembered the sow and cubs from earlier in the day. I carefully looked behind me to see if I was in the unfortunate position of being between a mother and her cubs. There was no sign of them so perhaps this was a different bear.

Meadows of purple aster wildflowers at Boulder Pass. Glacier National ParkWildflowers at Boulder Pass  #69970  Purchase

After a few seconds, which seemed much longer, the bear slowly moved away downslope while watching me. Then it turned its head and bolted away. This was about as close as I ever would want to get to a grizzly. I can’t say I was terrified, but I was nervous and very conscious about keeping my wits and not making a wrong move. After a while, I went back to photographing my composition.

I’ve since told this story many times and have always gotten the same question. Did you get a picture of the bear? No, I didn’t, at the time photographing the bear was the last thing on my mind.

Exposed section of trail between Brown Pass and Hole in the Wall. Glacier National Park MontanaHole In The Wall Trail  #69893  Purchase

Hole In The Wall Boulder Peak

At the east end of Boulder Pass, the trail descends into the large horseshoe basin of Hole In The Wall. From there it continues to Browns Pass and Waterton Lake, or Bowman Lake. Day hiking on Hole In The Wall looked inviting but there was still a lot to investigate at Boulder Pass.

One area, in particular, was a series of benches on the west side of Boulder Peak. The views from there looking down to Pocket Lake and out to Kintla and Kinnerly Peaks were fabulous. In addition, some wispy clouds were moving in which could make for a great sunset. Since this was my last day at the pass, and it was mostly blue sky days while there, this seemed like the best chance to get some good photos.

Rainbow Peak Glacier National ParkRainbow Mountain from Boulder Pass  #69907  Purchase

Another thing that I noticed just below the west side of Boulder Pass was the presence of Subalpine Larches. These are a special type of conifer which in the fall their needles turn brilliant gold and fall off. In all my years of looking at photos of Glacier Park, I never saw any pictures of these trees in fall. So it was surprising to see them. Of course, this means that a trip to Boulder Pass in late September would be well worth it.

The next day I hiked back down to the Camp at Upper Kintla Lake. The lake was pleasant and scenic but nothing like the dramatic scenery up at the pass. The following day was the long hike out to complete the trip. It was a sweet feeling to have finally made such a wonderful trip to a new section of the park. It was also a bit sad when reflecting on when or if I’ll ever return.

Upper Kintla Lake Glacier National Park MontanaUpper Kintla Lake  #70062  Purchase

 

If You Go to Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

Distance from Kintla Lake Trailhead to Boulder Pass:  17.5 miles
Elevation Gain:  ~3200
Difficulty:  Moderate
Red Tape:  National Park Entrance Fee, Backcountry Wilderness Permits

The Kintla Lake Trailhead is located about 40 miles north of the West Entrance on the North Fork Road. The last 10 or so miles are on a gravel road which can be very dusty and bumpy. There is a hiker’s parking area 1/4 from the lake. There is also a small campground at the lake.

The  West Entrance and Apgar area has many services including gas, groceries, dining, and a very large campground. If you have the time it’s a great place to stay for a day or two before or after your hike.

Food bags hanging for bear safety at food prep area of Kintla Lake Campsite Glacier National Park MontanaKintla Head camp food prep area #69827

Bear Safety in Glacier National Park

All backpackers are required to carry bear spray. Bear canisters are not required as of this writing, as all backcountry camp areas have food prep areas with poles for hanging food. Make sure to bring about 50′ of parachute cord or similar to hang your food. When getting your permit you’ll also need to watch a short video on bear safety. Don’t take this lightly, as you’ve seen in this post there is a good chance of seeing bears on the trail or near campsites.

