For such a long day, we started relatively late at 9am. Our first obstacle was in the beginning as we did not realize we would have to ford the second creek since the bridge is gone. The ford was no issue though. The trail starts off gradual for the first mile or so after the creek crossing and brushy in many places, but otherwise a good trail. The endless switchbacks then commence for the next 1500 feet of elevation before the trail becomes more gradual and comes to an unmarked trail junction about 4 miles in at 5200 feet. Look for the brushy trail off to the left and take that trail for 1 mile and 600 feet up to the stunning basin of the little Crater Lake at 5 miles and nearly 4000 feet of elevation gain, tucked under the imposing cliffs of Crater and East Crater Mountain. Last water source, so fill up water here.
From the lake continue along the trail as it heads higher up through the basin and then gets brushy again for a section as it switchbacks up a hillside and wraps around the back side. As the trees thin, the views really open up the North Cascades Highway and out toward Ragged Ridge and Snowfield Peak. At around 6800 feet the trail gets onto the south ridge and Crater Mountain rises ahead as countless peaks are at your back.
The trail gets rockier but still in nice shape and nicely constructed as it climbs up through a rock band. The trail then wraps around the left side of the mountain and traverses some looser slopes until it reaches the base of the rock scramble gully, marked with a yellow circled cross symbol. This exact symbol will be painted all the way up the route, though the paint is pretty faded and sometimes it takes a bit to look for. But the lower part is a straightforward steep class 3 gully, with some loose nasty areas to deal with.
At the col atop the gully, there is a cool little rock spire to tag before continuing on. From here there was a rock cairn off to the left, but we saw the yellow paint straight ahead. So we opted to trust the paint more than the cairns, which seemed to be misleading at times. The rock scramble above the col was super fun, with great solid rock and some fun ledges and moves to test you.
The top of the rock scramble section led to what was only the false summit. But the rest of the way was an easy path to the top just ahead.
We reached the summit at 3:30, nearly 8 miles and 6300' of gain from the car and 2.5 miles and 2300' of gain from the lake. Although it took us 6.5 hours really strong hikers can do it in under 6 or even 5.5 hours. The views were so remarkable looking at Jack Mountain and Jerry Lakes, the endless backcountry of the Pasayten Wilderness, Highway 20, Ragged Ridge, Snowfield Peak, Baker and Shuksan and the Picketts area.
We only stuck around for 20 minutes before beginning the long return journey, carefully descending the scramble route and the gully back to the trail.
As we hiked down the trail we savored those views that were in our face the whole time.
Back at the lake we got more water before the long 5 mile hike out. We crossed the creek at 8pm right before it got too dark. 16 miles, 6300' gain, 11 hours.
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