Great PNW Multi-day Backpacking Loops
I have been putting together an annual multi-day backpacking loop trek for my friends for the last 8 years. The goal was to find a 4 or 5 day trek of moderate difficulty based on a loop to simplify travel logistics. The first trek was through the Sisters Wilderness in 2011 and during each trek we would ask other backpackers what they thought was another great loop option. This advice truly led us to discover and confirm the finest multi-day backpacking loop treks in the Pacific Northwest. Since I have answered this question for other backpackers through the years I decided to create post to highlight these loop treks. The order presented is based on the order in which I discovered these treks. Please feel free to share your similar favorite loops.
Three Sisters Wilderness
There is a 50 mile loop that encircles the 3 Sister Peaks, however, I selected an approximate 35 mile route that starts from the Lava Lake Trailhead and cuts through between the Middle and South Sister peaks. This was my first multi-day trek for which I named the post “No Pain No Gain“, reflective of efforts and rewards of backpacking. The route adhered to the 4 to 5 day goal while adding the challenge of being up close to the Sisters. I would recommend the clockwise route with attention paid to water availability on the first day. Camp Lake through to the Chambers Lakes typically presents the challenge of climbing through snow but you need to experience the view from up there. You have to time this trek to allow for the snow crossing while also taking in a maximum floral display without too many bugs. The east section which is the PCT takes you through lush forests into lava fields. Passing through the restricted Obsidian area is not a problem, however, you want to time your climb over Opie Dilldock pass during the cool part of the day. The Mattieu Lakes near the start and finish offer good rest options. You could also consider doing this loop from the Pole Creek Trailhead.
Eagle Cap Wilderness
The Eagle Cap Wilderness was enticing, however, piecing together a loop was not as obvious. I settled on using the Two Pan Trailhead to enter via the Minam Lake Trail and returning via the East Fork Lostine Trail while taking in all of the options provided by the Lakes Basin area. This loop requires crossing the 8548′ Carper pass to settle around Mirror or Moccasin Lakes. Here you have the option of expanding the loop up and over Glacier pass through Horseshoe Lake to Douglas Lake. Or you could just base from the basin area and do a few day hikes to fill your trek. Either way you must experience Glacier Lake. The lakes here are deep and can provide some good fishing. You come out completing the loop via the East Fork Lostine Trail with a shrinking awesome view of Eagle Cap.
Goat Rocks Wilderness
Goat Rocks should end up on everyones list, however, with that popularity come the weekend crowds. The loop option is fairly defined with a starting point at the Berry Patch or Snowgrass Flats Trailheads. It could be treated as a 2 day loop, which is why you include spur hikes north & south on the PCT. Whether you go up Snowgrass or Goat Ridge Trails you will be doing the bulk of the climb and you typically will deal with the worst of the mosquitos and black flies. I like the Snowgrass Trail to the Bypass Trail over to the PCT. Once on the PCT portion of Goat Rocks you have access to Cispus Pass south or Old Snowy north which is worthy of a few nights. Then head over to the Lilly Basin Trail which takes you to the Goat Lake area. The lake is generally iced over, however, the campsite options around there provide an awesome view of the valley and Mt Adams. You may want to hike up to Hawkeye Point and you should be treated to herds of mountain goats above Goat Lake. Your hike out via the Goat Ridge Trail is essentially downhill.
Spider Gap Buck Creek Loop
The Glacier Peak Wilderness provides a classic 36 mile backpacking loop that takes you up a glacier to Spider Gap past the Lyman Lakes then over Cloudy and Suiattle Pass by Fortress Mountain and over to Buck Creek Pass and Liberty Cap. This trek is probably the most true loop and it may be the most challenging especially getting up to Spider Gap. You start at the Phelps Creek Trailhead and head up the Phelps Creek Trail as far as you can in preparation for the climb up the Spider Gap Glacier. Camping near the Lyman Lakes sets you up for the next climb to Cloudy Pass and then around to Suiattle Pass where you get your first glimpse of Glacier Peak. If time and energy allow you should consider including a visit to Image Lake along Miners Ridge. As you work your way around to Buck Creek Pass, Glacier Peak is positioned prominently to the west. Find a campsite with a view of Glacier and take a hike over to Liberty Cap. The final hike out is relatively easy from there.
Timberline Trail Around Mt Hood
This is a great loop trail around Mt. Hood with views many other mountains. I have decided to do this loop every year because it is so perfect and it provides me with a gauge for my overall health. The TT is approximately 40 miles with a number of potentially challenging stream crossings. The elevation low point is near Ramona Falls at about 3300′ with a high point on the east side at 7350′. There are many choices for a starting point with the most common being at Timberline Lodge. Clockwise is the more common route from the lodge on the PCT which takes you by the Zig Zag Canyon where you should consider detouring up to Paradise Park for an evening. Crossing the Sandy river may be the most challenging before you take in Ramona Falls. The PCT offers you a couple of options, I like the one up toward Yocum Ridge over to Bald Mountain before you head up the Timberline Trail toward McNeil Point. On the north side you cross through some old burns but the beauty is everywhere. Once past the Cloud Cap TH you climb to above tree-line typically crossing many snow fields. Copper Spur is a side trip option and then you work your way down to Gnarl Ridge. All of this area is arid and treeless. Cross Newton creek, pass some waterfalls and head through Mt Hood Meadows Ski Area. The final push is to cross the White River and then climb back up to Timberline Lodge. This final climb can be challenging due to the sandy trail and exposure.
