The Spider Gap -Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area of Washington State, USA ranks as my favorite multi-day backpacking trip of all time. This is a land that although not far from the greater Seattle area truly embodies the essence of a wilderness area, “an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people, and where we are just visitors who cannot remain in a place of such unspoiled beauty.” Here is a land with vast ancient old growth forests that extend as far as the eye can see up wild river valleys. These forests suddenly reach equally large and expansive high mountain emerald green meadows filled with a vast variety of wildflowers in a kaleidoscope of colors. Here is a land where glacier remnants of the ice age provide the access route over gaps that lead one to the very heart of a wilderness experience with chains of turquoise blue mountain lakes, endless trails and landmarks with names like Flower Dome, Fortress and Chiwawa Mountain, Suiattle River, and Middle Ridge. At the center of of it all is paradise itself at the tranquil and peaceful Image Lake that sits underneath Washington’s most remote volcanic peak, known by the Suak Indian Tribe as “Tda-ko-buh-ba”, but also know as Glacier Peak. Here is a land where you can get directly in touch with the elemental forces, beauty and mystery of nature; and find your long lost destiny everywhere in the wilderness that surrounds you. Welcome to heaven on earth!
Glacier Peak and the Image Lake Basin
The Glacier Peak Wilderness area is a 566,057-acre, 35-mile-long, 20-mile expanse of land located northeast of Everett Washington, just south of North Cascades National Park, and about twenty miles northwest of Leavenworth Washington. The area is characterized by heavily forested rivers and streams, steep-sided valleys, and dramatic glacier-crowned peaks. The dominant geologic feature of the area is 10,541-foot Glacier Peak. It is the most remote major volcanic peak in the Cascade Range and has more active glaciers than any other place in the lower forty-eight states. Glacier Peak is a volcanic cone of basalt, pumice, and ash which erupted during periods of heavy glaciation.
I have ventured into the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area countless time during my life, visiting Image Lake six times and completing this loop twice, most recently in a Sierra Club trip in a 2017 trip led by Mike Bolar and Leah Maddoff. I find the Sierra Club outings well organized, generally supportive of my photographic goals, and my thoughts on wilderness and conservation resonate well with the club’s goals and participants. In the future I plan on leading my own Photography Oriented backpacking trip in this area. I never tire of visiting this area and each time the wilderness presents itself to me a new and fresh way, providing inspiration for the further development of my photographic vision.
In this post I will discuss visiting and photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area along the Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop including the following topics: Basic Route, Getting there, When to Go, Photography Oriented Backpacking, Finding your Vision, Conditioning, Importance of Packing Light, Camera Gear, and a Day by Day Itinerary. In the day by day itinerary I will provide some insights and guidance for photographic opportunities, subjects and compositions.
Image Lake Morning Light
The loop trip spans a distance of 44 miles. I recommend that you do the loop trip counter clockwise entering in through Phelps Creek and heading up through Spider Meadows to Spider Gap. The reason for this is that you will need to go up and over the Spider Glacier and if the the snow is too hard to navigate safely the trip will need to be cut short. Better to do this at the beginning of the trip than toward the end where it would take days tor a return trip back to the car. The two times I did this loop trip in August the snow was not icy , but every year is different and one needs to take the necessary precautions. Once at Spider Gap the route descends the glacier down to Upper Lyman Lakes, over to Lyman Lake, out to Cloudy and Suiattle Passes, over to Image Lake and then out through Buck Creek Pass and back to the Car.
From Everett head east on US 2 for 85 miles to Coles Corner. (From Leavenworth travel west on US 2 for 15 miles.) Turn left onto State Route 207 (Lake Wenatchee) and proceed 4.2 miles to a Y intersection after crossing the Wenatchee River. Bear right onto the Chiwawa Loop Road, and after 1.3 miles turn left onto the Chiwawa River Road (Forest Road 62). Proceed for 22 miles (the pavement ends at 10.8 miles) to a junction. Bear right onto FR 6211 and proceed for 2.3 very rough miles to the trail head at the road’s end (elev. 3500 ft). For the last 2.3 road miles I recommend at a minimum cars with all wheel drive and higher ground clearance such as a Subaru Outback or Forester. The hike ends just north of the Phelps Creek Campground, requiring a 3-mile road walk back to your car at the end unless a shuttle is arranged. On my last trip we left a couple of cars at the Phelps Creek Campground and took a couple of other cars to the trail head allowing us to shuttle people back and forth eliminating the need to hike the road back up to the trail head. Parking is limited and often not available at the trail head on weekends so I strongly recommend starting this loop trip around the middle of the week.
