Opening picture: a glacial tarn and Mt. Daniel, from the basins above Peggy's Pond.
Section J is just magnificent. Passing from Snoqualmie Pass on I90 to Stevens Pass on US2, it spends nearly its entire 70 miles in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, traversing endless ridges, meeting deep blue pools and rushing rivers, and just generally being more consistently pleasant than I thought a trail of this length capable of being. Even in foul weather - I walked out in a storm - there are still the nearby pleasures of deep woods and complex granite walls. Most full thru-hikers do the whole thing in two or three nights. I took four, including a couple half days, but could easily have stayed for twice that, exploring the many, many possible side trips. If one were looking for an easily manageable section to hike, this would be a very good place to start.
Day 13 (July 29): Snoqualmie Pass to Spectacle Lake
PCT 2390.7 - 2407.8 (17.6 miles, including a half mile extra to Spectacle Lake)
I'd arrived at Snoqualmie Pass the day before, sort of weary from two hot days of hiking through 50 miles of clear cuts. But after a nero spent drinking beer, eating pizza pockets in a cold hotel bath, talking to Krista, and sleeping in a real bed, I was ready to head out early the next morning, into the absolute wonderland of the Alpine Lakes.
I checked out of the hotel at first light and walked a half mile on the side of the broad, bright, black frontage road in the rising sun: past out of season snow plows parked in an unused lot; under the interstate, already crowded enough to echo through the underpass; and finally to a sprawling trailhead, full of just two cars, parked at opposite ends.
For the first few miles the trail passes through pleasant, if uneventful, forest. In quick succession, I met the owners of the trailhead’s two lonely cars. The first was a woman about my age, so happy to be out that she seemed unable to contain her joy, as if there were so much of it flowing into her that it couldn’t help but flood out, soaking an ecstatic path behind. I passed her on a sort of nasty blowdown - one of many in this section - but she was just glowing. "Look at all of this!" She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of an unseen wonderland. "Have you ever been here before?" I hadn't. "Shit. Man, I wish I could see this all again for the first time. Just wait for what's coming."
The man from the second car hadn't been here before either, and seemed singularly unsatisfied by what he'd seen so far. So I tried to marshal some of the woman's joy. "It apparently gets really beautiful in a little bit!" He seemed skeptical.
He shouldn’t have been.
As soon as the trail broke from the trees, it emerged in to a world of ridges that stretched all the way back past Mount Rainier, and all the way forward to Glacier Peak. And there were flowers: heather on the rocky ridges above the trail, paintbrush and lupine in the understory, these friendly yellow things I couldn’t identify… I walked spinning, taking pictures of everything. But looking back now, none of them seem to capture it - the ecstasy of sun and flowers and rock and, perhaps most of all, an unscarred world.
The trail traipses across a minor pass just north of Kendall Peak, then becomes a broad catwalk, overlooking Silver and Gold Creeks as it continues north toward a jumble of mountains - Thomson, Alaska, and Huckleberry - each hiding a lake in its shadow.
I stopped at Ridge Lake for a while to chat with a slightly older couple of women wearing wonderfully bright colors, who sat on the shore serenely slapping mosquitoes off of every bit of exposed skin while they asked me kindly questions about the hike. "What's been your favorite part so far?" Goat Rocks. "The hardest?" Missing my wife. "Yea." There was a long pause. "Yea." One reached for the other's hand. "I'm glad we get to do this together."
From the lake, the trail begins a long traverse east above the headwaters of Gold Creek. As it passed under Chikamin Ridge, the tread became more and more faded, until, in spots, there was only a thin line of dusty rocks to mark the route. On the steeper slopes, the tread was sometimes so eroded that I walked sideways, facing uphill for better traction. It took three hours to walk just a little more than five miles. But man: it was still so beautiful.
