Is it 59 switchbacks or 64? The hike up the Fourth of July trail will spur hours of discussion around the highly philosophical concept of switchbacks. When is a turn in the trail a “true” switchback? Does 120 degrees qualify? What about 100 degrees? Those with more lenient switchback standards will think this trail has 64 switchbacks to the top of the ridge. Those with more stringent switchback standards will lean toward 59. Either way, this trail does some significant climbing. The views at the top of the ridge make all of the work worth it, and if you have time to make this a one-way hike by continuing down the Icicle Ridge Trail toward Leavenworth, you will have the opportunity to cover a lot of terrain, spend several miles traversing a ridge with views in all directions, and enjoy hours of isolation.
Nearest Town: Leavenworth
Skill Level: 2
Fitness Level: 3
Distance: It’s 5.3 miles from the Fourth of July trailhead to the top of the ridge. From there you can decide to take the easier route by going left another quarter mile to a rock outcropping, the site of an old Lookout Tower. Or, if you’ve got the time, and want to see new territory, go right at the top of the ridge and follow the Icicle Ridge trail another 9 miles back toward Leavenworth (the “walk through” route). This one-way route requires two cars. Total distance: 14.3 miles.
Elevation: The Fourth of July trailhead starts at 2,300 feet and the ridge is 6,800 feet. It’s 7,029 feet at the highest point—the site of an old Lookout. If you do the “walk through” down the Icicle Ridge trail, the ridge walking probably adds another 500 feet, for a total elevation gain at about 5,000 feet. Total elevation loss: 5,600. The nice part of this trail is that few sections of the climb are exceptionally steep—it’s just a steady uphill and downhill walk the whole way.
Recommended Season: Spring, summer and fall. In the heat of the summer, be sure to start early in the day. There is lots of southern exposure as you wind your way up the hillside on the Fourth of July trail.
Access: If you are doing the “walk through” you will need to have a car at each trailhead. The most pleasing route is to start hiking at the Fourth of July trailhead and come down Icicle Ridge. To leave a car at the Icicle Ridge trailhead, from the intersection of Highway 2 drive out the Icicle Road 1.4 miles. The parking lot is to the right and clearly marked “Icicle Ridge”. Leave one car here. To reach the Fourth of July trailhead, continue another 8 miles up the Icicle Road. The trailhead is well-signed with a small parking lot.
Maps: View Fourth of July Trail map, and Icicle Ridge map below. Note: use ‘Print Preview’ before printing to properly scale this map to a full sheet of paper. Green Trails map #177 (Chiwaukum Mountains) and #178 (Leavenworth).
–Get ready to start counting those switchbacks. The first 25 switchbacks are the hardest. If you’re counting switchbacks carefully, switchback #25 is to the left with a huge pine tree. Give this tree a hug. After switchback # 30 the going gets significantly easier as the incline mellows. The terrain begins to change as you reach the alpine meadows near the ridge.
–Follow the trail 5.3 miles to the ridge. This is your first decision point. Go left to the site of an old Lookout. It’s a scramble to the top of the boulders. Elevation 7,029. Go right to make this a “walk through” down the Icicle Ridge trail. Either way is a good choice.
–If you do make this a one-way hike by continuing right on the Icicle Ridge trail, you will follow the top of the ridge up and down for the next 2-3 miles. Great views and the opportunity to stop and take a look at a weather station that sits on one of the highest ridges. The trail is clearly marked and the views of the Enchantments are enchanting. We did this hike in October (with about 4 inches of snow on the ground), but it would be a glorious wildflower show in early summer.
–Eventually the trail will begin heading downhill into the Leavenworth Valley. At about mile 8 the trail begins to get a bit “ragged”. Hikers, mountain bikers, and horses have strayed from the main trail and the single trail splits into multiple side-by-side trails. Not a pleasing sight when you have two or three different trails running side-by-side. This part of the trail has not been well-tended and there are lots of fallen logs that block the trail. Be prepared to crawl over and under these obstacles.
–The last few miles are a series of long, gentle switchbacks down to the Wenatchee River valley and the Icicle Ridge trailhead parking lot. We were too tired to count switchbacks at this point in the hike. We’ll leave that for someone else to report on. The lower Icicle Ridge trail must have been designed with mountain bikers or horses in mind, as the decline is frustratingly mellow. You can see your destination about 2 hours before you actually reach it. The last two miles of the trail are in excellent shape and obviously get tremendous use as the soil is packed solid.
Be aware that this is a dry hike. There’s water in the first mile of the hike, but opportunities diminish as you climb. Not the best hike if you are starting late on a blazing summer day. And with all high elevation hikes, you might be surprised at the weather you find at the top.
Cons/Hazards: The biggest hazard is tired feet at the end.
Misc: Both of our maps were old (would you believe 1975 and 1986?), so they lured me into this hike by indicating a total mileage of only 12.1 miles. Further research once we got home (and massaged our tired feet) indicated that the mileage was more than our map suggested. That’s one way to convince me to take a hike…lie about the mileage.
We were surprised at how long it took us to do this hike. Hiking in snow for three miles along the top of the ridge slowed us down a bit, but overall we spent a solid six and a half hours of hiking with limited breaks.
Uses Allowed: Hiking, mountain biking, horses.
Fees/Permits: Northwest Forest Pass required to park.
Trip Reporter: Carolyn Griffin-Bugert, October 27, 2006
Leave It Better Than You Found It. This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route. You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.