Christy Rukstalis is a piano teacher and outdoor enthusiast who loves to hike.
Explore her hiking blog Experience Mountain Loop for further PNW adventures and photography.
This hike is probably the toughest explored on this blog, depending on what your objective is. Headlee Pass by itself has some awesome views, and Vesper Lake is a great place to camp overnight. If you do choose to take on the summit, be prepared for exposed, steep slabs of granite and a rough scramble to the top. Vesper Peak summit is a great destination for mountaineers-in-training and those seeking the thrill of cliffs and drop-offs without too much danger.
From Mountain Loop Highway, take a right on Sunrise Mine Road (Forest Road 4065). It is gravel and well-maintained, so don’t worry about all-wheel drive. Drive 2.5 miles to the end of the road to reach Sunrise Mine Trailhead.
Start in the woods, climbing across trickles of streams and one larger river (the south fork of the Stillaguamish–improvised bridges are regularly washed out here, so proceed if crossing is reasonable.
As you come out of the woods, be amazed at the valley of Wirtz Basin, and watchful of where the trail meanders leading up to the set of ridiculously steep switchbacks across a rock field. Look for rock cairns to assure you are actually on the trail–it is very easy and dangerous to go up the wrong way to Headlee Pass. When you arrive at Headlee Pass you will see an old, beat up sign stating “Headlee Pass 4,600 feet”. It is at this point you will get your first glimpse of Vesper. Congrats; you’re almost halfway.
The trail becomes very easy to follow from here to the lake. Head down slightly through forest from Headlee Pass and traverse a large rockfall area. Once you reach the creek, you have a choice: head up the peak, or go to the lake. The creek makes for a good fill-up area to replenish water (always purify it first).
If you do choose to summit Vesper, you have about a mile left. Travel the steep trail up through more forested area to the granite above. The true joy lies in climbing the last half-mile or less, especially on a day it is dry and the rock is grippy. Grippy shoes and smooth, grippy rock a fun climb make. Pat yourself on the back when you reach the summit, because you will have earned it. The views of this hike are not easy to forget. The less-viewed side of Big Four Mountain (home of the famous Big Four Ice Caves), Sperry Peak, Del Campo Peak and Morningstar Peak are all stark and in-your-face. Look down the west cliff if you dare, and view Vesper Glacier below with Copper Lake behind.
This is my favorite hike on Mountain Loop. Unlike the rest of the hikes on this blog, each of which I have done at least three times, this one I have done but once. It left quite an impression, and reminded me of the euphoria of my first summit–Mount Pilchuck. It was taxing and Kristen and I almost didn’t finish, but when we reached the top and made our hot Ramen and hot coffee, rested our weary legs and turned in circles until there was no more view to take in, it was more than worth every breath. I personally cannot imagine attempt Vesper anytime the slabs of granite at the top are not dry. Just getting up Headlee Pass in the snow is a scary thought. Kristen attempted Vesper three times before we finished it, and she said they got somewhat lost all three times, unable to complete even Headlee Pass because of snow covering the trail. The angle of the slabs at the summit are such that it would be dangerous to attempt without more gear and experience than I now have. Though I have big plans, I am not a mountaineer–yet.
Highest Elevation–6214 ft
Elevation gain–4200 ft
Distance from I-5 in Everett–46 miles; 73 minutes
Major Peaks Visible: Sperry Peak, Morningstar Peak, Big Four Mountain, Mount Forgotten, Mount Dickerman, Del Campo Peak, Mount Baker