OverviewLet’s start this page off with a pun…
Some peaks, well some peaks ya scramble ’em. But some chiwaukum because they have a trail all the way to the top. [groan]
Chiwaukum is a Native American word meaning “place where many streams come together.” Knowing this, I guess I had better bring together my many streams of consciousness and coagulate my thoughts into a coherent page.
The Chiwaukum Mountains are a large sub-range north of the higher and more rugged Stuart Range. Though there is a proximity to these two ranges, they are comprised of different rock. The Stuart Range is made primarily of granite (granodiorite) while the Chiwaukums are primarily a schist. This rock is even known as the Chiwaukum schist. More geological info for the range can be learned here. The upper east side of the divide is alpine with slab terrain. The west side has been sculpted into more rounded basins whose lower extremities flatten out into lovely meadows replete with blueberries (in later summer).
Geographically speaking, the Chiwaukum Mountains form a long, massive divide (almost an escarpment) running north-south. The center-point of this divide and its alpine culmination (Big Chiwaukum) lies about 15 miles north of Mt. Stuart. The entirety of the divide and its lesser sub-divides to the east (such as McCue Ridge) drain to the Wenatchee River thence to the Columbia River. On the west is Wildhorse Creek draining north to White Pine Creek. On the east is Chiwaukum Creek and its many tributaries draining directly to the Wenatchee River.
The east side of the high divide once sheltered a glacier but now, sad to say, it’s all but gone. All that remains is a stagnant ice sheet. Filling the glacier void for aesthetics, though, are a number of alpine or sub-alpine lakes. Some of these make for popular though lengthy weekend backpacking getaway spots. The major ones on the east side are Chiwaukum, Larch, Cup, Charles, and Brigham lakes. There are several other lesser lakes or ones farther away. The major ones on the west side are the Grace Lakes, Lake Margaret, Lake Mary, and maybe some others depending on how you want to qualify them. At approximately 6,900 ft elevation, Upper Grace Lake is one of the highest in the state.
At 8,081+* ft, “Big Chiwaukum” is the highest summit and therefore the most prominent point out there. It is in fact ranked at #27/144 in the state with 3681P. It is a provisional name (not on the map) that has been largely accepted as standard. The west side of Big Chiwaukum drops in a series of gullies and ribs that would not be pleasant to climb up or fall down. There are no rock climbing lines and the schist tends to be loose, licheny, and ugly. However, the faulting of the rocks on this side is interesting in that the cracks are vertical and closely spaced. The east side is a cliff that drops quickly away for 200 vertical feet to meet the barren slabs of the erstwhile glacier. On final approach along the south ridge the summit rises up like a silo with a somewhat rickety appearance. An easy completion isn’t obvious and it’s still exposed on the west finish (Class 3+) but the summit isn’t a difficult one to obtain. Although, I don’t know if I’d like to try it when there’s snow all over it.
The summit register shows about 3-4 parties per year. Our party of three on September 10 was the second for 2006.
* Note that the summit is here (8080+ ft) and is definitely higher than the triangulated point just to the south (8081T). The height is therefore probably closer to 8,100 ft.
Getting ThereA popular approach to this mountain is from the east using the trail up Chiwaukum Creek past Chiwaukum Lake ending at Larch Lake or Cup Lake or environs. I know this is a long route (10+ miles) compared to the west route, which can be done in a long day. I will elaborate briefly on the east approaches later. But the main approach I want to describe is from the west, which makes use of the White Pine Creek Trailhead. This approach and the West Route can be read here.
From U.S. Highway 2 at about 10 miles west of Leavenworth or 5 miles east of Coles Corner, exit the highway at the little town of Chiwaukum (I don’t think there’s really a town here). Drive westward from the road for a short distance to the gate and the beginning of the Chiwaukum Creek Trail (elevation 1,800 ft). This trailhead is just north of Tumwater Campground. Hike the trail up and around and up and around, staying right at two trail junctions in the valley, to eventually reach Chiwaukum Lake (5,200 ft) in about 9 miles. The trail continues on the north side of the lake and in another 3 miles end at Larch Lake (6,080 ft). Larch Lake is 1.5 miles northeast of the summit of Big Chiwaukum. Good camping is available at all the lake on the approach.
Almost the entirety of the Big Chiwaukum North-South spine has a cliff on its east side where the glacier once ate away at the rock. This makes a direct assault more technical in nature. This is not to say there’s an easy way up.
From Larch Lake, ascend to Cup Lake on a probable footpath then south to the spur ridge south of Cup, crossing at 7,400 ft. Now, it is probably simplest to walk the slabs up and right (southwesterly) to gain the Chiwaukum crest at 7,840 ft just below the summit. Scramble the ridge south to the summit. Expect Class 3 with a move or two of Class 4. The exposure level is unknown by me but I’ve read there is some. Maybe 2-3 hours from the lake (2,000 ft of gain).
There are no doubt places to gain the spine south of Pt. 8081 (based on map interpretation) but I can’t vouch for it in reality. The glacier shown on the map is defunct, so no need to worry about crevasses.
Red TapeThe White Pine Creek Trailhead currently requires a Trail Park Pass. Maybe one day it will go away. The Chiwaukum Mountains are within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness so proper wilderness ethics should be observed. In the dry season, campfires should be avoided. It is just too easy to light the Cascades on fire these days.
CampingFor the east route, camping is available at the lakes and at many sub-alpine locations. Basically, camp where you see fit.
For the west route, camping would be good at Grace Lakes southwest of Big Chiwaukum (north of Snowgrass Mountain). But there is much open terrain with which to choose to bed down.
When to ClimbI’ve heard of Big Chiwaukum being a skiable summit. But the summit tower seemed quite steep to me. Maybe the skiers don’t go all the way to the summit. Barring the ski tour method, one could climb this peak year-round because access just off of Highway 2 is always available. But, if you had a choice, the two best times to climb the peak would be in July when the flowers have bloomed in the meadowed terrain on the west flank and in late summer/early autumn when the huckleberries and other flora have turned red and orange and the larches have turned yellow.
Mountain ConditionsLeavenworth forecast (nearest significant town)
Forecast for the east slope of the North Cascades