Sunset over Kinnerly and Long Knife Peaks seen from Boulder Peak. Glacier National Park MontanaSunset Boulder Pass Glacier National Park  #70041  Purchase

Leave No Trace

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Glacier Park and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) Glacier National ParkMarmot at Boulder Pass Glacier National Park  #69980  Purchase

Photo Gear Used On This Trip

Nikon D850
Nikkor Lens:
14-24mm 2.8G ED
24-70mm 2.8E ED
70-200mm 2.8E FL ED
Gitzo 1532 Tripod
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
Assorted Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filters
B+H Polarizing Filter
Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release

If you enjoyed reading Boulder pass Glacier National Park please share it with your friends and family. And make sure you check out Boulder Pass Glacier National Park Part 1

Photos appearing in Boulder Pass Glacier National Park  are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

Sunrise at Lake McDonald Glacier National Park Montana

Boulder Pass Glacier National Park Part 1

Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

Sunrise at Lake McDonald Glacier National Park MontanaLake McDonald Glacier National Park #69738  Purchase

Glacier National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country. It averages around 3,000,000 visitors a year. That’s a lot of people, and you would be correct in thinking the park has an overwhelming amount of visitors. However, like most popular national parks, nearly all of those visitors only experience the park along front country roads and its iconic attractions. In Glacier, the vast majority of visitors only travel along Going-to-the-Sun Road and stay only for a day. If they get out of their car to experience the park it is most likely at Logan Pass.

Indeed, on any given summer day the line of traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road begins well before dawn. The parking lot at Logan Pass usually fills to capacity by 9 am. Soon after that, there is traffic congestion similar to that in any big city, and most scenic pullouts have no open parking spaces left. Those that want a more in-depth experience often choose day hikes beginning with Going to the Sun Road. And a smaller percentage explore trails in other sections of the park. The smallest percentage of visitors choose overnight backpacks to more well-known backcountry destinations.

It would seem that there is no corner of Glacier National Park free from crowds. This would be true if the park service didn’t have a strict permit system in place that limits backcountry campsites. This system is necessary to preserve the wilderness experience, and also protect fragile environments and wildlife. The visitor wanting to spend a night or two in the backcountry must negotiate the online permit reservation system. This can be very frustrating as nearly all sites fill up many months in advance. Some sites can even be closed and reservations canceled at the last minute due to bear activity.

Wilderness Permit Line Glacier National ParkWilderness permit line Glacier National Park

Obtaining a Permit for Boulder Pass

All this changed last summer. Because of the COVID pandemic, Glacier was operating the permit system on an in-person first-come basis only. So I saw this as a chance to improve my odds of doing a multi-day backpacking and photography trip into one of the most beautiful and remote areas of the park. Nearly all photographers gravitate to several well-known places in the park, such as Logan Pass, Lake McDonald. But my plan was to photograph in Kintla Lake and at Boulder Pass, a relatively unknown area for photographers.

So with time on my side, I set about obtaining a permit for a six-day trip. Accommodations in Glacier during the summer months are difficult to come by in a normal year. But last summer I had to work even harder to find a place, resorting to some obscure places I’ve found over the years. Fortunately, I found a place outside the park only minutes away from the wilderness permit office.

It still wasn’t easy to get my permits though. The line for permits was long and people began arriving well before dawn. On my first attempt I got there around 6 am and there were already at least 40 people in front of me. After waiting a couple of hours I heard that my chosen sites were already filled. So the next day I set my alarm for 1:30 am. Upon arriving at the office I was relieved to see there were only four others already in line. With a camp chair and my sleeping bag, I got comfortable until the office opened at 9. The waiting paid off and I left with a permit for my desired sites and dates in hand.

Couple on dock at Sunrise at Lake McDonald Glacier National Park MontanaSunrise proposal on Lake McDonald Glacier National Park #69805

Extra Time in Glacier Park

After obtaining my permit for Boulder Pass, I still had a couple of days to wait to start my trip. With time to kill there was no lack of ways to use it. Every morning and evening since arriving I set up to photograph at Lake McDonald. During my stay there were several very nice instances of light, making the efforts worthwhile.

One morning after arriving at the lake before dawn there was a couple on the nearby boat dock. I didn’t pay much attention to them until I saw the man drop to one knee. It was then apparent he was proposing marriage. He certainly chose the right day and time since the sky was ablaze with color at dawn.

On another occasion, I was sitting on the beach in the evening. A couple showed up that apparently were just married since the woman was wearing her wedding gown. They were there for some post-wedding portrait photographs. I wonder how many such events take place here during the year?

During this free time, there was also the opportunity to get in a day hike or two. After a quick look at the park map, one hike, in particular, rose above the rest, Sperry Chalet and Comeau Pass.

Sperry Chalet, Glacier National ParkSperry Chalet Glacier National Park  #69749

Sperry Chalet

A few years back the historic Sperry Chalet burned in the Sprague Fire. It was since rebuilt and this summer it was again open for business. Further up the trail from the chalet is Comeau Pass with an overlook of the Sperry Glacier. Together they offered a chance for me to see a new area of the park while getting a good workout.

The hike begins at the trailhead across the road from Lake McDonald Lodge. There is a huge parking area and it too overflows with cars by noon, so I got there early in the morning. The hike to Comeau Pass and back is around 17 miles with a nearly 5000′ in elevation gain. This is definitely a full-day leg burner unless you’re a trail runner who does this kind of thing before breakfast.

Sperry Chalet cookhouse entrance during Covid 19 Pandemic, Glacier National ParkSperry Chalet Dining Hall  #69752

If you make it all the way you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views at an elevation 1500′ higher than those at Logan Pass. Most hikers on this trail however are happy to get as far as Sperry Chalet, about 12 miles round trip with 3600′ elevation gain. The chalet sits right at the tree line, and the views down the valley are great, but the best scenery lies further up.

The chalet can be described as rustic elegance. Although during the pandemic only registered guests were allowed inside I was able to peak in the windows. There was a classic western lodge or cabin look to the rooms. The chalet has no electricity but there were oil lamps in the rooms, adding to the charm. There is a separate building for dining, looking in the door the aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls was wafting out. Sadly again only guests could enter this summer.

View from Comeau Pass, Glacier National Park MontanaComeau Pass Glacier National Park #69770

Comeau Pass

From the Chalet, the trail passes numerous waterfalls, wildflowers, interesting rock layers, and two alpine lakes. Finally, as you get closer to the pass it appears the trail dead-ends at the base of a cliff. However, when you get there a steep narrow stairway cut into the cliff awaits you. Something any fan of Lord of the Rings will enjoy. It’s kind of a short tame version of the Stair of Cirith Ungol, but there aren’t any giant spiders or Dark Tower on the other side. There are cables to assist in ascending and descending. On my hike the stairs acted like a wind tunnel gone nuts, it would have been difficult to get down safely without them.

Stairs cut in rock at final segment to Comeau Pass trail Glacier National ParkComeau Pass Stairway Glacier National Park #69777

Wildlife is another perk of this hike. On the way up to the pass, a herd of mountain goats blocked my way. They took a while to move on so I played wildlife photographer for a few minutes. On the way down a passing hiker alerted me to a grizzly sow and two cubs not far from the trail. I saw them from a good distance and was happy they weren’t closer.

Mountain Goats (Oreamnos americanus) on Comeau Pass Trail, Glacier National Park MontanaMountain Goats Comeau Pass Trail  #69757

Even though I was already on several lengthy backpacking trips in the past month the last few miles back from this one was slow and tiring. It was nice to get back to camp relax and recoup before starting my six-day trip to Boulder Pass.

Click here to read part two of Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

Canoeist paddling on Lake McDonald at sunrise. Glacier National Park MontanaLake McDonald Glacier National Park #69818 Purchase

If you enjoyed reading Boulder Pass Glacier National Park please share it with your friends and family. Next up Boulder Pass Glacier National Park Part 2!

Photos appearing in Boulder Pass Glacier National Park are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Boulder Pass Glacier National Park

Pronghorn and Dragon Head Peaks reflected in pond near Lee Lake, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range, Wyoming

Central Wind River Range Backpacking

Central Wind River Range Backpacking

Pronghorn and Dragon Head Peaks reflected in pond near Lee Lake, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range, WyomingPronghorn and Dragon Head Peaks Central Wind River Range  #69141  Purchase

The Wind River Range of Wyoming is a spectacular section of the Rocky Mountains. It contains 40 peaks over 13,000 feet, the largest glacier in the American Rockies, and over 1300 named lakes. All are spread over three wilderness areas.  While not as well known as other destinations such as Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks, the range nonetheless attracts an increasing amount of backpackers, climbers, hunters, and fishermen.

