The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is the kind of place my dreams are made of. No joke, even my day dreams are filled with craggy mountain wonderlands with crystal clear lakes, pine trees, and trails. Not surprisingly, a visit to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington's Cascades has been high on my list since we moved here.
Last month, I made my first adventure into this wilderness via the Ira Spring Trail to Mason Lake. A relatively short hike in terms of distance, about six miles out and back. The elevation gain is what gets you on this hike - in only three miles the trail directs you up about 2,550 feet. It's a LOT of up, however the views at the top (seriously, amazing) and the lake itself make it all worthwhile.
The first two miles or so of the hike is honestly, rather unremarkable. Just like most any trail in the area it's filled with pine trees, ferns, and seasonal wildflowers. This portion brings you gradually up an old road bed, making the path not as steep as areas to be encountered later on in the hike. Continuing along some of those fantastic views will start to make this hike seem a bit more remarkable.
Yup, that's Mt. Rainer peaking out over the Cascades like the giant monster of a mountain it is. As you continue to climb up and up, the views of this towering volcano will only get better. You'll cross a stream flowing down from a waterfall and see I-90 get smaller and smaller in the valley below. The tree cover will also begin to thin as you make your way up towards a fork in the trail.
Eventually a sign post offers a choice between a the lake or a mountain top. Years ago, I would have opted for the mountain top, but now I'm all about the lake. From this point on there is almost no shade along the trail and things get quite steep and exposed until you make it to the top.
You compensation for the lack of shade is paid in terms of the views which start to get so good you might forget you hiked all this way to get to a lake in the first place.
At the top, a beautiful wooden sign greets those hearty hikers making the climb up to the entrance to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and offers the first good shade in about half a mile.
It's a short hike down through a moss covered forest, dropping about 500 feet from all that elevation gained in the climb to get down to the lake basin.
If you get as terribly hot as our pup did on the hike up to the lake, you're first instinct will probably be to plunge straight into the crystal clear water (there was no stopping her, she wanted in!). I'll warn you now though, that water was icy cold but incredibly therapeutic.
My feet were absolutely burning from a combination of the heat and the elevation gain, but after an hour or so at the lake, I felt completely refreshed. Perhaps alpine lake water has some kind of special healing properties for tired feet. I'll admit, it did take me awhile to slowly sneak my toes into the icy water, but eventually it was perfect. On a busy summer weekend, it might be a challenge to find a lake front spot to claim for a break - but as long as you don't mind pushing through some brush you'll find something.
- Wear your sunscreen - much of the second half of the hike is exposed. I reapplyed at the lake and still got burned.
- Wear and actively reapply your bug spray, the mosquitoes were out in force on our hike in late June.
- Even if you think you don't want to go in that cold water, bring your swim suit and a towel just in case. After all that up, you might change your mind.
- If you think you might hang out at the lake for awhile, consider bringing a tarp and rope, or some other way to create a shady spot on the rocks.
- If you want to make it an overnight, there are primitive campsites and even a pit toilet.