Pacific Crest Trail

Trail No. 2000

Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass

JULY 25 - 31, 2009  I've wanted to hike this section of the PCT since I did a WTA work party on in it in 2007, so I was excited last fall when my backpacking friend from the Midwest agreed to join me.  We decided on the last week of July, not knowing then that it would be the hottest week of 2009.  While temperatures in Seattle soared as high as 103, temperatures in the mountains were not far behind.

This was the most ambitious hike I've ever done, and every day on the trail brought new challenges.   My pack was heavy, the heat was blistering, the bugs were blood-thirsty predators, thunderstorms swept into the mountains every afternoon, there were bridges out and a smoldering wildfire right on the PCT near Lemah Creek, and I took a dunking in the swift stream crossing that rushes down the flanks of Mt. Daniel.  It was a challenge to stay hydrated in the intense heat, and on two days I drank all of my water before we reached the next water source.  I have never been so dirty in my life; indeed, there are no words in the English language that are strong enough to accurately describe how dirty I was or how bad I smelled.  The true measure of civilization, I realized, is soap, and thoughts of a shower consumed my thoughts. 

Each day presented new wonders, too, and I lost count of the number of times I stopped in awe of my surroundings and said "This is why I hike."  There were wildflowers, hikes along ridges, unusual rock formations, views of majestic mountains, and we spent time swimming in cold alpine lakes the color of precious gems almost every day.  One thing I hadn't counted on was the trail camaraderie.  There were northbound PCT through-hikers and section hikers, as well as several southbound section hikers, and we got to know several people if not by name, at least by destination and hometown.  We shared campsites and lunch spots with some of these people and on our last day on the trail, Molly, Tina and Nils left a message in the snow for us:  "Hi, Mary and Jan!" 

We read the stories of the animals in the trails and at the lakes, where their tracks and scat told who had been there.  Deer, mountain goats, and cougars left their calling cards in the dust and mud, and everywhere we hiked we heard the alarm calls of pikas and marmots.  The marmots sang every morning just before 5:00 a.m. for about 10 minutes; I could have set my watch by their whistles. 

And every day, the incomparable Mt. Stuart lurked off in the distance like a jealous lover, vying for my attention:  "Here I am, Mary!  Look at me!  Remember that you love me best." 

The trail statistics vary widely from guide book to guide book, from map to map: 

