Rachel Lake, Rampart Ridge/Rampart Lakes, and an Alta Mountain Recon Trip

Looking up the ridge at a bump along the ridge to Alta

Looking up the ridge at a bump along the ridge to Alta

Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory. That’s a phrase I try to live by on solo hikes. Yes, most of the time if I get up, I can get down, but I try to take everything into consideration. How tired will I be if I get to the top? Will conditions change? Will it take me just as long to downclimb this, or can I glissade and get back more quickly? If I’m tired at the top, will this be dangerous to climb back down? This ended up being a bit of a motto for this hike. Hiked 4/30/2015.

In addition, I don’t know what to do with all of these hours of daylight. The sun is already setting later than anywhere I have ever lived, and when I’m out hiking, I have this inherent need to take up every hour of sunshine and I’m finding that harder and harder to do! This means I will either need to a) take more breaks b) take longer breaks c) get more in shape and go farther. I like the last option, because with this ambitious hike, it was potential tiredness that made me head back earlier than necessary. But, I got way more done than I expected, which is pretty neat. And some great recon for the area that so many people have been asking about over the past week or two.

The west side of Alta's ridge. I made it to the point on the far right, true summit is on the left.

The west side of Alta’s ridge, viewed from Rampart Lakes. I made it to the point on the far right, true summit is on the left.

  • Distance: 11.3 miles (Rachel Lake trail up to Rampart Ridge, halfway up Alta, back to the edge of Rampart Lakes)
  • Elevation: 3508ft gain, 5900 highest point (Alta’s true summit is just over 6100)
  • Weather: 60’s and sunny
  • Commute from Seattle: 1:30 (4 hours on the way back since a few cars thought it would be a good idea to crash on the i90 bridge and trap everyone)
  • Did I Trip: I slipped in mud once. I got complacent on the way down from Rachel Lake since the hard part was over.
Sunlight caught in a waterfall

Sunlight caught in a waterfall

View from a meadow

View from a meadow

We’ll start with Rachel Lake. I expected snow on the road because of the last few trip reports, but it was just about all melted by the time I got there, and the patch that remained could be skirted. I parked at the huge, empty trailhead (smirking to myself, last time I was here I was well on my way to being very late for work so I got butt naked and changed right there in the parking lot) and hit the trail.

Mossy creek bed

Mossy creek bed

I actually forgot how beautiful this trail is. It alternates between forests, fields with views of Hibox (and pussywillows! I never thought about where they grow wild), waterfalls, and mossy creek beds. Even if you’re just going to Rachel Lake, it’s a gorgeous trip. The trail is flat for a little more than 2.5 miles, and then starts to gain elevation pretty quickly just past where the boot path to Hibox leads away from the trail.

The best game: where's the trail? (answer in text)

The best game: where’s the trail? (answer in text)

The trail becomes very rocky and rooted, and doesn’t always look like a trail. It’s always there, you just need to keep an eye out for it and pay attention to switchbacks. That pic to the right has the trail on the right hand side, up and over all of those roots just past the rocks. Sneaky switchback, really. Back in October, a little birdy told me the way at one point. It landed on a branch and chirped and flew off down the trail when I was confused. Thanks, little guy! This time around, I was more familiar with the area.

The trail was mostly snow free besides a few patches until about a quarter mile from the lake. When you see the “campfires not permitted at Rachel Lake” sign (something like that) you’re close, and that’s where the trail disappears into snow. Right now, there are footprints in most of the snow to follow. You’re slightly east of the lake at this point, so head straight west and you’ll hit it.

Rachel Lake

Rachel Lake

The lake is starting to melt out, which will be gorgeous if the snow lingers a little longer because it’s a very light blue lake. There are a few areas to camp, though much of it is still covered in snow. To gain the ridge, head to the right around the north side of the lake. In the summer, there is a bootpath to follow, but this time of year, choose your own adventure.

Looking down on Rachel Lake from Snack Rock

Looking down on Rachel Lake from Snack Rock

There were some old prints that I stuck with until the ridge, where they headed up some steep snow and I chose to aim for the closest rocky area and scramble up to the ridge instead. I had postholed thigh deep – the snow caught me, my foot was just dangling in thin air, and figured I’d rather take my chances on rocks instead of snow.

