You wouldn’t think it possible to hide such a large mountain so close to several towns and a major interstate highway but Big Snow Mountain is hidden thus. It is not visible from any road. It requires a 15 mile drive on dirt and gravel roads and then a six mile hike up the Dingford Creek trail just to have a chance to see this mountain. I stumbled on Big Snow Mountain while perusing Google terrain maps looking for an interesting hike.
There are two approaches to Big Snow Mountain. Both start from the same parking lot six miles down NF-5620. I tried both. On September 8th my friend Jeff and I attempted Big Snow via the Dingford Creek trail to Myrtle Lake. From there we attempted to ascend to Big Snow Lake where we hoped to gain the summit. We failed, defeated by dense vegetation at the base of the mountain. We could not find a navigable path. With a lot of effort we managed to ascend to a point just below the altitude of Big Snow Lake but we were on a ridge from which it was impossible to traverse to the lake. This was intended to be a day hike yet we reached our turnaround time still a good four hours short of the summit. Clearly Big Snow would require an overnight to summit.
One month later I returned for a second attempt. This time I was prepared for a two-day trip and decided to attempt from the other approach on the south side via the Hardscrabble Lakes. From the same parking lot as Dingford Creek trailhead one must hike seven miles past the locked gate on NF-5620. Over the seven miles the hiker gains about 1,200 feet. The wise man pushes a bike up this road in anticipation of the return. I locked my bike to a tree at the Hardscrabble trailhead and started up the trial.
At about 3,500’ the trail terminates into a boulder field. There are numerous cairns marking the way up the boulder field towards lower Hardscrabble Lake. Unfortunately the cairns lead the climber into dense vegetation that I could not find a way around. There was no recourse except to pick my way through it. This proved to be the most unpleasant part of the entire expedition both in and out. After much effort I gained the upper reach of Hardscrabble creek. From there I was able to ascend to the first Hardscrabble Lake.
Boulder field to Hardscrabble Lake
Lower Hardscrabble Lake is beautiful situated in a natural amphitheater. While following another boulder field north along the lake I called out “hello!” as loud as I could. The ehco took nearly five seconds to fade from the large granite walls that surround the lake. From the north end of Hardscrabble Lake I finally had a spectacular view of Big Snow Mountain’s massive granite walls.
Lower Hardscrabble Lake echo chamber
Cairn marking trail to upper Hardscrabble Lake
From the north end of Lower Hardscrabble Lake I continued east up the creek to upper Hardscrabble Lake. Only after reaching upper Hardscrabble Lake did I finally feel I was going to be successful in this climb. I followed the boot trail north until reaching yet another boulder field, the final that would lead to the summit saddle; a magnificent class 2 boulder climb that gains 1,200’ to the ridge saddle. Climbing over the top of the saddle was an amazing thing to do. Up, up, up until suddenly you are looking down the other side of the mountain.
Upper Hardscrabble Lake Saturday afternoon showing fall colors
Upper Hardscrabble Lake Sunday morning
Nearing the top of the saddle col
First look over the saddle to the north side of the mountain
Ice field to cross after clearing the saddle
After exiting the saddle I only needed to cross an ice filed about 50 feet wide using my ice axe to pick my way across. Once across it was a leisurely class 1 or maybe class 1.5 stroll to the summit about a mile away about 1,000’ higher. Here is where I need to be honest with the reader. I stopped about two hundred vertical feet short of the summit. The time was 4pm, my predetermined halt time. I felt I had accomplished everything I had set out to do. As far as I was concerned I was at the summit already and I wanted to leave enough time to hike back to the saddle and setup camp for the night while I still had daylight.
Big Snow and Myrtle lakes below
Big Snow top surface
Big Snow view
Is this Chikamin Peak?
Did you know the devil lives on top of Big Snow Mountain?
Glacier Peak above the forest fire smoke
The nighttime stars were magnificent. The weather was reasonably warm and dry through the night. I had a very pleasant and peaceful night. The entire day since leaving the car I had not seen a single other person. I have never felt as alone as I did on top of Big Snow Mountain. At first light the next morning I packed up and headed down. The down climb began with a crawl back across the ice field. Five hours later I was back at the trailhead where my bike was waiting for me. Oh, thank God for the bike. Seven miles costing downhill sure beats walking.
My GPS odometer indicated the hike was 23 miles round trip with over six thousand feet of gain including all the ups and downs. I’d like to do it again in the spring when there is still snow to kick steps in. For those interested to know, at no time is the climber exposed to a long fall during this expedition
Wow. Your experience makes me glad I summited Big Snow when the road was still open and you could drive to the Hardscrabble TH. Can't believe how much snow is still on the upper granite slabs given the summer we've had (hence the name...).
-------------- Footprints on the sands of time will never be made sitting down.
I have fond memories of Big Snow, as the ascent from Big Snow Lake was one of my first solo scrambling experiences a few years ago. We did not encounter very thick vegetation from Myrtle Lake, but definitely some steep forest. I think I just got lucky with the route, on both the way up and the way down. Barely got back to the trail by dark and eventually caught up with the rest of the party. I have read several great reports on the Hardscrabble route, such as this one, and will have to try it some day.
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