little girl, big mountain | ruby mountain backpacking

22 miles . 6600 ft gain . 7408 ft high

North Cascades National Park

Winter season was a little lack luster for me with few iconic backcountry ski days and spring season was a little unmotivating with the snow conditions, but as we approached summer, I decided I finally had the energy and urge to go on a bigger trip. Thanks to Cleo for re-suggesting this peak that I’ve dreamt several years of staying overnight when snow was still on the summit. The alpenglow potential is unparalleled here. I had summited Ruby Mountain previously on skis and the views were incredible in the winter. I was so excited to go back this early summer season and backpack it.

Early Friday morning, Cleo graciously drove up to the Marblemount ranger station to obtain overnight permits. The rest of us met up with her Saturday morning to start the trip. Weather was as perfect as could be — slightly warm for hiking but cool enough when we stopped for breaks. The first 2 miles were a great warm up before the rest of the climb. I enjoyed mentally breaking up the trail into sections to make the long hike more manageable. All of this section travels along the Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake and the green Thunder Creek. Once the trail crosses the creek, you’ll see Thunder Campground.

Turnoff to Fourth of July Pass
First views of Snowfield Peak
Uphill to consistent snow
Steep snow, but manageable
On the ridge at last!

The next two 2.5 miles consisted of to major switchback climbs with a gentler traverse between. From here, we started seeing views through the gaps between trees. Another break and we hit Fourth of July Campground. We walked less than a mile further before keeping our eyes peeled for the turnoff to go up Ruby Mountain. The sign is fairly noticeable, saying the trail continues but is unmaintained.

Again, the trail started off kind to us. The gentle grade was a pleasant walk through the forest as we heard voices of other hikers from the Panther Creek trail beneath us. For an unmaintained trail it was in pretty decent use so it is quite easy to follow. The downside is that downed logs are no longer cleared. We counted over 200 trees we had to navigate over and probably about 40 trees that required more effort than a simple step over. The climb continued further up and up until the last stretch where it traversed for an extended period and we started to find ourselves in and out of snow patches. By the time the trail started the switchbacks again, more of the consistent snow appeared. We did our best to follow the trail but by 6600 ft, we had to stay entirely on the snow until the ridge line at 7200 ft.

The last uphill was grueling but short. But the ridge is not the end. A short walk above a little bump, one might call it a false summit. And right over the summit was our final stop for the day! We made camp right at the flat spot where there was also some dry area for us to set up our camp kitchen and dry our wet feet. Unfortunately we all brought non-waterproof shoes and the snowy climb got all our shoes damp. Some of us were smart enough to manage by crocs and plastic bags in shoes. Waterproof socks may have been a nice choice in the future!

With time to spare, we just enjoyed our camp before the sunset. We ate dinner, melted water for snow, one watercolored and one hiked to the true summit. I couldn’t get myself to put on my cold, wet shoes so I only got sunset pictures from our one dry spot. It was simply incredible looking at the valley of Thunder Creek, the only thing between us and gorgeous glaciated peaks like Snowfield, Primus and Tricouni, Forbidden, Boston and Sahale, even a sneak from Eldorado, and all the way to Bonanza, Logan, and Buckner.

Stitched pano of the southern views (scroll horizontally)

Looking back at the ridge we walked over
Cleo heading up to the summit for sunset
Evening plein air watercolor
Views from our tent
Ragged Ridge
Cleaning up camp kitchen
Our tents and Boston Glacier

As it was, near the summer solstice, nights are short! But I am a photographer who loves sunrises and sunsets. Restful nights are thrown out the window this time of year. I think I only slept from 10:30pm to 4:30am or possibly less. From the weather forecast, I assumed sunset to be more interesting than sunrise but boy was I wrong! I cracked the door open from the tent to peek outside. It was hot pink in the horizon! I quickly gathered all my clothing and layered up, donning on my wet shoes with a very generous gift of two plastic bags to keep them dry. It’s a game changer I’ll tell ya!

I gently woke up everyone so they could view the sunrise at their own pleasure. I personally decided the morning would be perfect for summiting the true Ruby Mountain peak. Unfortunately there’s a radar tower up there so you can’t actually camp on true summit, but ours was lovely for some slight shelter from wind. Anyway, it ended up my friends followed me to the summit, knowing the greater views we’d get on top. From here we could see the rest of the Picket range and a better view of Ross Lake. We could see further east towards the Pasayten Wilderness. I thought we would only get a fun display of color on the clouds above us, but I was thoroughly surprised when we were blessed with a few moments of true pink alpenglow on the peaks south of us. It was more than I could keep “gasp”-ing. Snapping away, the colors faded into cloud-dispersed daylight. It was time for a quick morning nap before we packed up.

The nap was much needed and the minimal sunlight we got was helpful to warm up our tents even for a brief hour. After our leisurely breakfast, we decided it was time to hike down to get home at a reasonable hour. It’s tempting to stay on summits for a long time, but sometimes going home and getting the time to decompress from a trip is wonderful too. I’m definitely a person who enjoys home comforts as much as spending time in the mountains. Both fill my soul in different ways. Big hikes like this leave me feeling empowered and motivated. Being at home also somehow keeps me relaxed. Big hikes might make me physically sore and being a homebody sometimes means being a little more stationary.

Bright pink sunrise
Forbidden-Torment Ridge
Snowfield Peak
Looking east
Return to camp for a quick nap

Hiking downhill ended up being quicker than we all thought. The major section of down trees were a relative breeze without the added effort to scramble uphill over or under logs. Section by section, we made our way down. We even stopped at the same logs for our lunch break on both days! The second day, we found that the sun was much warmer than the day before, but maybe that was just the temperature at the lower altitudes. We were thankful for the short river-side hike out. Often times it feels more like a slog when that hike is 5 miles long versus 2 miles long like this one. Having little markers like campgrounds are an awesome way to have fun check points rather than thinking in numbers that are harder than your brain wants to handle!

I was proud of all of us for making it up this high elevation gain hike. It’s definitely not easy to climb over 6000 ft, let alone with a heavy overnight pack. We managed snow and unmaintained trails, but overall, it was surprisingly enjoyable, breaking all misconceptions and worries I had prior to the trip. It was well worth the effort!

Descending the ridge

  • Permits are required for an overnight stay in the Ruby Cross Country Zone. They can be obtained at the Marblemount ranger station the morning of or the day before. Currently, I don’t think these are in high demand, but you never know!
  • Park at the Thunder Creek Trailhead. If full, then park a short distance in the larger parking lot by Colonial Creek South Campground.
  • Check with the rangers for latest snow conditions if you’re going early season. There was plenty of streams running throughout the trail and even the Ruby Mountain trail had a few streams we used to filter water. Otherwise, you could melt snow, but that takes a lot of fuel.
  • For a summer trip, take the trail from Thunder Creek to Fourth of July Pass, then head up the unmaintained trail a little ways past the Fourth of July Campground. If trying to ski Ruby, check out my other blog for more information.
  • My tracked mileage is a little higher than AllTrails or other apps say. Yours may also differ.

Photos shot on Canon 5d Mark IV

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