It was a short scramble to the ridge, and I popped up next to an outcropping of rock that became my base camp of sorts. I dubbed it “Snack Rock.” It looked out over the whole valley with Rachel Lake to the right, so I set up and had my first snack break. I was planning on Rampart Lakes, but I was so damn close to Alta and it wasn’t even noon yet, so I couldn’t resist checking it out. After my run there last fall, I have a thing for Alta Mountain. Off I went.

Looking back at my footsteps on the way back from Alta

Looking back at my footsteps on the way back from Alta

There were a few footprints to follow along the ridge at first, winding through trees along the flat section. I followed them up the first knoll, crossing snow fields and bare rocky patches. After about a half mile from Snack Rock, the footprints disappeared. I saw some heading to Lila Lake down below, so perhaps that’s where they went. I carried on along the ridge. I swapped poles for ice axe when the ridge became narrow and the drop off became steep. Snow conditions were still good at this point, even my steps weren’t triggering pinwheels. But it was warm and the sun was shining directly on the slopes, and I knew it wouldn’t last. I didn’t stop to take photos in any of these areas. Quick, focused moving was key.

Lila Lake and Alta tarns down below

Lila Lake and Alta tarns down below

Looking ahead of me, I saw what I thought was the summit of Alta. Could it be?! Heavily corniced, it already looked sketchy, but I saw a scramble route along the dry west side of the ridge that I could take. The cornice I was looking at was bigger than me, looming over the east side of the ridge, looking down on a steep avalanche slope. I have no idea how I forgot to get a picture. No chance I was crossing that. Getting up to the dry side of the peak, I saw that I was still about a mile from Alta’s true summit. Maybe with some friends and a huge pair of balls I could have scrambled along the dry side to get around the cornice and carry along down the ridge.

The

The “nice side” of the ridge. Cornice is on the right out of frame.

Or with friends, balls, and an alpine start, the snow slopes would have been fair game. But the snow was softening quickly, steeper slopes had snow sloughing already and my steps were starting to trigger pinwheels. Nope, not soloing any of that. I was anxious enough to get back across the avalanche slopes I had crossed just to get here. Okay, I’m out. I turned around and headed back along the ridge.

Rainier

Rainier

The ridge is still stunning. Covered in snow, Rainier looming behind Rampart Lakes in the distance, and god dammit I realized you could see i90. I hate seeing highways. I blocked it from my mind and focused on the peaks in the other 320 degrees around me. And oh, Rampart Lakes! I finally knew where they were. I had assumed they were on the other side of the high peaks of the ridge, but they were just beneath them on the northwest side. Perfect. Descending to Snack Rock went quickly, and I stopped there to take a second break and debate returning, or going to Rampart Lakes.

Looking back along the ridge from the knoll

Looking back along the ridge from the knoll

Looking out at the northwesternmost Rampart Lakes

Looking out at the northwesternmost Rampart Lakes

For those of you who know me, it’s no surprise I ended up going to Rampart Lakes. Again, I had all day, and was about to start a 12-day streak at work, so I had to get my fill of wilderness. There were no footprints leading over to the lakes, so I blazed trail following the flat ridge until I got to some frozen, snow-covered lakes. There was a river running through the middle that was starting to melt out. I hiked past the first few tarns, and took a break on a rock overlooking the river. It reminded me of Gothic Basin, but with darker rock and more trees.

Small river going through Rampart Lakes

Small river going through Rampart Lakes

Knowing I had to get down that sleep talus slope was weighing on my mind. I wanted to be feeling physically pretty good when I had to head down, and crossing the river to get to the rest of Rampart Lakes looked more complicated than I wanted to deal with since I could either downclimb a steep snow slope and walk up the other side or walk around until I found a less steep option. I decided to head back. The lakes were all frozen, so I can’t imagine I would have had any groundbreaking discoveries out there. I took a slightly easier route back to Snack Rock (at one point on the way there I was bushwacking through trees and underbrush when snow would have been easier) and took one final break.

An Eve shaped space!

An Eve shaped space!

