Mileage: 26.1 miles RT
Elevation Gain/Highest: 4463/6053ft (6021ft in ascent, 3053ft descent)
Map: Green Trails Skykomish 175 and Stevens Pass 176, USGS Big Snow Mountain, my GAIA track in
The ladies and I headed up the West Fork Foss Lakes trail for the weekend with some planning to go as far as Big Heart and two of us with plans to venture to Iron Cap Mountain and as far as we could get towards Necklace Valley. I have taken this trail multiple times as a day hike but this was my first backpacking trip. I knew the trail would be harder to follow and much more scramble-like after Big Heart, so I packed as light as I could. (20lbs total).
We left the almost full parking lot Friday morning around 10am. I spent most of the hike noticing the differences on the trail from when I was here last in May of 2016. The downed trees were cleared and the avalanche slide just before Trout Lake is now a beautifully defined trail. Yay to trail volunteers! We passed a few families (one with stroller) and a Boy Scout troop heading out who had been camping at Trout so the lake was deserted when we got there.
The climb to Copper Lake was its usual brushy, sloughing tread experience and we had a bright sunny day to sweat up those switchbacks in. It’s important to watch your step here, those rocks you are maneuvering around are supposed to be the outside of the trail, too far to the outslope and it’s an easy slip off the tread. The thimbleberry, tiger lilies and beargrass are all out in force, but it was too soon for picking any yummy treats.
I talked the gals into a side trip to Malachite for lunch; I have never taken the time to go before. It’s a steep little jaunt, if you are backpacking don’t be afraid to drop your pack at the junction (4 miles in and 3800ft) and just take your essentials up. I’d like to say we had the lake to ourselves, but the mosquitos kept us company while we ate and took in the view of Malachite Peak above.
Then it was on to Copper, Little Heart and Big Heart. The traffic was mostly heading out; we only saw one tent at Copper (4.7 miles in and 3900ft) across the outlet for the lake. As you climb from Little Heart, don’t forget to stop and admire the view back down of Trout Lake and the mountains lined up the distance.
We could see Sloan and Glacier, as well as Snowking, Excelsior, Columbia, Malachite, Fortune, Scorpion and many more. After stopping at the viewpoint (6.8 miles in and 4900ft) for Delta Lake and Nazanne (with a peak at Angeline) we begin the switchbacks back down to Big Heart by 5pm for our first night of camping (7.6 miles in and 4575ft). I must say I was surprised no one was there and we had the place to ourselves.
We opted for the third site up the ridge from the lake outlet with room for 3 tents and my hammock. Not only did we enjoy the amazing scenery, the new pit toilet was pretty nice, too. I will say the best trees for hanging bear bag are close to here unless you want to walk all the way up the ridge.
The next day, we all headed up the ridge on a fairly maintained trail to the viewpoint of Angeline at 8.35 mile in and almost 5000ft.
The trail goes up and down a bit on the ridge and some spots you will need your hands to maneuver around vegetation but the main trail is distinct. There are plenty of boot paths were people have ventured off for a viewpoint of Big Heart or Angeline.
The trail is also trenched in quite a few places, try to avoid stepping on vegetation when off trail and step on durable surfaces like rock. There was just one itty, bitty patch of snow on the whole ridge; the sun is doing its summer job!
From here, some of us headed back to Big Heart and then down to Copper for the second night while my friend and I (both Mountaineers) continued on towards Chetwoot Lake. Once we got over the high point of the ridge between Big Heart and Angeline (about 5260ft), the trail heads down towards the saddle between the two lakes.
The trail was still easy to follow but there were many places you were climbing down and over rock to continue.
There were a mystical string of tarns and just a bit of snow as we then made our way back up and over to the largest tarn on this part of the trail before you drop down to Chetwoot Lake.