Approximately 75 miles

Approximately 16,000' elevation gain

Day 1 - Stevens Pass to Hope Lake   The PCT climbs through the Stevens Pass ski area, crests a ridge, then drops down to pretty Lake Susan Jane before it climbs again to a spot above beautiful Lake Josephine.  Here we met a man who was section hiking the PCT with his wife, but she had had enough of the rough conditions coming through the Goat Rocks Wilderness and was taking a break from the trail.  The bugs were thick, and even though the day was warm, he had donned his rain gear as part of his defense against the bugs.  He carried with him a bug zapper, and when we left him, he was waging battle with the mosquitoes.  Our goal was to camp at Trap Lake the first night, so we continued on our way.  The first of many storm systems moved in as we climbed to the ridge, and it began to rain as we descended to Mig Lake.  By the time we reached pretty little Hope Lake, ominous storm clouds were building, and we were faced with the choice of stopping for the night at Hope Lake--at 2:30 in the afternoon--or continuing up to Trap Lake in the face of uncertain weather.  In the first of our trail decisions, we chose the conservative option and set up camp while it was still dry.  Storms swept in and out of the area all night, and I heard animals moving about on the trail, which was only a few feet below our campsite, all night. 
Day 2 - Hope Lake to Deception Lakes   In the morning the mosquitoes were fierce, and we hurried through breakfast, broke camp, and were on our way.  We stopped for a break at a great campsite above beautiful Trap Lake, where the bugs were not so bad, before we began our descent into the Surprise Lake and Glacier Lake basin.  Two ultralight section hikers were heading up and issued a warning we heard repeated often over the course of our first 3 days on the trail:  Avoid Deep Lake at all costs.  The mosquitoes were reportedly the worst anyone could remember ever seeing.  We headed up Pieper Pass as another storm was building in the distance; dark clouds towered and rumbled all around us, but it did not storm where we passed through.  At Pieper Pass we were treated to the amazing views of Mt. Daniel and Cathedral Rock.  All the campsites were claimed when we reached the first of the Deception Lakes, so we shared a large spot with one young man whom we would meet again on the trail the next day.  At night the sound of something moving quietly through our campsite woke me, and in the morning there were fresh cougar tracks in our campsite.  I woke to the sound of marmots whistling just before 5:00 a.m., and this became a pattern that was so reliable I could have set my watch by it:  the marmots began singing every morning just before 5:00 for about 10 minutes. 
Day 3 - Deception Lakes to Cathedral Pass  We wanted to cross Swift Creek, which rushes off the flanks of Mt. Daniel, early in the morning, so broke camp early.  We met up with the young man from our campsite at the first stream crossing, which was just a short boulder hop.  We watched in amazement as he hopped the boulders across Swift Creek without getting his feet wet, but the last hop was a big one.  We were able to hop across the first braid easily, before coming face to face with the rushing waters of the main stream.  There were three or four pools to our right which looked calm but deep, and another pool almost directly in front of us that looked shallower but swift.  Jan crossed through the thigh-high 3rd pool without incident, but I took a dunking in it.  A safe passage was found through the shallower pool, which was not as swift as it looked at first glance, and we sat for a while on the banks at the far side of the stream to dry out my gear.   The trail to Cathedral Pass is a long slog through thick brush, and by mid-morning it was hot and steamy.  The climb to Cathedral Pass seems to never end, and every time you think you have arrived at the pass, the trail continues to climb.  A missed turn took us on an unplanned hike along a ridge for almost a mile.  It was Jan's first ridge run, and although I love the ridges, this unplanned excursion on on scorching hot day drained the last of my energy.  We retreated to a dry camp at the pass. 
Day 4 - Cathedral Pass to Spade Creek   The hike down to Deep Lake was uneventful, but we neglected to refill our nearly depleted water supplies at the creek when we forded it.  The day was blistering hot as we hiked to Waptus Lake, so it was an inopportune time to be low on water.  Huckleberries were juicy and sweet, but I longed for water.  We refilled at the first stream we came to on the Spinola Creek Trail, and it was the best water I had  ever tasted.  We stopped for a long break at Waptus Lake for a refreshing and very welcome swim before continuing on.  Once again, the storm clouds began to build at mid-day, and we were once again faced with the decision to stop early so we could camp low or to head up to Escondido Ridge in the face of a building storm.  Once again, we decided conservatively, and we tucked ourselves into a cozy campsite near Spade Creek.  The storm was brief but fierce, and we saw one flash of lightening that was followed quickly by thunder.   This day started the most scenic portion of our hike, with the views becoming grander the farther south we hiked. 
Day 5 - Spade Creek to Lemah Creek   We were on the trail early for the climb up Escondido Ridge.  It was a hot day, but the views were generous.  We stopped at a cool tarn on the ridge, which became the watering hole for several groups of people we had encountered over the previous few days.  In addition to Nils, Molly & Tina and the woman from Santa Barbara and her friend from Seattle, we met two instructors who were leading a group of teenaged boys into the wilderness.  They were part of the Boys Outdoor Leadership Development program (B.O.L.D.).  They were heading up to camp at Summit Chief Lake, where they would teach the boys ice ax self-arrest and other climbing skills before they attempted a summit of Summit Chief.  The boys seized the opportunity to play in a snow field near the tarn before they headed on their way.  Dropping down from the ridge, the trail goes through a silver forest, another first for Jan, with generous views of Lemah Mountain, Chimney Rock, Summit Chief and other rugged peaks.  I had done trail work on this portion of the trail in 2007, and it was fun to see some of the work I had done--especially a water bar and stepping stones--were still in place.  We passed a US Forest Service crew on the way down, and when we reached Lemah Creek, all the campsites were occupied by the Forest Service.  We shared a large campsite with a ranger who was there to monitor a fire that was smoldering on the PCT between Lemah Creek and Spectacle Lake. 
Day 6 - Lemah Creek to Park Lakes   We expected to have to detour on this section of the trail, both because of the smoldering wildfire and a bridge that was washed out, but the ranger was allowing hikers to pass through on the main trail.  We got a firsthand look into how the US Forest Service manages fires, and although there was a bridge that was completely washed out, it was not too difficult to cross.  It was a long slog up past Spectacle Lake, but the views in this area are among the finest anywhere.  I was struggling in the heat, so we hiked straight to Park Lakes without stopping.  We set up camp around lunch time, took a short swim, then retreated from the bugs to our tents for an unheard of nap break.  It was our most leisurely day on the trail.  A group of people we had been leapfrogging with for the past few days, Tina, Nils and Molly, appeared a few hours later; they had stopped off at Spectacle Lake for a refreshing swim. 
Day 7 - Park Lakes to Snoqualmie Pass  Our final day on the trail was our longest day.  The weather was clear for this last day, but the sun was intense and there is very little shade as you traverse Chickamin Ridge.  Much of the trail goes through talus fields, which were baking in the sun and very hard on the feet, even through sturdy boots.  The views are northing short of amazing, though, and we saw a funny little marmot just a few feet off the trail.  He was plagued by the same bugs we were, and he sat there studying us for several long minutes before he dove back into his burrow.  We spent time swimming at Ridge Lake, where we parted ways with Molly, Tina and Nils for the last time.  As we hiked past a snow field just below the Kendall Katwalk, we found a note they left for us in the snow:  "Hi, Mary and Jan!"  I heard later that they reached Snoqualmie Pass about an hour before we did.  From our terminus at Snoqualmie Pass, I drove Jan back up to Stevens Pass to pick up her car.  We got there around midnight, and I camped out in the back of my car for a few hours before heading home.  It was, once again, a conservative decision, and I was glad I did it.  There was a fatal crash on Highway 522 around the time I would have been driving through.