Ice floats on the far side of Blue Lake.
The Pilot Ridge Trail makes a rocky descent towards Blue Lake from the Bald Eagle Trail.
Sun sets on the peaks south of Blue Lake.
Glacier Peak is visible to the north from Pilot Ridge.
Sleep was hard to come by in the cold dark before dawn. I rose before light; movement would help to keep me warm. I prepared breakfast of hot quinoa and tea with the last of my water before breaking camp and heading down toward Meander Meadow as the sky became a lighter gray behind a thick wall of clouds.
The trail headed around the west end of the bowl that framed the meadow below. It’s narrow track passed through knee-high meadow flowers damp with dew. I took off my sandals and hiked barefoot in the soft dirt that still radiated some of the prior day’s heat.
The path reached the junction with the trail to Meander Meadow in 0.7 mile (14.9 miles). By now the sun had risen and I removed most of my outer layers and long johns. I filled water bottles in a small seep with my water and checked out the view from Sauk Pass. I chatted with northbound hikers who were fascinated with my Hobbit feet. As the trail headed out of the pass, the trail got rocky and my barefoot adventure ended.
I soon reached Dishpan Gap (15.8 miles), a broad meadow with a handful of small tarns surrounded by hemlocks. There are campsites here. Though I met no other hikers during my brief visit, my guidebook described it as a busy crossroads. There were plenty of boot tracks in the mud. I headed right on the Bald Eagle Mountain Trail.
This is not nearly as well-traveled a trail as the Pacific Crest Trail. The narrow track follows just below the ridge line around the headwaters of the Skykomish River. This was one of my favorite segments of the hike for some reason. Perhaps it was because of the gorgeous weather, sunshine and mid-70s with the fragrant scent of sub-alpine fir wafting on the air.
There is a dilapidated sign noting the way trail to Blue Lake (16.6 miles). I briefly scanned my map. The short cut is a 1.1 steep climb up, over and down a ridge. I didn’t fancy such a steep climb. The long way ’round was just 3.2 miles, didn’t look like it crossed as many elevation lines and it was still early in the day. Little did I know.
At first, my evaluation of the long-cut was accurate. It was a level track through a beautiful meadow with scenic mountain vistas. Dodge played in the handful of large snow fields that dotted the route just above the trail. In 1.7 miles, the trail dropped to a junction with the Pilot Ridge Trail. A tarn sat in a small hollow buzzing with mosquitoes. I briefly considered taking the very long way home via the Bald Eagle Mountain Trail through Curry Gap. However, it left my map, wasn’t in the pages of the guidebook I’d brought with me and would have added an extra day to my trip. I opted for the shortcut this time.
The trail zig-zagged sharply down a rocky route. It was much steeper than I had envisioned and my pace slowed considerably. I could see a small lake on the far side of the valley. It wasn’t too far away, but clearly involved a climb after my descent. Eventually I reached a small pond and stream crossing near a handful of picturesque campsites. I briefly considered camping here, but it didn’t seem to be Blue Lake. Knowing the next day would be long, I continued ahead.
The trail passed through a short section of trees before heading upwards into another meadow. I couldn’t see where the supposed way trail to Blue Lake departed and almost headed back to the lower lake several times. Dodge found the trail — which climbs very steeply up before dropping to the lake (19.8 miles).
OMG. The lake was gorgeous. Vivid blue water reflecting light blue skies in a steep-walled bowl. Blue-tinged ice floated on the water. I chatted with another hiker who’d picked the best site among the handful of sites around the lake before setting camp at a lakeside site. As it was mid-afternoon, I dived into the lake, dunked my head into the icy water and immediately ran ashore. I whiled away the afternoon reading (mosquitoes spend the afternoon feasting on me despite bug spray). Before long, the sun began setting and I realized I hadn’t begun preparing dinner.
I rushed through cooking and eating dinner as the sun majestically dropped behind the mountains into vivid evening hues. I packed up and fell asleep beneath a sky full of stars. The Milky Way brightened the night sky before the crescent moon rose. Several groups of late-arriving hikers arrived in the night, their headlamps lighting their way. I had to hold my dog Dodge’s muzzle to keep him from barking insanely. Though the night was cold, I didn’t need to bundle the dog as tightly into my bag.
I rose early, before the sunrise again, so I could leave before Dodge had a chance to wake the other hikers. The mountains glowed with purple in the pre-dawn light. Wind whipped sharply as I made my way through a dark, shadowed meadow. As nobody else was up at this early hour and no campsites were ahead for several miles, I decided to let Dodge lead the way. Fortunately, he did not see the black bear that was munching on grass above and ahead of us. I called the dog sharply; at my voice he bounded toward me and the bear fled up and over the ridge.
The trail made a long switchback and Dodge became highly animated when we crossed the bear’s path. Soon after this, we crossed the junction to Johnson Mountain (20.8 miles). Knowing the length of my coming hike, I passed on the highly touted view. I was as cold as I’d been hiking during this stretch before the sun climbed above the mountain’s shadow. However, as the day progressed, the day warmed.
The trail follows the ridge. There are views of Glacier Peak to the north and Mount Rainier, distantly, to the south. Meadow flowers, dense forest. This is the longest stretch of my hike, 11.7 miles, and I soon was feeling it. It’s up and down. I kept hoping each down would be the last, but there always seemed to be another up. I was passed by a couple whose sunglasses sparked Dodge’s ire; he became his normal wiggly self when they removed their glasses. Go figure.
Eventually I started meeting hikers coming the other direction and there was no more up. Only down. More down. And then some more down. There were some fallen trees to bypass and eventually I reached the river ford. A large fallen tree spans the river and serves as a good bridge for all but skittish dogs. Dodge made it half way across before scampering back. He would have followed me, but I feared he would try to pass and in doing so knock me into the roiling waters 10 feet below.
Instead, we opted to wade across 100 feet or so upstream near some other fallen trees. It was knee deep most of the way but I had to grab the dog by his doggie backpack and toss him across a stretch of waist-deep water while straddling against the surging, ice-cold water. Fortunately, my hiking staff helped me maintain balance. Unfortunately, there was no easy route back to the trail. We had to blaze our way through several hundred feet of Devil’s Club — complete with sharp thorns, I’m still removing them from my palms.
The remaining 0.3 mile should be familiar as the trail follows the trail back to the trailhead.
Pilot Ridge/White Pass loop
How Long: 31.2 miles (3-4 days)
How Hard: Strenuous
How to get there: Take Exit 208 onto Highway 530 towards Arlington/Darrington from Interstate 5. In Darrington, turn right (south) at the four-way stop sign onto the Mountain Loop Highway. Drive 16.5 miles toward Barlow Pass (pavement ends at 9.5 miles). Turn east onto North Fork Sauk River Road 49 (it’s well marked). At 6.7 miles, fork left. The parking area is at 6.8 miles; the road ends just beyond at Sloan Creek campground. A privy is available at the trailhead. A National Forest pass is required to park. Dogs and stock are allowed.