Friday, June 8, 2018

Icicle Ridge via Fourth of July Creek

The Stuart Range from Icicle Ridge
12 miles round trip, 4800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous; steep trail with significant elevation gain and snakes
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required

The former lookout site on Icicle Ridge in Washington's Cascades commands an astonishing view of many of the tallest peaks in the range, including a direct view across the deep Icicle Gorge to the jagged granite peaks of the Stuart Range that make up the backbone of the Enchantments. To reach this view, one must ascend nearly a vertical mile from the depths of Icicle Gorge to the crest of the ridge, braving hot, exposed southern slopes riddled with snakes and a trail with at least 60 switchbacks. This is not a hike for everyone- while the payoffs are huge, the trail demands just as much out of those who attempt it. But hikers willing to put up with the demands of the trail can enjoy stunning vistas with sparse company from an easily accessible trailhead.

A quick summary of the hazards on the trail: first of all, the elevation gain is insane; the 4800 feet of climbing to reach the top of Icicle Ridge exceeds the 4400 feet of climbing between the Colchuck Lake Trailhead and Aasgard Pass for entering the Enchantments. Second, the entire climb is on the southern slopes of Icicle Ridge, which have sparse forest cover and are generally quite exposed. There are a few dangers here: direct sunlight (and there's lots of sun here, east of the Cascade crest) can make the trail extremely hot and extremely dry as well; on a clear day, expect to require a minimum of three liters of water for the climb. In spring, there may be a few water sources on the trail, but these dry up in the summer so be prepared to bring your own. Finally, the sunny, open southern slopes are a perfect location for snakes to soak up some sun. Rattlesnakes are commonly spotted on this hike; I saw four snakes on my trip up and down the ridge. Be sure to understand how to deal with snake encounters before you head out.

I hiked this trail on a June weekday when the weekend forecast looked grim. Wanting to avoid the overcast weather west of the Cascades and hoping to spend minimal time postholing by finding a hike that melts out early, I settled on spending my Thursday hiking up Icicle Ridge. From the Seattle area, I followed US 2 east to Leavenworth, then turned right onto Icicle Creek Road and followed it south and then west past the Snow Lakes Trailhead and Eightmile Campground to the Fourth of July Creek Trailhead. Trailhead parking was directly off the road on the north side (right if driving in from Leavenworth). A packed parking lot at the Snow Lakes Trailhead was enough to convince me that even on a weekday in the PNW, I should seek less crowded trails. There was just one other car at the Fourth of July Creek Trailhead and I saw just one other person on the hike all day.

From the trailhead, the trail dived into the ponderosa pine forest and began initially with a gentle ascent. In 300 yards, the trail came to Fourth of July Creek; after crossing the first time, the trail headed uphill a bit more and then crossed back over on a slightly precarious log.

Fourth of July Creek
After the second creek crossing, the trail embarked on the long switchback climb. The intial climb wasn't bad: plenty of ponderosa pines provided shade, the trail tread itself was gentle dirt, the incline was steady but moderate, and plenty of wildflowers dotted the trailside, including elegant cat's ears and thimbleberries.

Elegant Cat's Ear
As the trail ascended further, the forest began to thin out and sun exposure increased substantially. On the one hand, this meant views: Cashmere and the Chiwaukums were occasionally visible. On the other hand, this meant snakes: I saw four snakes on the trail in this area. Although rattlesnakes are known to frequent the terrain near this trail, I thankfully didn't see any all day.

Ponderosa pine forest
The more open slopes also brought a profusion of blooming wildflowers. Here, I spotted the last remnants of the arrowleaf balsamroot bloom along with the full blossoms of tiger lilies, lupine, wild rose, paintbrush, and penstemon.

Tiger lilies
Lupine, wild rose
At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail continued climbing via switchbacks but became much steeper- the stretch from here through mile 3 was the most strenuous stretch of the trail. Here, the very steep trail ascended through slopes baked by the midday sun with brushy vegetation concealing the location of snakes near the trail. On the plus side, views of Icicle Gorge, the Chiwaukums, and Cashmere Mountain became ever better. As the trail passed a trickle of a stream at the 2 mile mark, the tips of the Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks popped into view to the south.

