Pets allowed
Allowed
Elevation Gain
8,400.00 ft (2,560.32 m)
Trail type
Loop
Distance
36.00 mi (57.94 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

The Pilot Ridge Loop brings you right into the heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, one of the most remote areas in the Cascades, and featuring more active glaciers than anywhere else in the Lower 48. To top it off, the entire wilderness area is inaccessible by paved roads. Within this area, you'll see almost no human structures besides trails and the occasional fire lookout. This loop is a great way to experience this rugged landscape and will bring you through dense old-growth Pacific Northwest forests up to wide-open alpine ridges with views of Glacier Peak (the most remote and third highest Washington volcano at 10,541'), and by an idyllic alpine lake surrounded by rocky cliffs.

This backpacking loop is best for intermediate backpackers, who are comfortable with over 3,500-foot climbs, traveling on more rugged trails, and navigating without much signage.

 

Notes

  • Seasonality: As this loop covers a wide range of elevations (beginning at 2,050 feet and topping out at 6,500 feet above Blue Lake), you'll need to be thoughtful about when you do this loop. While the trailhead rarely gets snow, the upper sections of Glacier Peak Wilderness can get over 20 feet of snow, which often lingers into July. Even in early May, there can still be more than 10 feet of snow down on the upper trails. As a result, you'll want to plan your trip between mid-July and mid-September, recognizing that the earlier in this window you go, the longer the days will be. And beginning in late June, you should begin watching for trip reports from this area on WTA (Washington Trails Association), which will give you a better idea of what you'll find.
  • Wildflowers: As soon as the snow melts, the spring growth begins, and if you hit it right, you'll find Pilot Ridge and White Pass awash in wildflowers, which is a truly spectacular sight. It's impossible to say when this happens exactly (sometime in July typically), so again watch the trip reports!
  • Gear: You'll want your typical Pacific Northwest backpacking gear for this trip - it'll be quite warm down by the trailhead and cooler and breezier the higher you get, so bring tried and true layers. You may need traction/ice axes if you try to do this loop early season.
  • Clockwise/Counterclockwise? It honestly doesn't matter - we chose to do the loop counter-clockwise so we could do the climb first and enjoy the long hike out along the North Fork of the Sauk on our last day, but either way it's beautiful!
  • Dirt Road Access: This dirt road is passable by all standard vehicles, as long as you know how to drive on slightly rough dirt roads. If you're concerned about your vehicle, you can always consider renting a 4WD, but this might be overkill.

 

The Trip

Your trip begins with a pleasant drive along the Mountain Loop Highway before you turn onto the gravel FS 49. From here, you'll make your way deep into the Cascades, before parking at the North Fork of the Sauk trailhead and camping area.

From here, you'll head southeast, rambling along a well-maintained trail through an enormous coniferous forest. Assuming you're traveling the loop counter-clockwise, after 2 miles you'll reach a poorly signed junction with a trail heading south toward Pilot Ridge. You'll cross the North Fork of the Sauk - hopefully the big log is still there - before beginning the biggest continuous climb of the trip. You'll be climbing around 3,600 feet over the next 8 miles (with some ups and downs), so make sure you pace yourself on this climb. You may see a few small campsites on the ridge (above 5,000 feet) but none have easy water access so you'll be best served if you keep going. Soon you'll break out into the beautiful alpine meadows of Pilot Ridge. As you look west you'll see the spectacularly sail-shaped Sloan Peak, as well as a host of other mountains behind it.

Keep traveling and slowly climbing, contouring around a large basin, toward the west ridge of Johnson Mountain. From here, if you're feeling extra adventurous, you can drop your pack and climb the 0.75 mile 750-foot climb to the summit of Johnson Mountain, or just continue contouring and descending down to the beautiful Blue Lake, which makes a great place to camp.

In order to continue the trail, you've got two options - either the "high-route option" which climbs 600 feet straight up and over rocks and talus to the ridge to your southeast, before descending back down to another trail, or the much longer (and flatter) route southwest toward June Mountain before taking the Bald Eagle Trail to the junction with the high-route.

Either way you choose, you'll continue to Dishpan Gap (named by a forest ranger after an "old rusty dishpan discarded by a camper") where you'll join up with the Pacific Crest Trail. From here, the trail gets a lot wider and a lot more traveled, so head north along this scenic section, by the Meander Meadow valley to your right (named for its meandering creek), around Kodak Peak, and continuing alongside Indian Peak. There are small campsites and water sources interspersed along this whole section, though the best camping is still to come.

Once you're past Indian Peak, you'll be on another perfect ridgeline, and you'll wander your way northwest to White Pass, which features a ton of campsites, water, and a toilet! This is the easiest camping in this area, and features great views.

After White Pass, you'll begin the long descent, which will ultimately drop you down 4,000 feet over 10 long miles, though there are lots of switchbacks to keep it from being too steep. 5 miles past White Pass you'll rejoin the North Fork of the Sauk River, and pass the dilapidated Mackinaw Shelter, which collapsed a few years ago. You'll finish your hike by rambling along the North Fork of the Sauk, which will you bring you all the way back to your car!

 

 

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

NW Forest Pass

Open Year-round

Yes

Days

3

Pros

Remote. Mountain views. Alpine lake.

Cons

Lots of vertical.

Trailhead Elevation

2,000.00 ft (609.60 m)

Highest point

6,500.00 ft (1,981.20 m)

Features

Backcountry camping
Old-growth forest
Big vistas
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Typically multi-day

Yes

Permit required

No

Location

Nearby Lodging + Camping

Comments

Great description and beautiful photos, however the loop is 26 miles, not 36.
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