These are desperate times. Hikers know the fall color show will all-too-soon transition to the gritty black and whites of November noir. True, the noir of the Pacific Northwest has a different kind of beauty but it’s still not too late for hikers starved for a last-minute color-fest on both sides of the Cascades. Here are two hikes guaranteed to sate your appetite for color (well, almost).
Pete Lake (Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest)
Finding smoke-free trails the past few weeks has been at times a guessing game, but after sizing up the haze at Snoqualmie Pass we headed east to Pete Lake near Salmon la Sac. As we drove by Cle Elum Lake on our way to the trailhead we were aghast at the low-water levels in the lake – they were much lower than we’d imagined.
There was a hint of smoke in the air as we left the Pete Lake trailhead though the sky was blue and there were no columns of smoke. We also noticed the Cooper River was low; in places more akin to a swamp than a river. Unlike the knee-deep conditions at Tired Creek we’d experienced earlier this year Tired Creek was virtually dry; there was no need to wade or cross on logs.
As we continued we were delighted by vivid displays of vine maple at its peak, glowing like fire beside the trail. Mountain ash popped up like spot-fires here and there, bracken had turned yellow like lamps lighting the forest.
We stopped to ponder a large display of Polyporus Sulphureus (Chicken of the Woods) growing on a stump. These mushrooms commonly grow on conifer or hardwood trees (fallen or standing). The mushrooms grow on top of one another and are often found in large numbers. Unless you are an expert on mushrooms, never sample them unless you’re 100 per cent sure they are safe to eat (there are poisonous look-a-likes to edibles and can be confused by novices).
At about 4 miles we crossed a rock-slide about ½ miles from the lake; at first we thought it was a stream gone dry. At 4.5 miles we reached Pete Lake and unoccupied, spacious campsites at the lake. Fear of fire may have kept some hikers away; usually these campsites are packed as the lake makes a good destination for a family or beginners backpack. Of course strong hikers can continue further – the trail continues to a connection with the Pacific Crest Trail with enticing options, including seldom-visited Spectacle Lake.
On the lakeshore we met a couple of hikers with a friendly dog (the trail is dog-friendly) and chatted about the trail and the on-going fires in nearby regions. Pete Lake is a beautiful setting with views of Lemah Mountain and Chikamin Peak at the far end of the lake. From our vantage vine-maple glowed through the thin haze that clung to the steep, forested slopes on the other side of the lake.
After spending a decadent amount of time at the lake as we hiked out we met three fire-fighters hiking in to check on the status of a fire they’d put out recently. We thanked them for their work and vigilance before we went our separate ways.
Mount Sawyer, Tonga Ridge (Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest)
A couple days later we set out for a hike on the west side of the Cascades to Tonga Ridge/Mount Sawyer just outside Skykomish. From US 2 it’s a long drive on forest service roads to the trailhead but the roads are fine for passenger cars and road junctions were all well-signed. There were already cars at the trailhead when we arrived; we’re not the only hikers chasing fall color.
The trail starts off in the forest with gentle ups and downs. In about two miles we broke out of the forest and slowed our pace as the evergreens thinned, the forest transitioning to colorful mountain ash, fireweed and pearly everlasting. There are also views of distant peaks and ridges though Mount Daniel and its neighbor Mount Hinman steal the show. The upper flanks of Mount Daniel gleamed with ice; we could only imagine how bullet-proof that snow would be.
At about 2-1/2 miles an unsigned trail takes off uphill (left); this is the way to Mount Sawyer. Here the trail switchbacks through meadows and our pace slowed accordingly – not due to the gradient but to the colorful blueberry shrubs interspersed with golden bursts of mountain ash. The trail makes a final switchback, wrapping around Mount Sawyer with a view of Glacier Peak before reaching the summit with sitting room aplenty. The summit is the site of an old lookout, though all that remains are views. Those views are substantial – Mount Daniel and Mount Hinman (to the southeast) and to the south, a very hazy Mount Rainier.
Be prepared to share this summit; this was a weekday and we can well imagine how many hikers hike to the summit on a sunny weekend. We met hikers of all ages and persuasions, even a father carrying a baby. Others had hiked with dogs; the dogs seemed to enjoy the views as much as we did. Bring a map to identify the peaks – there are several including Sloan, Pugh, White Chuck, Baring, Index and more.
Our only complaint is that there are many side-trails and trail junctions that are not signed. If you continue on the main trail (rather than hiking to Mount Sawyer) you can reach Fisher Lake (about 5 miles from the trailhead) and eventually Forest Service Road No. 6830.
Getting there (Pete Lake): From Seattle drive east on I-90 and get off at Exit 80 (Roslyn/Salmon la Sac). Turn left after exiting I-90 then turn left again (toward Roslyn). Drive through Roslyn/Ronald on Salmon la Sac Road (SR 903), pass Cle Elum Lake and turn left (west) onto Forest Road No. 46 and continue 5 miles to Cooper Lake, then turn right onto Forest Service Road No. 4616 (the road crosses the Cooper River), continue past the campground loops to the trailhead near the upper end of the lake. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
Additional information (Pete Lake): Map: Green Trails No. 208 Kachess Lake. The hike is 9 miles round-trip with 700 feet of elevation gain. For updates call the Cle Elum Ranger District (Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest) at 509-852-1100 or visit the Okanogan-Wenatchee.
Getting there (Tonga Ridge, Mount Sawyer): From Skykomish via US 2 just past the Skykomish Ranger Station turn right on Forest Service Road No. 68 (Foss River Road), drive another 3 miles then turn left onto Forest Service Road No. 6830, proceed about 7 miles to an unsigned junction and turn right onto FS Road No. 310. From there it is another 1.4 miles to the end of the road and trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
Additional information (Tonga Ridge, Mount Sawyer): The hike is 6 miles round trip with about 1,340 feet gain. The maps are Green Trails No. 175 (Skykomish) and Green Trails No. 176 (Stevens Pass). Contact the Skykomish Ranger Station for updates on trail/road conditions at 360-677-2414 or visit the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest website.