PCT Training in the Pacific Northwest: Lake to Lake
Whenever I try to force myself to exercise, I end up hating myself and counting down the seconds until my workout is over.
Whenever I go on a hike, time flies and I can easily hike for hours at a time without realizing it.
That’s why instead of training specifically for the PCT, I’m just going out every weekend and hiking—that’s what I would be doing anyway, even if I wasn’t planning to thru-hike the PCT. Washington State has a ton of great places to go hiking, including some of the most beautiful alpine lakes you can find. I know I will never be able to exhaust all of Washington’s lakes, but here are some of my favorites and/or most memorable lake hikes. (I have another post on my favorite summits!) Of course, some of these would be awesome day hikes if you’re hoping to extend your thru-hike adventure in Washington.
(Pictured up top: cuddling mountain goats in the Core Enchantments.)
Elevation gain: 2,500 feet
Distance: 9.0 miles
Larches are rare. They’re found in several places in Eurasia, but are generally only seen in the Pacific Northwest in the entire Western Hemisphere. What makes them special is the distinct yellow color they turn in the fall before their needles fall off. The larch season only lasts a few weeks, so you have to time it just right to see those golden needles.
Simply put, they’re evergreens that don’t stay forever green.
Those of us in Washington are lucky—we only need to drive a few hours to reach places where we can see them. Ingalls is one place you can go. Most of the trail is exposed, with views of the Esmerelda peaks along the way. Upon cresting Ingalls Pass, it becomes a larch heaven, and during larch season when there’s snow, it’s even more beautiful. Views of Enchantments are prominent when you get closer to Ingalls.
In case you missed the photo, the Ingalls hike is practically the very definition of autumn.
Elevation gain: 2,420 feet
Distance: 6.5 miles
Some people are disappointed when it’s a foggy/cloudy/gray day, but I’d argue that lakes are often more beautiful under the low-hanging mist.
Mason Lake is an extremely popular hike on the I-90 corridor for good reason—the trail starts in the woods, but opens up about halfway up to a huge talus and views across the highway and views of Rainier on a clear day. Hitting a junction, go left to Mason Lake and right to summit Bandera Mountain. Descending into a basin is how you know you’re getting close to the lake. You can also head past Mason to summit Mount Defiance.
It’s one of my go-to hikes if I don’t want to drive far, on a cloudy day, or want something relatively easy but still want to get outside.
No matter how often I do it, it never gets old.
Elevation gain: 4,400 feet
Distance: 21.0 miles
Along the way to Jade Lake, you have to hike around Hyas and Marmot Lakes. Both are excellent places to camp around, which is exactly what we did—one night at Hyas, and another night at Marmot. We day-hiked to Jade, which requires scaling a dry waterfall. It’s totally worth it.
I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen the color of Jade Lake in nature before. It was almost the exact same color as my Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket, so I occasionally have to look at the jacket to convince myself that I didn’t imagine I saw Jade in that unreal blue-green.
It’s about as alpine of a lake as you’ll find anywhere.
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Distance: 8.2 miles
I thought when I started hiking, I’d get used to climbing stairs.
Nope. I definitely still hate stairs.
That’s what makes my feelings about Lake Serene so complicated. On the one hand, I love hiking, and Serene is gorgeous. On the other, the hike up to the lake requires walking up dozens and dozens of steps. And they’re not small steps either. (Over time, my thighs/knees/calves have come to realize stairs are made for people much taller than me.)
Still, I do it anyway. The trail up past the stairs opens up to expansive views across Highway 2. As you get closer to the lake, the tall mountains surrounding it standing prominently in front of you. And then, that lake; that totally clear, eerily still water. It’s especially beautiful in the winter, with the snow against the dark stone around the lake.
Elevation gain: 2,500 feet
Distance: 8.5 miles
I didn’t expect too much from Melakwa, which is part of the reason I hadn’t hiked to it until recently.
Boy, was I wrong.
It was lightly snowing the day I went—I didn’t suspect at all that I’d be walking into a true winter wonderland.
The first part is in the woods; very unassuming. Then, without warning, the trail completely opens up, and my jaw practically fell into the snow. The mist coated the peaks to our left and the mountain we were climbing on our right. The snow made everything silent, only more so because the trail was so empty due to hikers not wanting to come out in this weather. My hiking partner said that he felt like we were on a movie set, and that this hike was starting to convince him that hiking is not just a summer sport.
