Memorial Day weekend we went on a backpacking trip with our friend up in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I have been craving to get up into the mountains, and have been waiting patiently for the snow to melt since we do not have spikes or snow gear (yet). Thankfully, Snoqualmie Lake was snow-free and high on my list of places that I wanted us to go.
We spent three beautiful days in the backcountry. This trip was not without its challenges, but I think that is one of the reasons why I valued the experience beyond my inherent love of being in nature. Through struggle and discomfort can come some of the most important lessons, opportunities, and experiences.
Location: Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Length: 18 miles roundtrip
Elevation net gain: 1900 ft
Permits: Northwest forest parking pass for parking lot
Starting pack weight (estimated):
- – Pat at 20-25 lbs
- – Hannah at ~15 lbs
- – Nicco at 50-60 lbs
Day 1: 9 Miles
We arrived at the trailhead and it was packed. While this trail is usually pretty quiet, I didn’t factor in the holiday weekend. We almost weren’t able to find a parking space, which would’ve sent us back across a pothole-filled bridge to find parking at the Middle Fork campground. Luckily, we found a spot, packed up, and set off.
The first 6-7 miles of the trail were gentle, with some loose gravel/rocks and stream crossings the only major things to contend with. The trail gradually sloped uphill, but contained no real elevation gain — we discovered that it was saved for the last ~2 miles into the lake valley.
The crowds petered out after we got to Otter Falls, which had a few big stream crossings before it. These were doable without getting our feet too wet, but with higher water it would’ve been sketchy. I was thankful for my hiking pole throughout the trip, but especially during the crossings.
We knew there was the possibility of rain throughout the entire weekend. What we didn’t anticipate was the downpour that occurred all day (and night) as we hiked in. I also discovered that my rain jacket was no longer water resistant despite treating it with Rain X…oops!
Pat and I like to set a nice pace when we backpack. I built the trip itinerary around our pacing and how many miles I know we can do in a day. Originally, we were going to hike to Snoqualmie Lake the first night, and continue on to Bear Lake and Deer Lake the next day to set up camp, and then maybe extend it with a day hike to Dorothy Lake in the afternoon, before hiking all the way out on day 3. However, our plans quickly changed during the first day as we hiked in.
Our friend Nicco hurt his leg and so our pace changed to work around the situation. It was late enough in the day that hiking out would’ve been difficult — everything was soaking wet, and I felt nervous about doing stream crossings in the dark. As a team, we decided to push on to Snoqualmie Lake since we were under 2 miles away, in the last big gain of elevation. At this point, we had slowed to almost a mile in a little over an hour because of the injury. Our muscles were tightening up during the frequent stops, but beyond that we were getting cold from the constant rain and wind. An added concern was getting a campsite since it was a holiday weekend. Around 5:30 PM some hikers we passed told us there was just one spot left at the mouth of the valley. This presented us with a problem because if there wasn’t a site we would have to turn back until we reached one of the spots we passed earlier in the day, which was straight down the slick valley we were climbing out of.
The number one rule in the outdoors is that no one gets left behind. You stick together, no matter what. While I firmly hold this rule in my heart, I realized that sometimes rules have to be bent. As a team, we decided our top priority was to secure a campsite so that we could get warm, fed, and rest Nicco’s leg. We estimated that there was another 45 minutes to an hour climbing up the valley wall at the pace we were going, and so someone needed to be sent ahead to get the last site. I volunteered to go, since Pat had the most experience to handle anything that could’ve happened. It wasn’t ideal, but sometimes situations arise that force you to adapt. I hiked ahead, leaving Pat and Nicco to follow up behind me.
I hiked as fast as I could over the slippery ground, jogging when possible. I had the lightest pack out of everyone and I was on a mission. At times the trail went straight up a stream, with cairns dotting the stream in the distance as guidance. Sheer rock walls rose to my left, with mist and rain swirling around, and wildflowers nodded in the wind. It made me smile — despite the challenges we were facing there was so much beauty around us. The challenges almost seemed to intensify it. Wading up the stream, I remembered reading somewhere that the ‘only way out is through.’
I felt relief when, rounding the corner next to the river bellowing over rocks and downed logs, I saw the empty campsite and then the lake peeking through the trees. Shortly afterwards, a group that was soaked left their larger site to hike out, and I snagged it.
That night we focused on getting warm and dry. Pat and Nicco started a fire and we fed damp twigs and punky wood into it. I realized how much I missed sitting in front of a fire; the last few summers were relatively free from fires because of burn bans.
After a long, cold and wet day, it was easy to imagine hiking out the next morning, especially since we weren’t sure how Nicco’s leg would be. What if it rained like this all weekend? How long would it take to hike out? What if we went back to town and just hung out and went to our favorite cidery? That would be fun and we could come back out the next weekend instead. I felt torn – I didn’t want to leave but I could feel my resolve weakening. We decided to see how we felt in the morning and what the weather would be like.
Day 2: 0 day
Rest day! Our second day dawned clear and cold. We ate breakfast and I experimented with making bullet coffee with a Starbucks Via and some coconut oil and ghee that I had packed in. I’m still working on it.
After breakfast we made the decision to stay through the morning and see what the weather did. I am so glad we made this decision because the rest of the day was wonderful. We explored the lake, hiking out around the eastern end and investigating the lakeshore. We also moved camp, down from the windy cliff to a spot right on the lake with a giant rock that we spent the majority of the day on. I called it our lizard rock.
The sun peeked out from behind clouds throughout the day, and we loved it up, stretched out on the rock. It felt so good to sunbathe and dry out. I took the opportunity to dry out my socks, gators, and shoes (which smelled atrocious, sorry guys) in the warm sun.
It was an interesting experience to take a rest day at the lake. As we sat on the rock, enjoying the sun, I started thinking about the rarity of doing absolutely nothing. When was the last time I did nothing? I couldn’t think of it. In my free time I am usually up to something, and even in periods of rest I like to read, knit, cook things, stare vacantly into my phone, etc. While I could’ve been doing something ‘productive’ like gathering firewood or filtering water, it felt really good to just be at total rest. Nothing to do but lay in the sun and watch it sparkle and dance on the lake’s waves. Nowhere to go, nothing to be.
Day 3: 9 miles
It was so hard to leave the lake. The good weather held all day and night, and the morning was clear and beautiful. We had heard that there might be thunderstorms during the day, so we wanted to get on the trail early.
After filtering water and getting packed up, we spent a little more time on the rock, admiring the sun climbing over the valley walls and spreading across the lake. Then, a major treasure happened — we saw a loon! It was so beautiful. Pat has a pair of ultralight binoculars, and it was a real treat to watch the loon through them.
The hike out went well. Nicco’s leg was much better after the rest day, and we distributed some of his pack weight between the three of us. I told Pat that I was weight training for our future longer hikes.
I still hope to come back and complete the four lake circuit. I value the experiences we had during this trip, and especially the gift of the rest day and also the chance to lean into discomfort and come out the other side.