OverviewWild Sky Wilderness is a 106,577-acre wilderness area located in the central Cascade Mountains of Washington. Enacted in 2008, Wild Sky Wilderness is the newest designated wilderness area located within Washington. This wilderness area encompasses land surrounding the North Fork Skykomish River and Beckler River drainages of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Road access to the area is via Highway 2 and Forest Roads 63 & 65. Highway 2 is immediately south of the wilderness area. Forest Roads 63 & 65 traverse through the middle of the wilderness area, connecting to each other near the northeast corner of the area.
Despite many high-elevation peaks in Washington, the highest point in the Wild Sky Wilderness is only a modest 6240' elevation (Gunn Peak). In fact, only a handful of officially named peaks over 6000' elevation are located within the wilderness area. Two of those peaks (Gunn Peak, Mount Baring) have over 2000' of prominence each, and with 3640' of prominence Gunn Peak is the 29th-most prominent peak in Washington. Those two peaks are also amongst the steepest peaks in Washington, with the 51.14° angle of Mount Baring being the 30th-steepest peak and the 49.51° angle of Gunn Peak being the 64th-steepest peak.
However, the lack of high-elevation peaks in the area is perhaps misleading. Many of the summits and approaches have the look and appeal of alpine and sub-alpine areas found on higher terrain elsewhere in the Cascade Mountains. In addition, despite having many mountains within the wilderness area, only five peaks (Evergreen Mountain, Beckler Peak, Sunrise Mountain, Scorpion Mountain, and West Cady Ridge) currently have official established trails leading to their summits, and two of those peaks (Sunrise Mountain, Scorpion Mountain) share the same trail (Johnson Ridge Trail) for their summit ascents. Several other peaks in the region can be summited using a combination of old logging roads, fisherman trails, mining trails, hunting trails, and/or animal paths to reach their summits, but many of those options are inconsistently used and overgrown.
Most of the peaks in Wild Sky Wilderness require off-trail backcountry ascents, some of which are quite rugged and take potential summiters through a wide variety of terrain. This is a major reason why most of the peaks within Wild Sky Wilderness are seldom summited. People making summit attempts within the wilderness area tend to earn their peakbagging accomplishments, and on good weather days those people are usually rewarded with great views from many of those summits.
Wild Sky Wilderness is represented by six different regions, each with its own unique qualities:
Ragged Ridge Region: Located in the western section of Wild Sky Wilderness, north of Index and west of Silver Creek. If heading east, this region is the first part of Wild Sky Wilderness, seen as soon as the city of Gold Bar, and is represented by a chain of mountains connected by a rocky ridgeline. With few trails or logging roads, this region might be the most "wild" of the wilderness area. One of the most popular parts of this region is Lake Isabel, a mile-long lake found in a sub-alpine valley near the top of the west end of Ragged Ridge. The most popular peaks in this region are Mount Stickney, Zekes Peak, Ragged Ridge, and Mineral Butte.
Sky Peaks Region: Located in the area surrounded by Highway 2, Forest Road 63, and Forest Road 65. This is the central, and largest, region within Wild Sky Wilderness. This region is represented by tall, rocky peaks and alpine lakes within Douglas fir and cedar forests. The most popular peaks in this region are peaks east/southeast of the city of Index, such as Mount Baring, Merchant Peak, and Gunn Peak (the highest point within Wild Sky Wilderness). However, there are many other peaks in this region worthy of dedicated summit attempts.
Troublesome Creek Region: Located in the northern section of Wild Sky Wilderness, approximately 10 miles northeast of Index, between the Silver Creek and Quartz Creek drainages. Situated in one of the most remote areas of Wild Sky Wilderness, this region is represented by old-growth and second-growth Douglas fir, silver fir, cedar, and hemlock forests. This region is home to rare and/or seldom-seen wildlife such as spotted owls, pileated woodpeckers, and pine marten. The most popular peaks in this region are Scott Peak, Hubbart Peak, and Troublesome Mountain.
