Hiking in a time of COVID: During the 2020 pandemic, I put my thru-hiking plans on hold in favor of a more local route through the most treasured areas of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington State. Some of this route is on connecting trails, and some is off trail; here’s what I came up with and some of the challenges I faced.
In late 2019, I had grand plans for the year ahead of me; fresh in the new year (2020), I took off on a road trip through the states of Utah and Arizona. I happily explored Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Staircase Escalante, and the Grand Canyon, just to name a few, and enjoyed multi-day backpacking trips in the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix. The news of a new strain of SARs was making its rounds in the media at this time, but it seemed so far away from where I was at, and my level of concern was absurdly low. It wasn’t until I was making my way up into California, bound for Death Valley National Park, that I heard that this disease had indeed landed in the U.S.
I left Death Valley and headed for Oregon. That’s when things started to turn serious; the world was thrust into a pandemic. I quickly drove home, as talks of quarantine and state lockdowns were circulating. By the time I got home, in early March, the whole West Coast went into lockdown. My home state of Washington called it the ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe Order, and virtually everything shut down. Suddenly, this busy body became a home body. Previously, I had secured a job at Crater Lake National Park, and now I was furloughed before I had even started. I took up yoga and weight lifting, spending my days worrying about money, and the health and safety of my friends and family. I ugly cried, a lot.
Come summertime, many of the hiking trails in Washington had opened up (with the exception of some of the more popular, crowded trails. At this point, however, the National Parks Wilderness Information Centers were still closed, thus making obtaining a permit near impossible.
All of the events related to the pandemic provided me with a somewhat unique opportunity: for the past several summers, I’ve been thru-hiking, and haven’t been able to explore some of the trails that are right here in my backyard. This was my time, and I’ve been wanting to connect several different trails to create one long, multi-day epic adventure. I grew up exploring this wilderness, so why not make it more than just a weekend trip?
My first order of business was to dig out my trusty Alpine Lakes Wilderness map. I already knew some areas that I wanted to include in my trip; mainly the Necklace Valley, with a possible trip up to La Bohn Gap, then connecting to the Dutch Miller Gap trail. For the Grand Finale, a single day push through the Enchantments Core.
So after lots of thought, here’s the itinerary I came up with:
- Start at the Necklace Valley/East Fork Foss River Trailhead (trail no. 1062)
- Leave the maintained trail around Jade Lake, and route find my way south past Cloudy Lake and Opal Lake, towards La Bohn Gap (La Bohn Lakes, there’s a serious pass to scramble up here).
- From La Bohn Gap, route find to Chain Lakes and south to Williams Lake.
- At Williams Lake, pick up the trail to Dutch Miller Gap/Dutch Miller Trail no. 1362
- The Dutch Miller Gap Trail turns into the Waptus River Trail no. 1310 as you head eastbound, and then you briefly connect to the Spade Lake Trail to join up with the Pacific Crest Trail (trail no. 2000).
- From the Spade Lake/PCT junction, follow the Pacific Crest for 8 miles until the Cathedral Pass Trail Junction (trail no. 1345)
- Follow the Cathedral Pass Trail down to a trailhead along USFS road 4330, and walk approximately one mile to meet up with trail no. 1595 to go over Paddy-Go-Easy Pass.
- After the pass, head southeast on Meadow Creek Trail no. 1559 (unmaintained for quite a bit, follow the cairns until the trail picks up again).
- At the junction for Jack Creek Trail no. 1558, head northbound for a few miles until reaching the junction for the unmarked, unmaintained trail heading up to Jack Ridge (no. 1557)
- After descending from Jack Ridge, join Eightmile/Trout Creek Trail (no. 1554) to connect to USFS Road 7601.
- Access the trailhead for Colchuck/Stuart Lakes from the Forest Service Road, and day hike the 18 miles through the Upper Enchantments basin. Exit from the Snow Lakes Trailhead.
Perhaps this itinerary seems like a punishing feat, and maybe you’d be right in thinking this. My plans did change as I hiked, and I didn’t get to squeeze in some of the trails that I had originally hoped. The whole thing took me a total of four days (with one unexpected day off). However, it would have taken longer if I hadn’t cut out parts of my itinerary.