I felt like I'd been walking forever, but eventually the ridge did give way, and the trail cut east, down into the Park Lakes basin. The basin was beautiful too - full of a half dozen ponds, many seemingly fed by nearby springs or melting snow - but it was also very, very buggy. I decided to push on without lunch, thinking that it was probably better to be empty of food than blood.
Eventually the trail dropped out of the basin, through another minor pass between Four Brothers and Three Queens - one wonders how they handle the imbalance – where I stopped for a quick couple handfuls of trail mix and to filter a liter of water I'd picked up in the basin.
The trail then descended steeply toward Spectacle Lake, my planned home for the night. It also entered the woods, half of which seemed to have fallen down in the middle of the path. At one point - a steep switchback obscured by a fallen giant - I miscalculated, slipped, and slid five or six feet down onto a rocky ledge. I stopped with no problem, but my leg got badly scratched in a few places, and was bleeding a bit more than I would have liked. So I scrambled back up to the trail - or what I presumed to be the trail - and sat for a little to think. It was nothing too bad, really. The blood was more scary than anything. So I cleaned things out as well as I could with hand sanitizer (note: this works, but is not terribly pleasant), duct taped some gauze onto the worst parts, and continued on, down toward the lake.
Spectacle Lake is miraculously beautiful. Like: the sort of thing that really doesn't feel like it should exist. And, when I was there, it was also miraculously empty, both of people and bugs. I made camp on a rocky bluff on the eastern shore, washed the blood off my legs and clothes, and went for a wonderful swim, almost all the way across, as the light grew long and the hills above began to soften.
As the afternoon faded into evening, I was joined by my only company for the night - a family of four, two young-ish parents and two brothers, maybe five and eight. I ate dinner sitting on the shore with my feet in the water, watching the boys play across the way, and thinking of when my parents used to take my brother and I out like that. When we started, we would have been about that age: me the wild five-year-old, jumping off boulders into shallow water, and my brother the quiet, protective older one, playing in the dirt, building imaginary worlds out of small rocks and mud at the water's edge, telling me that the trees at the bottom of the lake were dinosaur bones.
I watched them across the way as it got dark, and the parents told them it was time to come in. And I thought of something I read a while ago, from Neil Gaiman: "Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside... Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world." I thought of that, and of my brother's dinosaur bones, and of what a good job my parents did. And I started to cry in that way you only do when you've grown up, not exactly at being sad, but at being acutely confronted by life's shape. At the strangeness of time. At the worlds you built with your brother at the edge of the lake.
Day 14 (July 30): Spectacle Lake to Waptus River Crossing
PCT 2407.8 - 2425.3 (18 miles, including a half mile extra from Spectacle Lake)
I slept in the next day, woke to a warm tent, ate breakfast in camp, and spent the better part of the morning wandering around the lake’s southern shore. The family across the way pushed out around ten – “just one night for us” – and I followed a little way behind.
From Spectacle Lake, the trail switches back steeply through new burn down toward Delate Meadow. Blowdown was a continual bother – it would be for the rest of the day – but it felt much less threatening with fresh legs, and I made good time to the meadow and north, across several unbridged forks of Lemah Creek.
Then… the climb. It was only a few thousand feet, up a ridge just south of Summit Chief, but for some reason – the day’s heat, blowdown, the scars of old fires, the sore scab on my left leg – things were going slowly, and I unhappily huffed and puffed into the afternoon.
I ran out of water near the top, and was just generally feeling sort of crappy when I ran into a southbounder sitting on a sharp rock who told me in a thick German accent what a beautiful afternoon it was. “Have you looked across the valley?” I dutifully stared at the glaciated peaks, the waterfalls, the crumbling rock walls. He continued, “It’s a good day.”
Well, it turned into one anyway. Shortly after we said our Pigeon English goodbyes, I ran into a series of small ponds settled into small cracks in the crest, where I refilled my water and sat a while to take in the view south.
