I had planned to run the Grand Canyon again this year; for numerous reasons, it no longer made sense. At the last minute, I reached out to Nick about spending 4 days backpacking in the last weekend of nice fall weather. Nick had already dreamed up a route around the Snoqualmie Pass backcountry that connected some amazing off-trail travel with familiar places I had visited before.
The route was Nick’s creation, entirely. He emailed me his route and I did absolutely zero recon. It seemed a full-value itinerary that would make good use of four days:
- We would make a loop from the Commonwealth Creek trailhead at Snoqualmie Pass.
- Day 1 we would hike the Commonwealth to the pass between Lundin and Red, taking the Old Cascade trail down to the Middle Fork. From there, we would take a ‘trail’ up to Hardscrabble Lakes where we’d make our way up to the plateau on Big Snow.
- Day 2 we would traverse from Big Snow to La Bohn Gap. The traverse would link up with the Alpine Lakes High Route at Chetwoot Lake, but instead of traversing below Iron Cap we would take the ridge to the summit. From there we’d link back up with the Alpine Lakes High Route to La Bohn Gap.
- Day 3 we’d connect back with trails from La Bohn Gap, through Dutch Miller Gap to the Pacific Crest Trail below Escondido Ridge, where we’d hike towards Spectacle Lake.
- Day 4 we’d finish the loop taking the PCT back to our start point, going under Chikamin and through the Kendall Katwalk.
The route was centralized around the Lemah group, a massif Nick (and myself) look(s) at with great admiration.
Day 1: to Big Snow
Nick got off work and I met him at his house around 9 AM. We loaded up, drove up to the pass, and began hiking around 10 AM. A nice leisurely start…
We cruised up to the pass between Lundin and Red, in around 1.5 hours. It felt really nice to chat, move efficiently, and reminisce about trips in the snow.
We dropped off down to the Middle Fork via the Old Cascade Trail. Before too long, we were down at the Middle Fork valley and making our way towards the Hardscrabble Lakes trail. Neither of us had been up to Hardscrabble; we were excited for the new terrain in an otherwise familiar area. The ‘trail’ was certainly brushy and had few signs of wear. A steep climb through the bushes led us to rock hopping and some faint trail leading to Lower Hardscrabble Lakes. From there, it was pretty much ‘bushwhacking’ to the Upper Hardscrabble Lake. We followed a faint use trail up a ridge to a large bench that led to the plateau on Big Snow.
The terrain felt super remote and rugged, even though we were just miles from places like the Slot Couloir, Snow Lake, and other areas we’ve been countless times. It was quite a cool feeling, a new ‘corner’ of ‘home’.
The short days of fall caught up to us as we crested the Big Snow plateau. Evening had already set in and golden light was dwindling. We had planned to just camp at a tarn on the plateau and summit the next day, but we kind of looked at one another and remarked “well…why not go to the summit now?”. We hurried along the broad ridgeline, admiring the huge slabs and granite rock. The position was incredible, high above the Snoqualmie backcountry on one side and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness on the other. The entire time, we gazed over at the Lemah group…as we would for the next 3 days.
We made the summit just as the sun faded away. It sounds romantic, but it was surreal reaching the top of a new, remote peak as crisp fall colors peaked on the skyline. A+.
We walked back down to a flat spot just below the summit after the sun had faded and pitched our tent for night 1. We split an edible, looked up at the stars, satellites, and planes, and woofed down mac and cheese and freeze dried dinners.
Day 2: Big Snow to La Bohn Gap
We started leisurely, watching the sun rise and sipping on hot drinks in the morning. We didn’t feel a sense of urgency: the day was only 10 miles, we thought. It involved a lot of off-trail travel though and we knew it wouldn’t be as simple as the day before. We started moving around 8:30 AM, down the slabs on Big Snow towards Gold Lake. Getting down to Gold Lake was very easy, albeit slow on post-glacial terrain.
We snacked at Gold Lake and continued on. Past Gold Lake things got much slower with lots of boulder hopping and some bush bashing. Our pace slowed to below 1 mi/hr as we contoured through boulderfields to Chewoot Lake. We opted to take the bushier, albeit shorter by mileage, north side around Chetwoot Lake. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. The south side is much clearer but there seems to be a somewhat tricky maneuver mid-way around the lake on a slabby section. It looks like it goes. There’s a lot of boulders on the south side to hop and it was a nice change of pace to push through bush instead of hop on rock.