West Cady/ North Fork Region: Located in the northeastern section of Wild Sky Wilderness, between Quartz Creek and Evergreen Mountain. Many of the peaks in this region are filled with Douglas fir forests, heather and huckleberry underbrush, and wildflower meadows. Trails within this area can lead to other popular mountaineering areas outside of Wild Sky Wilderness, such as the Monte Cristo Range and Pacific Crest Trail. The most popular peaks in this region are Excelsior Mountain, Frog Mountain, and West Cady Ridge.
Rapid River Region: Located on the eastern section of Wild Sky Wilderness, between Evergreen Mountain and Johnson Ridge. Many of the peaks in this region are filled with mossy old-growth and second-growth Douglas fir forests and sub-alpine meadows. The most popular peaks in this region are Evergreen Mountain, and Johnson Ridge's Sunrise Mountain and Scorpion Mountain.
Kelley Creek Region: Located on the southeastern section of Wild Sky Wilderness, between Johnson Ridge and Highway 2. Much of this region contains mossy Douglas fir forests and sub-alpine meadows of huckleberries, heather, and other underbrush. This region also contains an alpine wetland area at the Mount Fernow Potholes. The most popular peaks in this region are Mount Fernow, Beckler Peak, and Alpine Baldy.
Getting ThereAccess for regions of Wild Sky Wilderness:
Ragged Ridge Region: Highway 2. From Highway 2, head north on Reiter Road (east of Gold Bar).
Sky Peaks Region: Highway 2 (to the south), Forest Road 63 (to the west & north), and Forest Road 65 (to the east).
Troublesome Creek Region: Forest Road 63. From Highway 2, take exit for Index. Follow the Index-Galena Road, which is also Forest Road 63.
West Cady/ North Fork Region: Forest Road 63. From Highway 2, head north on Beckler River Road, which is also Forest Road 65. After approximately 15-17 miles cross over the North Fork Skykomish River. Turn right on Forest Road 63.
Rapid River Region: Forest Road 65. From Highway 2, head north on Beckler River Road, which is also Forest Road 65.
Kelly Creek Region: Forest Road 65. From Highway 2, head north on Beckler River Road, which is also Forest Road 65.
History Of Wild Sky Wilderness DesignationOfficially establishing the Wild Sky Wilderness designation proved to be no easy task. In 2002, with much local support behind the idea, U.S. Senator Patty Murray and U.S. Representative Rick Larsen introduced a bill to create Wild Sky Wilderness. However, the bill was repeatedly blocked in committee by Representative Richard Pombo of California.
Representative Pombo was not re-elected in 2006, which gave some hope to Wild Sky Wilderness supporters that the bill might pass in the next Congressional session. Then, in February 2007, Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen re-introduced a legislative bill to designate the Wild Sky as an official Wilderness Area. This time, the bill was able to get out of committee and passed the House. The Senate version of the legislation was also approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Just when it appeared the bill might successfully pass through the U.S. Senate, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma put the vote on indefinite hold prior to the bill even reaching the Senate floor, citing its $19 million cost to create the Wilderness Area.
As a separate bill, establishing the Wild Sky Wilderness had been repeatedly delayed by the U.S. legislative process. In 2008, with the failures as a separate bill fresh in the thoughts of Congress, the requested Wild Sky Wilderness designation was included as part of a large U.S. Senate bill, known at the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008. The new legislation was a comprehensive bill dedicated to approving numerous activities, programs, and designations affecting the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Forest Service, and Department of Energy. The bill passed the U.S. Senate on April 10, 2008. Then, within three weeks of passing the U.S. Senate, the new bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on April 29, 2008.
