Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hiking to Heather Lake: Early Season, Late Snow

Yes, I know that hiking to an alpine lake in late spring/early summer after a record-breaking snow season is a bit risky. But I’m ready to stray beyond lowland foothills hikes. I can’t resist.

“How about hiking to Heather Lake?” I suggest. “It’s at only 2,500 feet and the freezing level hasn’t gone below 4,000 feet in the last week.” This isn’t the best logic, but it works. My friend Julie is game.

So we drive up north on I-5 from Seattle to Marysville, then head east, taking the Mountain Loop Highway to the trailhead near the base of Mount Pilchuck. We’re not alone. Northwest hikers eager to get out in the mountains have jammed the small parking area and their vehicles spill over onto the roadside. (Heather Lake is a very popular hike, but with the road to the Pilchuck trailhead still closed due to snow, it's especially busy this early in the season.)

After throwing on light jackets and packs, we start on up the trail, immediately heading into thick second-growth forest. The grade isn’t too steep, but with our damp weather lately, the trail is pretty muddy and wet in places. In a few spots it’s literally just a stream crossing. But nothing too intense, and with waterproofed hiking boots our feet don’t get wet.

I’m glad I wore decent boots because the trail is also pretty rocky in some spots. I’m amazed (but not surprised) that I see hikers out in short shorts and flimsy sneakers, especially since I read that the trail is still snow-covered for the last half mile. But everyone happily treks away, regardless of insufficient gear and attire.

Along the trail and slopes are stumps of the behemoth old-growth cedar trees that once graced this area. A mile or so up the trail, we pass through a grove of some big trees that somehow managed to survive the rampant logging. I just have to give one a hug. (Yes, I'm a tree hugger.)

Sure enough, we start hitting snow about a quarter mile below the lake, and it gets pretty deep pretty quickly. Actually the compacted snow is easy to hike on (albeit a little slippery) and the trail is well marked with footprints. Although the real trail might not be exactly where the footprints go, they lead to the still mostly snow-covered lake.

Heather Lake lies tucked in a glacial cirque a couple thousand feet directly below the summit of Mount Pilchuck, stunning in its dramatic setting. Steep rocky cliffs rise abruptly above the lake, which of course today is not so much a lake as a snowfield with a few small openings.

We find a big rock and a snowless tree well beside the lake to sit and grab lunch. A few tree wells back we passed a group of guys cooking up a great smelling lunch. “Hey got any leftovers?” I tease them as we walk past.

I get chilled after sitting and munching lunch for about 15 minutes. Out come a shell, wool beanie, and gloves out of my fanny pack. I wonder how those who wore shorts and sneakers are faring.

We got a fairly late start (about 12:30) so I’m surprised by how many people we pass on the way down who are just making their way up the trail. But this time of year it doesn’t get dark until about 9 p.m. We’re back at the car a little before 4, after about 3 hours hiking this 4+-mile trip. But not before I snapped more shots of some of the lush, lovely native greenery along the trail.

When You Go
Here’s a map and directions to Heather Lake, which is about an hour drive from Seattle. Be sure and register and pay the $5 user fee at the station beside the bathroom. (We didn’t see it until we got back to the car.) You also need to have a Northwest Forest Pass in your vehicle.


Anonymous said...

Great photos!

Allison said...

Thanks Jill! We saw a black bear last Saturday as we were "hiking" up Jewel Basin Road outside of Bigfork. We also saw lots of skiiers! Allison

Matt said...

Looks like a great place to be, before the skeeter hatch.

Mike B. said...

Great looking hike. Now that is warmed up for a couple of days, I'm concerned that we'll be having flooding next week. The Willamette is already very high- I can't believe that it is this high in June.

Misha said...

I just spent part of this evening reading through your blog and really enjoying it.
Keep blogging! I thought I knew every nook and cranny in the northwest but apparently I do not.

Anonymous said...

Jillwin are you nuts? Wait til the snow melts. DB