So many things this year haven’t gone according to plan – mostly thanks to our good friend COVID-19. Without a coordinated national response, unfortunately we’re still trying to find a new sense of normalcy. The pandemic forced us to postpone our PNW wedding, rethink just about every part of our lives, and made meeting a bunch of friends in a new city damn near impossible (although, hi new friends, we’re grateful for you!) One thing I’m trying to focus on is the opportunity we have to explore here, even in the middle of a pandemic. Despite all the challenges 2020 threw our way, we decided to spend the majority of our summer beside icy blue lakes and below towering granite mountains in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
There’s not much to say about this magical swath of land in Washington between Route 2 and I-90 that hasn’t already been said, but once these two PA-natives got a taste of the alpine grandeur last year, we were hooked. I spent all winter researching and making a long list of hikes to tackle in 2020. Since the trails were closed due to COVID at the start of the season, we started out with a few easy overnights once they reopened , and eventually worked our way up to the longest hike we’ve done to date. (Despite my attempts to stay in shape over the winter, the best way to train for a hike is getting out there week after week with a 30lb pack).
A few of these hikes are fairly “insta-famous,” so we were anything but alone on our treks, but I don’t mind a bit of camaraderie as long as folks follow LNT. Sometimes complete solitude is all you need, but after spending all week working from home, a few days with other people who enjoy the outdoors as much as we do was a nice reprieve. I’ll never forget the sound of a ukulele ringing up from the valley while we basked in golden hour above Thunder Mountain Lakes… You can’t get that atmosphere without a little company 🙂
Next year, I think we both agree that while we can’t ignore it completely, we want to venture beyond this area a bit more. There truly is so much to see in the PNW we’ll never even get close to experiencing it all. Who knows what life will bring so we might as well soak in as much variety as we can! Even though we didn’t make it to all the big hitters this year (wildfires cut our season a few weeks shorter), I’m pretty damn grateful for the chance to enjoy this beautiful place. Already dreaming about a few gems at the top of my list for next year!
2020 Overnights in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Jade and Pea Soup Lakes
Walking up to these lakes felt a bit like seeing a celebrity for the first time – there are just SO many photos that it’s pretty surreal to see them with your own eyes. After some hand-wringing at Marmot Lake about whether or not we should hike up the pass to Jade on a holiday weekend, we decided to go for it. It’s a TREK to get all the way to Jade in one day, especially with a pack, and because it’s very popular these days, you run a real risk of not finding a designated camp site. Thankfully, it worked out in our favor. Overall our fellow hikers were great and we made a few new friends! If you end up trying this overnight yourselves, please please please camp only in designated areas (hard, packed dirt and not alpine meadows) and pack out your trash! Pro-tip: there’s better water access by No Name Lake and you’re still only a couple minutes from Jade!
Thunder Mountain Lakes
Choosing a favorite hike feels a bit like picking a favorite child, but…yeah this one might be it. Still somewhat under the radar compared to Jade Lake and The Enchantments, easy water access, stunning views, and a secret camp spot that we’re definitely going for next time. We arrived at the lake by noon and within a few hours, the place was full of other overnighters but it didn’t feel anywhere as crowded as Jade. Please note that this hike has a pretty sketchy section after crossing the PCT, so if you’re not a fan of heights, this may not be for you.
What can we say about this absolute dream of a place that won’t sound like hyperbole? We managed to snag an overnight permit through the online lottery instead of waiting in person at the Ranger Station 3 hours from Seattle (for the first and only time, I can say “thanks COVID”). For 3 days, we wandered through alpine meadows, beside sparkling lakes that matched the sky, and across rocky moonscapes. We also endured the windiest nights of camping I’ve ever experienced (which made me realize my knock-off sleeping bag was NOT going to cut it anymore) and had a few mental breakdowns on the hike down Aasgard Pass and through the teeming crowds at Colchuck Lake. Even the most amazing hikes aren’t all rainbows and butterflies, but you won’t hear about that side of hiking on Instagram 😉 Note: People really underestimate this one – we saw two Search and Rescue helicopters on missions during our 3-day trip. It might be popular, but it is no joke so plan ahead and carry the 10 Essentials.
Big Heart Lake
We spent the weekend with a friend and his pup, who ended up sniffing out the most amazing hidden campsite to date. With absolutely perfect conditions, we soaked up sunset and sunrise with our jaws on the ground, and in typical summer-in-the-alpine-lakes fashion, enjoyed our meals under a mosquito net. Our site didn’t have good water access at all, but that was easily solved by a trek down to Big Heart before dinner.
Mason Lake & Mt Defiance
We celebrated our 4 year anniversary with a bear sighting in the field below the summit of Mt Defiance. Definitely a great little gem in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and perfect for an early season overnight! We shared the lakeside with a few families camping with kids and plenty of dayhikers, but overall it was perfectly peaceful for something so close to I-90. Next time, we’ll bring something to float on the lake and take advantage of the relatively short hike in. Pro-tip: Bring bear spray and make some noise as you enjoy this spot!
We’re definitely adding this hike to our list for when friends and family come to town. It’s a quick sprint to the lake with a pretty decent reward! As our first backpacking trip of the season, we wanted something easy and pleasant to get our feet back under us. It ended up being absolutely freezing that night and I decided I needed a sleeping bag upgrade FAST. The faux down bag left me shivering despite wearing every piece of clothing I brought along. It ended up taking us until the end of the season to finally commit to splurging, but at least we’ll have a more comfortable start to the 2021 overnight season 🙂
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