When to Go
The best time to go on this trip and experience the wildflower bloom at or close to peak is from fourth week of July to about the middle of August. The wildflower bloom changes from year to year but I have found on most years this is the best window of opportunity. In early July there will be significant snow still in many areas of this trip so I do not recommend going then. Glacier Peak also has fabulous Fall color so another possibility for scheduling a trip around autumn colors is the last week of September through the first week of October which typically is an “Indian Summer”. Going later than this carries a greater risk of inclement weather.
Multi-day Photography Oriented Backpack
My recommended itinerary is organized entirely around the concept of a photography oriented multi-day backpack. Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography. This means frequent stops along the trail and organizing the schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset. Breakfasts on photography backpacking trips are usually eaten late and dinners early because it is important to keep the mornings and evenings open for photography. Most movement from place to place will occur during the middle of the day arriving at the next camp well in advance of the evening hours which means keeping daily backpacking distances reasonable where possible. For multi-day backpacking trips I recommend keeping the number of participants at a small number, at the most five or six, to make sure each of the photographers has a quality experience and participants are not stepping over each others toes trying to get the image. Participants should also be carefully screened as this is a physically challenging backpack and not everyone may be in sync with the pace, rhythm, and goals of a photography oriented backpacking trip.
Finding Your Vision
Although this trip is planned around optimizing photographic opportunity, it is important to note that the antecedent conditions for creative photography and finding ones own vision are experiencing nature on its own terms and getting in touch with one’s authentic self. The descriptions and recommendations offered here are only guides, a starting point if you will. The expression of your personal photographic vision for Glacier Peak will come about through the intersection of your own inward journey with material world and spirits of nature. More on this can be found on my recent blog post “Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self” .
Liberty Cap from Buck Creek Pass
Many people are very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their adventure. This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive prior conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort. Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of two to four thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington. Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds. There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Glacier Peak Loop experience.
View at Sunrise from Image Lake Camp
Importance of Packing Light
Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds. This challenge is especially hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry a full array of backpacking gear, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod. On this loop trip you will also need to pack Micro Spikes which weigh about one pound and and least one trekking pole for going up and over the Spider Gap Glacier. One needs to think carefully through what one brings along because every ounce counts. I strongly recommend to photographers to carry an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, rain gear, clothing etc. But this does not mean accepting significant compromises in functionality. Ultralight gear can be expensive, but there are deals to be found at the REI Garage, Backcountry.Com and other outlets. Although reducing weight is essential for comfortable backpacking and a enjoyable experience, make absolutely certain that you pack all the ten essentials. In a future blog post on Multi-day backpacking I will include a complete equipment checklist that I use to plan every one of my multi-day backpacking trips.
(1) Navigation (map and compass)
(2) Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
(3) Insulation (extra clothing)
(4) Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
(5) First-aid supplies
(6) Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
(7) Repair kit and tools
(8) Nutrition (extra food)
(9) Hydration (extra water)
(10) Emergency shelter
My recommendation is to take only two lenses and at the most three. The lens that is most useful along the loop is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a macro lens that also doubles as a telephoto lens. A light weight normal focal length fixed lens will also be useful in creating tight compositions of Image Lake with Glacier Peak on the horizon. On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R2 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, a Sony 90mm 2.8 macro lens, and a Sony 55mm 2.8 lens. The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground details in the grand landscape composition and the macro telephoto works perfectly for flowers, small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective, and wildlife at a relatively close range. One may want to substitute for the 55mm 2.8 a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide-angle lens for stars. But do not fall for the temptation of bringing any more than 2 or 3 lenses. My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighs less than seven pounds. Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably . If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additional three pounds. It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment. Bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack. Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.
There are two very important photography equipment requirements in multi-day backpacking that I have found many people do not think about until the need becomes apparent. The first requirement is that you will need a camera available at all times while actually on the trail backpacking. The second is that once at camp you will need some means to conveniently carry your full frame camera equipment and tripod around.
