Alpine Lakes Wilderness

August 2021

Image: Looking across Jade lake on the final morning.

Our original plan was to go to the North Cascades and Mount Rainier. Neither of these panned out.

We struggled with Rainier National Park’s permitting gymnastics and didn’t find any compelling backpacking trips that we could do there as a result. Apline Lakes Wilderness caught our eyes, mainly because of our fondness of alpine lakes but the simplified logistics of the wilderness area compared to the National Parks was certainly attractive.

We had planned to go to the North Cascades first. The route was going to bring us from Hannegan Pass up to Copper Mountain Lookout and along Copper Ridge. A fire at Bear Creek resulted in the Copper Ridge trail getting shut down, so we pivoted to going to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness first, and hoped that conditions in the North Cascades would improve over the next week.

In Alpine Lakes Wilderness, we decided to do a 3 day / 2 night trip, spending our first night at Robin Lake and our second night at Jade Lake / Dip Top Gap. Most people do one or the other - not both - and while I didn’t understand at the time, I would soon understand why.

Our first test was on the drive to the trailhead. My Model 3 is quite capable on loose surfaces and handles dirt roads with confidence so long as the largest of divots are avoided. I was not prepared, however, to cross a stream. Three miles from the trailhead, we needed to drive across a stream which we paused at to observe other 4x4s and SUVs ford with ease. Nonetheless, after some deliberation I was not confident enough to bring an electric car through the water. We parked and added 3 miles to the beginning and end of our trip. Luckily, we were able to hitch hike about half of the way to the trailhead on the way out. It was probably my only good experience I’ve had with the owner of a white pickup truck. We saw another Model 3 at the trailhead which had obviously forded the stream a few miles back - I felt like a wimp. Alas, the interwebs is chock full of videos of Teslas powering through surprisingly deep waters.

The first handful of miles from he trailhead along Hyas Lake were unassuming but enjoyable. The weather was overcast and damp, but comfortable for trekking with our loaded packs. The trail turned out of the valley towards the mountains and became a bit more physically demanding, but still just a series of switchbacks on a well defined trail. This continued until we turned right off of Deception Pass Trail towards Robin Lakes.

Things started getting real. At this point, the trail became un-bikeable (this is a distinction I use mentally for trails that are too steep and/or technically challenging to ride my mountain bike on). An additive factor was the rain: as we gained elevation, the weather became wetter and wetter. It was time to put on rain gear, but it wasn’t uncomfortable (yet).

Eventually, the trail leveled out and we could tell Tuck Lake was just over the next hill. Once we got to Tuck, the path disappeared. We followed a few dead-end trails as we tried to navigate past the lake. We knew we were supposed to navigate between Tuck Lake and Tuck’s Pond, but we failed: there appeared to be no safe path from where we were between the lake and the pond.

For a few minutes at Tuck, we thought we had come across a hiker in distress. We saw a tarped campsite without anyone nearby and began hearing whistling in the distance. When we used our whistle to call back, the distant whistle momentarily paused; odd behavior for a distressed hiker, we thought. Eventually, we found the hiker, notably not in distress, that belonged to the tarp site. He informed us that marmots sometimes make loud whistling noises and it became obvious that we were duped by our furry friends in the mountains.

Following some footsteps and quasi-trails, we scrambled our way down to Tuck’s Pond and navigated the downed trees on the edge of the pond, using stepping stones where we could to avoid the muddy pond’s edge. We ultimately made it all the way around the pond to where the main trail was supposed to be, but it was a much wetter and scrappier pursuit than we anticipated.

A fellow backpacker let us know that we should put faith in the cairns to identify the trail. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which we’d have to rely on these little piles of trail rocks to navigate our way to Robin Lake from Tuck. The remaining ~2 miles to the lake were almost entirely rock scrambling and some light bouldering, with little-to-no clear trail except for the cairns our friend told us about. Our pace slowed to a crawl, literally.

Image: Robin Lakes seconds before downpouring. Our campsite was in the grassy area near the lake in view, per advice from a fellow backpacker we encountered that this would be a less windy location than on the ridge between the two lakes, where you can see others had set up camp.

We finally made it to Robin Lake, but the weather was turning. As we defended down towards the lake to find a suitable campsite, the worst rain of the day came. We hustled to get our tent set up while keeping the critical items dry - sleeping bag and nighttime socks, mostly. We were set up pretty quickly but got drenched in the process. The weather did not let up, so we ended up cooking food in the vestibule of our tent so that we could avoid getting wetter. We packed our food and scented items in the bear canister and sprinted out of the tent to get it away from the campsite for the night.