Like I said, getting up is optional. But you can’t avoid getting down. I looked down the slope I had come up, took a deep breath, and started down. Shockingly I didn’t need to crab-walk any of it like I expected. Halfway down, I breathed a sigh of relief realizing it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had made it out to be in my head. No, stop, don’t get complacent! I focused on every step. Finally back on snow, I stepped carefully, wary of my earlier posthole. I skirted that area, but no luck – I postholed chest deep. Okay, that’s not a posthole, that’s just falling into a boulder well. One foot landed on rock, I threw my arms out across the snow, and the other foot dangled in space. I spread my poles across the snow and managed to pull myself out, leaving an Eve-shaped space looking into darkness. Naturally I snapped a pic and continued on my merry way.

Tree over a quiet section of river

Tree over a quiet section of river

I followed my own steps back to the trail. No one else had come up even to the lake, mine were the only fresh prints. It’s too bad, because this is such a beautiful hike, and the lake is pretty accessible right now. Strava map can be found here. As far as gear goes, nothing special needed to get to the lake, maybe a map if you want to play it safe. Up on the ridge, Rampart Lakes was straightforward, but heading over to Alta you’ll want an ice axe. Never touched microspikes or crampons, though if you plan on summitting Alta, you’ll want to make more traditional mountaineering plans.

I will say, this hike is especially gorgeous in fall. As cool as it was yesterday, I couldn’t help but think back to all the fall foliage along the ridge in October. If you aren’t a fan of snow hikes, check it out in the early fall when the leaves are turning. Here’s my blog post from the fall, when I was still crappy at photography and writing. I will say, it’s definitely my favorite trail run so far. How can you walk along that ridge and not want to run it? I have to bring a buddy back there to get running pics next time.

The ridge back in early October

The ridge back in early October

Mount Washington

Views from Mt. Washington

Views from Mt. Washington

I had to come back down to earth eventually, and this hike was a “normal” hike. That doesn’t mean it lacked views by any means, rather, it was a section of i90 I’ve actually never really looked at before. So despite being a 45 minute drive from Seattle, it was territory I hadn’t seen besides peeking out the window driving down the highway. Let’s see how many peaks I can remember.

  • Distance: 8.5 miles round trip (Strava said 9.4)
  • Elevation: 3250ft gain, 4400ft highest point
  • Weather: 40’s and sunny
  • Commute from Seattle: 45 minutes
  • Did I Trip: No

Fresh snow along i90! We knew it after driving through the Snoqualmie Blizzard (slight exaggeration, but flakes of snow might as well be a blizzard when I haven’t seen it in months) the day before on our way to Navaho Peak. The trailhead for Mt. Washington is right off the highway. This used to be a relief, now I’m a little bummed when I don’t get to take crappy dirt roads.

Waterfall shower along the trail

Waterfall shower along the trail

I forgot my discovery pass like a champ, so we parked just before the actual permit area and hiked about .1 mile to the actual trailhead. The trail is steep for about 500ft and then joins up with the John Wayne Trail, a wide open road-like trail. One you’ve reached that, you will pass two small trails heading off into the woods on the left. The second tiny trail is the one you’re looking for. We weren’t positive about even being on the right trail at first, but we figured what the hell, we’ll get to the top of something and figure out what it actually is later.

Slushy trail

Slushy trail

The trail winds through the forest, crossing a few small creeks and waterfalls. Snow started low, maybe around 2000ft. It was slushy. For anyone who hasn’t hiked in slush, it’s like running in sand. Ugh. The trail is easy to follow even when covered for the most part, though there were more than enough boot prints to follow if you’re ever worried. No microspikes necessary, but I did appreciate the grip on my La Sportiva Synthesis that I was raving about a few posts ago.

Rattlesnake Ledge

Rattlesnake Ledge

Sneak peeks of views came through the trees – Rattlesnake Ledge, Mailbox, Si. In the pic to the left, you can just barely make out Rattlesnake Ledge – that rocky outcropping on the left. It was cloudy when we started, but the clouds lifted as we went along, and rather than be socked in by clouds at the top, we actually had views in every direction.

Tarn on the way up

Tarn on the way up

The party that got there before us said they could only see a few feet in front of them at the top, so we lucked out with timing. The last ridge up to the summit looks over Chester Morse Lake, which supplies the Puget Sound area with water.

