Exploring North Cascades National Park
If you are heading to Seattle from the Tri-Cities, Snow Lake and Gem Lake are perhaps among the top day-hiking trails in the Cascades to place on your bucket list.
These trails offer a national park-quality experience right off Interstate 90.
The trails, both within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, are less than a quarter mile from the west summit exit at Snoqualmie Pass.
The Snow Lake Trail is one of the most heavily walked trails in the region. Despite the crowds, it is worth it.
It is 3.2 miles from the parking lot to Snow Lake. The trail is rated moderate, with a net elevation gain of 1,700 feet. Bring your camera.
The trailhead is at the north end of the main parking lot at the Alpental Ski Area. Get there early, especially on weekends.
The trail begins with a series of log steps that go up 200 feet before settling into a delightful, mentally relaxing and enjoyable ascent through the sub-alpine forest.
At one mile, the landscape becomes more rugged, with talus and rock and some great views up and down the valley.
At two miles, you hit a junction and take a right to go to the lake. This next section is memorable, as dynamite was used to blast the switchbacks into the next mile of trail to the ridge line.
You’ll be happy if you bring hiking poles for this section. Given the number of people on this heavily trafficked trail, it is critical that people be kind to others.
Hiking trail etiquette requires that people going down yield the right-of-way to people coming up.
Happily, it’s only a short 500-foot climb and you cross into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area at the top of the ridge and get your first look down at Snow Lake, which is now only half a mile farther.
The lake is remarkable, and it is easy to see why this is so popular and famous.
The rugged vertical cliffs, steep snow stripes, jagged rock cliffs and sparkling waters offer breathtaking vistas and life-changing memories that have blessed many magazine features for decades.
You can walk along the lake shore and soak up the amazing view of the sparkling crystal blue water set against the razor sharp ridge lines and rocky slopes of this central spine of the High Cascades.
Chair Peak stands tall at the end of a jagged ridge rising over, 2,000 feet at the far side of the valley on the north end of the lake.
One option is to then keep hiking along the eastern shoreline and follow the sign to Gem Lake. Along the way you’ll get views up and down Snow Lake and get to cross over a well-constructed single log bridge.
A mile and half farther and 400 feet higher, you’ll cross some flower-studded high-elevation meadows and reach Gem Lake. It is worth the time and effort to get to this little jewel.
Be forewarned: If you hike here in the peak of summertime, realize that you are close to standing water. Remember to bring and use mosquito repellent.
The Snow Lake Trail is used year-round by travelers, hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and in the wintertime snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
It is best used from July until the snow falls. The views are exceptional, and a variety of colorful wildflowers abound and occasional wildlife can be seen.
In the winter, the prime location and deep snow are a tempting destination. But the steep slopes present an extreme avalanche danger, and several people died here in recent years.
Care must be exercised by those who choose to come here at all times. Dress properly and bring extra clothes and food and water. Pay attention to the weather forecasts and be prepared to deal with rapidly changing conditions.
Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept under control and on leash. A $5 National Forest Pass or a Senior Pass is required for parking.
An Alpine Lake Wilderness permit is required. The day use permits are self-issued at the trailhead. Special overnight reservation permits are required from May 15 to Oct. 31.