Getting the permit
If you haven’t reserved a permit for the Copper Ridge months in advance, you can still snag one of the small number of “walk-in permits” but only if you show up at the ranger station in Glacier in person on the day before your departure (you can also show up the day of the departure, but chances are low anything will be left by then). Since we had gotten a very early start from Tacoma, we showed up at the ranger station in the tiny town of Glacier at 10am on the day before we planned to go. We thought we were in excellent shape for getting a permit, but as soon as we walked in, the ranger informed us that there were no permits available for the ridge until Friday (this was on a Tuesday morning). At first we did not understand… how can it be that all permits are gone for multiple days out if you can only get the walk-in permits the day before? We had forgotten that the people who had gotten their walk-in permit several days before were still on the trail, so it actually made sense. At first we were quite disappointed, but things turned out well in the end. The ranger (who was very friendly and helpful by the way) found a 5-day itinerary for us where we did the loop clockwise, going through the Chilliwack River valley first, and doing a side-trip to Whatcom Pass (which we intended to do anyway), before heading back over the Ridge. That way we wouldn’t need the permit for the actually Copper Ridge until several days out. Here’s what we ended up with:
- Day 1: Trailhead to US Cabin (10.2 miles)
- Day 2: US Cabin to Whatcom Pass (7.2 miles) + side trip to Tapto Lakes
- Day 3: Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek (8.1 miles)
- Day 4; Indian Creek to Silesia (11.4 miles)
- Day 5: Silesia to Trailhead (8.2 miles) + side trip to Hannegan peak
The lesson: show up early, be flexible, and things are a lot easier if you can stretch the hike out a bit instead of insisting to squeeze everything into three days. Note that we also ran into some extremely fit people who camped at Hannegan Pass (which is just outside the national park, so you don’t need a permit I think) and then did the entire loop in a humongous day hike.
Day 1: Trailhead to US Cabin
We started the hike on an overcast day, having come out of a period of several days of rain, but warm clear days in the forecast. You want to keep an eye on the weather forecast — the poor folks going in the reverse direction, had walked the entire ridge without a single view. How disappointing that must have been.
The first 4.0 miles from the trailhead goes steadily up paralleling the Ruth River, alternating between forests and brush and some views of the valley below. After reaching the Hannegan campsite, two hours into the hike or so, you quickly reach the Hannegan pass itself. We saved the trip up the side-trail to Hannegan peak for the return trip since it was clouded in now. After going down through open meadows for a mile you reach Boundary Camp, aptly named because it sits on the edge of the North Cascades National Park. From here on you need permits to camp. The trail splits: left goes up to the Copper Ridge, right goes into Chilliwack River Valley. We turned right.
From here on, the trail goes mostly through the forest until you reach the top of Copper Ridge, with the exception of Whatcom Pass which tops out above tree line.
This is also where the worst of the flies start. This was the only blemish on what was otherwise a magical hike: the flies. They were atrocious. Every time you stop, you are immediately attacked by swarms of biting flies. It seemed to get worse towards the end of the hike, after a couple of warm sunny days, when the swarms got to be near-biblical. It was fine as long as you kept moving, at it was not too bad on the ridge itself which was higher and cooler.
By the end of the day we reached out first camp site: US Cabin. The two nicest camp sites, near the creek, were already taken. We took one of the two remaining camp sites in the forest.
Day 2: US Cabin to Whatcom Pass (7.2 miles) + side trip to Tapto Lakes
Since our daily distances were short, we got a lazy late start.
Most of the day, up to reaching the Whatcom pass, would take us through lush forest. Just about every single person coming in the other direction warned us about the large number of blown down trees blocking the path. Although there were a couple of large ones, it wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone made it sound, and we also ran into a couple of trail crews working hard on the cleanup.
After some time we reached a fork in path where we had to chose between fording Chilliwack River or taking a cable car across it. Although fording was perfectly possible, we chose the cable car for variation and fun. It was the same contraption that we had seen in the West Coast Trail several years before: a metal basket strung on a cable across the river where you pull yourself across using a rope. To be honest the whole think looked like an accident waiting to happen — there was even a note attached to the basked warning to check the attachment bolts before setting off. But hey — it’s something different and fun, even though I ended up with a blister on my hands from pulling myself an my pack up.
Soon after, we reach the split to the Whatcom pass. From here on it is five miles of relentless up up up. We were happy and exhausted when we finally reached Whatcom camp. There are three sites, only one of which has a nice view.
But mind not — the Whatcom pass is only 10 minutes away. When you reach the pass you get splendid views of the North Cascades beyond. At the pass there is an unmarked junction where the trail splits into three different directions. The main trail continues straight towards Ross Lake. If you turn right, there is a clear trail that goes for a half mile or so before it peters out, with fantastic views of Challenger Glacier. This is where we spent most of the afternoon. If you turn left, there is a very clear trail that goes steeply up and around for a mile or so to the Tapto lakes, which we followed the next day.
