Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Buck Creek Pass/Spider Gap Loop

Fortress Mountain above pink heather on Flower Dome.
 The Buck Creek Pass - Spider Gap loop is considered one of the premier backpacking trips in Washington, and with good reason.  Glaciers, high passes and lakes abound along this fantastic trek.  Throw in a side trip to Image Lake (a must!) and this classic is raised to an even higher bar.  Do this trip during flower season and it will add to your enjoyment and photography.  This is an outstanding flower hike in season!

I elected to do this trip in the reverse route than most people for several reasons.  The first was that I was starting my trek on Labor Day Weekend, and assumed Larch Knob, the obvious first night camp, would be crazy busy (I later learned it wasn't).  The second was that I preferred walking the Phelps Creek Road downhill back to my truck rather than uphill.

Glacier Peak from Buck Creek Pass.
So, leaving my truck at the Buck Creek TH, I began my ascent to Buck Creek Pass on the extremely dusty trail.  This was a 9-1/2 mile day with 3200' elevation gain.  There aren't many highlights along the lower section of trail; it's pretty much a matter of just grunting up to the high country and camp.

From the upper camps at Buck Creek Pass, the views of Glacier Peak are excellent.  In fact, the volcano can even be photographed from this location in the morning hours.  The downside to these camps is that they are much more dusty than the lower camps, and further away from water and the privy.

Fortress Mountain above lupine on Flower Dome.
Fortress Mountain receives the best evening light in the area, so a stroll to Flower Dome is a must in the evening for photographers.  Maps are incorrect that the trail stops short of the top.  Also, the trail doesn't mess around; it gains elevation at an aggressive clip.

From Flower Dome, views of Fortress Mountain are excellent, and the flowers are expansive!  I found the best vantage to be from the NW corner of the meadows.  However, I recommend hiking to the top, then scouting from above to find your photography location of choice.

The morning hours are all about the trail toward High Pass and Triad Lake.  At 6,800', Liberty Cap makes an excellent destination for views.  However, the best flower photography is found much lower down - less than 20 minutes from camp at Buck Creek Pass.

Glacier Peak above Image Lake.
Triad Lake is a highly recommended destination while in the area.  In fact, if I could recommend only one side trip from Buck Creek Pass, it would be Triad Lake.  For even better views, find a safe line of travel to High Pass.

From Buck Creek Pass, the trail descends to a crossing of Small Creek, then climbs up and over Middle Ridge.  Atop the ridge, an unmarked side trail ascends up to Sheep Camp.  This is reportedly a magnificent camp and based on what I saw, I would have to agree.  Next time!

From Middle Ridge, the trail descends to a crossing of Miners Creek  and then climbs towards Suattle Pass and the junction with Miners Cabin trail.

The Miners Cabin trail begins by traversing a steep hillside in trees to and cliffs.  Just pass the remains of the miners cabin is the junction with Miners Ridge trail, which switchbacks up to Ladyslipper Camp and then traverses beautiful open meadows of flowers in season, all the way to Image Lake.  Photographers can spend some serious time along this section of trail.

Soon one arrives at Image Lake and the rolling green meadows all around.  Bears are not uncommon here, especially on the higher slopes.

Evening light on Fortress Mountain.
For more flowers and excellent views of Fortress Mountain, hike back to the junction with the Canyon Lake trail.  Hike it a very short distance and find an unmarked boot path leaving it and heading uphill.  It soon becomes a very distinct trail, traversing flower meadows as it climbs to Point 6758.  This is an excellent evening destination for photography.

Image Lake stands a better chance of holding a reflection in the evening than in morning.  However, Glacier Peak receives only a sliver of light on it's upper slopes from this vantage.  In my opinion, compositions of the lake and Glacier Peak are better served in the morning.

Sunrise on Glacier Peak above Image Lake.
Many choices and vantage points around Image Lake are available to the photographer.  Indeed, one may wish to spend a couple of days in this area to compose from multiple locations.

A trail navigates around the shores of the lake, placing the upper slopes of Glacier Peak immediately above the trees to the south for an interesting composition.

Up higher, a horse bypass trail navigates high above the delicate areas around the lake and offers a much different perspective.  This vantage offers more of the mountain and forests of the Suattle drainage, as well as a more encompassing view of the lake and surrounding meadows.  A trail on the north side of the lake connects these two trails.

Glacier Peak above Image Lake.
I found this area to be best photographed at sunrise, and then again in mid-morning once the lake and meadows receive sunlight.  Light comes fast to this basin, so don't wait too long.

Once the sun has climbed high in the sky and the photography is done, sprawl out and relax in this beautiful setting!

From Image Lake, one must retrace the trail back to the junction and continue on toward Suattle Pass.  A junction just before Suattle Pass gives the hiker a choice of taking the highly scenic shortcut to Cloudy Pass.  If conditions allow, I recommend it.