First of all, it was a later than usual shoulder season, meaning that the snow in the higher elevations stuck around longer, thanks to a cooler spring season, and made things a bit more complicated. I never made it up to La Bohn Gap; one look at the pass, once I had reached the base of the scramble, I knew it would be a more technical climb that I was prepared for. There was still a healthy amount of snow pack on the extremely steep scree covered climb, as well as tunnels of snow melt cascading out from underneath the precarious slope. It was simply too dangerous, so I diverted my trek to bypass it altogether (more details below).
Also, instead of taking the Eightmile/Trout Creek trail over Windy Pass (no. 1554), I took the shorter Trout Creek Trail (1555) northbound to meet up with the Icicle Creek Road near Leavenworth. I was critically low on food, and had sustained an injury near Cathedral Pass. Although I had what I thought was a solid five days worth of food, the rugged conditions kept me hungry, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do Windy Pass and the Enchantments comfortably over a two day period.
So, without further ado, here’s how my trek through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness went.
Day 1: Necklace Valley Trailhead to Chain Lakes
I get a later start than I prefer, and the parking area at the trailhead is riddled with broken glass from car break-ins when I get dropped off. The trail is gentle at first, meandering through cool and lush hemlock forest, following the East Fork Foss River for the some time. After bushwhacking through some overgrown areas that were full of all the not-so-fun prickly things, like devil’s club and nettles, and crossing a creek on a foot log, I start a brutal climb that was seriously lacking in switchbacks. This, of course, comes during the heat of the late July day.
By mid-afternoon, I reach Jade Lake, where I stop for a quick dip in its turquoise waters, and then eat some lunch. There’s only one other hiker there, and he’s claimed the only campsite on the eastside of the lake. Just up from Jade Lake, the trail peters out and the route skirts the shores of Cloudy Lake and Opal Lake. From here, I’m following a drainage that’s coming down from the lakes in La Bohn Gap, crossing sub-alpine meadow that’s covered in low growing heather and huckleberries.
At the base of the climb that scrambles up to La Bohn Gap, I instantly know that I can’t take it on. There’s still too much snow pack, and I don’t have the proper gear; an ice axe and crampons were needed here. I’m disappointed, but I still have miles upon miles of wilderness ahead of me. I hike instead towards Chain Lakes, hoping that the drainage down into the Williams Lake basin is doable, and not under several feet of snow pack.
The route ascends up a swift flowing drainage, full of silty glacial water, and then crosses a snow field. Just above Chain Lakes, I find a clearing with no snow, and make camp. The mosquitoes are relentless, so I don’t spend much time outside of my shelter, other than to collect and filter some water. The views from this high point are absolutely gorgeous, and my dinner of instant refried beans is delectable.
Day 2: Camp Near Chain Lakes to Cathedral Pass Trail Junction
It’s a sunny, warm morning, despite being surrounded by snow. After breaking camp, I descend towards the drainage that will hopefully lead me to Williams Lake. I traverse through more snow, and glissade down to the beginning of the drainage.
The drainage is steep, with soggy and loose soil on the way down. I step gingerly, trying to find solid ground and also avoid the delicate western anemone that is making its summer debut. Thankfully, there are several trees to steady myself against, and avoid tumbling downward into the basin. The nearer I get to the lake, large boulders begin to take over the landscape.
I find a log near the lake to take a short break on, and then I boulder hop my way up to an old mine that’s been blasted out of the mountainside during the early 20th century. In fact, Dutch Miller Gap is named after an industrious man (called Dutch Miller, obviously), who had several mines in this remote corner of the Cascades. He mainly mined for iron ore, which had to be packed out by mule train. Old Dutch tried to convince the people at the Burlington Northern Railway to build their track right through his mountain gap, but alas, they chose to go in over Stevens Pass instead as the terrain through here was just too rough. Thus, the claims became too remote and expensive, and the mining operation dried up.
At the junction for Williams Lake and the Dutch Miller Gap Trail, some old mining relics are still scattered about, adding a bit of wild west charm to the trail. The gap is absolutely stunning, with weathered granite rising up on both sides of the narrow valley, and tiny mirror-like ponds surrounded by lush meadows, bursting with orange paintbrush flowers.