Mailbox Peak on the left

Mailbox Peak on the left

From the top, you can see Mailbox Peak, Mt. Si, Mt. Teneriffe, Chance Peak, and I’m sure on a clear day, plenty of others. It was the first time I had a visual of what the beginning of hte i90 corridor looked like – I didn’t even realize that the Snoqualmie River fork meant several ridge lines, I had always just assumed there were two: one on either side of i90. Turns out, Mt. Si and Teneriffe are along a completely separate ridge from Mailbox Peak, the infamously steep hike that seems to be a rite of passage for trail runners out here. Confession: I haven’t done it yet.

Looking back along the final ridge

Looking back along the final ridge

Geocache on the ground, summit register in the tree

Geocache on the ground, summit register in the tree

Once we reached the top, there were two areas to sit. On the actual summit in the sun (and wind) or in a clump of trees in the shade (no wind). I chose sun, but Kyle went to check out the shade. And found a summit register! Hidden in a length of PVC pipe stuck in a tree. And buried in the snow was an official Geocache… box. I’ve actually never seen on up close before, though I’m pretty sure there’s one beneath the boardwalk at Lake TwentyTwo if you head left when you reach the lake. I saw that one. Nothing too exciting inside this one, except someone’s credit card. I hadn’t brought anything neat to leave, so we just closed it up and put it back. But I have to wonder how many of these I’ve passed on hikes and just never noticed. I bet there are tons up here.

If you look very closely you can see places to clip in dangling on the right

If you look very closely you can see places to clip in dangling on the right

Sitting at the summit, I realized how tired I was. It felt like it had taken forever to get there, and now we had to get all the way down. And quickly – I was aiming to be back in time for the Furious 7 premiere. I had work at 8am the next morning, and a pre-movie nap was in order. After downing some easter m&m’s, we packed our stuff back up and were on our way. We did notice a rock climbing area that we completely missed on the way up – perfect for sport climbing. Apparently there are a bunch of places to climb in the area, but since I’ve never tried it, none are on my radar. Here’s a pic on the right of the climbing area. I’m assuming the signs for “Great Wall” along the trail are directing hikers to another good rock climb. Good to know for when I decide to give it a shot.

Strava map of Mt. Washington

Strava map of Mt. Washington

Overall, a very straightforward trail that’s a great introduction to the North Bend i90 area if you don’t want to deal with the crowds on Si and Mailbox. Almost no avalanche danger whatsoever since it’s mostly through trees, but you still get a nice view at the top. Apparently you can even see Rainier on a clear day. Strava map here. Also, a few hikers lost their car keys on the trail! We saw a sign written in snow that said “KEYS!” in bright red (no idea how they did that, it wasn’t just red juice) followed by “PARKING LOT” (I think). Safe to say someone dropped their keys and another hiker found them, and according to the trip report on WTA later that night, that’s exactly what happened. Hikers out here are great. By now, I’ve had car keys returned, snowshoes taken (kindly – they thought they were doing us a favor), food shared, directions shared, a dog leash returned, teamed up with random hikers to get farther than I would solo, someone even left a note on my buddy Jonathan’s car when she thought we might have left his GoPro on a rock at Heather Lake. We were just taking a timelapse, but still. Someone give me a chance to pass it forward, dammit!

Navaho Peak (yes, with an H)

View of Stuart from along the ridge

View of Stuart from along the ridge

After a ridiculous day at Lake Ingalls two days prior, I was on my way back to the Teanaway region again on 4/1/2015 – Wednesday morning. It’s like I’ve discovered a secret beautiful area that’s always sunny with amazing views. Don’t tell anyone. There’s something special about going for a hike and knowing you’re the only people for miles. Anyway, Navaho Peak ended up being far more doable than I expected after seeing the Ingalls basin, and damn, did those views take my breath away.

  • Distance: 12 miles round trip (12.3 for us)
  • Elevation: 4200ft gain, 7220 highest point
  • Weather: 50’s and sunny at the bottom, freaking cold and windy at the top (maybe low 30’s?)
  • Commute from Seattle: 2:15, longer if you get stuck in Snoqualmie Blizzard
Dusted trail in the beginning

Dusted trail in the beginning

Snoqualmie Pass was the hardest part of the drive. Heavy snow, limited visibility, and trucks using their chains. It felt like playing frogger, except in a car, and more stressful. I wasn’t driving. I just resigned myself to my fate that maybe it was my time and Ingalls was just a good way to end my hiking career on a good note. The weird part? It made me a little homesick for the east coast. Yeah, that’s what I miss. Spinning my wheels on hill starts because there was 6 inches of snow on the ground and tire chains were unheard of. Or that one time a BMW in Chicago spun into a snow bank as I smirked behind him. Don’t worry, I helped dig him out, I’m nice. But we made it, thanks to Kyle, and about 5 miles from our exit, the skies started to clear. The light at the end of the tunnel! Yes!

