washington hiking stuart peak layers

Ultimate Guide: Hiking and backpacking to the top of Vesper Peak

This is one of my favorite mountains I’ve summited – even if it was incredibly tough! If you’re looking for an extraordinary and relatively easy-to-access summit in the Central Cascades, the Vesper Peak hike has it! At four miles up, it’s a challenging yet stunning hike that will leave you longing for more time, staring out at the layers and mountain peaks.

I highly recommend backpacking Vesper Peak for those looking for an epic overnight. Few other mountains offer such spectacular sunset and sunrise photography opportunities. You’re in a sea of peaks and layers, which is a dream for any photographer.

What You Need to Know to Summit Vesper Peak

To this day, backpacking Vesper Peak is one of the most magical and insane trips I’ve done. Carrying a heavy pack full of photography gear up the 4,000+-foot ascent was rough but worth it. Inside, you’ll get everything you need for hiking and backpacking Vesper Peak, plus some pretty dang good photos as well.

vesper peak washington hike backpacking vesper peak
vesper peak hike

Backpacking and Hiking Vesper Peak in the Central Cascades

1-minute guide for the Vesper Peak hike

  • 8 miles round trip
  • 4,000 feet of elevation gain
  • Height of Vesper Peak 6,221
  • It is a straightforward dirt road requiring higher clearance than a standard sedan.
  • It’s an exposed hike, so bring lots of water, use sunblock or a sunshirt, and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Not for novice hikers
  • Bring a water filter to fill up near the lake (around the 3-mile mark)

Getting to Vesper Peak

Vesper Peak is located on the Mountain Loop Highway, about 100 minutes from downtown Seattle. If coming from the south, you’ll head north on I-5, exiting on Highway 2 for a moment, before aiming for Granite Falls.

From here, you’ll begin driving on the gorgeous Mountain Loop Highway for 28 miles. Six miles from the trailhead, you’ll turn onto a dirt road that requires a higher clearance vehicle, as there are some uneven sections that could scrape the bottom of a normal car.

Now, I’m sure some people have made it, but to play it safe, go high.

Vesper Peak hike backpacking vesper peak

Breaking Down the Vesper Peak Trail

Forest hiking

The Vesper Peak trail is wildly beautiful yet grueling, and it will exhaust even those in good shape. While the first half mile is a pleasant stroll through the woods, it soon ramps up to over 4,000 feet of elevation gain in less than four miles. Yep, it’s brutal.

The wooded area contains a creek crossing that I didn’t find harrowing, but it could prove dangerous early in the season at prime snowmelt. While most, if not all, have no issue, don’t underestimate this part.

Switchbacks and an Open Gully

Once out of the woods, you’ll encounter switchbacks on an overgrown trail, and it will feel like the sun has chosen you specifically to torture. After zigzagging your way up a few switchbacks, you’ll briefly reach shade after what seems like forever. It’s the last shade on the hike you’ll have for a while.

After this section, you’ll enter a gully toward Headlee Pass. This is totally open and exposed.

The trail is obvious even as it turns from dirt to rock as jagged peaks line the sky around you. For those curious about where you’ll go, your route will take you to the back right.

Here, you’ll be climbing some of the steepest switchbacks of your life to the Headlee Pass. There’s a low risk of falling, but the narrow trail can contain loose rocks. Be aware of those below and above you in case someone dislodges anything.

I don’t remember how long it took us to ascend these steep wiggles, but it was grueling.

Getting to Headlee Pass on the Vesper Peak Trail

Once you reach the pass, take a moment to breathe.

You’ll drop 100 feet in elevation and cross a boulder field from here, providing your first glimpse of Vesper Peak towering above. It’s beautiful. Five minutes later, you’ll find a creek draining from Sperry Lake. I recommend filling up water here before your final summit push.

(For those wanting to camp at Sperry Lake, you’ll make your way over there.)

While the bugs had been a nuisance before the final push on the Vesper Peak hike, they became an infestation soon after crossing the stream. I recommend packing bug spray and putting it on early, or at least at the lake. You’ll thank me later!

From the creek to when you’ll need to put on microspikes will vary, but it was maybe a half mile or so for me. It was steep, and the trail narrow, considering I brushed trees the entire way up.

The Summit Push for Vesper Peak

drone PNW summits Vesper Peak hike
mount baker sunrise photography

Now, depending on when you do it, you’ll have between some snow and a lot of snow on the northeast face. Microspikes are a good idea, and possibly an ice axe if that makes you feel more comfortable.

The ascent isn’t too steep or terrifying, and the slide risk is minimal. But definitely take your time.