While popular destinations in the Winds like Cirque of the Towers, Island Lake,  and Titcomb Basin see the bulk of the crowds, much of the Winds remain nearly deserted. An extensive network of trails gives access to nearly every corner of the range, and off-trail travel is relatively straightforward. All of this offers outdoor enthusiasts a lifetime of wilderness adventures.

Island Lake and Fremont Peak, Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingIsland Lake Wind River Range #66386  Purchase

My first visit to the Winds was in 2002, and I’ve been coming back for more ever since. Being a landscape photographer I was naturally drawn to Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers on initial trips. But over time I became aware of other hidden gems in the range. Soon my list of destinations grew long with several spots rising to the top.

Last summer I returned to the Winds to check out a new area, Lee Lake and Pronghorn Peak. Both are located in the upper valley of the Middle Fork of Boulder Creek. This location, in the Central Wind Rivers, was on my list the previous summer but was nixed in favor of another location. When doing location research over the years one peak’s stunning profile stood out. This was Pronghorn Peak. Rising to 12,388′ it and the surrounding terrain has a look similar to mountains in Patagonia, or Canada’s Baffin Island.

Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak seen from Scab Creek Trail Central Wind River Range  #69072  Purchase

Backpacking into the Central Wind River Range

The Middle Fork Lake Valley is about 20 miles from the nearest trailhead at Scab Creek. This together with the variety of photographic subject matter necessitated a longer multi-day trip. To allow enough time at key locations I had a budget of 9 nine days. This would give enough flexibility to stay longer in promising spots.

Stormy Sunset Wind River Range  #69049  Purchase

Arriving at the Scab Creek Trailhead the afternoon before starting I sorted through and packed all my gear. Towards evening some brief showers passed through making me think there may be some great evening light in the making. So I drove a short way back down the road to a viewpoint to scout a good spot. It didn’t take long to see my instincts were right. Several storm cells were in the area with plenty of room in between them for the setting sun to break through. The resulting light show kept me on my toes for quite some time.

The next morning my trip began early with the destination for the day 10 miles away at Dream Lake. Accessing the high peaks along the Continental Divide in Central Wind generally requires a long approach. A high-rolling landscape with numerous lakes characterizes this area, and it’s usually on the second day before the high peaks are reached. So the first day was a long uneventful march with a cool dip in Dream Lake awaiting at the end.

Nylon Peak and Pronghorn Peak reflected in pond near Lee Lake Nylon and Pronghorn Peaks Wind River Range  #69083  Purchase

Middle Fork Lake/ Lee Lake Central Wind River Range

On day two the trail begins to approach the real mountains. After a gradual climb and skirting a few more lakes, the trail ends at a small pass overlooking the Middle Fork Valley. This is where I finally had my first tantalizing view of Lee Lake and the surrounding granite spires. From here on it was all trail-less cross-country travel over wide-open terrain. This is the kind of travel most backpackers dream of.

After making my way down from the pass I began to look for a good campsite close to good photo compositions. Just short of Lee Lake were some small photogenic ponds, with a decent campsite close by. With these in the foreground, the imposing summits of Nylon Peak, Pronghorn Peak, and Dragons Head made for a dramatic scene. All I needed was some good light.

Pronghorn and Dragon Head Peaks reflected in pond near Lee Lake, Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range, WyomingPronghorn and Dragon Head Peaks Central Wind River Range  #691371  Purchase

The Winds are notorious for afternoon thunderstorms followed by evening clearing, which I experienced firsthand. There were rain showers that afternoon and several hours of constant hail and thunder the next day. During the three days I spent at that camp there was a few instances of decent light, but not as dramatic as I was hoping for.

