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Phelps Creek & Spider Meadows— June-August 2006

By Holly Zox

Spend a long day, or better, backpack overnight, in the shadow of glaciers. Phelps Creek meanders through a characteristic glacier-scoured U-shaped valley. The trail follows the path of the drainage up the valley floor from the Chiwawa River to the Spider Glacier in a hanging valley near the head of the basin.

Begin in forest, at 3500’ elevation, on a road still used by miners. The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest reminds us we are in the rainshadow east of the Cascade crest, and wildfires are common. Side trails lead off to Carne Mountain, Box Creek, and Chipmunk Creek. The road turns to trail, and in 2.75 miles reaches the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Openings tempt and introduce us to tea-leaved aster (Aster ledophyllus). Just past 5 miles, elevation 4750’, the trail leaves forest and opens into Spider Meadows, 2 miles long, paradise for botanizers, grazers, and critters who feed on grazers when snow-free (mid-July – October).

Sedges provide fiber, and composites nectar. Robust corn lilies (Veratrum viride) join the dominant asters. Bands of subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) march down the steep side and headwalls of the surrounding craggy peaks. Avalanche chutes and sheer rock faces send snow and rock to the valley below, providing summer moisture and safe spots for fir seedlings. As the trees mature, they become their own “rocks” – tree islands. Patterns visible in the meadow reflect the movement of water and air. Tree islands “walk” across the land as windward trees die, and new trees establish on protected lee sides.

Glacier Peak, while not visible, is present in the fine soils that blow around, or on trails, blow away. Much of the dust underfoot or in your hair or mouth is ash from former eruptions.

At about 6 ½ miles, the trail splits. To see the ice of Spider Glacier, take the left fork, which climbs 1100’ up a dry miners’ trail, to the bottom of the glacier at 6400’. Views and flowers make for a slow and enjoyable climb. The suite of plants changes from what is found in the meadows below, but still find plenty of asters. Also find the first subalpine larches (Larix lyallii) of the trip. As timberline is approached, the larches remain the only upright trees. Above the snowpack, brutal winter winds blast needles of the evergreen conifers, pruning them into krummholz or “crooked wood.” The deciduous larches shed their needles in winter, after adorning the high country in autumn gold.

Cool off at the foot of the glacier. Wash off the dust of the trail with the ground rock-filled milky glacier water. If you’ve come this far, you’re probably staying overnight. Most will want to set up camp in the meadows below and do the climb without heavy packs. A few hardy souls can camp, gently, in established windy sites near the glacier. Look for signs to the backcountry toilet.

Those with the mountaineering skills to travel on glaciers can climb the ice to Spider Gap, 7100’ and truly alpine. This land above all upright plant growth contains low-growing plants such as the mat-forming, succulent alpine saxifrage (Saxifraga tolmiei) and fleshy mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) hiding in rock crevices. Stand at the gap, wind-whipped, serenaded by the whistles and squeaks of marmots and pikas, and look down to the aqua waters of Upper Lyman Lake, icebergs from the retreating Lyman Glacier, and the first march of plants onto the newly exposed land.

Fire and ice, two major forces that shape the land, are felt everywhere on this summer expedition near Glacier Peak. Allow plenty of time to explore the life that returns in their wake. The hike to, and through, the meadows is easy, though long (11-14 miles round trip). Travel to Spider Glacier and Spider Gap is strenuous and requires backpacking and mountaineering skills and experience using an ice ax. Bring the 10 essentials even for the easy meadow hike, since help will be far away. Directions: drive Highway 2 about 20 miles east of Stevens Pass to Coles Corner and turn north onto Lake Wenatchee Road (SR 207). Cross the Wenatchee River Bridge and stay right as the road splits onto the Chiwawa Loop Road. Turn left onto Chiwawa River Road (FR 62), drive 22 miles and turn right onto Phelps Creek Road (FS 6211). The trailhead is at the gate, 2 miles ahead. Do not block the gate when parking.

Updated: July 3, 2016
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