Dumbell Mountain above Lower Lyman Lake.
The views from Cloudy Pass are impressive.  Arriving at the pass and seeing the view of Lyman Lakes for the first time is an eye-opener - much more so than seeing them from Spider Gap, in my opinion.  There are campsites at and around the pass.  From the pass, a trail ascends up Cloudy Peak, offering many scenic campsites along the way and opening up views to Glacier Peak and north to Buckner, Goode and...the list is too long!

Camp above Cloudy Pass below Cloudy Peak.
This area was also the buggiest of my entire trip.   After setting my camera up on my tripod, I counted 12 horse flies on it within moments during mid-afternoon.  They were nasty!  In the heat of the day, I had to cover up in clothes.  I tried to hide from the flies in the shade, but the mosquitoes were there waiting to swarm me - in the middle of the day.

After a couple of hours of this annoyance, a couple of strong, extended gusts of wind blew through the pass.  When they stopped, I realized the large horse flies were gone.  They never returned.  It was the strangest thing.

The picture to the left shows my camp, as viewed from a knoll above the pass.  It's deceptive.  My camp is actually about about 50' or so above the pass.  Still it gives you a good sense of the area.  You can also see the path climbing the far slope to higher camps and views on Cloudy Peak.

I spent the evening photographing Dumbell Mountain above Lower Lyman Lake from a knoll to the west of the pass.  I really enjoyed this vantage.
In the morning I ventured up to a shoulder on Cloudy Peak, where Glacier Peak could be viewed through the V gap of Cloudy Pass and over Middle Ridge.  Lyman Lakes Basin didn't receive the morning light I thought it might.  The minor ridge to the west of Cloudy Pass and below Fortress Mountain did though.

Fortress Mountain above Cloudy Pass (my camp is just to the left of
snow patch, bottom right corner).
 Cloudy Pass is a wonderful area to hang out and explore (less the bugs).  Water is available just 1/4 mile below the pass if a water source cannot be found up higher.  I had the pass all to myself the night of my stay - well, except for the deer that visited me throughout the night.

From the pass, the trail descends through open meadows, then forest, to Lower Lyman Lake.  Near the lake's outlet stream is a junction, with the trail to Upper Lyman Lakes crossing the outlet stream and ascending the slopes beyond.

Reflection near Upper Lyman Lakes.
 Soon the trail leaves the forest and climbs through open meadows.   Bonanza Peak emerges to dominate the skyline to the east, while tarns catch the reflection of the ridge to the west serving as a backdrop to Lyman Lakes.  There is a lot to see and explore in this area, and a visit to the first upper lakes is a must.

Again, I was surprised to not see a soul in this area during my visit.  In fact, I didn't run into a single hiker after leaving Cloudy Pass until ascending to the Spider Gap col.  I would guess a weekend would be much different.
Reflection near Upper Lyman Lakes.
Finally, the much anticipated upper lake is reached and it is as advertised with the Lyman Glacier spilling into the lake below the icy walls of Chiwawa Mountain and icebergs floating in the lake.  One can only reflect back to older generation pictures of this glacier when it was much greater in size.  But the sight is still impressive.

This upper basin is an area that doesn't receive much light outside of mid-day.  Clouds would definitely help with photography here.  I had none, so I played with isolating the glacier and lake.  Still, the light was harsh and I would have preferred some high clouds to help diffuse the light.

The basin is also quite large and demands much exploring.  Definitely find the moraine trail along the shore of the upper lake.  You can follow this as far as you wish toward the Lyman Glacier and snow bank at the south end of the lake.  Find a spot atop one of the many large boulders and find time to relax and reflect.
Yours truly at Upper Lyman Lake.
 The route over Spider Gap is very straightforward and easy to navigate in nice weather.  The descent of the Spider Glacier down to Larch Knob was equally easy.  I highly recommend spending a night at Larch Knob!  Again, this is an area set in the deep valley of Phelps Creek and only receives mid-day light.  Seven Finger Jack and Mt. Maude receive evening light, but lack visual interest from this perspective without the help of dramatic clouds, in my opinion.

From Larch Knob it's a steep descent down to Spider Meadows via many switchbacks, but the trail provides a birds eye view of the valley below, which are quite impressive.  Spider Meadows offer a pleasant stroll through flowers in season.  Beyond the meadows, the trail is uneventful back to the trailhead, with the possible exception of crossing Leroy Creek in early season.  Then a 3 mile road walk back to your vehicle greets you.

Camp at Larch Knob with the Spider Glacier in the background.
I was surprised not to see any bears on this trip.  Buck Creek Pass was crawling with hunters, but in years past I have seen them around Image Lake and Suattle Pass.  I also expected to see one or two around Lower Lyman Lake.  But it was not to be.

I found my 24-70mm lens to be my only lens used on this trip.  I carried my 17-40mm, but it never saw the light of day.  I left the bigger glass at home, as I typically due on such extended trips.  The weight isn't worth it.

I highly recommend this extended backpack!  I would budget 6-7 days to really enjoy all it has to offer.  I would not consider anything less than 4-5 days.
As always, thanks for visiting!

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