Total Ascent: 2200ft
Highest Point: 4400ft
Total Distance: 13 miles
Location: N 47° 58.7460, W 121° 21.7860
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
A few months ago we headed out to the Monte Cristo townsite to explore Glacier Basin, a rough hike that sees far fewer hikers than nearby Gothic Basin. Complete with waterfalls, wildflowers and relics of Monte Cristo’s mining past, we wasted no time clambering up into this alpine cirque. NOTE: The US Forest Service will be closing Monte Cristo in the spring of 2013 for a cleanup operation that will last until 2015. During this time both townsite and this approach to Glacier Basin will be closed.
Situated at the base of Monte Cristo Peak, Glacier Basin was at the center of Monte Cristo’s mining activity in the 1890s. The basin is named for glaciers that carved out the cirque in the distant past, and while there is almost always some snow lingering in Glacier Basin, there are no longer any glaciers. The basin is riddled with mine shafts and tunnels, with at least one long passage running underneath the basin to connect mines in Cadet Peak on the east side of the basin with Mystery Ridge on the west. When mining operations were in full swing, a massive aerial tramway hauled ore across Glacier Basin in buckets along 1,200ft of cable to a station located on Mystery Ridge. From there the tramway sent the buckets down to Monte Cristo to concentrators that separated the ore from less useful material. Today you can still find evidence of this tramway station on the ridge.
The approach to Glacier Basin follows the old Everett and Monte Cristo Railroad grade into Monte Cristo. Currently the bridge over the South Fork Sauk River is out, forcing hikers to cross on a large cedar log. However, a new road to Monte Cristo is being built as part of the Monte Cristo cleanup project, which will eliminate this issue. The walk to Monte Cristo is a flat and easy, and the four miles to the townsite passes quickly. Once you arrive, cross the bridge over ’76 Creek and head up Dumas Street past a few shacks and historical markers. The street hits a junction, continue straight ahead to find the beginning of Glacier Basin Trail #719.
The trail begins by following the remains of a railroad grade that was built in the 1890s to support the mines. As you continue on the trail the thick forest of cedar and fir soon begins to recede, and you’ll find yourself walking through underbrush and catching sight of Glacier Falls in the distance. Glacier Creek tumbles down from Glacier Basin in a number of cascades of varying sizes, some hidden in between folds of rock, appearing and disappearing as you approach. At times you might notice a partially exposed pipe along the trail. This pipe once funneled water from the falls to the power plant for the Justice Mine.
From here, the trail quickly becomes steep and rough, climbing straight up the flanks of Mystery Hill with little in the way of switchbacks to smooth the route. At the top of Glacier Falls a ledge provides a good rest stop before pushing on to the most difficult portion of the trail. Rocky and very steep, use caution as you pick your way up sections challenging enough to prompt helpful folks to leave ropes tied to trees to help you along. Eventually, as the trail rounds Mystery Hill and heads into the beginnings of Glacier Basin, the route begins to level out. Here, Foggy Peak stands guard opposite the imposing spires of Wilmans Peak, named for Fred Wilmans, one of the original Monte Cristo prospectors.
Continue into the basin following the trail as it meanders along next to Glacier Creek. The trail splits at one point, one path heading up into talus fields and bringing you closer to mine tailings and abandoned adits, the other follows the creek and is less accessible when the waters run high. Either way you will soon find yourself at the end of the line, staring up at the rocky peaks that line Glacier Basin’s walls. Starting from the east is Cadet Peak or The Cadets, which line up along the ridgeline before surrendering to Monte Cristo Peak to the south. Swinging west from Monte Cristo Peak, the Wilmans Peaks and Spires steal the show, before dropping off at beginning of Mystery Ridge and ending at Mystery Hill. The tree-covered mound in the middle of the basin is known as Ray’s Knoll, and there are established campsites there.
Explore the basin or find a nice rock to settle down on for lunch. If you’re hungry for more climbing, there are routes up to the ridgeline, which will give you long views of the surrounding mountains, as well as Blanca Lake tucked in the neighboring valley.
This is not an easy hike, and it is likely a little too long for most day hikers. Some of the distance can be removed by biking to Monte Cristo, but hauling your bike across the South Fork Sauk River isn’t for everyone. However, this does make for a decent weekend backpacking trip, and you’re unlikely to meet too many other folks on this less-traveled trail.
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 31 miles to Barlow Pass. Park and find the gated Monte Cristo Road on the right side of the road, opposite the trailhead parking lot. -Nathan
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