Backpack around Mount Adams

Rate this Adventure Washington South Climb Trailhead

Added by Michael Graw

See the best of Mount Adams - accompanied by spectacular views of Mount Hood and Mount Rainier - on this challenging 3-4 day loop that includes an arduous traverse across "The Gap".

Under 2 hours from Portland, Mount Adams sees a sizable crowd of visitors - but get beyond the first mile of the South Climb trail, and you're unlikely to encounter another person until you circle around all the way to the PCT.  This loop around the mountain doesn't put you quite as high up as the climbing route, but what it lacks in elevation it makes up for in ruggedness and sheer immensity of landscape.

The east side of Mount Adams, known as "The Gap" is the crux of this route and should only be attempted by experienced backpackers.  This 10 mile stretch is untrailed, with goat tracks more frequent than evidence of previous human visitors; a glacier descent and five distinct, challenging river crossings make cross-country travel through this area arduous and dangerous for the unprepared.  In addition, camping is only allowed on Yakima Nation land - which encompasses the entirety of The Gap - at Sunrise Camp.  However, the reward is solitude and perhaps the best views of Mounts Hood and Rainier, as well as the Goat Rocks and Yakima Valley, in all of Washington (not to mention the views of Mount Adams itself).

The route starts out at the South Climb Trailhead, just outside Trout Lake, WA.  The road is narrow, rutted, and crowded in the last few miles before the trailhead, but passable by a crossover-SUV-type vehicle traveling carefully. Hike up the dusty first mile of the South Climb trail - more a road through a burned forest than a trail - before turning right onto the Round the Mountain trail to begin the loop. The trail travels through burned pine forest for 2 miles before entering Yakima Nation territory, where the forest gives way to peaceful Bird Meadows. At a sign indicating a picnic area, about 1 mile later, turn left and begin climbing up to the Hellroaring Viewpoint.  

The viewpoint itself is unmarked, but it's obvious when you reach the cliff-edge of a ridge towering over Hellroaring Creek's basin.  This is where the off-trail adventure begins.  Continue steeply uphill along the ridge through sparse, rocky forest all the way to around 7600 feet elevation - above the waterfalls of Hellroaring Creek and the steep wall of the basin's head.  

At this point, the outline of the Mazama Glacier should be evident - Sunrise Camp, your target, is at its base, between the glacier and a small hill of rock. Head over rock or snow over somewhat flat ground until Sunrise Camp is nearly directly above, then climb steeply on permanent snowfields to reach the camp.  Although water is plentiful around Sunrise Camp, be prepared for an uncomfortable night.  Depending on the weather, winds may gust up to hurricane speeds and rockfall from the glacier is a threat, although rock shelters provide some degree of protection. That said, if you feel confident your tent won't fly away, take a walk around at sunset and sunrise - Sunrise Camp offers spectacular views of Mount Hood and the Yakima Valley.  (Although not technically allowed by the Yakima Nation, in an emergency much less exposed camping is available at the base of the Klickitat Glacier.)

The next morning, descend the Klickitat Glacier into The Gap towards a rocky bench adjacent to the moraine on the right.  From here, the goal - easier said than done - is to reach and cross Big Muddy Creek.  Some sources suggest doing this right where it leaves the Klickitat Glacier, while I found that to be impossible and crossed lower (~6000 feet). In any case, do NOT underestimate the difficulty and danger of this creek crossing - the creek is whitewater in a steeply descending canyon for its entire length, and there is no single best place to cross.

Once across, climb the ridge on the opposite side of the creek and then head cross-country through burned forest - aim for the western end of Goat Butte, taking the path of least resistance.  There are several minor crossings of arms of Rusk Creek in this area, although one of these crossings is another significant obstacle that takes time to scout out a passage (although it's not as bad as Big Muddy). Finally, when you reach a meadow below the slopes of Goat Butte, turn course to the northwest and head over the small ridge sloping down from the butte.

Depending on the season, you may find a use-trail from previous hikers in this area - if so, take it! In any case, continue heading northwest between 6800 and 7000 feet.  After another significant creek crossing, start to head uphill onto a bench around 7700 feet - this will allow you to avoid having to contour around steeper terrain to the east.  Before reaching the ridge on the west side of the bench, turn north and begin descending through open, rocky terrain. Soon enough, you should reach well-cairned trails that signal you're back onto a sporadically maintained extension of the Highline Trail.  The fun isn't quite over yet, though - there are two more large creek crossings, the first of which is extremely difficult to find a suitable spot to cross over.  After crossing the second, though, you're safely back on trail for the remainder of the loop.

There are several campsites just before the forest begins in earnest, and close enough to the last creek crossing to have easy access to water.  These sites offer awe-inspiring views of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier that aren't as readily available at campsites further along the trail (which becomes heavily forested soon).

To continue, simply follow the Highline Trail through easy forested terrain and sub-alpine meadows until you reach the PCT.  There are plenty of campsites both along the Highline Trail and along the PCT, several featuring small lakes or streams meandering through meadows. Travel along the PCT is extremely fast relative to The Gap, and much of the trail is through sub-alpine pine forest with the occasional rise to views of Mount Saint Helens to the west.  Although there are numerous creek crossings, none present the difficulty of those in The Gap. Finally, with 6.5 miles left to go, continue onto the Round the Mountain trail while the PCT makes a right to descend to Trout Lake.

The last stretch features increasingly burned forest as you get closer to the South Climb trail, but there are plenty of creeks along the way to fill water. After a few short climbs in the last 2 miles, make a right at the junction with the South Climb Trail to head back to the trailhead.

For post-hike beers - you'll want one if you traversed The Gap - head to Hood River for your choice of some of the best breweries in Oregon or to Carson, WA, for pizza and excellent brews at Backwoods Brewing.

Pack List

  • Backpacking Gear - an extremely sturdy tent, or better yet a bivvy sack, is essential for camping at Sunrise Camp
  • Crampons and Ice Axe - required for descending the Klickitat Glacier, and helpful for traversing some permanent snowfields
  • Sunscreen and Sunglasses - there is almost no shade along much of the route
  • Maps, Compass, and GPS - an altimeter is extremely helpful for finding your location in this area if you lack a GPS
  • Water and purification system - note that many of the creeks are full of glacial silt, which can clog many water filters
  • Camera
  • Self-issued wilderness permit (at trailhead)
  • Northwest Forest Pass or equivalent
  • Note: A Cascades Volcano Pass ($10-15) is required for climbing Mount Adams via the South Climb route (but not via the Mazama Glacier).  Visit the Trout Lake Ranger Station to pick up a permit.
  • Note: There is no way to adequately bury human waste in the rocky terrain of The Gap.  The Forest Service issues waste bags to climbers at the Trout Lake Ranger Station - bring your own bag to carry out waste or stop there to pick one up.
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Skill Level:



Summer, Autumn

Trail Type:



32 Miles

Elev. Gain:

7000 Feet



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Added by Michael Graw

I'm a landscape and adventure photographer based out of Corvallis, Oregon. Backpacker, triathlete, and skiier - always with a camera in hand. Look for me in the mountains or online @WanderingSolePhotography.

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