I follow a creek through Dutch Miller Gap, and up to a ridge that overlooks the sapphire-colored Lake Ivanhoe. I stop again at a raging waterfall for another break and to filter some water, but the mosquitoes make sure that it’s a quick stay. I descend down to the lake, where the trail follows just above the rocky shoreline. Some snow schutes are still covering the trail, and going over them would mean the very great possibility of sliding straight off and into the lake. Much of the snow in the schutes has melted away underneath them, so I decide to go under, despite my fear of them collapsing on top of me.
I go under a total of three of these compacted schutes, making it out unscathed. The trail then does a very long descent downwards towards Waptus Lake, via several dusty and exposed switchbacks. In the river valley at the bottom of the switchbacks, a wind has picked up and created choppy conditions on the lake. I had hoped to swim, but I find contentment in the shade beside the lake. I eat some snacks and chug water, then do the short, yet brutal climb, up the Spade Lake Trail to meet the PCT.
The heat is stifling, and even though the Pacific Crest Trail is gentle and graded compared to what I’ve already come through, I’m really struggling. There’s a series of switchbacks that climb through the forest, and I’m pushing to keep a steady pace. The long summer daylight hours of the Pacific Northwest means that I still have several hours to get to where I’m going, but the heat has completely drained any energy from my body.
A cool, refreshing breeze travels down Spinola Creek, right beside the trail, and it’s just powerful enough to keep the blood thirsty mosquitoes from landing. I eat again to regain some energy, and push onward into the evening.
There’s one last climb to the Cathedral Pass Trail Junction, but the onset of evening has made conditions a bit more bearable. I find a small camp further up the PCT, just past the junction. There’s a trickle of water crossing the meadow here, and I fill up before retreating to my shelter. A small doe passes through my camp, and I watch the sun go down over Cathedral Rock.
Day 3: Cathedral Pass Trail Junction to Jack Trout Creek Trailhead
It’s a cool, welcoming morning, with some overcast skies when I set off again. The trail descends first to buggy Squaw Lake, where the evidence of large crowds remains: illegal, makeshift firepits with half burned trash, and poorly buried human waste with the white plummage of toilet paper to top it off.
I cross a small creek, trickling over the trail, and promptly slip and fall on the slick rocks. I go down hard on my right knee, and it instantly swells after impact. I hobble down to the road, fighting back tears as I watch my injury continue to swell and bruise. I take a moment at the trailhead to use the privy and collect my emotions. As I walk towards the next leg of my trip, a crunchy feeling forms in my knee and up into my hip.
I take it slow going up Paddy-Go-Easy Pass, which as it turns out, isn’t that easy. There’s quite a lot of elevation gain over a few miles, and a number of difficult blow-downs to clamber over when you have a painful injury. Halfway up the climb, I pop some ibuprofen and admire the view of Cathedral Rock towering over the valley below. The further up I go, Mount Rainier can be seen in the distance, and from the top, Glacier Peak rises to the north.
The walk along the ridgeline is short but oh-so sweet, and then quickly descends into the Meadow Creek valley. The coolness of the morning has faded away now, giving way to more sweltering heat. Once I reach the junction for the Meadow Creek Trail, it becomes quite obvious that this is a trail in name only. The route follows above the creek, and across overgrown meadow marked with cairns. It’s sticky-hot, and the tall grasses I’m passing through are clinging to my sweaty skin. It’s a beautiful area, but I’m suffering. Every little creek that I cross, I take a moment to drench my clothes and face, and give my swollen knee a quick soak.
I regain actual trail when I enter some forest, and then cross one of the most beautiful wild flower filled meadows I’ve ever seen. I briefly consider camping in a site near the meadow, set back in the trees and along the creek, but it’s still late afternoon and I feel the need to keep going.
I have to ford Meadow Creek a few times before meeting up with Jack Creek Trail, and by the time I find the faded junction for Jack Ridge, I’m not feeling my best. My right side is stiff, and I desperately want to make camp and get some rest. If I can make it to the top of the ridge, however, I’ll have set myself up better for the coming days. I follow the faint trail, which immediately starts a grueling climb through dense, overgrown forest. The huckleberries along the way are at least ripe, and I snack as I go.