Looking up at Navaho and a small avalanche/slide area (before pic, see after pic below)

Looking up ay a small avalanche/slide area (before pic, see after pic below)

The road to the trailhead was a piece of cake. A few potholes, but nothing too rutted, no washouts, no snow or ice patches besides a light dusting of fresh snow twinkling in the sun. Gorgeous. We got started right away and followed the summer trail for the first 2 miles, stopping to take pictures along the river. Little Navaho and Navaho were both covered in snow, but it didn’t look deep. I started to think this might not be as tricky as I expected. Hell, it was already easier than Lake Ingalls. And the first few miles of the trail are pretty much flat.

Almost at the ridge, Earl in the background

Almost at the ridge, Earl in the background

We did lose the trail at one point. I blame the fresh snow. We went off trail for a bit aiming for Navaho Pass (more on this later) and eventually ran into the trail as it started to switchback up the slope. It went in and out of snowy patches, and we finally lost it for good about two miles from the top. At that point, we just started trekking straight up the snow to the ridge. Steep, but snow conditions were fantastic. Far less concerning than the conditions getting to Lake Ingalls. Fully consolidated, no slushy layer, just nice firm snow with a bit of powder on top. A few of my buddies put on microspikes, I found that kicking steps was more than enough.

Stuart with wispy clouds

Stuart with wispy clouds

Earl grew smaller and smaller as we got higher and higher, and finally we gained the ridge. Boom. Stuart! From the other side! Damn, the Stuart range is photogenic. We were still in a sparsely forested area, so trees occasionally got in the way, but the views were unbelievable. Just don’t look back towards i90. It’s still nice, but it’s a highway. Looking at the snow covered peaks makes you feel like a bad ass in the middle of the wilderness. And I bet Earl doesn’t look half as good once all of the snow has melted.

Heading along the ridge to the summit

Heading along the ridge to the summit, Earl again

We turned right to head up towards the true summit. Behind us was Earl, to the left was Ingalls (in the clouds), Stuart, Sherpa, Argonaut, Colchuck, Dragontail, Little Annapurna, and McClellan Peak. Straight ahead was Navaho, and beyond that, Little Navaho. Snow conditions were still great, and staying to the right of the trees blocked some of the wind that was whipping around us. It was steep going, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re somewhere that beautiful, you want to stop every 20 feet to get pictures of everything. The peaks, the ridge behind you, the valley, every step is amazing. Or maybe that was just our excuse to take breaks, you’ll never know.

Panorama looking northwest from the peak

Panorama looking northwest from the peak

Finally we came out of the trees, and the summit was just above us. Hey guys! I found the trail! I laughed running up the last clear 15 feet to the rocky summit. What I didn’t realize is that Three Brothers was right beyond where we were. I didn’t even get a picture! How did I miss?! We snapped pictures of everyone at the top, until I couldn’t feel my fingers or feet anymore. Dammit. Three socks isn’t enough, apparently. We trekked back down the ridge a ways until we found a spot secluded from the wind by a cluster of trees (but in the sun!) and settled down there for snacks. I had a valiant attempt at getting a time-lapse, but my camera fell over just as clouds brushed the peak of Stuart. Because I don’t have a tripod. I prop it up on a rock or two and hope for the best. The plebeian photographer. But here’s what I got, a slightly less exciting version of what I saw.

Stuart range from the peak of Navaho

Stuart range from the peak of Navaho

Stuart is one dramatic peak. The dark stone (all granite, I was told) contrasts amazingly with the snow, and it just looks so sharp from this angle. I’ll climb that someday.

Glissading down

Glissading down

After making sure everyone knew how to self arrest, we glissaded most of the way down. That made the trip back down the ridge much easier than the way up. And glissading is a blast. It’s like sledding for adults. I’d recommend bringing microspikes and an axe, though I never felt like I would be relying on the axe at any point like I did occasionally at Ingalls. It was just a fun tool to steer and brake when glissading.