My Annual Timberline Trail Trip Reports: 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
I hope these backpacking loops help you find that perfect trek.
A recent loop that I have just completed does deserve mention, however, it is more difficult than my top 5. It is the Devils Dome Loop in the North Cascades of Washington.
I will also throw in another option which is partially a loop, The Wild Rouge Loop diverges from the primary Rouge River Trail up to Hanging Rock.
Spider Gap Buck Creek Loop
I am sorry for being a bit late on posting about our Spider Gap Buck Creek Loop trip, Aug 1-6. As expected this 36 mile loop with 8000′ vertical was amazing and lived up to our high expectations.
Every year I do a loop like this with friends and when we have asked other backpackers what they believe to be the best loop, Spider Gap Buck Creek tends to be the winner. And it is truly an awesome loop complete with incredible vistas, challenging climbs and unique topography.
We decided to take the counterclockwise route beginning with the Spider Meadow Phelps Creek trail. The meadow was beautiful but it was obvious that we had missed the high flower point by a few weeks.
Taking it easy the first day we planned for the Spider Gap climb which is broken into an initial 1000 ft climb on a fairly rugged rock trail and then another 1000 ft climb on up the snow field. The reward at the top was worth the climb.
The view into the Lyman Lakes Valley and Glacier was highlighted by rugged terrain which turned out to offer up a bit of a scare to us. We made the mistake of assuming the trail to the east would eventually wind down to the valley. Wrong, so I advised that we backtrack and go down the snow field. Unfortunately, Bob, who hates to backtrack decided to take the short cut down the mountain slope. This was not communicated well and we ended up getting separated from Bob.
The outcome of this turned into a nervous search for Bob who did eventually turn up to relieve our fears after he had a bit of a hair raising descent down the side of the mountain ending up further down the valley. Our concern stemmed from the dangerous loose rock navigation that could easily result in a slide or a fall. But all was well and we settled in between the Lyman Lakes.
The following day took us over Cloudy Pass which lived up to its name. This is also about the time we began enjoying an over abundance of blueberries and huckleberries. We had a fun log stream crossing below Lyman Lakes. Again we kept losing Bob because he couldn’t resist stopping and eating the berries.
This is when we first saw the fires which have wreaked havoc with the PCT Trail closure. At this time the big fires over at Lake Chelan had not blown up yet. As we climbed over the pass we got to speak with many of the local Whistle Pig population.
This was also when we discovered that the detour to Stehekin was no longer an option for the PCT’ers. We went about half way to Image Lake and turned around figuring that the weather was not going to present us with enough reward. After talking to others who went over I think it was the right decision.
We had hoped to hike over to Image Lake which is a 2.4 miles. We went about a mile and decided we didn’t really need to go all the way. The views of Glacier Peak were excellent from where we were. (I did finally get to Image Lake and yes it is awesome) We camped across from Fortress Mountain. This was the Suiattle Pass Junction area where the PCT closure was spelled out.
We continued on with our loop up to Buck Creek Pass knowing that we would have time for a side hike. We setup camp at the top of the pass while the weather still looked good and we decided to do the Liberty Cap trail.
I highly recommend this route which offers fabulous views of Glacier Peak.
Well the weather started to change once we got up on Liberty Cap which caused us some concern but also offered beauty in the cloud formations.
We got back to camp just in time to avoid the rain.
The next morning it was still miserable on the pass but we could see that there was sun in the valley on our route back to the Trinity Trailhead. The annual backpacking loop trip with friends was again a great success, however, this year I was set to continue on for a few more weeks.
My original plan was to get my resupply and go from Stevens Pass to Canada, however, the fires forced a change to that strategy. So I decided to go from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass for my next segment.
August Backpacking Schedule
My backpacking schedule for August has been confirmed. August 1-7 I am doing Spider Gap Buck Creek Loop near Glacier Peak just Southeast of the PCT providing a great 44 mile loop rated difficult. I will do the loop with friends; Bob and Jeff. Then I will get a ride over to Bellingham, WA, to visit friend John to resupply and prepare for my final solo PCT segment.
August 8th or 9th I will be dropped off at the PCT on Stevens Pass where I will head north to Manning Park Canada, about 200 miles. I will resupply in Stehekin, WA, which is a resort lodge at the North end of Lake Chelan. There are no communications (Phone, Internet) in Stehekin, so I believe I will be off the grid until I get to Canada. I’ll send a post card from Stehekin to let folks know my progress.
I should get back home by the end of August so that I can begin work with Willamette View. So what a great August it should be, about 250 miles of the most beautiful wilderness in America. Can’t wait to be on the trail again.
I will be mentally preparing for this adventure next week on the coast in Neskowin.