Icicle Gorge and the Chiwaukums
The trail eased its ascent after mile 3, although the steady uphill continued to the very end of the hike. Although the trail was mostly out in the open at this point, it still passed through pockets of ponderosa pine forest at times; in the shaded stretches of trail, I found a smattering of blooming wild geraniums.

At about four miles in, the trail crested a small hump in the ridge leading up to the Icicle Ridge summit. At this point, the trail emerged into an old burn area that covered much of the ridge's upper slopes. The rocky summit and destination of the hike also came into view for the first time. The views of the Stuart Range, which had been improving steadily the entire time through the climb, were now extraordinary, with Mount Stuart emerging in its full glory. The bulk of the climb was now done, with just 1400 feet of uphill left to go before the summit.

Entering the burn on Icicle Ridge
I pushed through the final stretch of the trail, which featured a nicer tread and a steady but reasonable incline. Phlox and paintbrush bloomed near the trail and the Stuart Range dominated the southern skyline. After making a traverse towards the ridge, the trail embarked on a final set of switchbacks to reach the crest of Icicle Ridge. Glacier lilies, although not plentiful, were blooming in spots here. Whitebark pines replaced the ponderosa pines of the lower slopes.

Dragontail, Colchuck, Argonaut, Sherpa, and Stuart- a quintet of Bulgers- from the top of Icicle Ridge
The trail hit a patch of snow shortly before coming to the ridge crest but was otherwise free of snow from the trailhead up to 6800 feet on the first week of June. Arriving at the crest at about 5.5 miles, the Fourth of July Creek trail met up with the Icicle Ridge Trail, which led both east towards Leavenworth and west towards the lookout. I took the left fork, following the trail north and west towards the summit of the ridge.

Views of the Stuart Range and Cashmere atop Icicle Ridge
The trail along the ridge soon became fully snow-covered, with about 2 to 3 feet of snow cover remaining. I postholed a few times en route to a signed trail junction with the spur trail towards the lookout. Here, I took the left fork again and followed a path the final few hundred feet uphill to the pile of boulders at the summit. I scrambled up a little bit up the rocky outcrop but stopped just short of the true summit block, which would required a bit of trickier scrambling which I wasn't comfortable with doing while alone. The summit just barely reaches 7000 feet in elevation.

From Icicle Ridge, the peaks within view include Cannon, Dragontail, Colchuck, Argonaut, Sherpa, Stuart, Cashmere, Glacier, Clark, Buck, Chiwawa, Maude, and Seven-Fingered Jack- at least 13 of the 100 highest peaks in Washington State. It's likely that even more were visible (Luahna, Fortress, Dumbell, Fernow, and Cardinal among others may have been visible but were difficult for me to identify). Although the skies were initially a bit hazy, a stiff wind helped clear things up a bit during the hour and a half that I waited at the summit.

Glacier Peak, the Dakobed Range, Bonanza, and the Entiat Mountains
Some more notes about the view: the enormity of Cashmere Mountain is particularly obvious from Icicle. It's unclear whether the peak bookending the Enchantments on the west from Icicle was the Temple or McClellan Peak, though I suspect it was the Temple with Prusik Peak on the right end of the massif. Mount Daniel was visible above the shoulder of Cashmere with its remarkable coat of glaciers- it looks quite tall from this angle so it's difficult to imagine that Daniel is actually shorter than Cashmere. The Dakobed Range is clearly visible to the southeast of Glacier Peak, with both Tenpeak and Clark Mountains easily identifiable. Although Tumwater Canyon and the Wenatchee River seem like they should be visible from the lookout site, they're actually obscured by Icicle Ridge's broad shoulders to the north and east.

Stuart, Cashmere, and Daniel
I enjoyed the views and chatted briefly with the one other hiker on the trail that day, who had come up from Wenatchee with his two year old pup. After taking in my fill of Stuart Range views (and because I was getting a bit chilly from the wind), I made my down the equally grueling descent.

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