Our Hiking Time: 6h 45m
Total Ascent: 3900ft
Highest Point: 6214ft
Total Distance: 6.6 miles
Location: N 48° 0.7800, W 121° 31.0740
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
This week we headed out to the Mountain Loop Highway to take on Vesper Peak, one of the many hikes in the area that remain snowbound most of the year. The hike description hinted at stunning views, a lake, and perhaps traces of a mining operation, but cautioned that the route was difficult and a little treacherous. Vesper Peak delivered on both counts – we got our views, but our legs paid for them.
In 1889 gold was discovered around Monte Cristo. With that discovery, Monte Cristo boomed, and prospectors fanned out into nearby valleys and scaled rugged peaks looking for the next mother lode. Among those intrepid prospectors was F.M. Headlee, who is credited with discovering Barlow Pass in 1891. The Headlees were a prominent family in the area during this time. One Headlee filed the plat for the Monte Cristo townsite in 1893, and another spent decades as a Snohomish County public official. In 1897, F.M. Headlee finally found what he was looking for: his name appears on the Sunrise Prospect Mine claim along with T. E. Headlee and G.E. Humes. The mine was located near the head of Vesper Creek, though it is unclear whether this location was ever used for production. Instead, it seems that the Bren Mac Mine in the Sultan River Basin was used to access most of the minerals under Vesper Peak.
The Sunrise Mine Trail #707 begins by threading through a ragged stand of trees, with almost no underbrush. Greenery soon appears as a series of creeks and rivers cut across the rocky trail. The largest and most formidable is the South Fork Stillaguamish River, located about a half-mile down the trail. There are no permanent bridges here, so use caution crossing over rocks and logs, especially during the spring. Once you make it past the water, the trees begin to recede and the work begins. The trail slices through a valley of dense underbrush, switchbacking upwards toward the cliffs above. The narrow trail is more root and rock than earth, with parts of the trail missing where sections have fallen away.
Eventually the trail will plateau, and you will find yourself at the bottom of Wirtz Basin. Talus-filled and likely dotted with snow-fields, the high-walled basin seems like a dead end. Ahead, Morning Star Mountain looms at the head of the basin, and to the left are the heights of Sperry Peak. You will not be able to pick out Headlee Pass until you’re almost upon it, as the narrow break in the cliffs is hidden. Press onward, following the cairns over broad talus fields and winding past small pines and hemlocks. Use caution once you reach the base of the pass, where a series of tight switchbacks leads to the top and much of the trail is loose scree, making it easy to send rocks careening down the mountainside onto hikers below.
After you reach Headlee Pass, you may want to take a moment to poke your head over the rocks to get a taste of views to come. Once you catch your breath, follow the trail for another quarter-mile across boulders and loose rock to Vesper Creek. Here you can follow the creek a short distance up to snowy Lake Elan (sometimes referred to as Headlee Lake or Vesper Lake) or cross and find a few welcoming campsites.
The real prize lies ahead, at the top of Vesper Peak. The trail is not easy, and at times is little more than a scramble, but the rewards are worth the effort to reach the rocky summit. From the top you can pick out dozens of peaks. To the north the reddened slopes of Big Four Mountain loom above Copper Lake. As you turn east, find Mt. Dickerman, Mt. Pugh, Sloan Peak and Glacier Peak. Sperry Peak is right next door, while Morning Star Mountain and Del Campo Peak are further east. As you swing south, pick out Mt. Stuart and Mt. Rainier. Continue to the west and find Little Chief Peak, Whitehorse Mountain and the Three Fingers as you complete your 360-degree turn. There are too many peaks to name. Settle in for a well-deserved break and see how many mountains you recognize.
This hike is not for everyone. It is difficult, scaling over 4000ft in a little over three miles on rough trail. Some route finding skills are occasionally required, depending on how snow covered the trail is, and above Vesper Creek you can expect to encounter snow all year. With those caveats, we recommend this hike for strong hikers looking for a challenge. And, because it is difficult, there is a bit less traffic on the trail, so you can expect to enjoy the views in relative solace.
To get there, take I-5 North to Exit 194. Follow Highway 2 for about two miles. Stay in the left lane and merge onto Lake Stevens Highway 204. Follow for two miles to Highway 9. Take the left onto Highway 9 toward Lake Stevens. In just under two miles, you’ll reach Highway 92 to Granite Falls. Take a right and follow for about nine miles to the Mountain Loop Highway. Take the MLH for almost 29 miles to the Sunrise Mine Road No. 4065 on your right. Follow the gravel road just under two-and-a-half miles to the end of the road and trailhead. –Nathan
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