Then it was just a long, easy, well-graded series of switchbacks down to the Waptus River. As I descended, clouds grew west, behind the Cascade Crest, but they never came to anything, and served only to add drama to Mount Daniel and Bear’s Breast.
I made camp on a white granite shelf beside the Waptus River, just up the trail from a kindly young wilderness ranger who was eager to talk – about Cle Elum, the unappreciated beauty of the lower Alpine Lakes, the unalloyed cruelty of trail-encroaching shrubs – but excused himself early, on account of having to get up at five to lead a trail maintenance crew. I spent the sunset sitting on a broad bridge above the river, watching clouds pass back and forth across Dutch Miller Gap, then retired to a smooth rock beside my tent, where I laid watching the sky until the stars came out.
Day 15 (July 31): Waptus River Crossing to Peggy's Pond and Above
PCT 2425.3 - 2435 (13.7 miles, including several miles of wandering above Peggy's Pond toward Mt. Daniel)
I slept in again, and ate breakfast on the bridge. It was silently serene apart from the rushing river, and I thought for a while about staying for the day. But restlessness got the better of me, and in the late morning I headed out, for a short day up to Deep Lake and Peggy’s Pond.
The trail was just beautiful as it passed along the northern shore of Waptus Lake, though dense forest and across several creeks. It reminded me of the Gorge – maybe that stretch of the Oneonta Trail just south of Triple Falls, where, in winter, all the little feeder streams cut across – and I began to miss home in a dull, deep way.
After the lake, the trail joins Spinola Creek, which it vaguely follows up through huckleberry fields toward Deep Lake. It was easy walking, but I still stopped halfway up to eat a few dozen berries and marvel at the pleasant, easy forest.
Two weeks before, on my first day out, sitting sadly somewhere south of Indian Heaven, I’d run into a southbound couple who seemed to understand my state without me saying a word. They’d looked at me sympathetically and said something like “You know, after a couple of weeks, you’ll be walking on air.” I thought of that now, as I hopped happily up the trail, from rock to rock.
I stopped for lunch along Spinola Creek as it emerged from Deep Lake, and watched a family of tiny ducks bobbing in and out of the water. Diving for food? Then it was up another thousand feet to the turnoff for Peggy’s Pond.
I was there almost before I knew it, then it was just a short, steep sidehill below Cathedral Rock to the pond and its unlikely plateau, empty but for thousands of flowers.
I set up camp at the far end of the plateau, in the northern shadow of Cathedral Rock, then set out for a short stroll toward Mount Daniel.
I followed a meltwater stream from the north end of the plateau west, up into a beautiful glacial basin surrounded on three sides by towering granite and melting snow and rocks all just ready to fall.
It looked at first as though I’d get turned around by a steep-ish granite wall only halfway up the basin, but it turned out to have a number of inviting cracks, and I followed them up, zigzagging between streams and snow and flowers and grass.
At the top was another world, full of snowfields and blue green tarns placed improbably among the rocks and ridges. I walked around the edges taking pictures, but finally just sat down in the middle of it all, shifting every several minutes to get another view.
Eventually it was five and I’d promised myself I’d turn around by 4:30, so I got up and ambled down, punctual as ever, back the way I came.
The night got cold and I turned in early, peering out the mesh of my tent as the sunset lit Cathedral Rock red, and my little lonely plateau slowly faded out.
Day 16 (August 1): Peggy's Pond to Mig Lake
PCT 2435 - 2454.2 (20.2 miles, including a mile extra from Peggy's Pond)
I woke up to the sound of mosquitoes, who’d apparently woken up early, roused by the possibility of an hot breakfast. I ate in the tent, watching them buzz expectantly across the front mesh, then packed up gingerly and ran away, back to the PCT.
Almost immediately after rejoining the trail, it crested a small pass just south of Cathedral Rock and began a long traverse around Hyas Lake, passing a half dozen creeks, which ranged from trickles to torrents.
