If Oregon weather is anything like Seattle, then I’m sure folks are experiencing a change in temperature and precipitation as of late. It wasn’t until last week, Friday the 12th, that the Seattle area finally had an overcast day. Our Indian Summer, like last year, has been great. We’ve been rollin’ with the top down for 3 months straight! Need I say more about the wild fires?
But now Fall has finally set in. Along with the “Living Lanterns” and pumpkins for sale at the grocery stores, the leaves are also changing. Indoors, we can get out the soup recipes, the apple cider, and, of course, watch the baseball playoffs! But when we’re not loungin’ on the couch, I suggest getting outdoors to see Fall at work! There are many wilderness hikes that can take you on a stroll through multi-colored woods, past roaring waterfalls, and along the shores of pristine lakes skirted by snow-capped mountains!
After being prompted from several articles featuring the “Best Hikes to Catch Fall Colors” on the Washington Trails Association web page, I decided to plan a trip of my own. Even if that meant doubling up on a hike I had already done this summer — the wilderness superhighway that is Snow Lake!
Snow Lake is a popular hike (app. 25,000 visitors/season), about 40 minutes outside of Seattle, and it features a large alpine lake in the wilderness, rising snow-capped mountains, and a trail that winds around the edges. I planned accordingly and waited approximately 2 weeks into October, watching the leaves ever-so-closely as each day passed. My friends were jilted a bit, as some of them couldn’t go as I postponed the hike 1 week due to “not enough fall color.” In my estimation, it was worth the wait, but I’m sure anyone watching closely might disagree. A new, far-too-familiar weather pattern moved into the area the day before our planned voyage — rain, and more rain. Still, in spite of soggy sweats, numb hands and all, October 13th was a good day.
This rainy, foggy Saturday morning, my friends and I met at a neighborhood park-and-ride, and carpooled to the Snow Lake trailhead near the Alpental Ski Area in Snoqualmie Pass. The plan was to hike to Snow Lake, and then continue on to Gem Lake which is about 2 miles further up the trail — this was where we would really catch the fall colors! The hike was set to be about 10 miles total. The only other time I had done 10 miles was up in Alaska when I hiked along the ridge of a mountain range overlooking Cooper Landing. This was a bit different.
Instead of wildflowers galore, mountain goats, and barren mountain tops, this hike featured fireweed gone to cotton, rocky slopes, evergreen trees, alpine lakes, red, orange, yellow, and more red! Even upon approaching the trailhead, my friends and I could tell that we were in for a real treat as we saw the hillside sprayed with what seemed like fire. The colors were absolutely brilliant!
When you first get to the trail, know that if you don’t have a Northwest Forest Pass, you will have to pay a facility/trail/parking fee of $5. My friend even had the Discover Pass, but it was no good here. Know that the two passes are a bit different.
The trail started off very green as the well-cared for path turned and winded through the forest. There were several places where on a clear day you would be able to see great views of the Snoqualmie Pass wilderness and surrounding mountainsides, but the morning fog kept our thoughts and heads on trail. Here we saw some yellows, colorful rocks in the trail, and what seemed like a meteor explosion as we trekked through and moved up in elevation.
Eventually we reached the “summit” (4,400 ft), and began a set of switchbacks down to Snow Lake. At this point (around 10 a.m.), the fog was still covering most of the lake, and the great views one typically gets were clouded. I was disappointed for my companions but still hoped for the best as we neared the shore. Upon getting closer, I was very happy! The lake was quiet and peaceful, and fully decorated with fall color. I even made the comment that I liked it better this time than my last visit earlier in the summer.
We quickly continued on around the lake towards Gem Lake. If you ever plan a trip to Snow Lake, I suggest taking the main trail all around the lake. The views are completely worth it, and I was floored with the scenery. It is so incredibly beautiful. My last trip I was satisfied to reach just the lake, but this time, I realized how large the lake truly is, and was so grateful that the path to Gem Lake revealed this to us.
We continued on past rock ledges, over bridges, dams, waterfalls, and some of the greatest fall foliage I’ve ever seen! Snow Lake disappeared and reappeared numerous times along the high-rising trail. A lot of the most colorful leaves came from low shrubs, and possibly blueberry and huckleberry bushes that had gone red. It was truly brilliant! There was also green meadows and marshland that we passed through on stone pathways, and trees that only could’ve fell by a strike of lighting, or one, really big bear!
Although we might have missed the trail once or twice, we followed other small trails that had been carved back to the main trailhead. We were accompanied by one other group of hikers on their way to the neighboring lakes as well. A little ways past the meadow we came upon a large rock field that we forged through, and after one more ascent we reached Gem Lake (4,800 ft).
There are many lookout points along the lake, though we didn’t explore them all, as one of us had to make it back for the USC/Washington football game. We did, however, soak in the remote majesty of the lake, and watch as the fog quickly descended and cleared above the water’s surface.
Not many wildflowers were seen on this trek, though as we approached the shore-side trail of Snow Lake on return, I spotted a late-season, lone strand of Beargrass that I’d been wanting to see all summer. It is a beautiful flower!
The rain was intermittent during the descent, though spirits remained high. Upon reaching our car, we shook off and made our way back to the city.