The forecast overnight low was 35F, yet here I was lugging a -20F sleeping bag 5000 ft up a ridge. Stupid, stubborn, or just doing the best I can with the gear I have? Probably a little of each.
That morning I’d surveyed my three sleeping bags as I packed for my trip up Miners Ridge. I have an ultralight down quilt rated to 35F, but it has lost its loft and can barely keep me warm on 50F nights. I also have a synthetic 35F bag I bought years ago that still works fine, but weighs in at a whopping 3.6 lbs (relatively heavy). Hmm, maybe this was the excuse I needed to buy a new lightweight 3-season bag? My husband pointed out that I’m trying to consume less STUFF – and consuming stuff is exactly what I’d be doing if I bought a new sleeping bag despite having three reasonably good bags on the shelf… Dammit. The third and final option was my huge -20F bag that I bought for winters in AK. Reluctantly I hooked it up to my scale: 3.0 lbs. Although it was bulkier than my 35F synthetic bag, it actually weighed less! It looked like I was going to be carrying a large pack and sleeping toasty warm that night.
The plan was to start at the Suiattle River trailhead and hike up to Miners Ridge for the night. Ideally, I wanted to camp at Image Lake, an established backcountry camp with, as the name suggests, picturesque views and a reliable water source. But when I got to the trail register I saw there was one other person on the trail ahead of me that day and he was planning to camp at Image Lake. I don’t go backpacking by myself in order to camp next to random strangers, so I decided I would give us both the solitude we were presumably looking for, and sleep somewhere along Miners Ridge instead.
My walk up the Suiattle River valley was lovely. I’ve been on this trail several times, but for some reason on that morning the old-growth trees looked particularly impressive. I realized that in my head, I’d labelled the forest walk the “boring part” before I got to the “good stuff” (the views along the ridge). As with most summers, I’ve been focused on the high country lately, since I know it will be harder to access in just a few short months. But walking along the Suiattle River reminded me that there is beauty in the “boring” – and that I should be so lucky to consider old-growth Pacific Northwest forest “boring.”
The WTA website warns that the Suiattle River trail is washed out approximately 2 miles from the trailhead, and calls it “hazardous for hikers.” I’m not really qualified to comment on that, but I will say that the trail is not officially closed, and I found it relatively easy to duck under the downed trees, even with an overnight pack.
Approaching trail washout from the west
Trail washout from the east
Just before the climb to Image Lake, I filled up my 2.5 liter hydration bladder and my 1 liter soft flask. I remembered reading somewhere that there weren’t any water sources on Miners Ridge, but I couldn’t remember if that included the climb up to the ridge, or just the ridge itself. It turns out there is plenty of water on the climb up to the ridge, and carrying 3.5 liters of water from the valley floor to the top of the ridge was wholly unnecessary. During this late September trip, the last reliable water source between the Suiattle River and Miners Ridge was approximately 2 miles before the top of the ridge (or 3 miles up from the river), and 2.8 miles from Image Lake.
I finally crested the ridge as the sun was starting to drop low on the horizon, which made for spectacular lighting on the Dr. Seuss plants. (And also forced me, just now, to look up the actual name of the Dr. Seuss plants: Anemone occidentalis, or Western Pasqueflower seed heads).
Dr. Seuss plants glowing in the afternoon light.
I could tell right away that the shutters on the lookout were open, and got excited about the prospect of spending the night in the lookout, assuming it wasn’t already occupied. As it turned out, it wasn’t occupied, but it also wasn’t unlocked. The catwalk was open, though, so I was still able to enjoy incredible 360 degree views.
I decided that the catwalk would be a great place to camp: it was nice and flat, the shutters provided overhead shelter, and the views were unbeatable. I took endless photos of sunset from the lookout, cooked a quick dinner, and then snuggled up in my giant sleeping bag as the sky darkened. Shortly after sunset the wind picked up, ushering in a layer of low-lying clouds and making me grateful for such a toasty bag. Once the clouds were tucked snugly into the valley below me, the wind quieted down, and I fell asleep to the sound of the Suiattle River rushing through the wilderness, 5000 ft below.
Camp for the night
Sunset on Stone Henge Ridge
Plummer Mountain from the lookout
Alpenglow on Dakobed (Glacier Peak)
Last of the evening light on Buck (?)
Clouds blowing in around Dakobed
I managed to sleep fairly well, and didn’t wake up until 600 am, as the sky started to lighten. I forced myself out of my cozy sleeping bag and clunked down the lookout stairs to get coffee out of the Ursack I’d stashed near the base of the lookout (I wasn’t as concerned about bears as I was about rodents, and sure enough I found a little bit of mouse poop on the outside of the Ursack. I was glad I’d stored my food in a critter-resistant container!)
My morning consisted of taking a billion photos of sunrise while drinking cup after cup of coffee. The clouds and fog that had formed in the valleys slowly burned off, and I shed my own layers at the same rate, until I was basking in the sun in just a light jacket and capris, and I could clearly see the valleys far below.
Morning alpenglow on Dakobed
Plummer Mountain casting a shadow over the lookout tower, just before the sun burst over the horizon
Suiattle River valley, 5000 ft below
Around 10 am I finally packed up all my gear, tore myself away from the lookout, and headed over to Image Lake. Even that late in the morning there was still frost on the trail in places, and a dusting of snow on north-facing slopes that never did melt out.
Upon reaching Image Lake, the trail forks, with horses directed to the left and foot traffic to the right. I went right, and soon found myself on the shores of Image Lake, a surprisingly deep emerald green. I ambled along, taking photos, and ultimately ended up making a loop around the lake using the foot trail and the horse trail. It turns out that the best views of Glacier Peak looming over Image Lake can actually be found on the horse trail, but I still recommend taking the foot trail first, if only to save the best for last.
Image Lake from near the backpackers camp
Image Lake from the horse trail
Image Lake + Sunbathing marmot = ❤
I started the long descent back to the Suiattle River just before noon. I had yet to see another human at this point, but started running into other other hikers that were headed up as I headed down, including numerous PCT thru-hikers and two forest service employees who were going up to close the lookout for the winter.
The final few miles dragged on a bit. By the time I reached the trailhead, my shoulders were complaining about the heavy pack, and I was plotting my return to 50k shape, if only so I could do routes like this in a day without carrying overnight gear.
But of course then I would’ve missed sunset from the lookout, and falling asleep to the sound of the Suiattle, and waking up to sunrise on Dakobed… maybe my pack wasn’t so heavy after all.