After a few wet, brushy miles, I reached Deception Pass, and the trail immediately improved. I think the pass marks a line between ranger districts? But in any case, the trail suddenly became broad and easy, and I stopped to filter some water and eat a few handfuls of trail mix.
As I sat on a rock in the mostly dry stream bed, a massive noise – like a thousand engines starting at once – came careening over Trico Mountain. Then, an instant later, an army jet passed. It couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet above the trees, following the Deception Creek drainage down and out of sight. Strange. It felt not so much like an intrusion as a category error – like the color purple showing up for Sunday dinner. The sound stuck around for a while, echoing up and down the canyon. And when it finally faded, the wilderness all seemed swiftly sweeter, and more significant, in the new silence.
From the pass, the trail followed high above Deception Creek to the Deception Lakes, then around the north side of Surprise Mountain to Glacier and Surprise Lakes. I stopped for lunch at a small outcrop, where I was joined by a dad and his son, both struggling under massive packs, in the middle of a week-long trip from Stevens to Snoqualmie. They were both obviously tired, but in good spirits, and joked with each other about the size of their packs as they stumbled to get them off.
Switchbacking down from Surprise Mountain, I got my first views of Glacier Peak and the North Cascades. I’d never seen Glacier Peak before. It’s huge! And it felt weird to be seeing it for the first time, like I’d somehow managed to live in Portland my whole life and never see Mount Hood.
I’d been expecting the second half of the day to be mostly about making miles, but it turned out to be unexpectedly beautiful, as the trail passed through heather meadows full of peeping pikas and onto a long, deep green ridge above Trap Lake and Trapper Creek. It cooled off and the shadows grew long and I sped up a little, the way one does when the walking’s easy and thoughts of dinner begin to intrude.
Camp that night was a generous site on the south side of Mig Lake, sheltered on three sides by trees, with its own sort of veranda overlooking the lake. There was no one else there and the water was warm, so I took off my clothes and dived in in the fading light, swimming to the other side and back as the clouds turned pink.
Sitting on the shore to dry off, I thought again of my brother. If I had been in Portland, we’d probably be going to float down the river. Maybe I’d go sit with him in his garden, watch him tend to the tomatoes, playing in the dirt.
It’s funny. People always talk about these sorts of trips as times to find yourself. But I’m not sure that’s right. There’s looking in, to be sure, but for me, looking in always means looking out: at my brother, Krista, my parents, at all the people who make me who I am, at all the people who were now with me only in the memories I always carry. But maybe finding that is what it means to find myself.
The sun set and I scampered into bed, just as an unthreatening cloud came over the horizon.
Day 17 (August 2): Mig Lake to Stevens Pass and Beyond
PCT 2454.2 - 2461.6 and Beyond (7.4 miles + more into Section K)
So here’s the thing: that cloud was actually kinda threatening.
I woke up in heavy fog. It wasn’t raining, but it wasn’t exactly not raining either, and I packed up quickly, worried that things might break for real.
From the lake, the trail passes gently up and down across a series of minor ridges to Lake Susan Jane, then leaves the wilderness for a few miles of powerlines and ski lifts. I made good time as it started to rain in earnest, and thunder cracked in the distance.
I had a resupply package that Krista had sent waiting at Stevens Pass, but when I got there the place seemed totally deserted, and I wandered around for a while, looking for somebody, anybody, who worked there. Eventually, after a nervous half hour, I chased a man down, a pleasant ski bum type from Leavenworth, who helped me get my stuff and directed me to an empty dining deck where I could sort through it all.
As I packed up my next week’s worth of stuff, I checked my phone and miraculously had service, so I called Krista to thank her for the package and to tell her how I’d been and to hear her voice and to… well, you know. It was hard, because I had to get going, but it’s funny how much a short hello can mean.
After another half hour of futzing, I got everything loaded into my pack, said my goodbyes to the massive, deserted Disneyland, and ambled across the pedestrian bridge over US-2, on, through the rain, to my last section.