Pronghorn Peak and Lake Donna. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingPronghorn Peak and Lake Donna #69194  Purchase

Pronghorn Peak Central Wind River Range

Moving up to a higher camp directly across from Pronghorn entailed some tiring bushwhacking through thick brush. From a campsite at 11,000′ directly below Nylon Peak, I was able to spend a day exploring and scouting out photo compositions. From one pass I was able to gaze out to Bonneville Peak and down into Bonneville Lakes, which was one of my destinations from the previous summer.

Lake Donna Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingLake Donna Wind River Range  #69193  Purchase

Following a moraine down from the pass to Lake Donna I found the compositions I was looking for. The dramatic vertical split spires of Pronghorn Peak began right at the shore of the lake. A large boulder field at the outlet framed the scene perfectly. Again, good light would be the key to great photos. And since you never know if you’ll get another chance I made several photos on the spot.

My plan was to return before dawn the next morning but the sky was empty of the dawn clouds I was hoping for. Although I was ready and waiting the light never came. Nylon Peak cast a predictable harsh shadow across Pronghorn instead. All I could do was watch that shadow slowly move down as the sun rose higher against an empty blue sky.

Pronghorn Peak and Lake Donna. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingPronghorn Peak and Lake Donna #69198  Purchase

My few photos from the evening before were the best opportunities for that particular composition. It was disappointing, but thinking positively there was another future excuse to return to this stunning location.

Nylon Peak Noel Lake. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingNylon Peak Wind River Range  #69254  Purchase

Noel Lake and the Continental Divide

By now I’ve already been in the area for four days with only one more day left before needing to head out. The last destination to visit was Noel Lake, a lonely body of water sitting right on the Continental Divide below the eastern face of Nylon Peak.

If you are in the area or passing through on the Wind River High Route it would be a shame to not check it out. For me, it was a short hike, only about one mile further and 500′ higher. Despite the close proximity, it was slow going. Most of the route is across a seemingly endless boulder field. Once at the lake, which is 11’500′ up on the Divide, the goal is to find a campsite. The entire vicinity around the lake is more boulders. The few places big enough for a tent are on an inconvenient slope. However, a bit of scouting came up with possibly the only suitable open and level spot.

Nylon Peak Noel Lake. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingNylon Peak and Noel Lake Wind River Range  #69254  Purchase

Several yards from camp is the actual Divide, with a tiny pass bearing the name Col De St. Michaels. The view southeast to Lander Peak and its glaciers is spectacular, as is the view northeast to Roberts Mountain and moraine lake far below. Rock cliffs and water in every direction.

At Noel Lake I was facing the usual prospect of having some great photos lined up, only to wait and hope for good light. Unfortunately, except for some mid-day clouds, my envisioned photos of Noel Lake and Nylon Peak didn’t appear. However, there was some very nice light at sunset looking down and over the Middle Fork Valley.

Sunset over Middle Fork Basin seen from Noel Lake on the continental Divide. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingSunset from Noel Lake Wind River Range #69259  Purchase

Hiking out of the Central Wind River Range

From the Middle Fork Valley, there are some outstanding alternative return routes. Some of them involve negotiating passes in other valleys, while others take little-used trails across the benchland. I chose to return on the same trails I came in on, with one last camp again at Dream Lake.

Aside from the first few miles on the first day I came across very few other parties. So if you’re looking for backcountry solitude this is a good place to find it. I came across quite a few parties starting out in the last five miles, about half of them were horse-packing. The easy way to explore in the Winds.

I should also mention that of all the people I encountered I was probably the only one without a fishing pole. Most of those 1300 lakes have fish in them, and many rarely see a line dropped in. I’m not a fisherman but I can imagine there are some trophy fish out there just waiting to give an angler a thrill.

