Backpacking / Fire Lookouts

Fastpacking Miner’s Ridge Fire Lookout

So far this year I’ve visited another 9 fire lookouts, the most recent being Desolation Peak, bringing my total up to 45. I’m slowly creeping closer to 93 and now that high elevation snow is starting to melt, it’s game on! Many of my remaining lookouts require long drives, creative route finding, or long approaches. The real fun begins!

With a good weather window forecast for last Saturday into Sunday, I decided to make a go for a 30 mile round trip overnight to Miner’s Ridge, one of Washington’s most remote lookouts located deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Beautiful Miner’s Ridge Lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The current structure was built in 1953.

My almost 13-year-old adventure dog isn’t able to do that kind of mileage and friends were busy, so this would be my first completely solo overnight since my time spent on the John Muir Trail a few years ago. I was both excited and a little nervous!

Rheumatoid arthritis makes my joints crankier these days, so I’ve put in a lot of effort to lighten my backpack. Gear upgrades a few years ago have allowed me to travel reasonably light, but I saw this trip as an opportunity to really double down and get my overnight gear under 15 lbs. Any excess weight I can take off my body goes a long way to keeping it happy!

I recently picked up Ultimate Direction’s lightweight Fastpack 35 and after a Friday night gear geek out, got the total weight of my pack (base weight + consumables including water and food) down to 14.2 lbs. I took it for a short maiden voyage on a neighborhood stroll and was happy enough with the comfort that I hit the road Saturday morning to Miner’s Ridge, my brand new UD pack riding shotgun.

Taking a brand new pack for a 30+ mile outing is a pretty rookie move, so I was convinced this would either be an epic disaster or a huge win. I was really hoping for a huge win!

Friday night gear party! 14.2 lbs including a tent, sleeping pad, bag, stove, food, water, and all the essentials. A brand new pack for a 30+ mile outing… what could possibly go wrong!?

Fully packed and ready to go for my first ultralight overnight!

If you’re a map geek, there are numerous routes to Miner’s Ridge, but the most direct is by a 23 mile drive to the end of the Suiattle River Road outside Darrington. The road was only recently reopened in 2015 after a decade-long closure from severe storm damage.

It’s in mostly good condition, though long smooth sections are intermixed with areas of deep, strategically placed potholes, so you really have to pay attention. About the time you get a little confident and start cruising along you’ll get a swift reminder to check your speed. The potholes come in waves, so beware!

I was quite surprised when I pulled into the parking lot at 9:30am and saw only 4 other cars. Where was everyone?! I checked the trail register and there were few names. Only 3 parties were likely on the trail, all of which were either dayhikers or backpackers heading to the PCT.

Off I go! I had the whole trail, and pretty much the entire area, all to myself.

I was eager for solitude but it was clear that no one was going to Miner’s and I might just end up with more solitude than I had bargained for. I was happy that this time, I had packed the bear spray! Given all my recent bear sightings, 2 in as many weeks, it was a good precaution.

The initial approach to Miner’s Ridge follows the Suiattle River Trail a little ways uphill of the river. It’s a soft, well-maintained easy ramble through majestic old growth forest. About a mile in I passed a single dayhiker. Turns out he’d be the only person I’d see all weekend!

The Suiattle River Trail is a nicely maintained trail through fantastic old growth forest.

The biggest blowdown on the trail about two miles in. Not to tricky to get around but it takes some care to keep your feet out of the mud.

A large muddy blowdown about 2 miles in is the toughest trail obstacle, though easy to navigate with some care. Once over it, the miles ticked by quickly as the trail gained little elevation, weaving in and out of canyons and staying consistently smooth. With a lightweight pack I was nimble and moving fast! It was a dream!

Super happy with this lightweight pack. I was moving fast!

Water and creek crossings on the trail were running strong but most had logs or rocks that made it easy to keep my feet dry. There is no shortage of water on this hike in early season!

Lots of water sources on the Suiattle River Trail!

I stopped ever so often to photograph flowers, which weren’t really widespread, but just present in astounding varieties. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many different flowers in one area before!

So many types of flowers!

Camps along the trail were all empty, including the large camp at the Canyon Creek suspension bridge just shy of the 7 mile mark. I figured if I’d see someone, it would be here, but there wasn’t a tent or a soul in sight. There was; however, what looked to be some recent bear damage to one of the bridge pilings, so I made sure my bear spray was handy.

