If you like to gamble you might consider rolling the dice and heading up to Sheep Lake via the Pacific Crest Trailhead at Chinook Pass. But hurry – the gamble, of course, is the weather! When will the snow fall to stay? That’s anybody’s guess this time of year but in late October through early November we recommend taking traction devices and hiking with trekking poles; it’s also important to keep a sharp eye out for changing weather and road conditions. Always be prepared to turn around if conditions are beyond your comfort or experience level.

Sheep Lake 1
View from Sheep Lake where fall and winter meet

It was sunny and cold on our recent hike to Sourdough Gap. We parked at the Pacific Crest trailhead (PCT) just below Chinook Pass and started up the PCT heading north (right). The fall color has mostly receded from trail-side vegetation but there were still a few silvery swirls of fireweed and a few red-orange berries clinging to skeletal mountain ash. We even noticed a few clumps of the aptly-named Pearly Everlasting which can last well into November.

The first mile or so of the trail parallels SR 410 as the highway wraps around the mountainous terrain that overlooks a peaceful valley where the Rainier fork of the American River threads its way through a copper-colored meadow and high points of American Ridge in the distance. The trail dips in and out of forested pockets and in about 1.5 miles Sheep Lake comes into view. A short, gradual rise leads to the lakeshore and on this cold day we were not surprised to have Sheep Lake to ourselves.

Sheep Lake is always pretty and this day was no exception with remnants of snow here and there and reflections on the mirror-like surface of the lake. Above we could see that Sourdough Ridge above the lake appeared to be mostly snow-free though the snags and peaks along the ridge-line were etched in rime.

Sheep Lake 2
A peek of Mt Rainier just below the gap

Since it was too cold to linger at the lake we continued toward Sourdough Gap as the trail was easy to follow even where snow had accumulated and not yet melted or frozen. The conditions were such that we opted to play it by ear, agreeing to turn back if the terrain proved too formidable or the trail hard to follow. From the lake it’s another 700 feet or so to Sourdough Gap, a rocky saddle between the peak-studded ridges that allows mountain climbers access to formidable peaks and hikers a continuation of the PCT.

As we gained elevation we stopped for photos of Sheep Lake as it came into view below and were pleased to find the upper stretch of the trail mostly snow-free as it is exposed to the sun. If there’s too much snow to reach the gap there are a couple of knolls between Sheep Lake and Sourdough Gap that are suitable for a break or turnaround, especially on a cold, wintry day.

Sheep Lake 3
Sourdough Gap

Though there was no snow at Sourdough Gap we were greeted by shockingly, bitter wind and needed to bundle up immediately. We stayed only long enough to photograph the PCT as it dropped down the other side of the gap, contouring across steep meadows as the trail continued north. If other paths beckon (and they often do) mind the time and allow time to get back before darkness falls.

As we hiked back we took our time identifying animal tracks and noticed fresh cougar tracks and boot-prints of hikers who’d hiked part-way and turned around.  We found a sunny, sheltered spot at the lake and stopped there for lunch. Out of the wind it felt like summer again though we knew we shouldn’t linger.

We recommend you hike this trail soon; Chinook Pass usually closes after Thanksgiving and if conditions are severe it could close earlier. With significant snowfall you’ll also need to keep an eye out for avalanches, especially along the stretch of the trail that contours the highway and above Sheep Lake. Keep a backup hike in your memory bank just in case conditions change at the last minute; this time of year they often do.

Sheep Lake 4
Tipsoo Lake, Late Fall 2013

On our way back to Seattle we stopped at Tipsoo Lake and extended our outing by hiking around Tipsoo Lakes to enjoy some last-minute late October photography.

To get there: from Enumclaw drive east on State Route 410 to Chinook Pass (about 43 miles from Enumclaw). From Chinook Pass continue a short distance to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead/parking lot and facilities (left), elevation 5,435 feet. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.

Additional information:  The hike to Sheep Lake and Sourdough Gap is 6 miles round trip with 1,400 feet gain. Dogs are allowed on the PCT but not on trails inside Mount Rainier National Park. The map is Green Trails No. 269S (Mount Rainier Wonderland). Contact Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forest (Naches Ranger District) at 509-653-1400 for up-to-date road and trail conditions.

Before you set out get an up-to-date weather forecast and check WSDOT for road conditions at Chinook Pass (call 1-800-695-7632). According to their site Chinook Pass is expected to close by December 2 this winter but could occur earlier.

Chains are required to be carried in all vehicles in and through Mount Rainier National Park as of November 1 and used if conditions warrant such. As of October 28 there was no snow on the road.

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