"after" pic - no snow left on the lower peaks!

“after” pic – no snow left on the lower peaks! Taken from next to the huge log in the “before” pic

We followed our own steps down from the ridge, and eventually met up with the summer trail again, which we followed all the way to the parking lot. The snow had mostly melted, leaving the trail dry and sunny. An entirely different day. Oh, and it turned out our “off-trail navigation” around miles 2-3 was a hilarious 15-30ft from the trail at any given point. Oops.

Strava Map of Navaho Peak trail

Strava Map of Navaho Peak trail

I’m too lucky. Two spectacular hikes in a row. I came back down to earth on Thursday – it had to happen eventually. Here’s to hoping the snow will stick around just a little bit longer, or I’ll be forced to chase it up high.

Here’s a strava map if you’d like to see where we went. I imagine we left a pretty good boot path between the five of us. Highly recommend checking it out now if you have the chance. I’m a newbie out here and don’t know how long those peaks will be snow capped. All I know is that the title picture on the WTA trip page doesn’t do it justice. It’s an incredible horizon to look across. And knowing that the enchantments (allegedly the best hikes in the entire state) are on the other side is intriguing. It’s like a secret within a secret, blocked by peaks on all sides. I’d love to do those in shoulder season with some snow someday.

Mount Defiance (and Mason Lake on the way)

It’s official, folks: I am the proud owner of a new (well, 9 year old) Nissan Xterra! Watch out Cascades, there’s a new bright yellow gas guzzling beast in your midst with an impatient Bostonian behind the wheel. Except you can’t tell anymore, because I got Washington plates. I’ll admit, I’m a little bummed. Now I have no excuse when I do something stupid. Instead of “oh, they’re from Boston, of course they suck at driving” it’ll be “oh, there goes a jerk in an outrageous car.”

McClellan Butte lit up by some brief sun

McClellan Butte lit up by some brief sun (anyone know what peak is to the left?)

Anyway, it’s time to hit the trails again. Yesterday’s endeavor was originally going to be lakes Talapus and Ollalie, but driving out to i90 views were actually decent. Overcast, but you could see much of the Cascade range, so we regrouped and decided to attempt Mt. Defiance. Being an ambitious idiot, I thought it was 10 miles, and figured it couldn’t be too steep since it was just past Mason Lake. This will be important later. Spoiler alert: it’s 11 miles, and I’m dumb. And this morning my legs were sore. That’s rare.

  • Distance: 11 miles
  • Elevation: 3584ft gain, 5500 highest point
  • Weather: Sunny, rainy, snowy and 30’s-40’s (aka everything besides wind)
  • Commute from Seattle: 1 hour
  • Did I Trip: Yes. So did Lee. Turns out we’re kind of clumsy.

We pulled off the highway to drive down to the Mason Lake/Ira Spring trailhead. The road gets worse every time. Last month I had a Subaru struggle to clear the potholes going 5mph. This time… 10 inches of clearance. Four wheel drive. Mud tires. Great suspension. I had a blast. I can’t imagine Lee was very comfortable bouncing around in the passenger seat while I bombed through puddles. I didn’t make Lee get out to take a picture, but next time. There were a few other cars at the trailhead (curious, as we only ran into one other person – the rest must have been camping), and before we knew it, we were on the way. I figured we had about 4 hours tops, if I wanted time to get back and shower before I had to work at 3.

Sunlight got our hopes up

Sunlight got our hopes up

Snow covered Mason Lake

Snow covered Mason Lake

Beginning of the trail is just as it was a few weeks ago when I hiked with Dave to Mason Lake. The creek that was tricky to cross in February was much lower now, and we could just rock hop across. Trail isn’t too steep until the wide old logging road ends, and then it starts getting steeper. I passed those old steel cables again, and still have to wonder what the hell they were used for. I was told a few months back on McClellan that there used to be lights for airplanes on Catherine, McClellan, and Bandera peaks, so that’s my best guess. It’s just a few scrappy remnants at this point, so I might never find out. I’m a dork, guys, I like finding the history behind certain trails and areas.

