Thursday, September 6, 2018

Trappers Peak

Picket Range from Trappers Peak
10.5 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, rock scrambling necessary
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead (high clearance may be necessary), no pass required

The Picket Range is the most enigmatic of the many subranges of Washington's North Cascades, its commonplace name belying its raw, rugged splendor. The individual names of its peaks give a truer sense of the unsettled emotions one feels upon seeing their jagged profile: Inspiration Peak, Mount Challenger, Mount Fury, Mount Terror. Nestled deep within the North Cascades, merely catching a faraway glimpse of these fierce peaks is considered a rare reward for a day hike; Trappers Peak has the distinction of being the only day hike in the state that brings hikers face-to-face with this range of storied ramparts. Like most other trails within North Cascades National Park, the hike up Trappers Peak is not easy, requiring substantial elevation gain, some exposure, and some Class 3 scrambling. However, fit day hikers will find the rewards of this hike easily worth the physical effort required.

I hiked Trappers Peak with a good friend visiting from Virginia; we left Seattle taking I-5 north to Burlington and then followed Highway 20 east past Marblemount into North Cascades National Park. We reached the signed turnoff for the Thornton Lakes Trailhead just west of Newhalem, turning left onto the dirt road and following it 4 miles up. The road was steep, rough, and had some large rocks at points but we handled it fine in a Toyota Corolla; however, you should check road conditions before visiting as this road is notorious and we visited right after it had undergone road work. In past years, WTA trip reports had consistently suggested that high clearance vehicles were necessary.

From the trailhead, we headed off along an old logging road. The trail was nearly flat as it followed this old road for the first two miles, dipping into a gulch on the mountainside and crossing a number of streams, including a bridge crossing over the main stream of that gulch. Dogwood bloomed in many spots along the trail, including in a pretty patch near the largest stream crossing.

Two miles in, the trail took an abrupt left hook, leaving the old road trace and beginning the ascent towards Thornton Lakes and Trappers Peak. The trail ascended steadily through the forest, although the path itself was often a bit rough, ascending through rocky and root-strewn stretches. Switchbacks aided the uphill. After a substantial 1.5 mile climb through the forest, the trail leveled out a bit as it passed through a tree-dotted meadow in a bowl on the mountain slopes. Here, we passed a marker delineating the boundary of North Cascades National Park, leaving Ross Lake National Recreation Area.  Past the marker, the trail made a final 3/4 mile push uphill, reaching some slight clearings with views across the Skagit River valley just before we came to the junction where the Thornton Lakes Trail split from the scramble to Trappers Peak.

At the junction between the two trails, we took the right fork, which led uphill towards Trappers Peak. This trail was immediately narrower and rougher but otherwise started out in manageable shape as we followed it further uphill. In a few hundred yards the trail passed the first view of Lower Thornton Lake below with Thornton Peak and Mount Triumph rising behind.

Lower Thornton Lake with Thornton Peak and Mount Triumph
Just past this view, we arrived at the crux of the route: a rock scramble up the ridge of Trappers Peak with a bit of minor exposure. This was clear Class 3 scrambling with some uncomfortable moves at times; although we both made it up the scramble, we met some other hikers who turned around here.

Crux of the Trappers Peak scramble
Emerging from atop the scramble, the trail ascended slightly further to gain a knob along the south ridge of Trappers Peak. The views suddenly exploded here: to the south were Eldorado and Klawatti bearing their impressive glacier coats, to the north were the gnashing teeth of the Pickets.

View of the Pickets from the Trappers Peak ridgeline
The trail continued to follow the ridgeline, heading ever higher and reaching a number of false summits through the huckleberries and heather. Many points on the trail required scrambling and a few spots had some exposure; the slopes to either side of the ridge would drop off a thousand feet or more at points. A final scramble brought me to the summit of Trappers Peak at just under 6000 feet. The summit was still partially snow-covered, the snow itself potentially unstable with cornices on the sides. I walked around the corners of the summit area to appreciate the full 360-degree view of the North Cascades.

The undeniable highlight of the view was to the north. Thornton Peak rose above the frozen upper Thornton Lakes and the remnants of a glacier spilled down the steep slopes of Mount Triumph. The pyramid of Mount Despair rose further back and a maze of snow and rock connected these peaks with the Pickets across the valley. The Southern Pickets were on fully display here: Twin Needles, Mount Terror, Mount Degenhardt, McMillan Spire. These icy spires rose almost 7000 feet up from the forested valley of Goodell Creek.

Mount Triumph and the Pickets
Upper Thornton Lakes still frozen, with Mount Triumph in the back
To the east were many other of the great peaks of the North Cascades: Davis Peak was visible across Goodell Creek and Jack and Crater Mountains were visible above a sliver of Ross Lake. Between Ruby Mountain and Crater Mountain, I spotted a faraway peak that looked awfully similar to Robinson Mountain in the Pasayten. Across the deep Skagit Gorge from Davis Peak rose Snowfield Peak and its notable glaciers. The lower slopes of Snowfield and Davis were badly burned by wildfires in 2015; only heroic firefighting efforts spared the town of Newhalem and the hydropower stations that light up Seattle from being consumed in the blaze.

Davis, Jack, Crater, Ruby, Colonial, and Snowfield, with Newhalem below by the Skagit River
To the south rose the glacier-bound peaks in the heart of the park. Tricouni, Austera, Klawatti, Eldorado- these rocky peaks were adorned with sheets of ice. This is one of the most densely glaciated areas in the United States outside of Alaska- about a third of the glaciers in the lower 48 lie within North Cascades National Park.

Tricouni, Austera, Eldorado
Lower Thornton Lake and the Skagit Valley were visible to the west. Faraway peaks bordering the Mountain Loop Highway were visible from here, including Three Fingers and Whitehorse Mountain.

Thornton Lakes and the Skagit River valley
Chaval, Three Fingers, and Whitehorse rise above the Skagit River
I enjoyed the views before we began the steep descent down the ridge and back to the trailhead.


  1. Amazing views and great photos. I'm glad you had nice weather. Indeed the elevation gain looks exhausting. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading! The Picket Range is one of my greatest mountain fascinations and I loved that this hike got me so close to its jagged peaks. It's a tough hike but absolutely worth it.