PCT: Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass

Miles 2393.2-2464.1 of the northbound PCT: Stunning views along a series of big ups and downs, between high mountain lakes and lush valley forest in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Hiking Difficult

Distance
112 km
Ascent
4.9 km
Descent
4.5 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
910 m
High Point
1.8 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass Map

Description

No matter how many miles you’ve hiked on the PCT, Washington Section J is sure to stand out as one of the most memorable. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is hands-down one of the most spectacular sections––if you can catch it in good weather. These mountains are, of course, susceptible to Washington’s infamous rain in late season. Mid-summer often has the best weather, but the tradeoff is heat and mosquitoes. Early summer can be comfortable, but slopes remain streaked with snow. No matter when you tackle the Alpine Lakes, you should prepare for a range of conditions and expect a wealth of scenery.

Just north of the interstate at Snoqualmie Pass is a large PCT trailhead area with picnic tables and trash cans. From there, the trail begins its rise into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It’s mostly uphill––and rather steep––for about 6 miles to reach the famous Kendall Katwalk (NB mile 2399.2). This is a section beneath Kendall Peak that spans a narrow ridge and a cliff traverse. For about 100 yards, you’ll stare into space on either side of the well-built trail, then ease along a blasted ledge that’s wide enough to be safe but tight enough to keep you on your toes. The Katwalk is a popular destination for day hikers, but most people turn around after completing it, so you’ll continue into uncrowded wilderness from there.

The next treat is Ridge Lake (NB mile 2400.3), which sits perched in a gap above larger lakes on either side. There is an established campsite here, used often by weekend backpackers. From there, the trail continues on a meandering course across meadowy mountainsides, with pockets of forest but mostly wide-open views to jagged horizons. Small campsites can be found here and there, some much better than others. Water is generally easy to find in small streams and ponds.

The trail moves up and down for a while, but after cresting a particular ridge with a beautiful view down to Spectacle Lake (NB mile 2409), an aggressive descent begins. The trail takes repeated switchbacks into the valley of Delate Creek, at one point crossing a wooden bridge beneath a waterfall (NB mile 2411.2). The gradient lessens as the trail contours through a mix of burned and intact forest near the bottom of the valley. It then crosses Lemah Creek on a bridge and finds nice campsites near a meadow on the other side (NB mile 2414.5).

The uphill resumes from there, with a very stout climb to the high ridge above. It’s more than 5 miles of broad switchbacks on slopes dotted with trees and streaked with talus. Near the top of the climb is a small lake that could make a campsite (NB mile 2419.8), but plenty more camps can be found in the next few miles as well. The trail bends through alpine meadows with incredible views, staying mostly flat for only a couple of miles before the next determined descent (NB mile 2422.5).

A 6-mile downhill brings the trail to Waptus River (NB mile 2427.8), which is crossed on a big wooden bridge. Campsites can be found near here, as well as farther up near Spade Creek (NB mile 2428.6). As one might expect, this deep valley presents another big climb ahead. This one begins gently, however, rising through lush forest above Waptus Lake and into the valley of Spinola Creek.

Higher up, the trail crosses avalanche paths bursting with young trees and berry bushes. The gradual ascent ends near Deep Lake, where there’s a sizable creek that must be forded (2434.6), followed by a meadow with a stream and campsites. After that, the ascent steepens, zigzagging up to Cathedral Pass on the ridge overhead. A few other trails converge at the pass (2437.7), and the PCT proceeds along a natural balcony with epic views. Cathedral Rock towers overhead, and blue lakes lie in the next valley below.

The trail works its way into this valley, descending through more forest and particularly broad avalanche paths. On the way, there is one creek crossing that can be difficult early season (NB mile 2441.1). Rather than dropping all the way to the lakes, the trail stays rather high and crosses over the forested Deception Pass (NB mile 2442.9), where there’s another trail junction and small campsites scattered around. Uphill resumes from there, but it’s not especially steep and stays mostly in the trees.

After passing Deception Lake and good campsites (NB mile 2446.4), there’s a bit more elevation to gain on the side of Surprise Mountain. Soon the trail pops over a rocky ridgeline at Pieper Pass (2448.2), revealing a stunning view. On the other side is a picture-perfect cirque of peaks streaked with gray and green and cradling a deep-blue lake in the center. The trail dips through this glacier-carved basin with fine campsites in the bottom, then rises on short but steep switchbacks to another pass on the opposite side (NB mile 2452.1).

Next is a panoramic traverse above a circular lake, and the PCT proceeds on a gentle downward trend. After passing the small lakes Hope (NB mile 2456) and Mig (2456.7) the trail goes uphill again, then weaves among a cluster of treed summits, with more lakes appearing around every turn. Lake Susan Jane has established campsites and a backcountry toilet (NB mile 2459.8). Finally, the trail meets the cleared runs of Stevens Pass Ski Area, and one short climb remains to get over a saddle. Then it’s down through the meadows and glades of the resort to reach Highway 2.

The ski resort offers limited summer services, including a small store and restaurant. They can also accept resupply packages. With long stretches of wilderness to the north and south, however, many hikers opt to ride into Skykomish, the nearest town to the west. It’s a tiny place but offers much better shopping and services than the ski resort.

Permits: The Alpine Lakes Wilderness requires a permit that is free and self-issued at trailheads. Parking at trailheads may also require a Northwest Forest Pass or day-use fee.

Sources: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/okawen/recarea/?recid=79432 https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/maps/ https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/

Difficulty

Difficult

Hiking trails where obstacles such as rocks or roots are prevalent. Some obstacles can require care to step over or around. At times, the trail can be worn and eroded. The grade of the trail is generally quite steep, and can often lead to strenuous hiking.

High Exposure

3 out of 4

Some trail sections have exposed ledges or steep ascents/descents where falling could cause serious injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

June, July, August, September, October

Features

  • Alpine
  • Wildlife
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Similar routes nearby

Guidebooks in this area