About a half mile after crossing the bridge I reached the PCT junction. The next two miles north would lead me to the turnoff to Image Lake and Miner’s Ridge. As I continued, I got a little spooked. I was nearly 10 miles into a pretty remote area and there was absolutely no one around. Even solo hiking the JMT had its moments of quiet but this was probably the most remote experience I’d ever had!

Shortly after the PCT junction I started to get a little spooked! I had seen no one all day and it was likely to stay that way.

I whistled, hummed, and smacked my poles together, trying to make some noise. The morning had stayed cloudy, which made for a cool journey so far, but the sun wasn’t burning through the clouds as forecast and the woods were a bit dark. A slight wind blew through the trees, causing them to creak and groan and make all sorts of strange sounds.

My heart was beating unusually fast, so I took a few seconds to think about all the worst things that could happen. It was unlikely some ax-wielding murderer was way out here. Animals? They’re certainly around but I made noise and had bear spray just in case.

My emergency contacts had my itinerary and my SPOT was pinging my position. I had all the proper gear in case something happened, so there really wasn’t an excuse to not continue! Plus, I was well past the halfway mark so I pushed myself forward and told my brain there was nothing to be afraid of.

When I reached the Miner’s Ridge junction and the trail turned upward, I finally began to relax. For whatever reason, the woods tend to spook me out a bit when hiking solo. I’ve always been much more comfortable on ridge tops or at lakes. The simple act of climbing made me feel completely at ease again!

Now that I was finally climbing I felt a lot less spooked!

Although the trail gains 3,400′ in the last 4 miles, it’s still a nice, gradual climb thanks to the 40+ switchbacks leading you to the top. At the final trail junction below Miner’s Ridge, I took a break at a large campsite while the sun waged a mighty battle against the clouds, trying its darnedest to burn through.

Glacier Peak, obscured by clouds. The sun was trying hard to burn through but the clouds were stubbornly persistant.

A short while later I finally got my first views of Glacier Peak, everything but the base covered by clouds. I popped out on top of the ridge just before 4pm and the views were mind boggling! Laid out before me was the North Cascades in all directions. Though stubborn clouds obscured everything above 6-7k, I still had incredible views of the Suiattle River Valley and the peaks towering above.

The Suiattle River Valley, wow! Even with some clouds there’s nothing quite as beautiful as the North Cascades!

I fully expected the lookout to be far away but instead, it was right there. I headed over, making my way through a few small snow patches, and excitedly sat down for a break.

Miner’s Ridge Lookout! Still a bit of snow but easy to get to the lookout.

I got to work setting up my tent in the only flat spot that wasn’t snow covered, which was right next to the front stairs of the lookout. I stuffed a bunch of snow into my water filter and hung it up to slowly melt out. Then I climbed up to the catwalk, sat down for a bit, and watched the clouds.

Enjoying the catwalk and some peek-a-boo views of Glacier, hoping for the clouds to burn off!

In every direction it was perfect silence. I sat there for almost two hours, watching clouds race up the sides of the mountains while the sun tried valiantly to burn through. I got a few peek-a-boo views of Glacier but at 6,200’ without direct sun the late afternoon was getting quite chilly.

My cozy little camp spot at the lookout!

I fixed my dinner around 6:30, pretty convinced at this point no one else would be joining me for the evening. The sun made a last futile attempt to burn through the clouds and for about 20 seconds I felt its warmth before it disappeared for good. A thick cloud/fog deck blew in, promptly eliminating the views. It got so cold that I retired to my tent and bundled myself inside my sleeping bag with some reading. Snuggled in my bag I was completely warm and cozy and dozed off in no time.

Panorama looking east showing the clouds coming in from the north and west. Shortly after this the clouds won over the blue skies.

I woke up in the dark, sometime around 11pm. I had likely zonked around 7:30, ha! Ah, the fun of backcountry adventures. I peeked out of my tent and couldn’t see a thing. The entire area was surrounded in a thick fog. If this didn’t burn off, I was going to be really annoyed!

