Table of Contents
The Backyard Classic
Among the 2500+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that extends from Mexico to Canada, the 75 miles between Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass (Section J) are renowned as some of the most beautiful. Conveniently, it is also our backyard section, crossing through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Over Labor Day Weekend, Kelly and I had a wonderful time hiking Section J.
Day 1: Stevens Pass to Deep Lake
Kelly’s dad was very kind to drop us off early Friday morning at Stevens Pass before returning home to work. After a few days of cool rain, the mountains felt very fall-like.
We planned for a long first day – almost 30 miles. This would get us more scenic camps and a shorter final day, when the weather was expected to go downhill.
I have hiked probably a dozen little sections of Section J over the years through various hikes, but never the entire thing. I first experienced this initial section when visiting the Chain Lakes a few years ago. The PCT here is never alpine, but has plenty of beautiful subalpine forests, small lakes, and meadows.
Even though it was just the beginning of September, many slopes were already turning red.
We knew we would encounter our friend Madelynn at some point on this day. She is hiking the entire PCT from Mexico to Canada and was expected at Stevens Pass by Friday evening. Right as we reached Trap Pass, we ran into her!
We dropped down the other side of Trap Pass and passed Glacier Lake. At the junction with the old, abandoned Surprise Gap Trail, we met a thru-hiker drying his gear out. We shocked him when we continued on the abandoned trail instead of the PCT. It would save us a mile or a few hundred feet of elevation, plus I knew the view from Surprise Gap was lovely.
The section from Deception Lakes to Cathedral Pass and beyond is one of the “flatter” sections of Section J. Section J is both somehow frustratingly flat yet never truly flat. Both of us were suffering from the afternoon sleepiness and our feet were already sore. My body is not used to such repetitive motion, so I find trail walking more tiring than my typical high routing, which has much more variation.
But as it cooled off on our long final climb of the day beneath Cathedral Rock, we both felt a resurgence of energy. The low light and fall colors were life-giving.
As we crested the final pass of the day, we chatted with a group of Persian mountaineers headed for Mt. Daniel. Kelly sang songs aloud as we descended the ridiculously flat switchbacks leading down to Deep Lake. We reached the lake right at dark after just over 29 miles and 12 hours on the move!
Day 2: Deep Lake to Spectacle Lake Outflow
The cool air in the morning definitely felt like fall. Our second day began with a long descent towards Waptus Lake.
As a crow flies, we only had 8 miles to cover for the day. But we knew we were in for the PCT specialty – flat switchbacks. It is as if the trail builders got paid by the mile! When you are going uphill, sometimes the trail will go flat or actually downhill for significant distances before finally switchbacking in the other direction. It truly is head scratching at times.
We encountered dozens of PCT thru-hikers in this section, heading north to Mexico. It was definitely the most thru-hikers I have ever encountered in Washington on the PCT.
Escondido Ridge was hot and dry, but fortunately there were a few ponds to get water from. I am unsure when this area burned, but the southern end is open and exposed to the sun. Perhaps as a result of the burn, the fall colors were incredibly vibrant.
When we finally rounded the ridge, we got the most incredible view of the trip so far – the steep craggy summits of the Lemahs and Chimney Rock. I have spent many trips exploring in and around these giants (most recently, the Lemah Chimney Rock Circumnavigation). Each new angle makes me appreciate them more.
The switchbacks down the south side of Escondido Ridge take about 5 miles to descend just over 2000 feet! Fortunately, it entered the trees after not long.
Near the bottom, the trail crosses some wonderfully cool and fresh springs. I had been out of water for a while, so this spring was incredibly refreshing!
Down at the valley bottom, we returned to the mossy forests and made good progress towards Lemah Meadows. Finally it looked like we were covering some ground on the map!
We entered the burn zone of the 2009 Lemah Meadows fire. While it looked like the fire burned pretty hot, the next generation of trees is now beginning to grow. The flowers and open views were beautiful in the cool evening air.
As we neared the spot on the PCT where the outflow of Spectacle Lake crosses the trail, we encountered some thru-hikers coming the other way asking about camps. We told them that everything to the north looked full already. In return, we asked them about Spectacle and they said it was basically full – not surprising for a nice Labor Day Weekend. They gave us some great beta to check out a hidden campsite just past the Spectacle outflow. It was not completely flat, but after about 10 minutes of digging with a rock, we made it work! With the roar of the waterfall, it was a nice site, although the inquisitive mouse that ran around inside our tent was slightly annoying!
Day 3: Spectacle Lake Outflow to Snoqualmie Pass
When we had started the trip, the forecast called for rain on day 3. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to wake up to sunny skies! Since we only had about 17 miles remaining, we got a slower start and then climbed up past Spectacle Lake. We took a brief offshoot trail to reach a nice overlook of the incredible lake.
With all of the exposed rock slabs, this area feels more alpine and higher elevation than it actually is. I am not sure why this region has so much exposed slab, but it creates many beautiful lakes and mounds. Paired with the high craggy peaks of Lemah and Chimney Rock, this area is simply stunning. It was definitely the most scenic part of the entire trip!
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness has such a high density of wonderful spots. There are always more nooks and crannies to explore. Somehow, in all my years roaming this wilderness, I had never been to this spot. From this awesome vantage, I also found inspiration for future rambles.
Once past the Park Lakes, we were in familiar territory. I had first taken the PCT to Glacier Lake 8 years ago, climbing Chikamin Peak. It was the first time I did over 20 miles in a single day. It was really the start of mountain running for me.
Clouds were beginning to sweep over the crest from the west side, bringing a cool wind with it. It seemed that a change in the weather was on its way.
I had blissfully forgotten how rocky the next section of the PCT is. As it traverses beneath Four Brothers and Chikamin, the trail is relentlessly rocky and slow. I could imagine how exhausting this section would be if running Section J in a day.
Once we got in cell service, we took a “UTMB break” to check the results. We had a few friends race CCC, the 100k race. And Courtney and Jim took home the American victory at UTMB!!!
I also had forgotten how nice the views are in this section of the PCT. Out of all Section J, this part is the most continuously alpine, with great position above the Gold Creek valley.
By the time we reached Ridge Lake, we began to encounter day hikers so we knew the end was near. We took a nice break at the Kendall Katwalk and chatted with some day hikers.
As we dropped out of the alpine and back into the forest, a light mist began to fall from the sky. The drizzle turned to rain right as we reached the parking lot, where Kelly’s dad was waiting for us. Our timing could not have been more perfect!
Our feet were sore, but we were very satisfied with a wonderful three days hiking from Stevens to Snoqualmie Pass. Section J is renowned as one of the most beautiful sections of the entire PCT. But it also is special to us, being the closest section to our backyard. We have had so many adventures in this area over the years, often briefly touching the PCT for a mile or two. It was meaningful to do the entire section, weaving through disparate memories, while making new ones together.
Huge thanks to Wayne, Kelly’s dad, for dropping us off and picking us up!
- Our stats for each day were:
- 29 miles and 7k ft gain.
- 24 miles and 4k ft gain.
- 18 miles and 4k ft gain.
- The longest section without water on the trail was from Spectacle Outflow to Ridge Lake, although you could go down 100 ft to one of the Park Lakes if needed. There was also no water through much of Escondido Ridge. Otherwise, water was plentiful.