We were at Mason Lake within an hour and a half. I knew we had to push the pace if we wanted to make it to Defiance without making me be late to work. Remember when I’d wake up at 5 to go hike and be back for work at 2? And how I’d consistently underestimate the time it’d take me to complete a hike? Yeah, that’s happening again.

Summit of Defiance visible from the Mason Lake trail

Summit of Defiance visible from the Mason Lake trail

I briefly considered heading to Bandera at the trail junction, but was feeling a little lazy and didn’t want to tackle that last mile. So we headed to the lake, with the hope of reaching Defiance. No views of Rainier at this point, but still clear so far! Mason Lake was actually spectacular. Half melted, but with a light dusting of snow all over the logs and surrounding rocks, the lake was a respectable destination in itself, and one that I would have been happy to repeat.

Sneak peek of views before cloud level dropped

Sneak peek of views before cloud level dropped

We kept moving, and met up with the main trail, which was signed right at the lake. Following that for a few minutes, we came to a sign pointing to the Defiance trail (or Mason Lake, or Pratt Lake, or Thompson Lake) and took off towards the peak. The trail had become covered in a light dusting of snow, and we plugged along. We had a few sneak peeks of views, but nothing too open. Soon it was actually snowing, and I started to wonder if we’d even have views by the time we got to the top.

Lee traversing the meadows below Defiance

Lee traversing the meadows below Defiance

By the way, the last two miles to the peak are steep! I underestimated it, and it was a wake up call for my buns and thighs. I’ll trail run it someday (besides the steepest parts) because it’s close to Seattle and a good distance for a morning run. And it has long flat sections. Which, of course, mean short very steep sections. But you know what? We were in a winter freaking wonderland. I don’t think either of us had seen snow since December. It was amazing. There were just a few inches, not enough for spikes, but poles were nice.

Mason Lake and Little Mason Lake down below

Mason Lake and Little Mason Lake down below

We broke out along the meadows about a half mile from the top of Defiance, and despite the clouds dropping lower and lower, were impressed by the scenery. We could just barely make out Mason Lake (and Little Mason Lake, I believe) in the background.

Lee looking tiny down below

Lee looking tiny down below

When the steep section of trail started, I left Lee behind for a few minutes to see how quickly I could get to the top. We figured it’d be socked in by clouds so it wouldn’t be worth bringing all our gear and trudging up there, especially since we were short on time.

Lee tries to catch snowflakes on her tongue

Lee tries to catch snowflakes on her tongue

We were correct. Nothing but a wall of white, which was disappointing because I was hoping to see the topography and lakes Mason and Kulla Kulla laid out beneath me. But we’ll just have to go back another time. I ran back down the trail to meet Lee, and we headed back to Mason Lake. On the way down, it started snowing even harder, all the way down to 3500ft, maybe further. It brought out our inner Bostonian snow-loving joy (or maybe just hiker’s high? Like runner’s high? Damn endorphins) and we stopped in amazement for a bit to try and catch flakes. Soon afterwards, the snow turned to rain (of course) and we speed-hiked the rest of the way. Made it back to the car in just under 5 hours round trip, and just enough time for me to drop Lee off, grab a change of clothes, and go straight to work. Shh, don’t tell my coworkers.

Strava map and link here. Turned around along the ridge before the true summit since Lee was waiting below and there weren’t going to be views at the top anyway. Next time!

Strava map

Strava map

It’s great having the hiking freedom again. With spring coming up, there’s going to be so much to do, and this is why I moved out here. I packed up my bags and drove out here to be surrounded by mountains, not for a job, or for friends, or for the hipster flannel beanie coffee lover vibe. Mountains. Hiking, climbing, trail running. Let’s do it.

EDIT: Just found out that they’re considering logging the bottom of this trailhead, as well as a few others in the area. The old logging road that this trail follows at first will be re-opened as just that. It will affect Talapus and Ollalie, Granite Mountain, Pratt Lake, McClellan Butte, and a few others. All close, popular, accessible hikes. Bummer. I was too late to give input, but hopefully they’ll decide to at least avoid the trail areas. I just moved out here, give me a few more seasons before moving in the loggers!