The snow was still hanging on here giving the tarn a beautiful turquoise blue and ridge surrounding Chetwoot reflecting in its waters. We had approached this tarn a bit off trail to avoid the snow chute that still covers the official trail (there were tarns directing to the rock slabs on the right of the snow). I have this thing about walking on snow that has the sound of water running underneath it.
From the tarn, we headed down to lunch at Chetwoot. The trail here is steep, rocky, trenched and muddy, probably why we saw a lot of damage to the vegetation on the sides.
The trail crosses the outlet to Chetwoot but we opted to hop the rocks and log jam to get to the lake directly rather than cross the stream first.
I could see the ridge of Iron Cap and I was excited to try and summit her today. Chetwoot was a much larger lake than I imagined and we sat to eat and watch the white puffy clouds roll by overhead in the sky that had turned blue from the earlier gray we had hiking in.
After our lunch break at the lake, we continued to follow the boot path away from Chetwoot. This was a bit tricky from the lakeshore as there are multiple social trails and boulder fields but we eventually connected with the one that took us over along Little Chetwoot and towards Azure Lake.
There was another boulder field to scramble over (the stream between Little Chetwoot and Azure). The trail is very faint here, I imagine because people just cross the talus and head in the general direction of Azure.
Just as we came along the contour line above Azure and could see down at the lake, we looked up and saw a gully heading up towards the slope of Iron Cap at 5029ft. It looked just right for our ascent and so we headed up over the rocks with the ridgeline in our sight.
This took us up about 100ft and then we curved around a little knob (with amazing views of the lakes below) to head east and up towards the ridge, opting again to avoid a snow field.
The route was fairly easy and I was able to peer down into Iron Cap Lake about 3:25pm and 5880ft. It was just starting to thaw out and there were a few patches of snow left in the basin with the ridge appearing snow free. Almost there!
The scramble to the ridge at 6056ft took about 20 minutes, if only because the rock was a bit more loose on the approach.
But oh my, the views! The lineup of mountains, Little Big Chief and Summit Chief were right there in your face.
The lakes we had come from were lined up off in the distance. It was breathtaking.
I was ready to continue along the ridge towards the summit (and then over and down towards Otter Lake as was our plan) when my friend froze up and decided the ridge walk was not something she could do. So, unfortunately it was back down to a lower route for us and our odds of completing the loop were greatly diminished.
Getting down off the mountain we took a more westerly descent over the rock and granite slabs and came down and over the snow field back to connect with the trail above Azure around 5:30pm.
The distance around to Otter was not far but we were getting tired and I knew camping options would be limited. The other side of Azurite Lake appeared to offer some level ground on the map but we would have to make it around its steep banks first.
We managed to make it down the slope to Azurite Lake through rock and downed trees and along the boulder lined shore before deciding that was as far as we would make it for the day safely (the trail came to a ledge after the talus field and a stretch of steep forest and there was a stressful period of me trying to calm my friend who would neither go forward or backwards). It was the closest I have every come to pushing the SAR button on a PLB.
There was no campsite due to the angle of the terrain but luckily a boulder presented itself with just enough room for our tent and we perched ourselves for the night. There was a stream about 50 feet away but neither of us were interested in anything but sleep and settled in for the night. I knew then disappointingly that I would not be making the loop to Necklace Valley and could only hope to get us safely back to the West Fork TH.
Sunday, we turned back for the long haul out. Luckily the terrain was more familiar because my friend was still sketched out from the day before and fell multiple times as we made our way back to the TH at 7pm. We didn’t see anyone during our time between Chetwoot and Azurite, and the lake campsites along the West Fork Foss were more occupied than when we headed in on Friday.
There were day hikers swimming and a handful of overnighters heading into an already full Copper Lake. I hope to go back and complete the loop over the summit when the opportunity presents itself!
I talk more about this hike on my West Fork Foss River page, along with more pictures from the first 7.5 miles. I also did a snowshoe to Copper May of 2016. You’ll find directions and where I like to eat post hike!