Photographic opportunities abound on this trip while actively backpacking on the trail, but to take advantage of these opportunities you will need quick access to a camera. Although there are many ways to carry your interchangeable lens camera while backpacking, personally I have found all of these ways somewhat awkward and inconvenient when carrying a heavy multi-day backpack. I have also noticed that when backpackers use such devices as a holster, a chest pouch, or a shoulder mounted peak one, the use of these devices is typically only temporary and then the user gets tired of their awkwardness and into the main backpack the camera goes. What I recommend is to carry a second camera: a high quality and light weight point and shoot camera that fits easily into a pocket, such as the Sony RX100. This is the camera you use while hiking from point to point while carrying your heavy backpack. It only weighs 8 ounces, has the full array of both manual and automatic controls, and is capable of capturing excellent images and raw files. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you! Once at camp of course you will use your larger full frame camera.
Wildflowers and a Mossy Stream leading to a Cairn and Upper Lyman Lakes
Image shot on the fly with my pocket camera, Sony RX100
Many backpacks now come with a secondary built in day pack that can be used to carry a full frame camera, lenses, tripod, and a few essentials once you are at camp and in the field. I pack my camera in a small F-Stop ICU that fits in a Kangaroo Pouch of my Gregory Pack. Once at camp I take the ICU out and put it into the pack within a pack that is included with the Gregory. Although some people just empty out their larger pack and use it as a day pack, in my opinion this is awkward, limits mobility, and also forces one to put all unneeded gear now somewhat disorganized inside the tent.
The recommended Itinerary for a this photography oriented backpack is shown in the chart below.
Here is a basic map of the loop trip route.
Day One: Phelps Creek Trail Head to Spider Meadows
The first day of your backpacking trip gently climbs and winds its way through old-growth forest and after about 5 miles reaches beautiful spider meadows. Some great camping spots that also offer protection from wind are located in the forest just to the east of the beginning of the meadow. This puts you very close to the most photogenic spots which tend to be located more toward the beginning of the meadow. Water is readily available from Phelps Creek which runs through the meadow from north to south on the east side. I recommend that you arrive at Spider Meadows on a weekday because the meadow can be very busy with weekend campers due to its relatively ease of accessibility. I am not sure how the meadow received the name, but the meadow is anything but creepy, and in fact I found it abundantly peaceful, serene, and beautiful. Please note, I also did not see a single spider during my two visits!
The meadow contains a variety of wildflowers including Valerian, Purple Asters and Indian Paint Brush which bloom from mid-July through August. Good near far compositions can be achieved using a wide angle zoom, placing the tripod low and inches away from a cluster of flowers. Explore the meadow looking for tighter clusters of either a single or variety of flowers with leading lines, patterns and or transitions through the meadow and out to the peaks on the horizon. Although both early and evening light is good in the meadow, I found evening light to be be best in this deeply recessed meadow that sits below Phelps Ridge and Red Mountain towering above.
21mm, 1/8s, ISO 400, a focus stack of 5 images at F11
There is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.
– Thomas Jefferson 22MM, F16, 1/25s, ISO 200
Day Two: From Spider Meadows to Lyman Lake
This day will be the most thrilling and adventurous of the entire journey, taking you through the entire length of Spider Meadow, crossing Phelps Creek, up a series of steep and abrupt switch backs to the foot of Spider Glacier. At this point it is time to put on the Micro Spikes to follow what will undoubtedly be a boot beaten path through the snow up to Spider Gap, 7,900 feet in elevation. Then it is a long descent down the glacier until finding cairns at the base of the glacier close to Upper Lyman Lakes. Follow the cairns on a sketchy trial past Upper Lyman Lakes until finding the well developed trail to lower Lyman Lake, your campsite for the night.
Backpackers heading up to Spider Gap
From Spider Gap looking down to Upper Lyman Lakes
Although this is likely the most adventurous part of the multi-day backpacking trip, it is also the one the demands the most caution. Typically the snow in late July and early August is reasonably soft and not hard. But if the snow is icy it is may not be safe to travel without crampons, an ice ax and knowledge of self arrest techniques. Since you are already carrying extra weight for your camera gear you will likely not be carrying also an ice ax. Both times I did the loop trip the snow was reasonably soft in August and all that was required were Yak Tracks or Micros Spikes. I strongly recommend metal Micro Spikes because they afford a higher level of traction than the rubber Yak Tracks. Also helpful is at least a single light weight trekking pole for balance and to probe the snow ahead of you to make sure it is solid. If the snow is icy do not attempt going up and over Lyman Glacier and just settle for camping below the gap.