Since Whatcom camp itself had too many flies for a comfortable dinner, we walked five minutes towards the pass to have a more relaxed dinner in the small meadow next to the boulder filled slopes.
Day 3: Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek (8.1 miles)
Once again we had a lazy start, and spent the morning going up to the beautiful Tapto lakes. We had heard a lot of conflicting information on how to get there. One person told us to bushwack up the creek next to the camp. Another person told us to climb up the steep boulder filled slopes. It turned out that there is a perfectly clear path that takes you to Tapto lakes: just go left at the junction at the Whatcom Pass itself. That path will take you up and around through some really beautiful meadows, approaching the Tapto lakes from the West across a ridge so that you can see the full splendor of them from above. This is a highly recommended break from all the forest in the first couple of days. I think this same trail also takes you to the Middle Lakes (we didn’t do this) — there is a split about half-way which is nearly impossible to see when coming up but which is really clear coming down (just look for the trail going West as you come down).
After spending entire morning exploring the Whatcom area, we set of for the next section around noon. We dove back into the forest an retraced our steps back to the split. Here we turned right to pick up the loop and a couple of hours later we reached Indian Creek camp. Here there are three well spaced camp sites in the forest. We took the only remaining one, set way in the back, and had an early dinner next to creek in front of the camp.
Day 4: Indian Creek to Silesia (11.4 miles)
Almost immediately after leaving Indian Creek, you cross a few rivers. One of them is to so-called “Salmon Run”. When we crossed it (in mid August) it was indeed full of salmon. I had heard about them, but actually seeing them was something special indeed. They were big, about one to two feet, and bright red. The water flows slowly in this part of the river, and the salmon seemed to be resting, just lazily swimming against the stream, staying mostly in place so that you could get a really good look at them in the crystal clear shallow water.
This was the day. The day that we were actually going to go up to the Copper Ridge. Pay day. To be honest, over the past three days, as we were walking through the forest in the valley below, we had often looked up to the ridge and wondered “would it really be worth it”? It didn’t seem that high and it seemed rather forested. Would the views really live up to their near-mythical reputation? Our doubts were probably reinforced by the fact that the day started up with a brutal climb up — more than 2500 feet up in a few miles in an endless series of switchbacks before you finally reach the ridge. It took us about three hours. Note that we ran into one small stream during the way up, so make sure you carry enough drinking water.
The answer, in short, is a resounding “yes”. It is all worth it. The ridge does live up to its reputation and more. Once you exit the forest, climb up a steep set of switch-backs next to a small snow field, and finally reach the actual ridge, the splendor of all of the North Cascades opens up before you. A vista of craggy snow capped peaks and glaciers stretches out before you to the horizon in three directions (the ridge blocks the view behind you). We sat down and just drank in the views for a while.
As we continued along the ridge for the rest of the day and for part of the next day, the path mostly took us though open meadows so that the views just keep on coming and giving you different perspectives on the splendor that is the North Cascades. Sometimes the meadows are flat, sometimes the path hugs meadows that fall steeply down towards the valley deep below (where we spent the first couple of days). Although the steep climb up is behind you, the work is not quite over as the path continues to go quite a bit up and down, particularly once you pass Copper Lake and start you ascent up towards the fire tower lookout point. This is one of the most beautiful sections of the loop, and hence one of the most beautiful trails in the world. As you make your way up to the fire tower which is the highest point of the trail, the views just keep getting better and better. Once you reach the lookout, which is a cute little house perched on top of a rock, your view suddenly explodes into a full 360 degree panorama. Being on top, you can now see the North Cascades in all four directions.
From the lookout tower, the path start descending again over a “hump” with continued views in all directions. We took our time getting down to enjoy the scenery, but still it took longer than we expected to finally reach the marked split to Egg Lake which is a couple of hundred feet below. Almost immediately after this split, there’s the turnoff for Silesia camp, which was our destination for the evening.
There are only three camp locations on the ridge itself: Copper Lake, Egg Lake, and Silesia, where we were staying. If you have choice, I would highly recommend Silesia. It is the only one of the three where you have views of the North Cascades from the camp site. The only down side is that it doesn’t have any water; you have to carry it in from Copper Lake or hike down (maybe 15 minutes) to Egg Lake to get it. We did the former and we also melted some snow from a snow field which was still lingering 5 minutes before the camp site.
Day 5: Silesia to Trailhead (8.2 miles) + side trip to Hannegan peak
The last day of our hike already. As we hiked down from the Copper Ridge back to the split, we enjoyed the last views. But soon we turned the corner, left the last of the good views behind us, and descended back into the forest.
Once back at the Hannegan Pass, we dropped the packs and made the short 1 mile side-trip up to Hannegan Peak. The view from up top is very nice, sort of a poor-mans version of the Copper Ridge. This would be a worthwhile day hike destination if you don’t have the time or the luck getting a permit for the full loop.
From the Pass it’s an easy, and after the spectacle of the last couple of days, somewhat boring hike back to the parking lot.