By the time I reach Jack Ridge, my daylight has dimmed and it becomes clear that there is no comfortable place to make camp. The ridge is rocky and uneven, and I wouldn’t feel right crushing the abundant lupine and paintbrush flowers. I start the descent towards Trout Lake.
At the lake, the surrounding forest is burned, with the smell of charred timber heavy in the air, and the ground has a thick layer of ash. I check my GPS, the topography of what’s ahead (mainly Windy Pass, and Eightmile Trail), and then my food rations. I’m critically low, to the point that I won’t have enough to get me through two more big mileage days. My concern lies with just how strenuous the last day is through the Enchantments, including the big elevation gains going up Aasgard Pass. I’m disappointed in myself, mostly for underestimating the rugged terrain, and overestimating my physical capabilities. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on myself, shit happens, after all.
As I’m pondering my decisions, a gentle breeze sweeps across the lake, and the burned skeleton of a former tree suddenly snaps and crashes down in front of me. I don’t want to camp here, in this haunting place. I take some more ibuprofen, eat a bit of candy, and hike up the Trout Creek Trail (no. 1555) towards Icicle Road.
The next few miles are trekked in the dark, guided by the light of my headlamp. I can hear Icicle Creek somewhere below me, and the faint glow of headlights on the road glimmer occasionally through the trees. I reach the trailhead sometime before midnight, and there’s no better place to make camp. I pitch my shelter in a stand of trees, and sit at a picnic table where I eat the remainder of my food. Tomorrow, I’ll head into Leavenworth to resupply, and then finish up my grand tour through the Enchantments.
Day 4: Regathering & Resupply
I pass a front country campground in the early morning on my way out from the trailhead to the road, and my timing seems perfect; a man in a pickup truck is leaving his camp and offers me ride into town. I graciously accept, and hop in the back, and he drives me to the Snow Lakes Trailhead where my car is waiting for me. In town, I resupply for my strenuous 18 mile push through the Enchantments. My trip up into this magical basin will have to wait until tomorrow, though, as one needs an entire day to comfortably complete it. I arrange for the hiker shuttle to pick me up from the Snow Lake Trailhead the following morning, and then park my car up Icicle Road to camp.
I have some creature comforts to get me through the evening; mainly a huge sandwich, a bag of chips and some beer. I reorganize my pack for the next day, removing all the big gear to make way for just food and water. Once the sun disappears behind the Stuart Range, it gets quite cold, and I cozy up onto the platform bed in my car.
Day 5: Into the Enchantments
The hiker shuttle picks me up from the Snow Lake Trailhead at 6:00 am sharp, and I’m feeling more than ready to complete this little route I’ve had the pleasure of hiking. By the time I arrive at the trailhead, it’s already jam packed with cars; July is prime time for the Enchantments. I quickly fill out a day permit and begin the ascent up to Colchuck Lake; the trail isn’t too crowded yet in comparison to the amount of people lingering in the parking area.
The trail up to Colchuck is heavily used, therefore clear and wide all the way up to the Lake. One can see why this hike is so popular with the day use crowd: Colchuck lake is a deep shade of blue, and is flanked by two lofty peaks, Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks. In the Fall, this place becomes even more fairy tale-like when the larches turn a lovely golden color.
In between Colchuck and Dragontail peaks, is the narrow gap known as Aasgard Pass, which is pretty infamous to those who come this way. In just under a mile, you scramble up to Aasgard, gaining 2000 feet in elevation. Along the way you’ll likely encounter mountain goats, not to mention the stunning views of the Stuart Range.
The scree on my way up Aasgard is loose, and I’m sucking wind as I go. What a thigh burner! A mountain goat eyes me while chewing his cud; I can feel him judging my climbing skills. “You’re not doing it right, dumb human.”
There’s several people in front of me, so I keep a good distance in case they dislodge a rock. I’d really rather not take a stone to the head. Then the goats would really have reason to judge me.
When I get up and over the pass, there’s a frigid wind whipping across the basin. I duck under a large boulder to get out of the wind chill, and to rest my legs a bit and refuel with a snack. Another goat saunters by, but pays me no attention.