On the trail, at one point I said out loud, “OK, this is my new favorite winter lake trail.” And I definitely wasn’t lying.
Elevation gain: 4,500 feet
Distance: 18.0 miles
This isn’t technically a “lake hike;” it’s a “lakes hike.” And one of the most beautiful places in Washington State, if not the entire country.
Some Quick Background
The Enchantments are split up into five separate zones. In order from west to east:
- Core Enchantments
- Snow Lakes
To camp in any of the zones, you need a camping permit for that zone.
Let’s talk about the Core zone, flanked by the Colchuck and Snow Lakes zones. It’s got the hardest camping permit to get.
First of all, it’s a lottery system. Secondly, it’s popular because you can camp in any of the five zones with this permit, not just the Core. Thirdly, you’re competing against thousands of people. Literally thousands. In 2017, there were almost 18,000 lottery entries.
Only 728 permits were handed out.
In other words, the odds of getting a permit in 2017 were about 4%.
If you don’t get a permit yourself, you have two options:
- Each permit allows eight people to camp in that zone as a group. You can try to make as many friends as possible, and hope to be in their top eight (oof, throwback to Myspace).
- Hike through the Colchuck zone or Snow Lakes zone.
See, the problem is that the Core doesn’t have a trailhead. No, to get to that zone, you have to either hike through Colchuck or Snow Lakes.
To get to the Core Enchantments from the Colchuck trailhead, you get to get up close and personal with Aasgard Pass before seeing the Core, a 2,000-foot climb in less than a mile. To get there from Snow Lakes, you’ll have a blast hiking up a steady 5,200 feet over a cool ten-ish miles.
Go on, then. Pick your poison.
I’ve backpacked the Enchantments before; I’m lucky enough to be friends with someone who scored a permit (thanks, Hwei!). Absolutely unbelievable. I mean, it felt wrong to blink, because it’d detract from staring at everything around me.
But what’s really fun is the thru-hike.
Get ready for a 12-hour day!
Most people start from the Colchuck trailhead and finish at Snow Lakes trailhead. Get ready for a long-ass day.
The trek starts with what some would already consider a relatively difficult day hike to Colchuck Lake, which is where the beauty begins.
Heading around the lake, Aasgard Pass looms over hikers who attempt to reach the Core. After destroying your calves on Aasgard, Isolation and Tranquil Lakes greet you; it’s a good stopping point for a snack. You’ll be able to see Crystal to your left; one of the toilets has a damn good view of it, so it’s a great place to poop. If you want, there’s a side scramble up to Little Annapurna, giving you a great view of the lakes you’ve seen so far, and previews of the ones to come.
Next, you’ll head around Inspiration Lake, followed by Perfection, followed by Leprechaun (I swear I’m not making these names up). If you take a side trip here up Prusik Pass, you can hang out at Gnome Tarn, quite possibly the most still body of water I’ve ever seen, with a perfect reflection of Prusik Peak in it.
Continuing on to Lake Viviane, you’ve reached the end of the Core Enchantments, and it’s time for the ten-mile slog down the Snow Lakes zone. You’ll see the beautiful Upper and Lower Snow Lakes, then Nada, before reaching long, exposed switchbacks where you can see the parking lot for about five miles before actually reaching it.
It’s nothing short of magical.
Deemed the “hardest hike in Olympic National Park” on the Washington Trails Association for its 3,000-foot climb over just two miles, we were opening celebrating when we finally made it to the lake, and almost kissing the ground when we finally made it to the trailhead.
I touched the PCT for the first time to get to Lake Valhalla, so now I’ve done an entire two miles of the thru-hike already. Only 2,000+ more miles to go!
I don’t know if anyone actually knows where Lake 1 through Lake 21 are.
A friend of mine was visiting Seattle, and asked if I could take her on a backpacking trip with a lake. Naturally, I found a backpacking trip where we would see four (Snow, Gem, Lower, and Upper Wildcat Lakes). And yes, that is a reflection.
My face here basically says it all (taken by a wonderful soul, Katie).
Those little holes you see on the surface? Turns out people like throwing rocks into an icy lake.
What can I say? I like me some frozen lakes.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.