where feet may fail | crater mountain + devils dome loop
July 9, 2021
48 miles . 13100 ft gain . 8132 ft high
A long weekend calls for a long trip. This should not be the law, but in my experience, it often happens that way. Why not jam pack as much as you can? I think this is the weakness of an alpinist. You seek to do so much without consideration of potential suffering, or maybe it’s the ignorance of it. Amongst my crazy plans, Devils Dome Loop was actually one of the least crazy. Plus Cleo wanted a redemption hike after completing it in 4 days a few years ago with zero views. This time, we were doing it in 3 days and making it even harder by tagging Crater Mountain. Checking off the box for a long hike (nominally 43 miles) for Cleo, and checking off the box for a scramble with sweet camp views for me. Long story short, I learned that long distance hiking does not agree with my feet and I’d gladly take more gain over more miles. In essence, I am not made for thru-hiking (yet).
But arguably this backpacking trip was worth it. You can see from where you came from and where you’re going. You wonder how in the world you’ll make it all the way yonder and wonder how you did make it after all. A good test of your mental and physical endurance, but if you take more days, you’ll probably suffer less than I did.
The title of this post is partly inspired by the ever popular worship song by Hillsong, Oceans. “Where feet may fail // And there I find You in the mystery // In oceans deep // My faith will stand” Not sure I particularly found it all, but I did find gratitude in where my feet could carry me and the glory of nature that gave me hope.
We began our first day at the East Bank Trailhead, barely finding parking in the pull off area. We double checked we had everything in our packs and left everything else in the trunk of the car. Hwy 20 is known to have car break-ins so I was meticulous in emptying the cabin so only my forest pass was in sight. 0.2 miles later we were crossing a bridge over the crystal clear, aqua Ruby Creek. And it was flowing heavily! Thankfully, we could still enjoy this river for another 3 miles as we walked beside it. And soon our leisurely, overcast stroll turned into a hot, muggy hike up the south side of the Devils Dome Loop trail. There were many switchbacks to keep me entertained and even a stream crossing where I walked barefoot to keep my shoes dry. I’m sure at other times of the year, you can easily rock hop your way across. Poles were quite helpful here!
We pushed a couple hundred feet further and further to finally rest at the intersection for a quick lunch break. Going straight across would continue the loop, but I was set to camp on top of Crater Mountain. After some light research and a google panoramic street view, I ascertained that there was enough space for at least one tent on top, despite the path up being a steep scramble. 6500 feet of gain is no easy task especially with overnight gear. But Cleo was determined not to let either of us down (I was open to camping on the lower summit or even on the shoulders of the mountain), so we slowly made our way towards the top.
This time of year, water is plentiful and patches of snow persist, so finding drinkable water is not an issue! But we decided to load up our water bottles at the Crater Lake (not to be confused with the famous Oregon lake). And goodness there were larches here, just as I had read about! It would be lovely to stay here in the fall with all the gorgeous red huckleberry plants and the golden larches amidst a mini cirque of bellowing waterfalls. Alas, it wasn’t autumn so upwards we go.
We passed by a nice gentleman who made camp on the arm above the lake. He mentioned going up to the summit earlier and he looked so peaceful lounging in solitude. He confirmed the painted x’s that we’d see as our guide up the scramble. Another short break later, we donned on our helmets and started the class 2-3 scramble. In my opinion, it is solidly class 3 when it is class 3. And most definitely airy at times. However, the rock is very solid and secure, giving us comfort as we traversed narrow ledges. Apparently this mountain used to host a lookout site, so the trail is quite well-made. Where the path could have been a scramble, a beautifully built trail wove its way upwards, so you could hardly even call it class 2 scramble since it was just a heavily switchbacked hike.
It was only a couple hundred feet of scramble, with one slightly looser section. I could have had more but Cleo was perfectly content. The last couple hundred feet of the climb consisted of a straightforward trail to the summit. And yes, as always, summits are so worth the 360 views you get. I couldn’t have been more stoked to have made it for the night. There was even a bivy site set up! This is where rocks are stacked to create a wall in a semi-circle for wind protection.
We casually enjoyed our evening as we watched the sun set behind Baker. It’s so amazing to be able to point out all the mountains I’ve climbed lately. From Ruby to Snowfield slightly west of us, Eldorado further behind. And I kept getting Mt Logan confused with Boston and Forbidden. I could not for the life of me figure out Mesahchie amongst all the point peaks, but at least Black Peak was prominent to the east. Soon we fell asleep, not shortly before I woke up to a moon-less night and decided to play with some astrophotography. Unfortunately that lack of sleep caused me to oversleep the sunrise, to my dismay.
