Trip Report: Hidden Lake Peaks, WA - Overnight Ski Tour
This last weekend I had an awesome ski touring/camping trip to Hidden Lake Peaks area in Washington to celebrate 2 of my friend’s birthdays. The Hidden Lake zone is on the border of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park and is a great example of the Cascade Range’s prominence and incredible terrain. The summit is also well known for having a lookout that is usually open for visitors, including for overnight stays; though we knew ahead of time that it has been closed due to COVID.
The first night was going to be wet and drippy down low so instead of camping out we rented a yurt on a working farm, Forest Farmstead, in Rockport, WA. It was super cool to have rooster calls and cow moos as a natural alarm clock, followed by an early-morning stroll around the property. The yurt also had a small farm store where I picked up some of their native-cultured wild blackberry syrup and Douglas fir bitters. Get your own on their webstore, pick up some local rye whiskey, and make yourself an Old Fashioned; you can thank me later.
Before heading up to the trailhead, we stopped by the Marblemount Wilderness Information Center, where we filled out a self-issued backcountry permit. From the ranger station we quickly jumped onto Cascade River Road and then Hidden Lake Road (NF-1540) which was easy, and one of the least-potholed unpaved forest service roads I’ve ever been on!
We were fortunate to have received 16 inches of snow over the course of the week, with a couple days to stabilize before we went up. The only caveat was that the fresh snow was covering the road and meant a pretty long skin right from our parking spot at 1,775 feet before reaching the official trailhead at 3,000 feet. Once at the trailhead we followed the meandering summer hiking trail until we reached the East Fork of Sibley Creek Drainage but, knowing it moved into avalanche terrain, left it for a safer and more direct route through the trees to the south.
After a lengthy upward slog through the dense forest, we broke into the subalpine where the thinner tree coverage made for much more efficient movement. About 5 hours after leaving the car, we found a great campsite just below the treeline (~5,600 feet) that had little to no slide risk, was sheltered from the wind, and was fairly flat. Second only to the safety of the spot, were the views - Mt. Baker, El Dorado Peak, The Triad, and the Cascade River Valley were staring back at us. Truly a beautiful, humbling place to find yourself.
After stomping down our campsite with our skis still attached, we measured out the floorplans of our Black Diamond Mega and MSR Front-Range, and dug down into the snow to create some standing room. The best part about working with snow is that we were able to construct a bench and cooking station for some added comfort.
We spent the rest of the overcast evening making plans for the next day, recounting past trips, melting snow for water, and eating as much as we could - the general consensus was that the RightOnTrek Mac N’ Cheese was the dish of the night. After cleaning up from dinner, we started to get ready for bed and as we did the skies cleared and the temperature dropped. But man did the stars come out! There’s absolutely nothing like staring up at the night sky to see countless stars and the Milky Way before turning in.
The next morning I woke up early and realized my mistake of not taking better care of my feet the day before - I knew they were hurting but I wasn’t prepared for the blisters, huge, painful blisters on both heels. After sliding my boots on, I quickly knew that I would not be heading out with my friends to snowboard and climb the Lost Marbles Couloir and the 4,000 to 5,000 ft. elevation gain the line required. My new pace would slow the whole group to a point that could ultimately be dangerous. Instead I skinned up with them to their traverse line across Hidden Lakes Peak and we parted ways. While they went to tackle their objective, I headed a bit higher and found a nice bench to lounge in the sun.
While hanging out, I watched as my friends disappeared down towards the valley floor. And it was right about then that I started hearing the voices... I turned to look up towards the summit, and saw a group of three above me, having taken an alternate route, and I also saw a soloist coming up our skin track. The solo traveler passed by and we made some small talk - both of us were both pleased with the area’s solitude and fresh powder, and he thanked us for setting the skin up, as it allowed him to move at a quicker pace. We exchanged goodbyes as he continued upward and I continued to chill.
Eventually, I mustered the energy to leave my sunny spot for a higher perch. It was then I ran into the threesome, 2 skiers and 1 snowboarder, coming down from the summit. We said a quick hello to one another, relaying our individual beta on conditions and terrain, before I resumed my climb up and they hooted and hollered as gravity pulled them down.
I reached another nice bench where I changed over from my uphill skis and put my snowboard together. I had my line picked out and would ride right back to camp. After a few turns on some wind-affected crust, the snow softened up into 8-inches of incredible, dry powder. I was having too much fun and cruised right past camp; knowing that I’d have a few hundred vertical feet to regain to make my way back to the tents. It wasn’t too difficult, but I did find myself wincing a bit with each step as my feet weren’t thrilled with my decision.
Back at camp, I melted some snow and made a Cream of Wheat Porridge for lunch. In a moment of backcountry chefery, I chopped up some of the toasted almonds and one of the Kind Whole Fruit Bars we include in the meal plans and added it. Making a delicious, filling lunch that pushed me to the brink of napping in the afternoon sun. After a quick doze, a large cloud rolled in, blocking the sun and cooling off my spot. It was the perfect time to get up and do some camp chores in an effort to retain some heat.
My friends arrived back from their full-day mission just as I was turning my headlamp on. They were exhausted but excited to tell all about their day, riding the mind-blowing 2,300 foot line down the couloir and bootpacking back up through waist to chest deep snow. As they recounted, I was thankful, despite being a bit bummed, that I had made the right choice to sit this one out.
Dinner for the evening was a feast of ramen, Backcountry Chili, Cheesy Mashed Potatoes with Chicken, and savory pies from a cast iron pie maker. Originally, I was dumbfounded that my friend would carry a cast-iron pie maker up the 4,000-ish ft. climb to camp, but I was sure glad he did. Dipping the steaming tortilla filled with summer sausage and melted Dubliner cheese pockets into the chili was a feast fit for a king!
The plans for the final day were made while sitting around taking a couple rum nips and staring at the stars again. As we turned in for the night, it felt noticeably warmer (not solely on account of the rum!) and sleep came easy. We woke up the next morning to sunshine on our tent walls and bluebird skies outside.
By now my stove fuel had petered out and I was beyond thankful there was extra so I could make water and breakfast - Peanut Butter Cup Oatmeal. After eating, we started breaking down camp. In the spirit of Leave No Trace, we broke apart our shelter walls and filled in the holes we dug as best as possible. We also buried the spot we used when nature called with fresh snow and carefully packed up our WAG bags. Our goal of leaving the campsite with minimal signs of our presence (at this point just our footprints/skin track) was complete. We loaded up our packs with everything we brought and headed up to the summit.
Once at the summit, it was super windy and by this point we were dreaming up the first food we’d eat once back to civilization. We did a quick transition to our downhill set-ups and picked a line that would traverse a bit skier’s right before dropping a fall line for about 1,500 ft. The heavy packs and deep snow made for some groovy, surfy turns on the open face before we reached the treeline.
We snuck our way through a band of incredibly dense trees as we tried to stay high skiers-left on the valley wall to avoid dropping too low, too quickly and missing the trailhead exit point. As we moved across and slightly down the trees began to open up into these amazing lanes that were so much fun to ride through and, before we knew it, we were back on the summer trail, cruising down the skin track we had set two days prior. I was pleasantly surprised that even after two warm days we were able to ride almost all the way down the road to our cars. We changed into fresh clothes, packed the cars, and headed to the Burger Barn in Darrington to enjoy cheeseburgers and fries on some picnic tables before parting ways.
I’m stoked to have been a part of the adventure, and it’s always a treat becoming more acquainted with the North Cascades. And, as on any camping trip, I learned (and re-learned) some things:
Buy a small-headed, long-handled baking spatula. They weigh next to nothing and help get every last morsel out of your meals, which in turn makes clean up a breeze!
When someone offers you their extra puffy pants at the car, don’t turn them down!
Don’t just ‘power through’ when feeling a blister/other pains, even if it means taking some extra time on the trail to diagnose and treat the issue. Take care of the problem early to stop it from getting worse.
RT’s empty day bags make an excellent blue/WAG bag depository for extra-safe transport.
Use an integrated canister stove or liquid fuel stove in the alpine - non-integrated stoves aren’t an efficient way to transfer heat in those high-wind conditions and waste fuel. If your canisters freeze up, put them inside an outer layer pocket for as long as necessary to use your body heat to defrost them.
Stars are magical and light pollution stinks.
Steven lives in Portland, OR and is the Head of Wilderness Data and Community for RightOnTrek. When he’s not hiking, biking, or snowboarding in the Cascades, you can catch him eating a sushi burrito and drinking a beer at one of Portland’s food truck pods.
Have your own favorite winter camping spot or think we missed something? Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below! Stay tuned to see where our team goes next!