One the recommendation of Caley (how also lent me his topographical maps), I decided to do an overnight hike in the Alpine Lake Wilderness of Washington State. The ALW is located in the central Cascade range and is part of the Cle Elum Ranger District. The general area is accessible from a series of forest road off exit 54 of I-90. I decided to go lightweight for this hike since its been a while since I’ve done an overnight and figured I could use this outing as a warm up.
My total gear weight (including food and 3 liters of water) was 24 pounds. I opted for a convertible poncho/tarp instead of a tent since the weather looked dry and mild. I did throw in my single person bug net sleeper because I hate being pestered by flying nuisances at night and while I will use it while hiking, I don’t particularly like falling asleep to Eau du Deet™.
UPDATE: Replace full sized images in the gallery with some smaller, more bandwidth friendly versions.
The recommended trail was #1332 which links a series of mountain lakes together including (in order) Lake Margaret, Twin Lakes, Lake Laura and Lake Lillian. Lake Lillian was the furthest on this particular route, recommended and most likely to be more secluded according to all accounts.
From Exit 54, “Gold Creek Road” (which does not exist according to Google Maps) turns into Forest Road (FR) #4832 which meanders alongside I-90 before turning into a the ALW. Shortly thereafter, it “creatively” intersects with FR #136, but resist the urge to turn here even though it feels like its heading in the right direction. Continue south on FR 4832, until you can turn left on FR 4934. There will be a parking lot on your left with a drop-box.
At this point it might be tempting to take the apparent trail head at the far end of the lot but that is NOT trail #1332. I did anyway, because I’m always curious about unmarked trails and I needed an excuse to let the party that arrived just before me get underway so that I wouldn’t be hiking on their shirt tales. If you’re curious, the trail in question snakes around the lower rim of the valley wall and eventually peters out (as best I can tell) in an avalanche chute. I then returned to the parking area and set off in earnest.
From the parking area, you hang a left and go about 100 yards where a gravel trail leads through a yellow gate. This is apparently an approach trail of some sort and continues for about ½ mile before you see the actual start of trail #1332. It isn’t marked as such, but some helpful soul has scratched “Lake Margaret” into the generic “Thou Shall Not” sign the NFS always seems to have a good supply of. This portion of the hike was dusty and surprisingly sunny so I was glad to get into the light underbrush.
This section of the hike is through second growth, so cover is light at best. The incline isn’t super steep, but it is relentless enough to wear you down. Occasionally a chipmunk would dart across the path at blinding speed, going about whatever it is that fills a chipmunk’s day. I gave up trying to photograph them as they’re far too wired and wary.
You emerge from the second-growth portion the trail onto what appears to be an intersection with an old logging or mining road. Directly across this intersection is the next segment of the trail. The forest here is older and darker. The soil is thick and hollow sounding beneath your feet as opposed to the dry, dusty soil of the lower trail. Hemlocks and firs form the canopy and it is several degrees cooler as much of the sunlight is obscured by their branches. A series of long, gentle switchbacks slowly elevates you to a flat area and the trail widens where the spur down to Lake Margaret connects on your right. Up to this point, I’d encountered several people on their way to Lake Margaret for a day hike.
I stopped for lunch before continuing on what appeared to be a level trail towards Lake Lillian. Making simple veggie fajitas isn’t apparently a common occurrence on this trail or else people were hoping I was opening a stand as I got some peculiar stares.
Returning to the trail, I found that its personality changes quickly after Lake Margaret; a steepening descent that you’ll feel in you calves and thighs. Portions of this section are lined with low but generous Huckleberry bushes. Here I came across the only other people I would see from this point on, a pair of women collecting said berries and trying to find a lost set of glasses. Their enthusiasm for foraging went a long way towards easing my doubts about being able to correctly identify the berry… look, we didn’t have huckleberries in the southeastern US and I’ve got this hesitance about a horrible, frothing death in the back country.
Eventually this segment of the trail bottoms out in a valley of sorts which is home to a couple of small lakes (more like ponds). They seem seasonal as I could see several water lines both and beneath the current surface. The area was quite verdant and there were abundant signs of animals in the form of tracks along the shoreline. Pretty confident one was a bear track (5-toe imprint instead of a dog/cat’s 4-toe and, well, it’s really big), but you judge from the picture.
This valley gives way to another ascent, this time in full earnest. From this point, the trail decides that topology be damned, it’s doing where it wants. It alternately decided to cross right through boulder fields from avalanches, while at other times, taking you down the ridge, around them and back up again. The map doesn’t do this section credit. The only amusing part here is the comic relief of chipmunks hiding among the rubble occasionally “barking” at your intrusion and the small rock cairns other hikers have left behind to encourage and direct you onward. I munched on a snack while taking all this in. A couple of small birds joined me with expectant looks. Of course, a handout on my part was forthcoming.