Boulder River Bridger Wilderness Wind River Range Wyoming Central Wind River RangeBoulder River Central Wind River Range #69349  Purchase

If You Go to Middle Fork and Lee Lake

Distance from Scab Creek Trailhead to Lee Lake:  15 miles
Elevation:  ~3200 gain from trailhead to Lee Lake
add another 1000′ and 3 miles for Lake Donna and Noel Lake
Difficulty:  Moderate-Difficult
Red Tape:  As of 2020, no permits are needed

Totals for my nine-day trip including side trips and photo scouting
Distance: ~38 miles
Elevation: ~4200″ not including numerous elevation gains and losses

The Scab Creek Trailhead is located 28 miles south of Pinedale. The last six miles are on a good gravel road. Adjacent to the trailhead there is a small campground. Like most trailheads in the Winds, parking can be at a premium, get an early start.

Make sure you take along plenty of insect repellant. The Winds are notorious for their ravenous hordes of mosquitoes and flies. Although they weren’t too bad during my trip in early August. Also, be prepared for dramatic weather changes. Summer thunder and lightning storms are very common along the Continental Divide. Because of this stay off high ridges and summits during this time of day.

The town of Pinedale makes a great base for multiple trips into the Winds. It has everything you’ll need, from good food and lodging to one of my favorite outdoor recreation stores, the Great Outdoor Shop. It’s stocked with everything needed for a successful trip, including a very knowledgeable and friendly staff. Don’t visit Pinedale without dropping in! Right next door to the great Outdoor Shop is the best place to go for a post-trip meal, the Wind River Brewing Company. They have excellent burgers and great brews!

Stormy sunset from Scab Creek Trailhead. Bridger-Teton National Forest Sublette County, WyomingStormy Sunset Wind River Range  #69042  Purchase

Leave No Trace

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). The Wind River Range and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Photo Gear Used On This Trip

Nikon D850
Nikkor Lens:
14-24mm 2.8G ED
24-70mm 2.8E ED
70-200mm 2.8E FL ED
Gitzo 1532 Tripod
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
Assorted Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filters
B+H Polarizing Filter
Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release

Backcountry camp below Pronghorn Peak. Bridger Wilderness. Wind River Range, Wyoming Central Wind River RangePronghorn Peak Camp Wind River Range  #69170  Purchase

If you enjoyed reading Central Wind River Range Backpacking please share it with your friends and family.

And check out these other Wind River posts!
Cirque of the Towers Wind River Range
Bonneville Lakes Wind River Range
Island Lake Wind River Range
Titcomb Basin Wind River Range
Indian Basin Wind River Range
Green River Lakes Wind River Range
Pyramid and Shadow Lakes Wind River Range

All photos appearing in Central Wind River Range Backpacking are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Central Wind River Range Backpacking

Big Boulder Lakes Basin, White Clouds Wilderness Idaho

White Clouds Wilderness Idaho

White Clouds Wilderness Idaho

Big Boulder Lakes Basin, White Clouds Wilderness IdahoBig Boulder Lakes White Clouds Wilderness #68936  Purchase

In central Idaho there lies a wilderness area that is seemingly hidden in plain sight. Established by Congress in 2015 the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness is one of the youngest in the nation. The reason I say that it is hiding in plain sight is the fact the nearby Sawtooth Wilderness grabs all the attention. Visitors flock to the Sawtooths to hike, climb, and fish among their jagged spires. And for good reason, the Sawtooths are visually akin to the Grand Teton Range, albeit on a smaller scale.

But most visitors are unaware of the quiet yet spectacular wilderness just a stone’s throw away. To the east across the valley cut by the Salmon River are the White Clouds. If you climb high in the Sawtooths and look east you’ll get a distant glimpse of them. A small range of high peaks consisting of light-colored rock looking like clouds on the horizon.

There are 63 named lakes in the range and several peaks over 11,000′ in elevation. Additionally, bordering the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness is the Hemingway-Boulder Wilderness, and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness areas. But for our purposes, we’ll concentrate on the White Clouds.

Trail sign, White Cloud Wilderness IdahoBig Boulder Lakes Trail Sign  #68891 

Backpacking to Walker Lake

Last summer I made my first trip to the White Clouds. The core area of the range most popular with hikers has two sections. In the south is the Boulder Chain Lakes area, which sees more visitors. In the north is the Big Boulder Lakes Basin, my destination for this trip. Both areas can be combined into one long multi-day trip. However, there are a few difficult cross-country sections with steep climbs, exposure, and difficult route finding. This makes a loop route more than the average backpacker is willing to attempt.

