Monday, September 7, 2015

Lake Valhalla Hike: Late Season Push on the PCT

For alpine lake loveliness, Lake Valhalla is right up there with the most beautiful lakes nestled in Washington's craggy northern Cascade Mountains

On a chilly day fresh with early autumn, we drive up from Seattle and meet a Wenatchee friend at the Stevens Pass trailheadit's a perfect place for friends from different sides of the Cascades to meet.

At only 5 miles and 1,000 feet elevation gain from Stevens Pass, the trip to Lake Valhalla is a relatively easy hike along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Generally the PCT is pretty well-graded and maintained compared to some trails, so it's always a treat to hike.  What makes it an extra special treat today is the abundance of PCT thru hikers on the last few weeks of their 2,500+ mile, 4+ month journey from the Mexican border.

With a fairly early start, we set off on the relatively flat first mile along a former railroad bed. Occasionally we pass openings in the forest while crossing old landslide boulder fields. Each autumn the hillsides right above and below Stevens Pass are streaked with patches of crimson and orange from huckleberry and other alpine shrubs. Things are just warming up this season.

The view heading back down the trail, obscured by mist going up.

About 30 minutes into the hike, we meet our first thru hikers: Veggie and Square from Atlanta, Georgia. Don't they look happy and healthy? Check out their blog about thru hiking, including thru hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago.

Veggie and Square
Here's the deal:  As part of the trail culture, thru hikers all go by a trail name. So I start introducing myself to them using my trail name (Motor Mouse), bestowed on me by hiking buddies years ago. As thru hiker Lebowski told me, "You should own that name." 

As we ascend above the grade and the mist lowers, the trail passes through lovely fall colors and clearings in the subalpine forest. Of course I can't resist stopping to take lots of photos. (Thanks to my hiking buddies Julie and Lesley for their patience.)

With no steep grades on the trail, a couple hours pass easily by the time we reach the lake, which initially is just a partial view. Resist the temptation to take the boot paths straight down to the lake at first viewing; it's really steep and not an official trail anyway (and exacerbates erosion).

After going left at the junction, we circle around and down past a little meadow, then right down to what you rarely see at an alpine lake: a beautiful light sand beach.

Notice that the hiker above is bundled up in hat and gloves?  It was so chilly that we didn't linger at the lake after a quick snack. Mt. Lichtenberg, which juts above the lakeshore, remained shrouded in mist most of the time. We all decided we have to come back on a sunny day.

On the way back down, the real thru hiker fun begins. This section of trail (Section K) northward has been closed due to wildfire hazards for weeks, and it just reopened. So the thru hikers have been waiting for their chance to grind out the final push to the Canadian border.

Uniformly they all are friendly, happy to stop and talk a bit, and oblige us with our questions.  And they're mostly in their twenties except for two solo men pushing 60. Extra cheers for the older dudes; they're an inspiration to my aging knees.

You Again

Mountain John. Yay Boomer!
Phoenix, from...just guess.
Chelsey Rose and homegrown Allred from Orcas Island.

Bagsides (Berlin) and Sneezl (Netherlands)

We start pegging the thru hikers by their footwear: No boots, just trail runners.  Veggie told me she was on her fifth pair since she started hiking in April. They all must have ankles of steel, unlike Motor Mouse here who has twisted ankles many times.

One thru hiker (Jack Daniels, or maybe it was Johnny Walker?) was munching a bag of nacho cheese Doritos and declines our motherly offers of organically grown Washington apples. The pair from Orcas Island, though, are vegans who brought lots of rice and bean entrees and dried organic fruit they prepared in advance (like good progressive Northwesterners :). 

So our way back down is fun, with lots of stops to talk. Clouds lift a bit, revealing more views. And of course I'm besotted, as always, with the gorgeousness of hiking an alpine trail in my beloved Cascades. 

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

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When You Go
The trailhead to the PCT and Lake Valhalla from Stevens Pass is just to the right of and behind the utility substation on the north side of State Route/Highway 2 at Stevens Pass, across the highway from the downhill ski area. Park at the easternmost edge of the lot. Because it's a private ski area parking, you don't need a Northwest Forest Pass. There's another access from a different direction via Smithbrook Road, farther east on 2 past the pass. Find driving directions here at the WTA hike description. On an early morning with relatively little traffic, it took us about 90 minutes to drive there from north Seattle.


Mary said...

What a timely post. I was just reading someone's PCT memoir and it was nice to get the visual to go with it! As always, your blog makes me want to jump on the first flight out to the PNW.

jill said...

Hey Mary! Thanks for the feedback. I hope you do hop on a flight out here sometime (perhaps you have recently). I've hiked sections of the PCT in California, Oregon, and Washington. Quite varied, but of course I'm partial to the Cascades, which are quite different in Oregon versus Washington, too.