Although both horizontal and vertical compositions work well, I found the vertical perspective works the best to balance the foreground, mid-ground and background elements. The best images usually come from balancing important foreground details with the larger scene using a moderate wide angle lens. Drifts of flowers and moss, snow drifts, and rocks all help lead the eye down the mountain side to the beautiful Turquoise waters of Upper Lyman Lakes and further out to the peaks on the horizon including Bonanza and Chiwawa. To give adequate emphasis to the foreground details you will need to get lower which may mean temporarily taking off your backpack to compose the shot (or you can be a masochist like me and just stoop down with heave pack on!).
Once a well developed trail to Lyman Lake is found, continue your descent to the juncture with trail 1286 and take a left going to a bridge that crosses the outlet of Lyman Lake. In the summer of 2017 this bridge was damaged but still crossable one person at a time. Continue walking north around the lake going left again at a sign that says camps. There are some excellent camps with views looking all directions at an inlet stream on the west side of the lake, about a half mile in on the camp trail. Photographing Lyman Lake can be tricky as this lake is deeply recessed with strong shadows even at early evening or morning. Explore the lake shore going to the north for the best wide angle compositions that will include interesting foreground details. Take at least two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the sky, to make sure you have adequate dynamic range for post processing.
Lyman Lake Evening Light
Lyman Lake Shore- A Horizontal Perspective
Day Three: From Lyman Lake to just below Cloudy Pass
Head back to the main trail 1279, going left uphill toward Cloudy Pass. This will be a very short hike of only 2.6 miles and 700 feet elevation gain. One may be tempted to just skip this altogether and head to the crown jewel of Image Lake. But I strongly recommend that you include this beautiful wildflower meadow just below Cloudy Pass in your trip agenda. This will be one of the most productive areas for creative photography with great sunset and sunrise images from Cloudy Pass, looking out to the east at Bonanza and Chiwawa Mountains, and to the west to Plumber and Sitting Bull Mountains. In addition to the grand scenic opportunities of this area there will be ample time for capturing more intimate scenes of the meadow itself. The camp area will be found about 300 feet before Cloudy Pass where the meadow flattens out off on the right side of the trail. A small stream for water travels through the meadow. Look for existing campsites and a durable surface and as always, leave no trace.
“The hills are alive with the Sound of Music”
Lyman Lake from Cloudy Pass
Looking to the West form Cloudy Pass, Fog Bank at Sunrise
Cloudy Pass flower Meadow
Day Four and Five (layover day): From Cloudy Pass to Image Lake
After your sunrise photo shoot, break camp and head back up to Cloudy Pass and descend down to the west until you find a trail intersection. Take the one that goes to the left that is called a “Hiker Shortcut”. It will rejoin the main trail that will connect with the Pacific Crest Trail at Suiattle Pass which is not particularly photogenic. At this point you will have traveled about two miles. After a short distance on the Pacific Crest Trail turn right onto the Miners Ridge trail for a two night side trip to the crown jewel of our trip, Image Lake, about 3.5 miles from Suiattle Pass. The Miners Ridge trail to Image Lake steadily climbs up a series of switchbacks and eventually breaks out into a very large mountainside meadow that goes as far as the eye can see with Glacier Peak always in full view. In late July through the middle of August this meadow rivals the Paradise flower fields in its magnificence and splendor and you will want to have a camera constantly in hand.
Flower Fields and Glacier Peak from the Miners Ridge Trail
Miners Ridge Bouquet of Flowers
Full Expanse of Miners Ridge
Camping is not allowed around Image Lake itself to protect the fragile meadows and also to help ensure that everyone has a quality experience and can enjoy the lake without looking at tents pitched everywhere around the lake (as was the case long ago). I strongly recommend that photographers plan on staying two nights at Image Lake. There are several reasons for this: (1) it increases the chances that you will experience good lighting and weather conditions. It would be a frustrating to say the least to travel this far and miss out and good photographic conditions; (2) the area around Image Lake and back toward Miners Ridge abounds in photographic opportunities and one needs ample amount of time to explore these areas and compositions, (3) you have arrived at a paradise and heaven on earth, enjoy it!; and (4) for those who just cannot stay put there is an about 8 mile round trip trail to the extremely remote Canyon Lake that also has views of Glacier Peak!
Return to Oz
In the above image a image a somewhat ominous and at same time auspicious long standing wave cloud rises like a tornado along side Glacier Peak and Image Lake just before sunrise. Weather events like this one obviously do not happen often, but your odds of experiencing interesting weather increase the longer you stay at Image Lake.
