Labor Day weekend presents an odd combination of an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, we have a long three day weekend to go adventuring in. On the other, so does everybody else. We knew that no matter where we went or what we planned it would be busier than normal. Looking for a hike for the weekend was made easy using Craig Romano’s Backpacking Washington guidebook. This is by far my favorite guidebook we own. It is easily navigable through handy charts at the beginning of the book. One of my favorite places in the world is The Northern Cascades and we knew that was where we wanted to spend our weekend. However, much of the Northern Cascades is in North Cascades National Park, causing difficulties in finding a good overnight trip that is also dog friendly.
I chose Snowy Lakes because of the Moderate rating it was given in the book. We were looking for a fun weekend that wasn’t too challenging and this hike seemed to fit the bill perfectly. At 20.2 miles and only 3550 feet in elevation gain we knew we would be challenged but could also spend plenty of time relaxing. Not to mention that this hike is along an incredibly well maintained stock-grade trail that makes the elevation gain easier because of the steady incline we would be welcomed with.
We set off Friday afternoon and began the long drive (around 4 hours) to the trailhead. We stopped in Marblemount, the last town for 70 miles before entering the North Cascades Scenic Byway. There is an old caboose next to one of two gas stations in the town that has been turned into a BBQ joint. We have been wanting to stop there since our first trip, but it is only open seasonally and this was the first opportunity we’ve had to eat there! We entered the caboose and were warmly greeted by the woman running the place all by herself. We ordered and went back outside to the picnic table we had tied Latigo up to before going in. After a very short wait she delivered our food to us outside and had even brought Latigo a plate of burned brisket to enjoy. We don’t usually feed Latigo people food but I couldn’t turn her down after such a generous gesture. Latigo definitely ate very well that night! We supped on the delicious BBQ and were amazed by the quality, it was truly delicious!
We continued onward and were soon driving along our favorite section of the North Cascades Scenic Byway as the incredibly beautiful North Cascades flew by around us! The drive along this road proved to be pretty adventurous! We passed numerous spots where rockslides had had the highway shut down for a few days a couple of weeks ago, we drove through smoke as we crossed Ross Lake from a nearby small forest fire, we saw several deer along the side of the road, and were doing our best to let those who felt the need to drive at scary speeds along these curvy mountain roads pass us safely, all this while the sun slowly set around us.
By the time we reached the trailhead at Rainy Pass it was dark. There were three tents set up in a small flat area near the trailhead but there wasn’t much room for an additional tent. According to the guidebook the first campsite along the trail wasn’t until 4.5 miles in. It was just about 9:00 p.m. and it was chilly. We didn’t fancy hiking in the dark on an unknown trail with no guarantee that the campsites would be empty and available to us. We decided to sleep in the back of the Explorer for the night. We laid down the seats, inflated our sleeping pads, rolled out the sleeping bags and settled in for what would be a pretty poor night’s sleep. It was cold, colder then expected and nobody slept well. I was up at 5:00 a.m. and was ready to go. I tried my best to keep sleeping but it didn’t work. at 5:30 I got everybody up and we decided to hit the trail.
We munched on chocolate waxy doughnuts as we packed up our gear and made ourselves ready for the trail.
We decided to start hiking and that we would stop after a ways and cook some hot breakfast for ourselves along the trail. As we set out, the temperature was in the low 40s and the glow of dawn was all around us.
The first section of the trail is in the forest with rare and fantastical glimpses of the mountain ranges around us. After less than a mile we crossed over a spur of Granite Creek and Latigo greedily drank from the cold waters. About a half mile further up the trail we came to a spectacular viewpoint that proved to be a perfect place to stop and cook up some oatmeal. We sat on an outcropping of rocks and ate the warm meal while watching the sun’s light continue to creep in from the east and shine down upon the mountain ranges in front of us.
We continued the steady climb up. The trailhead is located at 4800 feet and our highpoint of the day would be at 6900 feet. Because of our early start we had this portion of the trail all to ourselves. It was rather pleasant!
After 4.5 miles we reached the first campsites along the trail and found that they were indeed completely occupied. A ranger was there chatting with the campers about how important it is to camp at least 90 paces away from Snowy Lakes, which was their destination for the day. From the campsite the long steady switchbacks up the mountainside that would eventually lead us to Cutthroat pass began. We passed a few people along this section of the trail, all of whom were going down. This trail is a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and we were assuming that most of the people that we passed were PCT hikers.
We stopped often for water and snack breaks along this portion of the trail despite Bobby’s anxious excitement to reach the acme of the pass.
We passed a family of four who had camped just below the pass and were enjoying their morning cocoa while trying to warm up. The two young girls pet Latigo eagerly, which he enjoyed almost as much, if not more, than they did. The parents told us that they had come up early Friday and had had the pass to themselves. They said they hadn’t seen anybody until late last night when two guys came and camped near them. The two guys had already left to continue their hike to Snowy Lakes. They said they thought we were smart getting such an early start because campsites at the lakes would probably be difficult to come by later in the day as more and more hikers arrived. We bid them farewell and continued onward and upward!
We arrived at Cutthroat Pass (elevation 6800 feet) after 5 miles and were rewarded with some incredible mountain views.
From here we walked along a ridge line making this section of the trail very easy and amazingly beautiful! At this point we were above the tree line and could clearly see the trail ahead of us.
Around each bend we were awarded more stunning and glorious views of this incredible section of the Cascade Mountain Range. Along this section of the trail we passed two guys who were also headed to Snowy Lakes for the night. We soon began to feel like we were almost in a race. We were worried the campsites would all be gone and I didn’t like feeling like I couldn’t stop and take a break for fear I would slow us down too much and we would have to make do with a less than desirable campsite.
The next section of the trail was pretty steep switchbacks going down. We were soon at Granite Pass (elevation 6300 feet) that had a few campsites scattered around.
We stopped for a quick snack and continued on, hoping to push through the final 3-4 miles and make it to the camping area before lunch.
We passed another family of four along the trail and their beautiful Golden Retriever/Terrier mix dog who was one of the most well behaved dogs I have ever seen. In the guidebook Romano warns about this section of trail saying, “Occasional rock slides and gullies need to be crossed which may rattle some hikers’ nerves.” This description had me nervous before we had even set off on the trail. I am a pretty big wuss when it comes to steep, slippery, rocky slopes and I had already warned Bobby that I might have a panic attack on this portion of the trail and would need to be gently coaxed across. How wrong I was! While it was a little dicy at times, the trail never induced any panic in me. The trail is so established and well used that I wasn’t nearly as scared as I expected to be.
The trail junction for the small spur trail that leads to Snowy Lakes is unmarked. There is a large camping area near the junction and it is just after passing an old and blocked off trail. Exctiement leaped inside of me when I saw it! I knew we only had 1/2 a mile to go before reaching the lower lake! Bobby gave me that bad news that while we didn’t have far to go this was the most difficult part of the trail. We had to gain 500+ feet of elevation. Definitley not what I was in the mood for! We trudged on. I was soon far behind Bobby and Latigo, huffing and puffing my way up. I needed a break. A muscle in my right leg was giving me trouble and I just wanted to sit for awhile. Other hikers were hot on our tail and I could tell that Bobby wanted to do anything BUT take a break. I told him to go on ahead without me. That way I could go at my own pace and not worry about slowing him down and making him more nervous about finding a site.
After sitting and snacking for awhile I continued on at a much slower and more manageable pace. I played leapfrog with a duo of hikers and we remarked on how difficult this section of trail was. I finally made it to the lower lake and Bobby was nowhere in sight. He was wearing a bright yellow shirt and we were at the top of the tree line so this was a little unbelievable. But, I figured, knowing him, he would venture onwards to the upper lake and get the whole lay of the land before settling on a campsite. I continued onward, going at a very slow pace and constantly looking around me hoping to catch a glimpse of his bright shirt but I couldn’t see him. I came to the upper lake and was once again disappointed that I couldn’t see him anywhere. I continued on and found the highest campsite above upper lake and the end of the trail. Still no Bobby. We were the first ones to arrive at the lakes. They were completely deserted. I threw my back down at a great campsite with excellent views and began roaming around looking for Bobby and Latigo. The two hikers I had been leapfrogging with on the climb up passed me and I asked if they had seen Bobby, they hadn’t… I began to get a little nervous wondering if I would ever find him. I decided it would be best to stay put, I figured he was probably roaming around looking for me and that I should just sit and wait for him to find me. I decided to wait on a small ridge located between the two lakes hoping I would have the best viewpoint to see and be seen from both directions. As I made my way to the ridge I was constantly stopping, listening, and looking all around. I whistled my special Latigo whistle hoping that he, at least, could hear me, but to no avail. As I reached the ridge I saw him there below me by the lower lake with Latigo in tow. I waved my arms hoping he would see me. He did and he came to meet me. He pulled me into a bear hug. He was terrified.
Apparently he had chosen the first campsite he could find near the lower lake thinking I wouldn’t want to keep going to the upper lake because of my sore leg. He had thrown his stuff down and then run back down to the rock he had left me resting on thinking he would carry my pack back up for me (what a guy!). Only he hadn’t used the trail, hoping to get down to me faster he had stuck to a vein of rock, effectively missing me on the trail as I went up. When he had reached the abandoned rock he had panicked fearing that my sore leg had gotten worse and that, for some reason, I had left and gone back down with the two hikers who we knew were behind us. It was odd, he was surprisingly more scared then I was by the situation and we had both thought like the other person effectively making it impossible for us to successfully meet up!
I brought Bobby to the campsite I had found and he proclaimed that it was far superior to the one he had found at the lower lake. He returned to the other site to retrieve his pack with my promise that I wouldn’t leave the site while he was gone. He returned and I began preparing lunch, fajitas, while he set up our rainfly and groundcloth as a sun shade for us to take an afternoon nap in. The sun was beating harshly down on us and despite numerous sunscreen applications we could both feel ourselves burning. There was an occasional slight breeze that did provide a little bit of relief from time to time but on the whole it was really really hot.
After a delicious lunch we settled in for a nap but the sun shade proved ineffective and became more of a sauna… It was soon degrees warmer inside than out despite having the doors open and the breeze going through. We went down to the lake to dip our toes in and to let Latigo swim a little bit so that he could cool off.
Bees and biting flies buzzed around the whole area making an unpleasantly obnoxious buzz sound that was driving me bonkers. Hiker after hiker streamed in throughout the afternoon and the area was soon packed with people. Because we were so near the tree line there wasn’t much in the way of screening between sites and sound carried eerily far so there was no privacy to be had in this area.
We ate dinner, homemade dehydrated Spicy Chicken Pasta, that ended up being pretty bland despite the recipes promise of “Spicy” and the rehydrating instructions had us add far too much water, effectively making it more of a pasta soup than pasta. Despite it’s drawbacks it was filling and sated our roaring backpack-inducing hunger.
We settled in on a nearby rocky ridge to watch the sunset behind the beautiful mountains.
We made our camp ready and snuggled in for what we anticipated would be a very cold night.
We had met a few hikers along the trail who had camped there the previous night and had warned us about how cold it would get. With that in mind we donned all of our clothes and zipped up our mummy bags. I fell almost instantly into a deep sleep at 8:45 and Bobby also slept like the dead. Our early bedtime meant that we awoke very early the next morning 5:30 and I was ready to go. Bobby, while awake, wasn’t keen on getting out of his cozy sleeping bag. I assured him that it wasn’t nearly as cold as we had feared it would be but to no avail. Finally I began describing the beautiful early morning aura the mountains had and the sliver of moon that was visible just above a nearby mountain and that finally got him interested enough to get up and snap a few pictures.
Bobby went to refill our dromedary bags while I took down camp. We munched on cereal bars and applesauce as we made ready for the days hike out. We had decided the previous evening that because of the heat, the bees, and the overcrowdedness of the area we wouldn’t spend a day lounging about our campsite like we had originally planned. We concluded that we would instead head out and make for the nearby town of Winthrop (about 30 miles away) for a day of fun and possibly look for a hotel for the night. We had visited Winthrop last year over labor day weekend and I had fallen in love with it. It’s an old west themed town and makes for a fun afternoon of popping in and out of the little shops and selecting one of a handful of restaurants to enjoy a meal at. Plus there’s always a rodeo in town over Labor Day weekend!
The hike out went smoothly and, because of our early start, we had the trail pretty much to ourselves for the first couple of hours.
Just before reaching Cutthroat Pass there is a grouping of large boulders alongside the trail. We had been planning on stopping at the pass and having an early lunch/late breakfast but Bobby wanted to do a little bouldering and who am I to argue with him when he wants to stop sooner then expected?!? We ate chicken salad wraps and sat in the welcome shade of the boulders!
After we had reached Cutthroat pass and began the long trek down the numerous switchbacks that led back into the forested, and less scenic, section of the trail we began seeing dozens of day hikers. We helped one couple who had asked us how long the loop was. What loop? was our response. They had, unknowingly taken the wrong trail and weren’t at all where they thought they should be. We showed them on our map where they were, what they were headed to, and where they thought they were. They gratefully thanked us for helping them and we left them discussing whether they should turn back and make for the trail they had originally planned on doing or if they should continue along and go up to Cutthroat Pass.
We were back at the car just after 11:00. Because of our early lunch/late breakfast on the trail at 10:00, we decided we would make the 40 min drive to Winthrop and find lunch there. We changed into less smelly clothes and hoped a fresh layer of deodorant and baseball caps would help disguise the fact that we hadn’t showered in 3+ days…
We stopped at Washington Pass along the way for some pics of Liberty Bell and other mountains in the area at a lookout before continuing along the scary winding mountain road eventually landing to Winthrop.
Last year when we arrived in Winthrop we were only able to find parking about 1/4 of a mile outside of town in a public parking area. This year, we approached the main intersection of the town just as somebody was pulling out of an amazing spot right on the street. We snatched it up!
The town was bustling with excitement! None of the restaurants have patios where we would be able to eat with Latigo so we decided to get hotdogs, curly fries, sodas, and ice-cream from a place that is all outdoors. It was hot, in the low 90s! Families were eagerly waiting in the long line for ice cream to try and cool down! Latigo lay under the table, enjoying the shade, and the people watching while we ate.
I walked over to the information building to see if they knew of any available lodging nearby. She told me nothing was available because of the busy holiday weekend and because of the Rodeo. We decided it would be best to simply head home after wandering around the little town for awhile. The nice thing about leaving on Sunday was we barely had any traffic coming back into Seattle, which we knew wouldn’t be the case on Monday!
Overall the Snowy Lakes trail offers a steady and easy incline on the trail that makes this hike much easier than your average hike. It offers some spectacular views. The only downside is that the hike out gets a little long and boring during the four miles in the forested area.