One reason Big Boulder Basin sees fewer visitors is the access to the trailhead at the Livingston Mill. From Stanley, this entails a long drive along the Salmon River and then up a narrow and dusty gravel road. There is at least one nice perk to accessing the White Clouds from here, read on to the end to find out what it is.

White Clouds Wilderness IdahoWhite Clouds Wilderness #68980

The last mile or two is pretty narrow with a steep drop-off. Keep a sharp eye out for oncoming vehicles since backing up to the nearest pullout would not be pleasant. There is a large parking area at the road end near Livingston Mill, elevation 7200′.

My destination on the first day was Walker Lake. It’s about 7 miles with 2200′ of elevation gain on a good trail. After the first two multi-use miles the trail splits, the left continues to Boulder Chain Lakes and the right climbs to Walker and Big Boulder Lakes. It is possible to continue in one day to the scenic subalpine basin above Walker Lake, however, the remaining two miles is just a faint route over and through swamps and boulders. Walker Lake was good enough for me, even though it had limited views and camping spots.

Sheep Lake Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness IdahoSheep Lake #68893

Wrong turn to Sheep Lake

The next day I started up to what I thought would be my destination at Sapphire Lake. At first, there was no trail to follow over the rocky terrain. I finally picked up a faint trail, but unknowingly the very steep path was leading me to Sheep Lake in the adjacent basin.  After finally arriving at walled in Sheep Lake it was apparent I made a route-finding mistake. But that was ok since it was a picturesque location with a decent campsite, and I had plenty of time.

Later a short scramble brought me to a ridge top with a commanding view of the surrounding peaks and Walker Lake far below. I was also able to discern from this view the correct route to Sapphire Lake and where I went wrong earlier in the day. From Sheep Lake there was a cross country route around the lake, over an easy pass, and down to Sapphire and the other upper basin lakes. But although I was carrying a good map that route wasn’t obvious from my camp.

White Clouds Wilderness IdahoView of Walker Lake  #68901  Purchase

The next day I retraced my steps down the same path to where I made my mistake. Since the correct route split off in a swampy meadow it was certainly easy to get off track. I finally came across a faint path leading in the right direction, but quickly lost it again. By this time my thought was to just plow straight up, with the assumption I would inevitably get to the top or intersect with the trail again. I did come across the trail again, by now a well-worn path, just two short switchbacks from the top.

Sapphire Lake White Clouds Wilderness IdahoBig Boulder Lakes #68917  Purchase

Sapphire Lake and the Upper Basin

Finally, in the right basin, all traces of paths vanished. However, by now I was in the subalpine and the terrain was open with easy route finding. After a leisurely walk over granite slabs and past several lakes, Sapphire Lake finally spread in front of me. Locating a prime spot with a view I set up camp and took it all in.

There are six lakes in the basin and multiple ponds and tarns, all with their own special character. Cirque, Sapphire, and Cove Lake are the biggest, and in my opinion, Sapphire is the most scenic. Of course, since I was here for photography so scouting out all of them was essential.

David O. Lee Peak, Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness IdahoDavid o’ Lee Peak White Clouds Wilderness  #68945  Purchase

After Sapphire, Cirque Lake appeared to offer great photographic potential. At about 10,500′ Cirque Lake was a gem sitting at the feet of 11,342′ David O. Lee Peak. In contrast to the surrounding granite, David O. Lee is composed of limestone, the rock that gives the White Clouds their name.

Indeed, although Cirque Lake was a grand scene it was set in a stark rocky alpine basin. Only on one section of the shoreline, there were some nice mosses and carpets of wildflowers. The landscape did have photographic potential, but only in the right light. There are a couple of great other options for exploring Cirque Lake.

