Saturday, January 17, 2015

Northwest Winter Hiking: Denny Creek-Melakwa Lake Trail

A rainy, mucky Northwest winter day is a prime time to seek relative solitude on our over-loved trails. You think a good rain will keep us Mossbacks inside? Think again.

Just west and below Snoqualmie Pass lies the scenic but often crowded Denny Creek-Melakwa Lake Trail.  It's an easy  45-minute zip out I-90 from Seattle and not far off the interstate. So I generally stay away. 

With avalanche-prone slopes, the upper portion of the trail is not normally a winter hike. But with much less snow than normal in the Cascades this season, some friends and I decide to aim for Melakwa Lake on a damp Saturday.

Jennifer checked with the Snoqualmie Ranger Station and was told the Melakwa Lake trail would be a fine destination for an early January hike.  With snow covering most of the trail this drippy day, we see just a handful of other crazies and a dog on the trail.

(Caveat: Since our hike last week, it has snowed over a foot up there. With avalanche potential along the upper trail, chances are this hike will be unsafe  past Denny Creek water slide for several months.)

After pulling Yaktrax/Ice Trekkers onto our boots for better traction on the packed snow, we start out criss-crossing Denny Creek over a few bridges. The first mile or so up to the famous Denny Creek "water slide", the trail meanders through verdant, rich green second- and old-growth forest.

Until we get to the water slide crossing, traffic noise from I-90 above competes with the rushing creek below. Passing under a freeway during a mountain hike is a visual collision of nature at her finest and, well, the antithesis of nature. I wonder what someone transported in a time machine from 1800 would think stumbling upon this scene.

Crossing Denny Creek at the water slide today isn't so bad with careful footing and trekking poles for support. 

A couple coming down tell us they went a ways farther but turned around when they started postholing up to their knees. We forge onward.

In general the snow is not too deep and is pretty packed, but things get messier when we hike across the first open slope. Then it starts raining harder too.  

When gorgeous Keekwulee Falls comes into view, we pause to snap shots before trudging upward, skirting some pretty steep drop-offs into the narrow gorge below. This would NOT be a good place to slip on the snow.

Up here, still about a mile or so below the lakes, we encounter much deeper snow and begin postholing (no snowshoes today).

Things level off higher up for another crossing of Denny Creek. John chooses the icy log bridge, and Jennifer and I plunge across the stream, getting boots wet between rocks.

Higher up, it's beautiful and quiet, not far below Hemlock Pass and the final push to the lakes. 

However, rain, wet feet, time constraints, postholing, emerging muscle cramps, and evidence of some big slides take their toll on me. After a break for hot tea, I have to say the dreaded words amongst some very fit and motivated hiking buddies:

"I think I should turn around now."

Sigh. Two solo guys who made it to the lake pass us on their way back down.  While hiking warrior goddess Jennifer would like to continue, she's gracious.  Not long after I do a major posthole up to my thigh and the cramping begins in earnest. Definitely a good choice to turn around.

But the waterfalls are just as lovely on the way back down. 

We get back to the car damp and tired (at least I'm tired, next time I take electrolyte supplements), but glad for the time outdoors in such a beautiful place. 

Now it's time to ski!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

When You Go
Here's a link to a detailed hike description with a map and driving directions at the WTA website. You do need a Northwest Forest Pass for the parking. Our total hiking time was about 4.5 hours to cover maybe 6.5 miles (slow going in the snow), without a major lunch break but lots of photo and snack stops.  We got about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to the lake, which as mentioned above, could likely be inaccessible much of the rest of this winter. You could probably hike the lower trail with snowshoes before the water slide.


Lisa K said...

Four season hiking, love to read about it, doing it is another matter... Thanks for the inspiration intrepid hikers!

jill said...

Ha thanks Lisa! Yea, I'd rather be skiing in the winter, just need to snow pack to cooperate.