After several rounds of this terrain, the trail relaxes and Lake Laura comes into view on your left, signaling that Lake Lillian is just ahead.
The trail effectively terminates in a small, (currently) dry gap in the southwest corner of the lake valley. I was instantly rewarded for my patience with a stunning view of its surface and just minutes later a Bald Eagle swooped down striking at the water. Ok, it was totally worth it.
Hiking around the lake is a bit of a challenge. On either side, steep rock walls seem to discourage it. To both east and west are hints of a trail, but the eastern one seems to peter out, so I tried the western one. A combination of hiking and bouldering is necessary to use this route. There are points where you will have to scramble up rock surfaces, duck/dodge dense vegetation and, in my case, put chest to rock wall and shuffle sideways. There are sections of legitimate trail, however, and each comes out on past camp sites, including one with a pinnacle view down on Lake Laura below. I choose to continue on to a small clearing in the northwest corner of the lake with good access to the water’s edge and reasonable cover from the wind which was cooling off and picking up a bit.
From here, I could see a peculiar shadow on the north wall of the valley. It appeared symmetrical and I took some photos with the zoom feature. Apparently there is an abandoned mine up there, but I’ll have to see if it’s accessible from this route or another, some other time.
I had plenty of daylight hours left, so I ditched my pack and just took in the scenery, eventually deciding to make my little camp. This trip, I went with a ground cloth, sleeping bag, liner and bug net but kept my poncho/tarp close at hand in case the weather changed.
For diner I cooked tortellini with tomato pesto and salmon and had a vodka sour (I have NO idea how THAT got in my pack, grin). Pulled out and finished the last few chapters of Scarlet Pimpernel, crossing one more “classic” off my to-do list. I had a bit of difficulty hanging my food bag as the trees in this area have short, dense branches that snagged the line repeatedly and made it hard to hang the bag a good distance from the tree’s trunk.
As the sun got lower on the horizon and the temperature dropped a bit. Nothing truly chilly, but I was glad I brought along a light jacket in my pack. The occasional wisp of a cloud would flow and tumble over the southern wall of the valley. It was really something to watch and I can only hope the photos do the effect justice. I considered building a campfire in the stone ring near my area, but it seemed a bit indulgent for just me and instead laid back and watched the sun sink.
I apparently nodded off because when I woke the area was flooded with bright moonlight. Rather beautiful and I enjoyed it for a while before bedding down in earnest against the dropping temperature. I woke up a few hours later (I rarely sleep the whole night through when camping) to see that the moon had set and now the stars were brilliantly visible against the night sky. I had also noticed that between dew and the occasional valley level cloud, a lot of moisture had started to build up. I set up my tarp/poncho hoping to ward off some of it off till morning.
Woke up again to a snarl and a growl (mine), apparently brought on by a strange dream about raccoon-crocodiles coming out the lake. Not sure what to make of that one, probably anxiety about the bad job hanging the food bag.
Woke up around 6:30am with the sky brightening and rolled myself out of bed. The dew had done a number on the lower part of my sleeping bag but not enough to wake me up or chill me feet. My pack was a bit moist, but nothing serious. If I come back, I’d probably bring a lightweight, single wall tent just as a precaution though.
Breakfast was a large cup of coffee, some Fig Newtons that had escaped my snacking attention yesterday and Oatmeal (with huckleberries collected from the surrounding bushes). I’d had huckleberries once before in a restaurant with Pip, but nothing compared to these fresh off the plant and I’d find myself foraging a few here and there on the hike back out.
Although my snug sleeping bag had resulted in a bit of stiffness, I had no problem getting going other than lingering over the scenery as I circle back along the valley wall trail. With a better sense of terrain and distance, I was less grumpy about the trail on the hike back. It probably helps that it’s a lot more downhill on the return hike as well. :-)
Not surprisingly, I didn’t pass anyone on the way back till well after the Lake Margaret spur and even then, it was a trail runner…. Huff-puff, feel the burner, grunt “hello”. Hey, whatever works for you chief.
I was back on the gravel approach trail before I started encountering other hikers, all out for a short day hike to Lake Margaret, though as I was loading my car, I did chat briefly with some German tourists who planned to just see how far they could go. I offered my modest observations and wished them the best, recommending the huckleberries though I’m not sure what they made of that advice.
Round Trip: 10 miles
Gain/Loss: 3800’ feet (5200’ high point)