O'Calkens Peak Slide Lake, Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness IdahoNeck Lake O’Caulkens Peak #68904 

One would be to hike up the easy moraine on the southeast side of the lake. At the top, you’ll be in a truly alpine environment of rock and snow. Tucked away below the wall of the cirque are The Kettles, a small group of tarns, and classic examples of past glacial activity. Along the way up the moraine, you’ll also get great views down to the basin and other lakes.

Another option would be to ascend the slope on the north side of the lake to a small pass. From the pass, you could look across to O’Caulkens peak at 11,487′ and down to Neck Lake in the upper valley I accidentally ended up on the second day. Or you could keep going higher to another pass looking down the west side of the White Clouds. For the truly ambitious a climb to the summit of David O. Lee Peak is possible.

Big Boulder Lakes Basin, White Clouds Wilderness IdahoBig Boulder Lakes #68955 Purchase

A White Clouds Wilderness Post Trip Treat

After exploring and photographing Big Boulder Lakes Basin it was time to head out. Indications of changing weather and approaching storms put an end to my first visit to the White Clouds Wilderness. I was toying with the idea of moving south to check out Boulder Chain Lakes Basin, but the change in weather ruled it out. Hopefully next summer I’ll be able to return and explore and photograph that section.

I should note here since my main goal on backpacking trips is photography my trips are a bit different than that of other backpackers. Others may enjoy covering many miles, being on the move from sun up to sundown. On the other hand, I usually have a goal of allotting a generous amount of time in one area for photography. So in this instance moving to the Boulder Chain Lakes would allow only one brief day for photography. From all indications at least two to four days would be needed.

West Pass hot springs, East Fork Salmon River IdahoWest Pass Hot Springs  #68887

One of the great perks of hiking in central Idaho is the abundance of natural hot springs. There is a huge variety available for the avid soaker, from roadside pools to remote backcountry springs. In this instance, my trusty guidebook, Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest, pointed to West Pass Hot Springs, not far away on the same access road.

West Pass hot springs, East Fork Salmon River IdahoWest Pass Hot Springs  #68886 

West Pass is about as remote as you can get by vehicle, about 25 miles down a forest service road. The springs flow from a hillside just above the East Fork Salmon River. Hot water is diverted into three strategically placed bathtubs. You can also try soaking in a few riverside pools. At any rate, having a good hot soak at the end of a multi-day backpack is a treat that can’t be passed up!

Cirque Lake, David O. Lee Peak, Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness IdahoDavid o’ Lee Peak White Clouds Wilderness  #68929   Purchase

If You Visit Big Boulder Lakes, White Clouds Wilderness

Distance from trailhead to Sapphire Lake:  about 9 miles
Elevation Gain:  about 3600′
Difficulty:  Moderate-Difficult
Red Tape:  No permits are needed

The Livingston Mill Trailhead is located about 58 miles from Stanley Idaho. Take U.S. 75 37 miles northeast from Stanley to East Fork Road. Go another 17 miles to Big Boulder Creek Road, and finally another 4.3 miles to Livingston Mill. West Pass Hot Springs is another 18 miles further on East Fork Road. Check out Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest for a detailed description.

The small scenic town of Stanley Idaho makes a great base for trips into the Sawtooths. Lodging, groceries, restaurants, outdoor gear stores, and a great bakery are in town. There are also many campgrounds in the vicinity.

David O. Lee Peak, Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness IdahoDavid o’ Lee Peak White Clouds Wilderness  #68943  Purchase

Leave No Trace

And now for a short lecture. As I’ve been saying in previous posts, don’t even think about visiting this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). The Wind River Range and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Photo Gear Used On This Trip

Nikon D850
Nikkor Lens:
14-24mm 2.8G ED
24-70mm 2.8E ED
70-200mm 2.8E FL ED
Gitzo 1532 Tripod
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
Assorted Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filters
B+H Polarizing Filter
Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release

If you enjoyed reading White Clouds Wilderness please share it with your friends and family. And make sure you check out my previous post on the Eagle Cap Wilderness Oregon

Some photos appearing in White Clouds Wilderness Idaho are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on the image to purchase, or contact me for more info!