Upper Wildcat Lake, Alpine Lakes Wilderness
A week after returning from a long, cross country backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevada, I was ready for something pleasant and easy. No sketchy passes, no route finding issues, no brutal creek fords. When Tom called on Thursday morning, it didn't take me long to buy into a short overnight trip into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
August 5-6, 2006
Along with Tom's friend Pat, we drove up to the Alpental Ski Resort and embarked on what is reported to be the most popular trail in the entire Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Given its location, a scant 50 miles from Seattle, and the stunning scenery in the Cascades, this is saying a lot. The massive parking lot was already filling when we started on the trail around 9:30. Volunteers had clearly spent many hours working on building a trail that could sustain the 25,000 or so hikers that hit the Snow Lake trail every year. Rising gently through forest, with views of The Tooth and Chair Peak, two popular alpine rock climbs, the trail wasn't as crowded as I thought it might be, though there were still plenty of visitors: The three of us passed perhaps two dozen people on their way up, and another two dozen on their way down.
Cresting out after an hour of fast hiking, we gazed down upon the deep blue and turquoise of Snow Lake. Hemmed in by partially forested mountains, it was about as beautiful a lake as can be had anywhere. Compared with the barren, talus bound (and still snowy) lakes at 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, Snow Lake felt kind and welcoming.
We skirted our way around the edges of the lake, trying to stay on the main trail and off of various use trails, we encountered several large groups of hikers out to see the sights. Most hikers would stop at Snow Lake for the simple reason that nothing, it seemed, could equal it.
At the outlet of Snow Lake we began to climb once again, heading for a hidden saddle where Gem Lake resides. Although the hikers were thinning distinctly, there were still a few parties moving up the trail or coming down, and upon reaching the spectacular lake we saw several groups on the local peaks rimming the lake. Smaller and more intimate than Snow Lake, Gem Lake was perhaps even more appealing than its larger neighbor. Many campsites, some with easy lake access, could be seen from the trail and a night here would have been exquisite. We, however, had other plans.
The trail led us past Gem Lake and began a switchbacking descent deep into the valley below. While never steep, the thought of having to regain the elevation in the morning was not a comforting one and I wondered if perhaps we should have stopped at Gem instead of pushing on to Wildcat. At the base of the deep valley we could see Lower Wildcat, and it seemed far less enticing than Gem. Where ever Upper Wildcat was, it didn't seem possible that it would be anywhere near as scenic as Gem. Pat reassured us, having been there last year. The trail became brushy and the flies came out as we made the valley and began winding our way around to Lower Wildcat, where we found a distinct fisherman's trail up to Upper Wildcat. Climbing steeply with minimal switchbacks, the half mile to the Upper Lake went by quickly. Coming out of the forest, we found the promised land.
It seemed impossible that such a lake could be found given the terrain we had just hiked through, but there it was: Open and rimmed with steep walls of rock and shrubs, Upper Wildcat was close to perfection. And no one was here. It had taken us less than four hours, with several breaks, to get to this place. I shouldn't have been surprised, because just about every body of water in the Alpine Lakes is stunning. What did surprise me was that it wasn't over run. Perhaps Snow and Gem lakes absorb all of the backpackers. Clothes were stripped off almost immediately for a swim in the cool waters of the lake.
Having gotten into so early, we had plenty of time on our hands to leisurely splash about in the water and lounge in the sun. Many flies were out, but few were of the biting variety and proved to be only a minor annoyance. A group of three backpackers arrived at the lake, but continued on into the woods to a separate campsite and proved to be so quiet that it was easy to forget that they were there. Easy, at least, until they found a suitable log and paddled on it into the lake. We all found this rather funny.
I read some Hesse for a while in the sun, luxuriating in such an idyllic place, until sleepiness overcame me and a mid-afternoon nap became more appealing than the soulful German artist. As 5 pm rolled around, I emerged from my slumber to find Pat and Tom in the midst of gathering wood for an evening fire. Although fires are not allowed at Snow or Gem Lake, there was no such restriction here at Upper Wildcat and dry wood was plentiful.
The flies were heading to sleep as we cooked dinner and drank various brands of whiskey and wine, talking about everything and nothing. The lighting on the lake made pictures difficult to take, but as the whiskey took effect, my boldness with the camera increased. Unfortunately, my skill didn't magically increase as well.
As the sky began to blacken and the stars come out, the wine was finished along with most of the whiskey that we had brought with us. Stories were told around the fire and plans made for future trips, most of which would be forgotten by the morning. But hopefully not.
A fire warms in a way that is beyond the simple heat felt on one's skin. It cheers the soul in a primal way that has been lost in our modern, civilized world, replaced by such cold forms of entertainment as the movie, television, and video games. Gazing into the glowing embers of the fire, I couldn't help but feel somehow more alive, more vibrant. I pointed my camera repeatedly at the dancing embers, but was never able to capture the exact texture. Worse, I couldn't record the feeling that a fire in a wild place is capable of invoking. A fire at home in a fire place is a different creature altogether. A civilized fire never seems to bring forth the same feelings as a fire in a wild place, and Upper Wildcat Lake, despite its proximity to Snow and Gem Lakes and the most popular trail in Alpine Lakes, had a wild feel to it.
From Lakewood, drive I-5 north to State Highway 18 and follow this to I-90. Head east on I-90 to exit 52 (marked as "West Summit") and get off the interstate. Make a left and drive past the Pacific Crest Trail parking lot, following the road all the way to the Alpental parking lot. You'll need a Northwest Forest pass or something similar (Golden Eagle Passport works) to park here. Pick up the Snow Lake trail on the other side of the parking lot and follow it as it climbs gently (with some moderate sections) to Snow Lake, about 3.5 miles and perhaps 1500 feet of gain. Snow Lake is a popular (for good reason) destination, so expect lots of company on a sunny weekend. Continue on the trail past Snow Lake and climb (once again) about 600 feet over 2.5 miles to reach (also stunning Gem Lake). Keep going on the trail, dropping deeply (perhaps another 600 feet) down to Lower Wildcat Lake, which isn't especially appealing. The trail becomes slightly brushy along the way. From Lower Wildcat, pick up a distinct (i.e, easy to follow) fisherman's trail for about a half mile, gaining 200 steep feet to Upper Wildcat Lake. There is one obvious campsite once you reach the lake and another if you continue on the fisherman's trail.