We planned to be at the North Fork Sauk trailhead by 9 am to start the White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop. Due to a few factors, we did not arrive until almost 1 in the afternoon. I knew it was plenty of time to go the 9 miles or so to camp, but this meant we needed to limit our stops. When we signed the trail register we noticed several groups were walking the same loop. Two groups in particular were walking it backward. That was when we realized that it was also PCT through hiker season. We set off wondering if we would find camping for the night.
The first trail along White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop winds alongside the North Fork Sauk River. There are several campsites available as well as a pit toilet along this stretch of trail. There are also many chances at a water source.
At around 6 miles the trail meets with Mackinaw Shelter. There is camping here and a consistent water source. Make sure to fill up because over the next 2.9 miles the trail will gain 3000 feet. There is no reliable water source until you reach the end of this climb.
Leaving Mackinaw shelter the White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop trail climbs quickly up to the PCT. This section is the beginning of the stellar views that will dominate the rest of this hike. Once at the junction with the PCT, it is a short walk east to arrive at White Pass and the camps available below the ridge. Leave yourself plenty of time for this section. It looks short on the map, but it will consume a huge amount of time if elevation gain is not your thing.
Once at you arrive at White Pass, do not camp along the ridge. These areas have taken years to restore and are, in fact, still a work in progress. Instead, follow a small trail down into the meadow below the pass to your southwest. The campsites at White Pass are excellent. There are around 6 of them all well-spaced and flat. There is also a water source in the north end of the camp area.
By the time we arrived, we only had time to eat some dinner set up camp, and climb into bed. I imagine if it were a clear night the sky would glow with stars. We only had cloud breaks to see through and still saw more than I could count.
On day two of the White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop we woke to a thick fog covering the meadow where our campsite was. We ate breakfast and debated whether it was going to rain or burn off. Ultimately deciding not to care we packed up and headed out. Once on the ridge, we could see the eastern side was beginning to clear. Views began to open up of the White River Glacier and White Mountain behind us. The more we walked the clearer the day got. The entire ridge along this section of the PCT was lit up with lupine and crawling with wildlife.
From the trail junction on the east side of Indian Peak it is a mere 1 mile, of more ridge walking to Dishpan Gap. The views continued to be outstanding throughout the entire day.
The wildlife sightings and flower fields didn’t seem to end. The expansive views were endless. There are so many mountain peaks during the day I lost count. The walking along this part of White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop is easy. Get lost in it for the next 5-6 hours and walk slow.
After Dishpan Gap, the trail once again climbs a small hill to access another ridge. After another 2 miles or so you will have a choice to make. You can take the Blue Lakes High Route and cut several miles off the trail. Or, you can continue to follow the PCT. Both Routes will lead you to Blue Lakes and some more excellent camping.
We opted to take the Blue Lake High Route. The route is a rough climbers trail that goes over a small pass. The pass lies on a ridge between June and Johnson Mountains. For the most part it is a rough cut, very steep, loose rock covered path that may be inappropriate for some people. We got through it okay, but it wasn’t easy for Courtney. At one point I ended up carrying both our packs so she could balance.
Once on top of the pass, Blue Lake comes into view. It is a beautiful little alpine lake lined by steep cliffs. Typical for this area of Washington. The trail down the other side of the pass is far steeper and covered in scree. Take it slow and use some hiking poles. After a mile of careful stepping you will be at the lakeshore of Blue Lake.
Blue Lake is a large alpine lake with many campsites available. Best of all, the popularity of nearby Lake Sally Ann reduces the number of people visiting. So if you want to take it slow for the day along the ridge, Blue Lake is your best bet for a late campsite.
We had a few people staying at the lake with us but the sites are well spaced. Looking back, the camping along White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop is what most impressed me most. There is ample camping all over the trail in established sites. The water sources are always easy to get to and plentiful (especially for August). As far as backpacking goes it made all our planning easier and our packs lighter.
We planned to leave early on the last day so we could get to town for some food and some drinks before heading home. We got out of bed and got food in us and were on the trail by 8:30. To this point the entire trip had gone well and I was looking forward to a shower. Once again we started off in the fog.
To leave Blue Lake there is a small trail that leads to the NW from the lake’s outlet stream. It is not marked but it is obvious if you are standing on the north side of the outlet stream. At times it is like bush-whacking and at other times it is a nice stroll through some grassy meadows. All I can say is avoid it early in the morning, we got soaked trying to get through. After about 0.2 of a mile you will reach a trail junction. It was here that our day began to fall apart.
In a trance I misread the trail junction sign. We turned left onto the trail and headed up the hill. It was not until we reached the wrong terminus of the Pilot Ridge trail that we realized our mistake. We had ended up wasting an hour hiking the trail we wanted to avoid bu using Blue Lake high route.
By the time we realized our mistake, we had headed 2 miles in the wrong direction. We accomplished an extra 1200 ft of elevation gain and our only option was to walk back down it. After a few angry words, plus an agreement that we should take a short break, we picked up our packs and headed off. in the correct direction.
Once we had gotten back on track the sun was coming out and the views starting again. From here along White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop you the views are toward Monte Cristo Peak, Keyes Peak, and Sloan. This is the last couple hours of ridge walking for the trail. Enjoy every moment. Soon you will reach the downhill portion of Pilot Ridge Trail.
The last obstacle along the White Pass Pilot Ridge Loop is the Pilot Ridge trail. On this section spots are extremely steep and the trail is roughly cut. We encountered blowdown after blowdown going over and under them until worn out. Be aware of your foot placement, I almost fell several times.
By halfway down this portion of the trail, our morning detour was catching up with us. Pushing 12 miles for the day, the steep descent to the North Fork Sauk River felt it was taking an eternity. Over 2 miles through thick woods you will descend around 3000 ft to the valley floor. Even with fresh feet, that is not fun.
When we finally arrived at the beach, we sat down to filter some cold water and give our feet a nice rest. From here there were trails heading in multiple directions. I did not know where the river ford was so I guessed which way to go. As late in the year as it is I figured I would find somewhere to get across. I took a right and went up the North Fork Sauk River. We later discovered that the actual river crossing is down the river (left). So when you get there, go left not right.
After the crossing, it’s an easy walk back to the car along the trail you came in on. Once we had made it back into cellphone range, Courtney phoned her mother to let her know we had returned. But, we were four hours late and she had already called SAR. Luckily they refused to look for us until we were 24 hours late. No one dispatched and no harm done. That wrong turn haunted us all day.