President George W. Bush signed the bill on May 8, 2008, officially making Wild Sky Wilderness the first new national forest wilderness area in Washington State in over 20 years. Unlike Washington State's previously designated wilderness areas, which have solely protected old-growth forests at higher elevations, Wild Sky Wilderness protects old-growth forests at lower elevations. Wild Sky Wilderness also protects over 25 miles of salmon streams, as well as land for recreational (i.e. non-developmental) purposes.
Criticisms Of Wild Sky Wilderness DesignationAlthough the creation of Wild Sky Wilderness has had widespread support, locally and nationally, there have been criticisms of the Wilderness Area designation from both supporters and detractors.
Many supporters of Wild Sky Wilderness did not, and perhaps still do not, think the Wilderness Area designation went far enough to preserve several critical and sensitive regions. Compromises and changes were made throughout the process of establishing the Wilderness Area, helping to give Wild Sky Wilderness what some might consider a strange shape.
Some examples of these compromises and changes made so that Wild Sky Wilderness could be created:
-> The original plan for Wild Sky Wilderness covered over 121,000 acres. This included nearly 15,000 acres east of the currently-designated area, such as Windy Mountain and its long ridgeline, as well as areas directly along FS-63 and FS-65. Snowmobiles and off-road vehicles were regularly used throughout the region, so the compromise was to not include the Windy Mountain area and the areas directly next to FS-63 and FS-65 so that all outdoor recreationalists could still at least use those areas freely.
-> The original plan for Wild Sky Wilderness also included a large area surrounding the lower Salmon Creek drainage, located north of the town of Index. However, that land was eventually excluded from Wild Sky Wilderness so that a clear-cutting plan known as the "Sky Forks" timber sale could proceed as previously planned.
-> Lake Isabel, the largest lake in Wild Sky Wilderness, had been a favorite destination of float plane operators for many years. Typically, float planes would not be allowed in alpine lakes within a Wilderness Area. However, Lake Isabel's popularity ultimately proved to be too much to ignore and now the lake has become one of the few Wilderness Area alpine lakes in the United States that allows usage by float planes.
-> Barclay Lake and Barclay Lake Trail #1055, the most popular hiking destination in the region, was originally included as part of the plan for Wild Sky Wilderness. However, recreational groups such as Boy Scouts, regularly visited Barclay Lake and its trail for large group activities and did not want to lose that type of access, so the lake and its trail were excluded from the final Wilderness Area designation.
Many detractors of Wild Sky Wilderness also made their opinions known during the designation process. Many detractors claimed their rights were being violated, and laws were being broken or ignored, as a result of the creation of Wild Sky Wilderness.
In addition to the compromises and concerns listed above, here are some arguments given by detractors:
-> Many acres of Wild Sky Wilderness did not/do not completely coincide with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which set the current guidelines for Wilderness Areas in the United States. Thus, some detractors have believed the designation to be unlawful. One section of the Wilderness Act of 1964 states: “An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land… which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable”. Many areas within the current Wild Sky Wilderness boundaries have been greatly affected by human influence through the years, mostly from logging, forest road creation, and/or mining activities. According to some detractors, Wild Sky Wilderness includes over 16,000 acres that does not meet the definition of "wilderness", over 23 miles of regularly used forest roads, and over 6,500 acres of previously logged forests and slopes.
However, many supporters of Wild Sky Wilderness would be quick to note that compromises were made to the size of the land area to address some of those arguments, while at the same time arguing that some parts of the region that have been affected by human influence need to have that human activity limited to help preserve and rebuild critical and sensitive habitats.
-> Prior to the creation of Wild Sky Wilderness, Washington State already had 10% of its land area designated for Wilderness Areas. Many detractors believed that was already enough "wilderness" to support and protect within the State, while still allowing enough non-wilderness areas for public use and all types of recreation.
-> Many detractors also have noted that a Wilderness Area designation does not allow much in terms of forest management. For instance, any forest fires within Wild Sky Wilderness must be left to burn naturally (i.e. uncontrolled). Also, if any invasive species of plants or animals enter the Wilderness Area they must be left to either thrive or fail naturally with minimal regulated controls over them.