Mason Lake

After two weeks of no hikes for the first time since September, I’m finally back on track – at least temporarily. A friend is visiting from Chicago, I have a rental car for the week, five days off, and that means… hikes! Dave’s plane landed around noon on Wednesday, and I can’t put into words how happy I was driving a freshly rented car down i5 for the first time in weeks. Back to routine: day off, hop in the car, get to the trails. After a quick lunch we were headed out to Mason Lake/Bandera Mountain. We got to the trailhead in mid-afternoon, and I didn’t think we’d have time for Bandera, but I figured we’d make a decision at the junction depending on how long we took to get there. If the title of this post wasn’t a big enough spoiler alert, we ended up doing Mason Lake.

  • Distance: 6.5 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 2400ft gain, 4300 highest point
  • Weather: 40’s and cloudy
  • Commute from Seattle: an hour
  • Did I Trip: yes
Mason Lake from the outlet stream

Mason Lake from the outlet stream

I hadn’t been back to this trailhead since October, when I hiked Bandera. I didn’t expect it to be accessible in February, but that can be said for a lot of the hikes this winter. We brought along microspikes just in case, but didn’t expect much snow. I got my rental Subaru down the potholed road (lower clearance than my old Accord, somehow), and started out around 2:30.

River crossing

River crossing

This is a well maintained, straightforward trail. Crossing the river was fun since someone had placed a few branches across it, complete with a tall one to use as a railing instead of rock-hopping. Eventually the wide trail narrows and steepens, and it starts to feel like a real hike and less like an old road. Views open up at the first switchback, and I started to realize how much I already take this for granted. While I was whining about hearing i90, Dave was taking pictures in every direction. Despite being cloudy, we could see half of Rainier, and most of the peaks in the i90 corridor. We could even see back to Seattle, which I don’t think I noticed last time. I must have been too busy looking at Rainier.

Back along the trail towards Rainier

Looking back along the trail towards Rainier

We got to the junction of Bandera and Mason Lake after about an hour, glanced up at the steepness of the Bandera trail, and headed towards Mason Lake. I had never done Mason Lake, so that’s what I was hoping for anyway – perfect! Finally, a new hike. You continue across a slope facing i90, which I’m sure is a gorgeous meadow in spring and summer but in winter was just barren, brown grasses and rocks. Just before entering the woods again, there’s a small boulder field to the left of the trail. We stopped there to take a few pictures and scramble around, and found the Ira Spring memorial plaque, which was a neat surprise.

Greener than the entire state of Illinois right now

Greener than the entire state of Illinois right now

Continuing into the woods, I had another “holy shit it’s so green” moment surrounded by trees and moss. Like I said, Dave’s coming from Chicago, which is freezing and barren right now, and was basically happy to hike in a t shirt since this might as well be summer compared to where he was 24 hours earlier. Even crossing the exposed slope, there wasn’t much wind.

Cracks in the ice along Mason Lake

Cracks in the ice along Mason Lake

In fact, the windiest area was by far the lake, which we reached shortly after the trail junction. Mason Lake was mostly frozen over, with a few cracks running through the thawing ice. It’s crazy to think that just a few weeks ago, a couple guys camped out on top of the frozen lake. We crossed the outlet stream and followed the “lower trail” to the side of the lake to get some pictures from boulders on the shore. The “main trail” is the trail that connects many of the lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I remember being excited when I realized Pratt was connected to Talapus and Ollalie and Rainbow and Island and even Melakwa which was connected to Tuskohatchie… well throw Mason into that mix with a few others, because the trails all interconnect. I’ll backpack that route somehow, and then scurry up Defiance to see as many as I can see.

Couldn't resist

Couldn’t resist

We turned around a little before 4:30 after taking a short break at the lake, and it was perfect timing. The way down went much more quickly, and we got back to the trailhead in just over an hour. Perfect timing, because the “hint of sun” that was peeking through the clouds had finally set. I’d say Dave had a pretty solid first few hours in the state of Washington. Even if it’s a six mile round trip off i90, there’s plenty out here that you just don’t get back in Illinois. I remember the first time I saw Rainier on a hike, I was running up Kendall Katwalk on a hike and glanced behind me after leaving the forest and seeing Rainier peaking out and absolutely losing my mind.

 Here’s a quick map of the hike on Strava if you want to see the trail and topography. No surprises there, we never left the trail. Overall, great quick hike, and one of the few popular ones off i90 that I hadn’t checked out yet!

Screenshot of the map

Screenshot of the map