Sometimes, when you dream about visiting a place for so long, pouring over blogs and trail reports and staring at photo after photo, witnessing it with your own eyes can feel a bit surreal. Tapto Lakes is one of those places. I’ve been dreaming of experiencing the remote backcountry along the Copper Ridge loop for months, after coming upon the area in the depths of my winter hiking research. (Ask me if I have a hiking Excel 😉 )
After submitting our applications in the North Cascades lottery, we managed to snag 2 different permits for different dates and camps. By some miracle, Dave’s permit was the exact itinerary we requested – a 4 night / 5 day permit for the Copper Ridge loop + Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes! Sadly, at the end of July, we were notified that a wildfire (likely human-caused) had started right in the middle of our loop, so our plans were derailed a bit. We started looking for backup options, but thankfully, fire activity was tame enough that we were still able to use the permit with a slightly adjusted itinerary. Instead, our friends Jess and DJ joined us on a 3 night / 4 day adventure through the North Cascades.
Day 1 | Hannegan Pass Trailhead > Graybeal Camp
14 miles, 4403ft gain, 4310ft loss
Trail reports on the Brush Creek trail have been pretty sparse, and the last one I read mentioned a creek near Graybeal so we powered through until camp… only to discover it was dry. The husbands went looking for water, while we set up camp as it was already approaching dark. (For anyone doing this route soon, I’d fill up with water at US Cabin camp so you don’t have to walk further up the trail later). Ultimately, day 1 was a bit of a blur because we spent it almost entirely in the forest and barely saw anyone else on the trail. We ate dinner on the dry creek bed by Graybeal to keep any food scent from our tents, and went to sleep soon after sunset in hopes of feeling refreshed for the next day.
Day 2 | Graybeal Camp > Tapto Lakes
4 miles, 2900ft gain, 452ft loss
The four of us struck camp around 10am, knowing we had quite a climb in front of us. We stopped for lunch at Whatcom camp, where a group of thru-hikers recommended we take a few minutes to soak in the views of Mt Challenger on the ridge to the right of the pass. We took their advice and shot some photos of the glacier before heading on. At about 2PM, we started the steep ascent up to Tapto Lakes, which at some points turned into hand-over-foot, timber scramble. Thankfully, that didn’t last too long – soon we were treated to more majestic views of Mt Challenger and Whatcom Peak.
I’d read that most other hikers (at least the ones who wrote trail reports on WTA) had spotted bears here, so we called out and clapped for the majority of our trip. This paid off as we came upon the Tapto Lake basin, where we spotted a mama bear and her cub near the western-most lake. We shouted fairly often to remind them we were sharing the space, and kept a close eye as we started setting up camp and taking photos of the picturesque Whatcom Peak. Thankfully, they kept their distance while crossing the scree fields before heading out of the basin. It was both nerve-wracking and amazing to witness!
We set up camp on an established site, refilled water, and relaxed with dinner while waiting for sunset. Looking back, we weren’t treated to the kind of sunset I’d hoped for, but I’m still so grateful we saw Whatcom Peak reflected in the lake. The weather is so volatile in the mountains, that we easily could have been socked in without any view whatsoever. Regardless, at sunset, Dave, Jess, and I found different perspectives to shoot the Whatcom Peak reflection we’d all be dreaming about, while DJ enjoyed the view in it’s purest form – sans camera (while also leading the bear watch). We didn’t spend much time outside of our tents after sunset, but Dave did wake up to take a 1-hour exposure on our new Hasselblad. (We’re anxiously awaiting the results!)
Day 3 | Tapto Lakes > Hannegan Pass
14 miles, 4397ft gain, 5038ft loss
We woke up shortly before dawn, hoping to take some stunning sunrise photos while the lake water was still. We had about a 1/2 hour to soak in the last view of Whatcom Peak before dense clouds settled in. After waiting around for an hour or so while making breakfast, we realized the gray was here to stay, so we said our farewells to Tapto Lakes and started the grueling trek back to Hannegan Pass.
Again, our bear calls paid off when we encountered another black(ish) bear, this time right in the middle of the trail between Whatcom Pass and Graybeal camp. As soon as it heard/saw us, it bolted into the bushes so thankfully, we had a positive encounter. We saw LOTS of bear scat along the Brush Creek trail (I’d guess around 10 or more piles?). My friend did a bit of research and although I know grizzlies are quite rare in the North Cascades, the size of the scat did look big enough to our fairly untrained eyes.
Once we crossed the river on the cable car for a second time, we knew the real work was about to begin. We were barely halfway and had nearly all our elevation gain in the next 7 miles. Not long after we set off, we started playing 21 questions (we added a bonus round just for fun) and all agreed this ended up being one of the best memories of the trip 🙂 It made the time fly by and we had some slap-happy belly laughs that kept us going, despite the suffering. By about mile 12, we were all reaching our breaking point…and then, like clockwork, it started to rain. We threw on our rain jackets and backpack covers, and weighed our options. We needed to make it up to Hannegan Pass which has non-permitted camp sites, and also to make day 4 less brutal. But we were freezing so we considered trying to hike all the way out instead…which would have left us in total darkness.
I was confident I wouldn’t be able to make it nearly 20 miles + gain/loss in one day with my full pack, so we death marched the last few miles to the pass. Dave led the way and coached us all to the top, where we finally threw our bags down with all the energy we could muster. By that point, sunset was quickly approaching (although we couldn’t see the sun at all), so we scrambled to set up our tents after getting our boiling water into our backpacking meals. Dave and I usually take a more leisurely approach to our time at camp, so this proved that we actually could go fast if we needed to 😉 We gobbled down our dinner in the dark, brushed our teeth, donned all our layers, and dove into our tents before ‘hiker midnight.’
Day 4 | Hannegan Pass > TH
4.5 miles, 396ft gain, 2315ft loss
After a typical, fitful night of sleep, our alarms chimed at 6:30am. Dave and I blinked sleepily at each other and cracked jokes about how badly we needed to…do our business. I was ready to throw everything haphazardly into our packs and sprint to the trailhead, so we didn’t waste any time that morning. Pit toilets and a stream to refill water awaited below at Hannegan camp, where we took a quick break. It rained with varying levels of intensity for the entire morning, but our spirits were a bit brighter now that we were descending.
We soaked in the PNW fog clinging to the mountain tops, even though in the back of our minds, we wished we had another chance to see their peaks. I’ve learned to enjoy the rain since moving here, and this day was no different. We eventually recognized the flat, perfectly manicured trail that meant we were approaching the end of our trip…and we all yelled out in celebration. WE DID IT! Dirty, tired, aching, and soaked through, but proud as hell of what we accomplished.
After using the trailhead bathroom, chugging a protein shake, and a big group hug, we started the drive back to Seattle. No more than 2 days later, I’d already forgotten the pain and was back to dreaming of the next big adventure…