Trail Proposals For Wild Sky WildernessOn June 23, 2011, a public meeting was held to discuss possible trails within Wild Sky Wilderness. When the Wild Sky Wilderness Act was enacted in May 2008, a special provision within the designation called for a Trail Plan to be established in consultation with interested parties for National Forest System lands within the Wild Sky Wilderness and adjacent areas. The Trail Plan was to include a “system of hiking and equestrian trails within the Wild Sky Wilderness” and “a system of trails adjacent to or to provide access to the Wild Sky Wilderness.”
The June 2011 public meeting was just a formality, a requirement of the original wilderness designation. Trail propositions and plans were discussed at the meeting, but due to lack of funding most (if not all) of the proposals will never occur. According to the Forest Service representatives at that meeting, as of 2011 it cost $100,000 per mile to construct a trail, not including bridges or other structures, and the Forest Service was only provided $22,000 for usage specific to trails within the wilderness area. The Forest Service representatives at the meeting provided wilderness maps showing over 90 miles of proposed trails, which would cost over $10 Million to construct (90 x $100,000/mile, plus bridges and other structures). For any future trails to be built within Wild Sky Wilderness, it will require outside charities, grants, and donations to do so.
The Forest Service representatives at the meeting allowed the public to provide input for which proposed trails were higher or lower priorities. The people in attendance who primarily wanted new hiking trails were seeking new trails all across the wilderness area; every hiker seemed to have a different idea or opinion. In contrast, all of the people in attendance who primarily wanted equestrian trails focused only on trails for two different peaks: Iron Mountain and Frog Mountain. That amount of enthusiasm focused on two trails might cause the Forest Service to make those two trail proposals higher priorities than other areas. However, ultimately the decisions will be based upon what outside funding (charities, grants, donations) designate as trail priorities.
Red TapeA Northwest Forest Pass (parking permit) is required if parking at/near trailheads within Wild Sky Wilderness. A Northwest Forest Pass can be purchased at local ranger stations or REI stores; day passes cost $5, annual passes cost $30.
Many established trails within Wild Sky Wilderness require a free registration at trailheads.
Recreational UsesHiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, camping, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing are all allowed in Wild Sky Wilderness.
Please contact a local ranger station, such as Skykomish Ranger Station, for further details.
Map LinksMost (i.e. the central part) of Wild Sky Wilderness is located in areas shown on Green Trails Map #143. The western side of Wild Sky Wilderness is located in areas shown on Green Trails Map #142. The eastern side of Wild Sky Wilderness is located in areas shown on Green Trails Map #144. Due to the recent creation of this wilderness area, Green Trails Maps do not yet mention "Wild Sky Wilderness" on them.
Senator Patty Murray had an excellent marked topographic map and full explanation of the Wild Sky Wilderness posted on her official senatorial website for several years. The map clearly labeled each region within the wilderness are as well as all officially-named summits and bodies of water. Unfortunately, this information has since been removed from her website. I was allowed to download the Wild Sky Wilderness map prior to its removal from her website, but it is too large (i.e. uses too much memory space) to post on this SummitPost page and I do not want to infringe upon any possible copyright laws.
NOTE: I plan to re-create a Wild Sky Wilderness boundary map sometime in the future, as I continue to explore the area and when I find time to do so. There are so many ridged and abrupt border sections, as well as separated sections, that I feel it is necessary to only post a highly accurate map (or maps) on this SummitPost page.
The Seattle Times posted a general Wild Sky Wilderness area map online.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer posted a general Wild Sky Wilderness are map online.
Other External LinksWashington Wilderness Coalition's site dedicated to original proposal for Wild Sky Wilderness.
Skykomish Ranger District website.
A 2008 Seattle Times newspaper article (online) announcing the Wild Sky Wilderness designation.
A study of the flora found within Wild Sky Wilderness.