I drifted back to sleep and then awoke again around 1am because of a bright light shining into my tent. It took me a few seconds to realize it was the nearly full moon. The stars were twinkling and all around, the snow capped peaks of the North Cascades, including Glacier, were crisp as could be. The clouds and fog had magically burned off!

The next time I opened my eyes it was 3:45am and a very faint light was starting to creep across the sky. I’m not known for my early morning wakeups, but there was no way in hell I was missing this one in such a prime spot! I unzipped my tent and stepped into the cold, donning my puffy gloves and getting a hot cup of coffee going.

Predawn blue hour at Miner’s Ridge. The clouds are gone!!

Though the moon had set, the mountains around me glowed bright from their snow, almost like ghosts in the sky. I’ve seen some amazingly spectacular sunsets in my life but nothing rivals the beauty of snowy mountains during the predawn hours. It’s absolutely magical.

Sunrise and Glacier Peak, just wow!

I spent the next few hours sitting on the lookout catwalk, sipping my hot coffee, enjoying a hot breakfast, and watching the sunrise illuminate Glacier Peak with alpenglow. The sun finally crested the mountains, quickly warming the day.

Glacier Peak sunrise. What a gorgeous view!

Sunrise from the lookout.

Sunrise panorama from Miner’s Ridge.

There really isn’t much in life that’s as magical as watching daybreak over the mountains! And even better? I had it all to myself!!! Those moments of being a bit spooked in the forest sure seemed like a distant memory and they were absolutely worth it!

Morning alpenglow on Glacier Peak. Just stunning!

I think this might be the most fantastic cup of coffee I’ve ever had!

Once I could feel the warmth of the sun, I packed up camp and left around 6:30am to do the one mile hike over to Image Lake. It’s always been on my to-hike list and I couldn’t be this close and not go!

Heading across the ridge to Image Lake.

I did manage to get through a few lingering deep patches of snow on the trail and reach the lake, but it was still too snowbound to hike around or get those postcard views of Glacier. All camps were fully under snow. It’ll be a few weeks before Image Lake is ready for summer. I only stopped a short bit before turning back and starting my descent to the trailhead.

Image Lake is still quite snowed in. It’ll be at least another few weeks before it’s passable and campsites are melted out.

Heading back down on such a beautiful day!

The sun shone brightly and after spending the night on the ridge, fully enveloped in solitude, I practically skipped my way down the trail, 100% at ease in the woods. I still clacked my poles together every few steps, made noise, and paid attention to what was around me. But any feelings of apprehension were gone. It was just me and the woods. And a few grouse making funny noises.

A blue grouse puffing up at me on the trail. They’re so funny. And those eyebrows!!

I made fast time on the way out and couldn’t believe how easy I was moving. What a difference a light load makes! About 3 miles before the trailhead, I rounded a corner and saw a couple taking a break by the side of the trail. They were the first people I had seen since the dayhiker the prior morning.

When I told them I had spent the night at Miner’s Ridge they seemed incredulous that I had all my overnight gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, and all the fixings in my tiny pack. Even I was surprised. I didn’t feel at all like I was backpacking!

The new pack was incredible and I’ll certainly be writing up a gear review shortly as well as a packing list of everything I brought, so stay tuned.

It was a long journey to get to Miner’s, but an incredibly worthwhile overnight. I was able to checkoff lookout #46 and I’ll remember this one as one of my favorites. It’s not every day you can pitch your tent next to the front stairs and have the views and the entire area all to yourself.

Fantastic weekend! And one of my top camp spots of all time!

I will also be back again, that’s for sure. There is simply too much in the area to explore and I’ve long considered doing a thru hike all the way over Suiattle Pass and Lyman Lakes to Holden and Stehekin.

If you make a visit to Miner’s, there are plenty of camps along the way if you choose not to do the full 13 miles in a single push. The camp near the Canyon Creek bridge is the largest with bountiful water.

Though the catwalk is open, the lookout is closed to the public unless a volunteer is present. Miner’s Ridge is known to have one most summers. Please respect the rules and help keep these historic structures intact for others to enjoy.

Bye bye Glacier! Until we meet again.

Overall Stats

To Miner’s Ridge

Distance: 13.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,700′
Hike Time: 6 hours

Back to Trailhead with Image Lake Side Trip

Distance: 14.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 250
Hike Time: 6:30