The night was windy and wet, and this inclement weather continued into the morning. With temperatures in the 30s, nothing dried and the notion of getting out of our warm, dry sleeping bags to put on wet, cold socks, shoes, and clothes felt impossible. With no other option, we accepted our reality and got suited up after doing what we could to warm our socks and clothes inside our sleeping bag. I felt the lake water while getting water to filter for breakfast and recall it being the first time thinking an alpine lake was warm given how cold everything else was.

After breakfast, carefully packing our dry sleeping bags and clothes into plastic bags, and getting the rest of the sopping wet gear affixed to our bags, we began the trek down to Tuck Lake. The trip down was harder with the wet rocks, but the shelter from the weather provided by the mountain as we descended was welcome.

I was thinking about how easily we could hike back to the car and get a hotel room as we descended from Tuck back to Deception Pass, but kept it to myself. The thought luckily never materialized, and we continued across Deception Pass towards Marmot and Jade Lake.

We were warm and relatively comfortable as we made our way, though some foot care was in order to avoid blisters in our wet shoes. We paused prior to ascending further in case weather turned for the worse again.

The hike to Marmot Lake on day 2 was fairly straightforward - easier than our ascent to Tuck Lake on day 1. We threw ourselves a challenge getting from Marmot Lake to Jade Lake, though.

Similar to the ascent from Tuck Lake to Robin Lake on day 1, the ascent to Jade Lake was not as clearly marked. We ended up ascending up a boulder field next to a stream which matched the description of the trail we had read about. The route turned challenging - the rocks were loose and the route was becoming very steep - but we felt relatively confident that it was the right trail and had high expectations for the challenging ascent given how challenging it was getting to Robin Lake the day before.

The challenge of this segment continued to grow and the expectation that a clear trail would emerge or cairns to mark the way to the trail evaporated. We found ourselves bouldering up the wet rock faces in the stream. Descending was no longer an option as it was too dangerous with our full packs on and the path forward was unsafe with anything but full rock climbing gear. We had to make it slightly further up the stream in order to access a point where we could exit to the side where there was some vegetation to help keep us from falling down what had become nothing short of a cliff.

I can’t think of a more dangerous situation that I’ve been in while hiking, but we made it through that section and to the relative safety of the forest. All was not yet clear, as the steep, pine needle-covered forest provided little traction and had several cliff faces we needed to avoid. Nevertheless, there were trees to stabilize ourselves on between moves and we were able to check the GPS and gain confidence that traversing laterally across a latitude line would get us to a trail, or a safer place at the very least.

We slowly moved through the traction-less forest and found ourselves in another rock field. This time, we saw a worn path with many cairns marking the way. It was a relief.

The remaining hike to Jade Lake was not easy, but it was safe and that’s all we cared about anymore. We passed No Name Lake and were disappointed with the creativity of the lake namers, and then came upon Jade Lake. The weather was still cloudy, so we couldn’t see much, but we could tell it was a special place. We were lucky to secure the third tent site at the Lake as the first two were already taken. It was not raining, though everything was still sopping wet from the day before. Either way, we were exhausted and it was getting dark. We set up camp, made dinner, and got back into our dry sleeping bags.

Image: The final stretch after a very full day - Jade lake is right around the corner. The weather hadn't turned for the better yet, but the forecast was good.

I could tell that the weather had improved before opening the rain fly of the tent on day 3 but maintained low expectations in case it had not. It only took a few inches of unzipping to see that it was a bluebird day. I excitedly opened the rainfly fully and could see our lush surroundings thawing as the warmth of the sun hit the ground for the first time in days and the water from the past two days of rain steamed into the air. Our gear was still wet, but with the warm sun and still air, I had no problem getting out of the tent to walk around barefoot. Jade Lake was visible from our campsite and immediately became my favorite alpine lake: it was hard to believe the color was real and the lake was surrounded by a glacier on one side, a rock cliff on another, and lush meadow and forest on the other.

Image: The final stretch after a very full day - Jade lake is right around the corner. The weather hadn't turned for the better yet, but the forecast was good.

The needle-covered ground made our off-trail traverse near cliffs the night before tenuous, but it was now a comfortable carpet underneath our bare feet as we laid out our shoes and socks to dry in the sun. We took our time thawing out this morning and enjoying Jade Lake. Mosquitos were out in force, but bug lotion and hoods were enough to keep them from bothering us.

The hike down was mostly uneventful, thankfully. The last few miles were challenging just due to fatigue, but they were the least technical bit. We weren’t able to hitch a ride back to the car - there was far less traffic this Monday night than there was on Saturday when we hiked in. We made it back to Tessie and all three of us were hungry. We headed down the forest service road and into nearby towns. A few hours later, we were all fed and on our way to Seattle.