We connected with the Alpine Lakes High Route at Chetwoot Lake, albeit it briefly. We took the high route for maybe a few hundred vertical feet above Chetwoot Lake before veering up a boulderfield to the west ridge of Iron Cap Mountain. The ridge is wonderful! Nothing more than easy Class 3 and there’s even a use trail of sorts on the ridge to show you the way. There’s one funky chimney down-move but it’s very simple; if you have a large pack, just take it off and pass it down. It makes the move a lot easier. The views on the ridge of the Lemah Group and Williams Lake are amazing! Such a cool vertical position above the Middle Fork valley.
We summited Iron Cap mid-afternoon, fully realizing our time was wasting away faster than expected. Fall sunlight is ephemeral…we were in for some late afternoon miles.
We peeked at continuing along the east ridge of Iron Cap, but after some finagling we found it didn’t go. We backtracked down the north slopes of Iron Cap to meet back up with the Alpine Lakes High Route, which was fairly simple. There are cairns to follow, presumably for hikers who choose to summit Iron Cap from the High Route.
I rolled my ankle pretty hard once we re-connected on the High Route, which was a bit of a doozy. Bad spot to get hurt…thankfully it wasn’t more severe, as I was able to walk on it fine. It slowed our pace a tad, though, as I was cautious on the off-trail and uneven terrain. We reached the Tank Lakes by 5 PM or so, in evening golden hour. We hemmed and hawed for a bit about what to do:
Do we make camp at the Tank Lakes and enjoy the sunset? This would put us behind schedule and we’d have to make up miles the next day, which was already going to be a long one.
Or do we push on to La Bohn Gap and probably get to camp after dark? We opted for the latter and continued on past the lakes.
The trail up to La Bohn Gap is very improbable but super fun! It’s incredibly steep, with sections where you are pulling on roots and rocks to scramble your way up. It felt similar to the summer trail up Snoqualmie Mountain. I found this section absolutely thrilling; with the fading light, the day felt ‘real’. We were in it, deep in the mountains, with a full day behind us.
We reached La Bohn Gap just before dark set on. It would have been much nicer to be there at sunset but it was still very nice at dusk. We found a flat spot, filled up water, and pitched our tent for the night.
Day 3: La Bohn Gap to ~Spectacle Lake/Park Lakes
We woke before sunrise, knowing we had many trail miles to catch up on. We wanted to at least reach Spectacle Lake, if not camp at Glacier Lake below Chikamin. This meant we’d be putting in 25 or so miles, mostly on trail. Oh well, sunrise from La Bohn Gap another time.
The descent down from La Bohn Gap was marked by cairns, but hardly is ‘trail’. It’s mostly a continuation of guided boulder hopping and bush bashing. Travel was still slow and we were in a morning cloud. We did pass some really neat old mine shafts though! Crazy to think they went all the way up the Middle Fork valley for mining.
We continued on towards Williams Lake, where the clouds parted for a beautiful morning view of Little Big Chief.
From Williams Lake, we were able to start cruising on trail, through Dutch Miller Gap and then past Lake Ivanhoe. We looked up at the huge south slabs of Bears Breast Mountain, wondering if they would be a good ski line. Scary, for sure…but mayyyybbeee??
We stopped for lunch at Escondido Ridge, overlooking the Lemah group. A long, boring descent brought us down to Lemah Creek, then onward towards Chikamin Ridge. We pushed through dull trail miles to an awesome camp spot just before Park Lakes overlooking Spectacle Lake. This time, we made it before sunset and enjoyed the fading light over all the terrain we had just covered.
Day 4: ~Park Lakes back to Snoqualmie Pass
We’d hiked/run this section of PCT before as part of the Gold Creek Rim, so we mentally prepared for the slog out. The long day before had put us within 14 miles of the pass, so our goal was to get out by around lunchtime-ish and snack at Laconia Market.
The sunrise from our perch was probably the best of the trip. The reds and oranges over the Stuart Range, Lemah Group, and Mt. Daniel massif were stunning. Great way to finish off the trip.
We barely saw anyone until we neared the Kendall Katwalk, then all the weekend hikers began to cluster in a flock. Our slog became quite dull below the Katwalk as we descended to the Commonwealth: we were ready for coffee and sandwiches. We had a mini heart attack back at the parking lot when we couldn’t find my car, but turns out we were just looking at the wrong side of the lot. HA! Nothing like a good scare of your car being stolen or towed to end the trip.
All in all, an amazing loop that showed us plenty of corners of the Snoqualmie backcountry we’d never seen before.