For those wanting to enjoy a fun glacier travel experience and summit an awesome peak without having to commit to a long guided trip, Eldorado Peak (8,868 feet), located in North Cascades National Park, has to rank among the best options in the Pacific Northwest. While it can be done as a long and tough day trip, spending a night in the mountain will turn this into an enjoyable overnighter that will cross many items off any mountaineer’s perfect weekend wishlist!
This trail uses a climber’s unmaintained herdpath, but it sees enough traffic to have become well-defined and easy to follow. From the parking lot on Cascade River Road, backtrack about 150 feet toward Marblemount to cross the river on conveniently placed logs. If there are no logs on which to cross, you are not at the right place.
After the crossing, the steep ascent begins. Prepare for this mentally, especially on hot summer days, because the steep grade can be punishing with a heavy pack and heat. At the end of summer there are few reliable water sources before the alpine basin, a solid 3,500 feet above trailhead. The dusty trail does not switchback, and it climbs steeply and steadily in the forest.
After a little over a mile, climbers reach a boulder field that will take time to cross. The path is identified by cairns and requires some boulder hopping. Sticking to the right of the field will usually allow climbers to use an occasional path on smaller rocks and vegetation, but most of the field will have to be traversed on rocks.
When the boulder field finally ends, the alpine basin is practically reached and moving becomes easier. There is also running water from glacier melt that can be used for topping off bottles and bladders. From the basin, the next step is to cross the ridge to the northwest and descend steeply into the Eldorado alpine basin. After crossing the ridge, score your first views of Eldorado Peak and the glacier that will need to be ascended and traversed to reach the destination.
Before reaching the glacier, cross one last rock field that has running water and then don the crampons and get the ice ax out to safely navigate the glacier. At this stage there are a few crevasses, and some people may prefer roping up, but the slope is gentle and should not pose challenges.
Upon reaching the ridge, Eldorado Peak stands out to the north. Climbers have two options at this point: camping on the glacier or continuing for a little under a mile to the high camp on a small rocky outcrop. Camping on the glacier will require the usual precautions with probes and pickets to ensure the tent does not fly away if the winds are strong.
From the ridge, descend slightly in a bowl and ascend to the rocky section that constitutes high camp. After the camp, climbers will usually rope up to safely navigate the crevasses and the steeper slope. Later in summer, the glacier will have likely melted and a short transition to a scramble on rock may be required. After that section, climbers can rope up again to continue the ascent and traverse on the dramatic knife edge just before the summit. This section has exposure on both sides and, snow pickets may be used for added security. Looking back occasionally is recommended and well worth it: The primo alpine scenery will speak for itself!
At the end of the knife edge, the rocky summit is reached and the views are outstanding in all directions. Known as the “queen of the Cascades,” one quickly understands how the peak got its name. Mount Baker and Shuksan are prominent to the north and Glacier Peak stands out to the south. The only negative thing about the summit is that it will inevitably be time to leave at some point.
The return is via the same route used for the ascent. The steep descent can be painful with a heavy pack, but memories of the summit will ease the mind. Overall, the trip is not very long, at barely over 10 miles, but the steepness of the approach and the boulder field, combined with a heavier pack for those opting to spend a night, will likely make the trip tougher than anticipated.