Image lake, unlike Mt. Rainier’s Reflection Lake, actually does not have much of a reflection unless you are right at the shoreline and then Glacier Peak is not very prominent and is only partially visible above the trees on the distant shore. The best views can be found by hiking up the way trails on the east side of the lake. The quality and character of the view will change at different elevations and depending upon if Glacier Peak is centered above the lake or is situated more to the right side. Both compositions are good. Going way above the Lake toward the top of Pyramid Peak also offers spectacular views.
29MM, F11 focus stacked, 1/5s, ISO 800 (for wind)
In the above image, beautiful pasque flowers gone to seed and Image Lake awaken to a rosy sunrise underneath Washington’s most remote volcano, Glacier Peak. The quality of the light and how it effects Glacier Peak is much different in the morning than the evening. In the morning the peak appears more crisp and has better definition. In the evening it is much more of a softer look as one is looking more directly at the sun and a blue haze that typically covers the peak. This usually clears up once the sun has actually set. Both wide angle and normal focal lengths work well, with wide angles emphasizing more foreground details and normal focal lengths emphasizing the peak and the lake itself. A moderate telephoto perspective of about 90 mm will bring details of the peak to life but you will only be able to include a portion of the lake. For more on this see my blog post “Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty in the Landscape”. Although most images of the lake are taken as a horizontal, vertical images carefully framed will offer in a unique layered perspective. Always take a vertical!
Image Lake just after Sunset
55MM, F11, 1/13s, ISO 800
Image Lake at Dawn 90MM
Image Lake at Sunset
35MM, F11 focus stacked, 1/50s, ISO 800 (for wind)
Day Six and Seven (Layover Day): From Image Lake to Buck Creek Pass
You will want to get an early start because this leg of the trip will be the longest in terms of miles (12.8) and there is also significant elevation loss and gain. Retrace your route along the Miner’s Ridge trail back to the Pacific Crest Junction. Take a right heading south at the junction following the Crest trail for 1.5 miles and then turn left on trail 789, dropping about 1,000 feet through beautiful Ancient Forests to a crossing of Miners Creek. Now it is time to gain all that lost elevation back again as you climb up to the meadows of Middle Ridge, where Glacier Peak in all her splendor is visible once again. Continue on past the turn off to Flower Dome (we will return here later) and on to the turnoff to the camps at Buck Creek Pass. The camps furthest out along the camp turnoff trail are excellent and will provide you with the best privacy in this area that can be very busy, especially on weekends.
Lupine Flower fields along Middle Ridge
Once you setup camp and have an early dinner, it is time to take a sunset hike to Flower Dome. Head back about a half mile to the turnoff and then about another mile to Flower Dome. Flower dome is relatively flat on top, and as its name would suggest is covered with flowers. Beautiful compositions abound in every direction: wide open lupine meadows, the Suiattle River Valley, and majestic peaks including Glacier, Fortress and Helmett Butte.
Sierra Club hikers arriving at Flower Dome
Waves of Lupine and Light
Looking toward a cloud covered Fortress Mountain
Sunset from Flower Dome
On the next day get up well before sunrise and before breakfast make the short trek back to the main trail and large mountain side meadow where there are beautiful views of Glacier Peak and Liberty Cap. Moderate wide angle compositions will help integrate attractive foreground details with the prominent peaks including Liberty Cap and Glacier Peak. Telephoto compositions featuring primarily the peaks are also possible.
Liberty Cap around Sunrise from Buck Creek Pass
Glacier Peak at Sunrise from Buck Creek Pass
After breakfast head out on one of the most spectacular day hikes I have ever taken to Liberty Cap and High Pass. The trial departs right from the campsite and steadily climbs the slopes of Liberty Cap and then straddles just below a ridge until eventually arriving at High Pass. The route goes through some spectacular flower fields when in bloom. Ideally you will be doing this hike when partial cloud cover provides some filtration of the sun’s harsh rays creating opportunities for mid-day photography. But if not just be present and enjoy an incredibly awesome experience in the heart of Glacier Peak Wilderness Country. The hike is about seven miles round trip so pack a good lunch and perhaps also dinner (enjoy the sunset, and return to camp using headlamps!).
Wildflowers and Peaks along the trail to High Pass
Gentium Flowers along the High Pass Trail
Day 8: From Buck Creek Pass back to the Car.
Backpack out from Buck Creek Pass on a long but steadily downhill 9.6 miles to the Phelps Creek trail head. Congratulations! You just completed what undoubtedly will be one of the most memorable, satisfying, and photographically productive trips of your life, having traveled deep into a personal wilderness experience that will help shape the very essence of who you are as a person for years to come.