The previously overcast sky clears a bit, but the sunshine doesn’t help much to warm things up. I get to moving again, bundled up against the wind and ready to tour the Enchantments. The names of the lakes through here invoke feelings of being transported to another realm, where dragons guard mountain lairs, and mystical beasts roam freely:
First up, is Tranquil and Isolation Lakes, in which the route passes along a narrow strip of land in between the two. From there, I follow the drainage down into the basin of some of the smaller pools. The terrain is teetering somewhere in between sub-alpine meadow to alpine tundra, with glaciers coming down the slopes of the mountainsides and kissing the shores of the lakes. Everything is low growing, with the exception of the larch trees, of course, but they too are a tad stunted in growth.
The route dips suddenly near a waterfall, which empties into Inspiration and then Perfection Lakes. It’s along Sprite Lake that I pause for a bit to take my lunch break. There isn’t much wind here, but the trail is busy with hikers. I warm myself in the sun and filter some water, trying to absorb my surroundings. I want the beauty of this place to stay with me forever. I’m nearly done with the Core now, and there’s a long knee-creaking descent ahead.
Lake Viviane marks the last tarn before the drop down towards Snow Lakes. I cross the drainage from Viviane, which is flowing rapidly and then drops suddenly off of a sheer cliff; there’s no room for error here, and the crossing is just a bunch of skinny tree limbs grouped together to resemble a foot bridge. The route crosses several outcroppings that are marked with cairns to show you the way, but it’s easy to miss them as I’m staring off at the grand views.
It’s a dramatic descent, following alongside the drainage from Lake Viviane to Snow Lake. My sore knee is feeling the full effects of the steep trail, and once I reach Snow Lake, I’m ready for another break. I polish off my remaining chocolate and licorice ropes, and dip my knee into the cold water of the lake. It’s considerably warmer at this elevation, and when the opportunity to wade across the masonry spillway presents itself, I’m happy to get my somewhat swollen feet wet.
By early evening I reach the last lake on this jaunt, Nada Lake, and just thinking of the last 5 miles left in the day are making me exhausted. The trail winds downwards in a tedious way, that has me wondering just why in the hell I’m not at the trailhead yet. It’s one long switchback after another, on dusty, dry trail through the Snow Creek Canyon. A wildfire ripped through here several years prior, taking all the shade with it. How does one go from freezing temperatures to desert-like conditions over the course of only a few thousand feet elevation?
By the time I get back to my car, I realize I’ve actually made pretty good time. There’s still plenty of daylight, which means there’s still a lot of time to order and then devour a whole pizza, which is exactly what I do.
This route was TOUGH. In the days following my completion of these connecting trails, I had this nagging feeling that I had somehow failed. This was in large part due to my knee injury and needing to deviate from my original itinerary. I also hadn’t packed enough food to see me through, and this was because I was blissfully unaware of just how much mileage I’d actually be doing (it’s difficult to tell by just looking at a paper map), as well as just how difficult the terrain would be.
So, having said that, was it a failure? Now that I’ve had time to process it, no, I don’t think so. Lessons were learned along the way, that’s for certain, and I’m looking forward to someday hiking my ‘purist’ itinerary. Is it really an adventure if you don’t learn and grow from it?
Here’s what I learned along the way:
- This route, if I keep my mileage up, will take 5 whole days, at least.
- Knowing bail out options is a very good thing, especially when the unexpected happens (injury).
- Pack extra food!
Other things to keep in mind:
- Route finding skills are a must. GPS was essential in finding my way; I use a Garmin Mini. I also packed my paper map.
- If you can’t make it through the Enchantments in a single day, you’ll need a permit to camp overnight. This means entering the permit lottery in February and hoping for the best.
- I hiked around 20 miles per day, so if you need more time, you’ll need to plan accordingly (pack more food, gear, etc).
I don’t expect this to be an insanely popular route, and I don’t think I’m the first to think of it by any means. But I do hope that it inspires somebody, anybody, to explore the areas close to home. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a beautiful place, not too far from the urban sprawl of Seattle. So if you live in the Pacific Northwest, I encourage you to check it out.
Also, I beg those that do visit, to please take good care of the area. Follow Leave No Trace principles, including packing out all your trash, following campfire regulations, and using the backcountry toilets when you can. If you need to cathole your waste, make sure to go at least 200 feet from the trail and any water, and pack out your toilet paper.