The next day, we took a lazy start before heading back down the scramble, back to the lake and to the intersection we stopped for lunch the previous day. And thus begins the slow slog of 15 more miles to Devils Dome. From Crater, we could already see how far we’d have to walk and it just seemed impossible. But as with thru-hiking (hiking from point A to B without return), you have to keep your mental game up. For me, it isn’t counting every half mile I’ve done, but just keep hiking till the next bend or ridge. It’s no use checking progress because you’ll inevitably be let down. So just keep walking, walking, walking. Sometimes I almost wished I were running this like the two trail runners we saw. Light packs, swift feet, passing everything at a faster pace, keeping motivation high when the scenery changes that quick.
We filled up on water again at Nickol Creek. It was already getting scorching hot in the sun with the never-ending swat and dance to ward of those persistent mosquitos. Eventually the trail opened up to a meadow where Cleo had last camped at. Half way up our biggest hill for today. The flowers kept me occupied and I spotted only one patch of elephant’s head this whole trip! I’m wanting to believe that they’re fairly rare since the other tiny patch I saw was by Easy Pass. No where else yet!
I let Cleo go ahead of me for much of this trail so I could take my time to take pictures and go at whatever pace I felt like. Uphill was difficult in the sun, but downhill I’d fly with gravity. Anything to keep me going, because every so often, we’d see Devils Dome and it still looked just as far. The last 3 miles were rough for my feet. I used every other leg muscle to compensate for my tired feet, but to no avail. I had to drag them slowly up each switch back to the top of the dome where Cleo was waiting for me. We clearly have different strengths in hiking and hers is definitely long distance.
Excited to finally sit and lay down, we found a neat campsite all to ourselves. Another party was on the lower middle section of the dome, but we never exchanged a word. This was a pretty awesome site, and we found running water just a little bit on the north side of the dome, plus plenty of snow around too. It had been hazy all day but sunset was just about the right amount of pink for me. I didn’t realize that Devils Dome had such a nice view of Jack and Crater. Jack sort of looks a bit like Shuksan and it was really confusing! I knew if we had a clear sunrise, there’d be alpenglow on these mountains, so I made a decision not to stay up for astrophotography again.
We woke up to another hazy morning, the kind where you can see the sun, a glowing circle through the clouds. No alpenglow to be seen with such thick haze that turned overcast. We welcomed the change in cooler temperature and had an earlier start to another 18 mile day. At least I had a game plan this time. I’d make sure to rest and massage out my feet every 6 miles to keep them fresh. 6 miles downhill to the lake, another 6 miles along the lake, and the last 6 miles that were a bit more rolling hills to the car. Plus at least soaking my feet in the lake to let them decompress.
Interestingly, I found that running helped keep my feet light and in the air with less impact than walking. So I largely jogged down the mountain, and jogged through the flat. The 6 miles down flew by fairly quickly, although I’d keep checking and the lake still looked far away. Eventually we crossed this beautiful suspension bridge, though it wasn’t the easiest access point to water. We took our long break at Rainbow Point, taking a well-deserved swim and filled up on water again. Less than 9 miles to go!
Feet refreshed, we continued further. 3 miles of flat, 3 miles of mild up, 3 miles back down to the car. I couldn’t muster a jog anymore uphill, so I walked it and I most definitely felt my feet scream back at me. So as soon as it flattened out, my slow jog began. I couldn’t have been more delight to see our final bridge to cross Ruby Creek at the end. And the slowest plod up the hill back to the car, passing several more energetic people. My weary feet were done. They did not fail me, but I had major doubts. 48 miles and 13k feet later, I could sit in an air conditioned car like a dead rock. I was proud that we did this trip, but to be frank, I could have also been quite satisfied with an overnight trip on top of Crater Mountain.
Although scrambling and summit camps will always be my favorite, other highlights of the trip were our leisurely campsites, the wildflowers, the glaciers of Jack, swimming in Ross Lake, and that gorgeous water of Ruby Creek. I highly recommend this trip, even if I’d only do this once. You can check out some other campsites to make the loop more reasonable for you!
P = East Bank Parking; Red dots = non-permit campsites; Blue dot = permit camp (Rainbow Point); Green tent = our campsites
Start/End at East Bank Trailhead in counter clockwise loop
Camped on Crater Mountain and Devils Dome
No camping permits needed if you don’t camp along Ross Lake (marked above). That means one of your days will be at least 14 miles long, which is probably easiest to do on your way out for more downhill. If you want to camp along the lake, here’s the official map of choices: North Cascades Wilderness Map
Crater Mountain is a significant Class 3 scramble but also well marked by yellow x’s and arrows. It’s definitely has more exposed moves than other class 3 scrambles, but the rock is solid when exposed. There’s room for 2 tents to fit comfortably, possibly three 2-person tents could be made to work.
Mosquitos are everywhere where there’s vegetation. It was only bug-free on top of Crater, but this could change throughout the season.
Bring camp shoes to let your feet relax from your hiking shoes!
Best done early summer with wildflowers (after most of snow has melted) or in the fall with larches