Saturday, August 6, 2016

Hiking the Alpine Lakes Wilderness: Gem Lake is a Gem

On this misty summer morning, low clouds are pillowed thick around the craggy peaks and alpine lakes around Snoqualmie Pass. With midsummer temperatures in the lowlands, the enveloping mist is welcome, perfect hiking weather. 

Less than an hour east of Seattle, Washington, and right off Interstate 90, on our hike today we expect crowds on the trail. We're hiking past Snow Lake and continuing another couple miles and about 800 feet more in elevation gain to Gem Lake.

Way back in 2008, the hike to Snow Lake was my very first blog post. It's the most heavily used trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, although less than half the hikers continue to Gem Lake.

While we didn't start quite as early as planned, we're still rewarded with relative quiet on the way to Snow Lake starting up the trail at 7:45 a.m.

As we crest the saddle above Snow Lake, a couple miles along the increasingly rocky trail, the mist thickens. I get a little disoriented when we descend the trail down to Snow Lake because, well, we can't see the lake until we're literally right at the shoreline.

Lunch at the lakeshore.
Despite at least 10 trips to Snow Lake, I've actually never gone on to Gem Lake, so my hiking buddy Julie leads the way. After skirting Snow Lake and crossing over the log bridge, the trail cuts up and away from the lake and into more scenic alpine gorgeousness, mist and all.

Part of the beauty of this trail/area is the striking talus (big rocks) strewn along the trail and beyond. It adds to the drama but makes the hiking a little trickier. Let's just say it's not a smooth, footworn dirt path. 

Actually, all the talus is evidence that geology happens. As I say to Julie, "I wouldn't want to be hiking here during an earthquake." Think rockfall hazard zone. (I took a couple quarters of geology at University of Washington and I work with geologists, so I think about these things.) 

And then we arrive at Gem Lake before we know it, with mist rising off the lake and improving visibility.

While you can scramble around and even scale Mt. Wright across the lake, we're too bothered by the aggressive mosquitos to linger after snacks. Several tents are scattered around the lake, and I feel a little like we're invading the backpackers' "living rooms."  If you want much privacy, weeknights would be better.

The hike down on the rough, rocky trail is hard on my fussy knee, so I'm glad for trekking poles.

More backpackers are heading up as we're heading down. About 7-8 years ago I thought hiking/backpacking might be waning in popularity. I saw mostly Boomers and Gen Xers out on the trail. But with so many young tech workers moving to Seattle and social media blitzing, multitudes of Millenials are out here now.

Descending to Snow Lake reveals...a lake!  It's still not completely clear, but it's visible and beautiful as always.

By the time we start hiking above the Snow Lake shoreline, the trail becomes thick with hikers and dogs.  Things get worrisome when we see a group cutting downslope between switchbacks on the trail up to the saddle, causing dirt and rocks to slough off down the hillside. Sadly this is increasingly common and damages the trail and, ultimately, the lake.

The parking lot is full and then some when we get back. My feet and knees tell me this 10-mile hike was double the wear and tear of a smooth trail. But the loveliness of that alpine terrainworth every step.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.When You Go

When You Go
Parking for the Gem Lake hike is in the Alpental Ski Area parking lot at Snoqualmie Summit. You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here. Overall the trip to Gem Lake is about 10 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of about 2,200 feet. The lake elevation is just shy of 5,000 feet.


Ashley said...

Ah! I love lake hikes on those moody days- and gem lake is a beauty! I love how the colors are so rich when it's foggy. Lovely photos!

Scott Schultz said...

Great description and pictures of Snow and Gem Lakes! I got to your blog from a 2011 post by Kim Kircher which featured your struggle with Ankylosing Spondylitis and returning to outdoor activities. I'm 61, have Ankylosing Spondylitis and had/have such a similar "trip" as yours. Hiking, snowshoeing, Xc skiing mean so much more to me now than pre-AS. It's comforting knowing someone else understands the physical and mental juggling required for us to keep enjoying the outdoors. Great site!

jill said...

Hey Scott! Thanks for your comment and finding your way to my blog. Yes, I don't focus on it so much, but it's still a juggle/struggle sometimes, but I'm much better than 15 - 20 years ago. Although I had a flare-up about 9 years ago. The older I get the more imperative it becomes to take as good care of myself as I can, although I have my weaknesses. :) Happy to hear you are still out there making it work! I did go to an AS support group a few times many years ago, and bumped in to a hard core rock climber guy I had dated briefly - he got hit with AS too a few years after we lost track! I think he's doing better but lost touch again. Happy trails!

jill said...

Ahsley! Sorry I didn't respond sooner, and you might not see this, was crazy busy getting ready for vacation. Thanks for your comment. Yes, love hiking in the mist. Happy trails!