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There’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking into an alpine meadow.
These high-mountain playgrounds of carpeted shortgrass and wildflowers are just one of the prizes that awaits the backpacker. Alpine meadows, however, invariably come with a price. They can literally exact a pound of flesh, or two, usually after a long, sweaty slog through a valley forest.
But just when you think the uphill trail will never end, one by one the trees disappear, and … wow! That was my reaction the first time I stepped into broad and majestic Spider Meadow, nestled at the end of a rugged cul-de-sac in the Entiat Mountains, a range north of Leavenworth.
Go big or go home, indeed. In fact, my first impression of spacious Spider Meadow was so strong I’ve come back for more. I’ve hiked many of the premier hiking trails in the north and central Cascades for three decades. But none have been more memorable than the 15-mile, round-trip trek to Spider Meadow and Spider Gap. My trip there in mid-July was my third in 14 years — and a welcome, socially distanced escape.
My first hike to Spider Meadow in 2006 was with a group that included my daughter, Greta, just before her freshman year of college. This recent trip to one of the Pacific Northwest’s grandest meadows represented a passing of the torch to the next generation. Our hiking party of six included my 8-year-old grandson, Isaac, in what would be his backpacking debut.
The 4.5-mile hike to Spider Meadow is actually not a bad baptism for the beginner backpacker. The biggest obstacle may be the rough, 12-mile stretch of dirt road that leads to the Phelps Creek trailhead. It’s filled with large potholes and ruts deep enough to accommodate a decent-sized stream.
But neither the rough road nor the novel coronavirus pandemic seemed to deter hikers from Spider Meadow on this sunny July weekend. I counted about 40 cars at the trailhead Sunday afternoon. Judging from the number of vehicles we met on the dirt road, I’m guessing that count was much higher earlier in the day. According to one online trail report I read, there were about 75 vehicles parked there Saturday evening.
The 1,400-foot elevation gain from the trailhead to the meadow is relatively gentle. Along the way you will boulder-hop Box and Chipmunk creeks, and then finally hop from rock to rock and tightrope a log over Leroy Creek, the largest tributary of Phelps Creek. Bring trekking poles for balance — especially at Leroy Creek — or risk taking an unplanned bath.
After a little more than three hours, the forest opened to spectacular Spider Meadow, and the first-time adult visitor in our group exclaimed what I had 14 years earlier: “Wow!”
The meadow, split by meandering Phelps Creek, is vast and deep as the eye can see. It’s ringed by Red Mountain and other breathtaking peaks, and carpeted with wildflowers Indian paintbrush, aster, phlox, Sitka valerian, lupine and columbine, all of which were in their full, midsummer glory. No landscaping service needed here. Mother Nature is on duty 24/7.
Campsites are available on both sides of Phelps Creek, a plentiful and easily accessible source for filtering water and a cold-but-bearable swimming hole for the heat of the day. Deer grazed near our tents in the cool of the evening, and the whistles of marmots and pikas from their rocky perches were as constant as the gentle breeze rustling through the trees.
The timing of our hike also coincided with the July sightings of the comet Neowise. Looking north, the Big Dipper was perfectly framed between towering Chiwawa Mountain to the left and Dumbell Mountain to the right, and just above Spider Gap. It was as if Spider Meadow had its own outdoor theater. At 10:45 p.m. each night, under cloudless skies, we saw the tail of the comet.
You could stay a night or two in Spider Meadow and call it good, or even return to the trailhead the same day. But there’s more to see ahead. Much more.
Our backpack trips span three days, beginning on a Sunday and ending on a Tuesday. When we begin the hike, we meet the weekend hikers returning to their cars, thereby avoiding the rush for prime campsites. The Sunday-Tuesday format also means the working person only misses two days instead of three.
We also spend both nights at the same campsite — in this case Spider Meadow — freeing up Day 2 to leave the overnight packs behind and climb to higher elevations with much lighter daypacks.
The 3-mile trail from the meadow to Spider Gap steepens right away. About a mile in, you pass the turnoff to Phelps Basin, a nice side trip for lunch if you have time. The trail then begins a set of rocky switchbacks leading up a thigh-burning ascent of a south-facing, sheer granite wall at the north end of the valley. Do this in the morning while the air is still cool.
At the 2-mile mark we reached the top of the wall and a stunning lookout point over the U-shaped valley. As impressive as Spider Meadow is at ground level, it’s just as magnificent from this high perch, with Mount Maude and Seven Fingered Jack towering in the distance.
Even so, the best was yet to come. We received a whistle’s welcome from a band of marmots — Isaac was the first to spot them before they retreated into their rocky homes — as we turned our attention to the milelong trek up Spider Glacier leading to Spider Gap.
By July, the glacier softens up enough to walk on. Fortunately, it wasn’t too soft so your boots don’t sink all the way through. Still, we saw a couple hikers with crampons under their boots that provided better footing.
On our way up we noticed red stains in the snow. I had recalled from our ’06 trip that we spotted a dead marmot on this very glacier. I teased Isaac, as I am prone to do, that the red stains were evidence a marmot had met its demise at the claws of a predator, only to quickly amend that fib to point out the red pigment is from algae, also known as “watermelon snow.”
At last we reached 7,100-foot Spider Gap, which meant we had climbed 2,200 feet that day and 3,600 feet overall.
We ate our lunch here and peered over the edge to the now-familiar stunning view of Upper Lyman Lakes, their aqua-blue waters glistening in the sun and encroaching snow. Beyond them we could see Lyman Lake, North Star Mountain, Sitting Bull Mountain and Bonanza Peak.
We met three young women on the trail who had come over Spider Gap from Lyman Lakes and were on their way to the Phelps Creek trailhead, where we started. They began the 44-mile loop trail at Trinity, crossing Buck Creek Pass, Suiattle Pass and Cloudy Pass to reach the Lyman Basin. And an optional add-on to that loop trail is a side trip to another destination on my bucket list, Miners Ridge and Image Lake. It’s a trail my hiking partners and I have talked about doing for years. And yet I realize I’m running out of time.
As we broke camp at Spider Meadow after breakfast on Day 3 to return to the Phelps Creek trailhead, similar thoughts filled my head: “I’m 65. Is this the last time I’ll see this meadow, and make the steep climb to Spider Gap? Am I game for trip No. 4?”
My answer: “I certainly hope so.”
Directions to the trailhead from Seattle
Go east on U.S. Highway 2 over Stevens Pass. Turn left at Coles Corner, about 15 miles west of Leavenworth, onto state Route 207 toward Lake Wenatchee and proceed about 10 miles.
Just past the bridge over the Wenatchee River, turn right onto Chiwawa Loop Road. After about 2 miles, turn left on the Chiwawa River Road. Follow this road for about 22 miles. The road turns to dirt about 10 miles in. At about the 20-mile mark you’ll see a sign for the Phelps Creek trailhead and a right turn uphill. Road conditions deteriorate even further here until you reach the parking area at the trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed.