It was around noon when we pulled into the parking lot of the West Fork Foss Lakes Trailhead. Looking up, we could see how low the clouds hung above us. Despite several weather forecast models predicting a cloudy weekend hanging as low as 4000 ft, we decided to backpack the popular Alpine Lakes High Route, which spends most of the route above 4000 ft. When I first got into scrambling and peak bagging, my only goal was to find mountain views on top of anything. I learned that ridges were fun to stay on top of and rewarding. So a few years ago, when a friend mentioned this route to me, I was quite excited. And you may ask why write about it now? Well, it took this long to finally make it out there. It’s a wonderful combination of the Enchantments and ridge walking in the Snoqualmie region. As far as high routes go, this is supposedly one of the well-known ones in Washington. But compared to hiking standards, it’s still lesser traveled than the Enchantments for example. There’s only about 3 miles of off-trail travel, and even then there are faint trails to follow.
We began our counter clockwise loop (chosen due to our late start) and quickly started our tour of the lakes. We passed many other backpackers who had gone fishing at some of the lakes. They seemed successful with catching trout, per the name Trout Lake. I assumed it was mostly catch-and-release. I was surprised to see how well maintained the campsites were along the West Fork Foss Trail. At Trout Lake, there was even a sign showing where you could came and where the toilets were. The rest of the lakes didn’t have a map, but there were toilets fairly regularly it seemed and many campsites, especially if you took a look at some of the side trails.
As we leveled up to the clouds, we feasted on huckleberries to distract ourselves from the dreariness. Amazingly, we had decent visibility in the forest and even got glimpses of several waterfalls along the way. Every lake we walked passed gleamed in aqua hue. But I was most enamored by Big Heart Lake. With its granite walls that sunk deep into the navy blue waters, it felt like rendezvous to another place I couldn’t quite name. In Washington, you get used to boulder fields and moraines that lead into lakes, unlike this beautiful columnar face. It was as if the lake welcomed us to our rest for the night. The clouds had just lifted enough for us to see across the lake. We passed the laughter of several fishermen before we picked out our own campsite. Close to the toilet, a water source, with a clear view of the lake, and even a sitting log. It was perfect.
In anticipation of a damp night from wet fog and potential rainfall, we brought a tent for each of us. I wanted to be fully prepared and had heard for most tents with minimal waterproofing, sleeping one person in the middle is best. It also allowed us to keep all our belongings inside the tent to hopefully be dry. I took my chances with the rodents and critters, and it seemed like they decided to also hide from the rain instead of scavenging our food.
In the morning, we woke up later than we’d like. We had met a few people who came the opposite direction of the traverse. They said it took them some 7 hours with a late start of 11am. I envisioned we could possible do it quicker: 4 miles on trail and 3 miles off shouldn’t take too long right? Usually I like to estimate 2 miles per hour on trail and 1 mile per hour off trail, putting us at 5 hours. But say we took 8 hours, we’d still have daylight for a morning start. It was hard to get going when we had to deal with our wet things, but we took off at 10am.
The trail to Chetwoot Lake was somehow less of a trail than to Big Heart Lake. It was as if it was a precursor to what was ahead. Steep trail and near-scrambling moves on the trail. Although I started the day with dry feet, the narrow trails covered with dewy heather got my shoes soaked within minutes. I’ve learned to ignore the unpleasantries, motivated by reaching the end of the trail for the day. At Chetwoot, we found the mosquitos again so we took a brief break before heading up the boulder field for the off-trail portion of the day. We weaved in and out of the trees, often losing a supposed trail. As long as you find the ridge up the right basin or gully, it matters little which path you take.
Once we escaped the mosquitos, we took our deserved break. The clouds had just settled again and neither of us were too excited about the ridge. Thankfully, as we wrapped up our break, the fog kindly rose enough so we could see the ridge and find the easiest way up. On the ridge, we saw Iron Cap Lake below and it was one of those beautiful green glacial lakes. No glaciers to be found though. Only small patches of residual snow. What a stark contrast of the barren basin to the fully vegetated side we came up. Here, we could barely see the rest of the ridge but it was reassuring to see how passable the ridge would be.
For some reason, I envisioned the ridge to be easiest part of the traverse because people were talking about potential class 4 or 5 sections if you got off-route. I thought it would be the steeper sections on the east side since the ridge has a mellow overall grade. In reality the ridge proved to be more difficult since it was easy to want to traverse below the true ridge line. There were sections where you could really feel the exposure, looking down, if you stepped too far and slipped, you probably could go flying off the cliff. So with scrambling like this, it was important that we took it thoughtfully with solid footing.
On the very last step down to the saddle before traversing beneath Iron Cap, we approached a narrow gap that didn’t allow both us and our packs through. An eye of the needle situation. I think this was probably trickiest since the other option required a 5-foot drop where you needed to land perfectly on the ledge below. Slowly we moved packs and ourselves down until we could traverse. Again, in my mind I thought the traverse would be harder, but it was actually more straight forward and we moved much quicker on the 10-15 foot wide ramp.
I realized that the rest of the way would only be more boulder fields and the “scrambling” section was now over. It was time to test our ankle stability as we descended a thousand feet of boulders. We also had our fair share of slippery heather to slide down, but at least it was fairly stable and we could find faint paths again to minimize the extra wetness. On our last ascent, we made a final push to reach the hiker trail again. It was such relief not to navigate the boulder fields where I had to check my GPS every 5 minutes to ensure we had the right bearings in the low visibility. 1.5 miles later just before 8pm, we made camp. 10 hours was definitely more than I expected, but we were just both too tired to care as we quickly set up our tents. There were plenty of other campers and some friendly ones showed us flat areas we could use and even offered to let us share their space.
At Tank Lakes the visibility was the lowest out of all the lakes we passed this weekend. I was bummed because this was supposed to be one of the prettiest views in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Even in the morning it was misty and raining. Our tents were soaked more than ever and giant puddles had formed within the tent. Some of our things stayed dried where we had carefully set them higher on the tent floor. It was yet hard again to get going on our third morning. The rain was persistent and my rain jacket had gotten soaked overnight. I frantically tried to sop up the wetness with whatever I could find until it was only a little damp. Better than no rain jacket I thought. Plenty of people had already packed up and headed out and I just couldn’t understand how everyone else was dealing with the rain. So I did my best and put on my happy cap on. We would be drier the lower elevation we got once out of the clouds and especially back at the cars. And hopefully the trail would provide a nice easy hike out.
My happiness of walking on trail was quickly thwarted when it dumped us to descend a boulder field. Again, choose your own path until the bottom of the basin. I didn’t mind boulder hopping, but it was clearly slower than trail. Since our day 1 was shorter, we had to make up for the extra miles today, putting it around 12 miles. I didn’t dare take my camera out until we were out of the rain, but that basin was quite beautiful with its granite walls all imposing. The mountains have a way to make you feel like an ant and sometimes it feels cathartic to know that you are just a small piece in this world.
On our way out, we leap frogged with several other hikers as we took different breaks. It was kind of fun to see the same people again and make small talk every so often. I noticed how most people on all the days we were out there were backpackers and many were older folks too! It seems like social media has not reached this area as it has places like Lake Serene. It was wonderful to see different people out there enjoying the outdoors just like us. And our last few miles to the East Fork Trailhead and on the road back to our car was probably the fastest I’ve ever sped walked with a backpack or even in general! The faster we got to the car the faster we could get out of our wet socks and be dry again. It was the best motivator. Even the sun decided to appear for us for our last few miles.
This trip could have been marked as miserable, but I can truly say I loved the lake bagging and scrambling and the constant wondering where we were when route finding. And as much as I love exploring new trails, I’m sure I’ll be back again to see the lakes and peaks in their fullest without obstructive clouds. And maybe connecting some of the other nearby peaks that I couldn’t see! Any takers to scramble these peaks?
We chose counter clockwise for a shorter day 1, but it would have been just as easy to go clockwise.
The most technical parts of the traverse is the ridge west of Iron Cap Peak. The rest is boulder fields and some heather bushwhacking when you lose the trail or between boulder fields. The traverse beneath Iron Cap is a wide ramp (read: no sidehilling). If headed counter clockwise, be sure not to cliff out by the trees when descending east after Iron Cap. Generally a class 2 scramble with some low class 3 moves, but exposed on the ridge.
When in doubt on the ridge, stay north but stay within 20 feet below the true ridgeline, or closer
The rock is solid granite even when wet. Mud on trail may be more of a slipping issue.
There’s bountiful spots for campsites all along the hiking trails, especially near lake shores. There’s also a few along the East Fork Foss River itself. I think there’s at least a couple campsites every mile, so be on the lookout for them! There’s also a few toilets. These are marked on common forest service maps.