Once at the summit of Vesper Peak, you’ll have stunning views of Mt. Rainier, Glacier Peak, Mt. Baker, and many others. It’s truly inspiring. But for the first few minutes, I was so tired I just saw down and ate food. I was pooped!

Gear I brought for BackpackingVesper Peak

Here is what I brought backpacking Vesper Peak:

Camera gear I brought for the Vesper Peak hike

Yeah, this is why my bag was so heavy!

backpacking vesper peak
backpacking vesper peak
glacier peak photography Vesper Peak hike

For those interested in Backpacking Vesper Peak

Backpacking Vesper Peak is a task! As you’ve read above, it’s one of the toughest hikes in Washington, and then you add in a 30+ pound backpack, and it will be slow moving.

Just take your time, stay hydrated, and you’ll eventually get up there. I recommend starting early in the morning, so you can tackle half of the ascent in cooler weather. Hiking in the middle of the day was brutal, especially in the first half!

Once at the top, you’ll have to find your backpacking spot: Sperry Lake or the Summit.

There are a few camping locations 20 feet below the summit for those looking at backpacking Vesper Peak. There are also numerous ones at Sperry Lake. But specifically for the summit, I doubt you’ll run into any competition if you go on a weekday.

However, it can get busy on the weekends, so an early departure may be wise on your hike.

Please camp on durable surfaces so as not to impact the sub-alpine vegetation. The best location is the rock slab and dirt patch about 30 feet below the summit.

One of the things you should note is that it could be very windy at the top, and if so, you’ll need to find rocks to keep your tent from blowing off. One of the campsites is on a slab of rock, which doesn’t offer any ability to stake it in.

Need gear for backpacking? Take a look at this recent article.

Other things you need to know about Vesper Peak

Are dogs allowed on Vesper Peak?

Yes, dogs are allowed on the hike. But just like it is hard for humans, it will be challenging for your dog. Make sure he/she is in good shape and can handle the various terrains. And please keep them hydrated as they will be hot during the summer months.

Where is the best place to filter water?

There’s technically a spot to filter water about a half mile in, but you should be fine at that point. The next good spot is where the trail crosses the Sperry Lake drainage at the three-mile mark. Or if you are camping at Sperry Lake, you can filter at the lakeshore.

What time of the year should you aim to hike Vesper Peak?

The best time to hike is in summer and fall. In the springtime, I’m sure you can do it, but this is highly exposed terrain and has significant avalanche risk. I would wait for most of it to melt out before attempting your summit.

Should you expect bears on this hike? What about mountain lions?

There’s always a chance you’ll see wildlife on this trail. We did encounter a hiker who joined us on the summit that he had been stalked by a mountain lion when he started just before dawn near the trailhead (in the forest). It scared the daylights out of him.

I would guesstimate that there is little to zero chance you will see any apex predators at the summit of Vesper Peak.

How long did it take us to hike up to Vesper Peak?

It took us exactly four hours to summit Vesper Peak. We took occasional breaks on the way up with only one significant one to filter water. While we were constantly moving, we only did 1 mile per hour, which is pretty slow for most hikes. However, on this one, it’s about standard – especially with backpacks!

Should you poop on the top of Vesper Peak?

Due to the lack of dirt and space, pooping on the top of Vesper Peak has the risk of being hard to hide and could lead to a lot of waste adding up over time. I would recommend using the facilities at the bottom.

But, if nature calls, do what you have to!

How is the road getting to Vesper Peak?

The road requires a higher clearance vehicle. There are a few parts where it’s uneven, and it would likely scrape the bottom of a compact/sedan car. So, find a friend who has some clearance and make them drive you for the hike!

Are there bathrooms at the trailhead?

Yes, there is a bathroom (no running water) at the trailhead that is available.

Am I going to have cell service at the top?

While you will have no cell service on the way up to Vesper Peak, you may have some at the summit. I can’t remember if I even looked to see. The reason why I say you might is a lot of times at a summit, you’ll have great service because there are no obstructions to cell towers.

I mean, you’ll be able to see downtown Seattle from your camping location – which is pretty cool!

Looking for great hikes close by? Check out these!

Maybe you’ve read this and think, ‘Oh, Vesper is too hard.’ That’s totally okay. Here are some other nearby hikes that you will like.

Hikes near Vesper Peak on Mountain Loop Highway

  • Lake 22
  • Heather Lake
  • Gothic Basin
  • Mount Pilchuck

Nearby hikes on Highway 2

Wrapping up the Vesper Peak Hike

I’ve seen many great places, but this is one of those gems where you can see as many photos as you like, but until you visit, you really don’t understand its grandiosity. It’s tough as nails, but you’ll eventually make it!

So, I hope ya’ll have a great Vesper Peak hike and get to enjoy some crazy views!

Until next, time adventurers, take care and be safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside