Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Alta Mountain

Hibox Mountain and Lila Lake Basin from Alta Mountain
12 miles round trip, 3400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, due to roots along trail and scrambling and exposure near peak
Access: Pothole-filled unpaved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Alta Mountain is one of the better summit hikes that can be accessed within an hour and a half drive from Seattle; that said, the trail is not pleasant, so neither the hike to Alta Mountain nor the trail to just Rachel Lake are recommended to novice hikers. The 6244-foot summit of Alta Mountain is reached by a thrilling ridgeline walk with expansive views of the Central and South Cascades. Rachel Lake is a pretty but not spectacular intermediate destination; I wouldn't recommend Rachel Lake as a day hike, as the trail is both crowded and poorly constructed. If you're just looking for a day hike that isn't too far from Seattle, pick something else: Snow Lake, Lake Serene, and Annette Lake are all easier and preferable alternatives to Rachel Lake. The views of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness from atop Alta Mountain, however, make the trip worthwhile despite the unpleasantness necessary to attain the summit.

I hiked up Alta Mountain on a fall Saturday that was cloudy in Seattle but clear east of Snoqualmie Pass. I drove out from Seattle on I-90 across the pass to Exit 62, then turned left onto the road and followed it north to Kachess Lake; I turned left at an intersection signed for Rachel Lake onto a dirt road and soon after stayed right at the next fork in the dirt road to continue towards Rachel Lake. The road was heavily washboarded and full of potholes, but was navigable in a sedan at low speed. The parking lot was overflowing by the time I arrived: both upper and lower lots were full, so I had to park along the road.

I filled out a wilderness permit for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at the trailhead before beginning my hike; there is no quota or charge for permits but they're necessary for hiking in Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which is one of the most popular and heavily visited units of the National Wilderness Preservation System. I started on the trail into the forest; the trail began to climb steadily right from the trailhead as it made its way uphill along the north side of the V-shaped Box Canyon. There were no views to speak of but the trail passed through an impressive old growth forest with a number of impressive firs.

The trail flirted with the creek, following it closely at times but often maintaining a bit of a distance from the tumbling waters. About a mile from the trailhead, I hiked past a section with boardwalk and passed a last set of tiny cascades and then came to the flat, calm bottom of upper Box Canyon. Here, the trail stayed flat for the next two miles, alternating between old growth forest and overgrown clearings from which I could see the cliffs of Hibox and Lobox Peaks rising nearby. I encountered many blowdowns along the trail: in many cases it was necessary to climb over or duck under fallen trees, and in some cases a use path had been beaten out around the downed trunks. Rain from earlier in the week had also turned much of the trail into mud and had converted more than a single low-lying area of the trail into a pond. In many of the clearings, abundant vegetation almost covered the trail, which was surprising for a hike that sees so many visitors.

Despite these qualms, the first three miles of the hike were not particularly difficult to hike: the tread of the trail was typically soft dirt or mud and elevation gain was extremely reasonable or nonexistent. At the upper end of Box Canyon, after crossing a creek, the trail ended the previous niceties and embarked on a furious uphill climb to Rachel Lake that was punctured with countless roots and rocks.

The climb was punctuated by occasional nice moments: at one point, the trail happened upon a cascading stream that skipped its way down rocks to a small pool, a scene that was somehow reminded me of the way Appalachian streams tumble bubbly down the Blue Ridge.

Box Canyon Creek
Yet the majority of this climb to Rachel Lake was pretty unpleasant. The trail ascended 1200 feet in a mile, which attests to its steepness in this stretch; yet it was the trail condition rather than the steepness of the trail that made the hiking difficult. Roots and rocks were literally everywhere, so the hike was often more of a scramble. This is essentially the most difficult portion of the hike: if you don't have a burning desire to get to either Rachel Lake or Alta Mountain in particular (in other words, if you're just looking for a hike to get outdoors this weekend), you should be on some other, easier trail.

Root-filled trail up to Rachel Lake
It took me the good part of an hour to make it up the mile-long uphill to Rachel Lake. When I finally arrived at the lake, four miles from the trailhead, I found a nice spot along the northeast side of the lake to enjoy the fall colors and eat lunch.

Rachel Lake
Leaving from the lake, I followed the sign that stated "trail" and circled around the north side of the lake. The trail passed through a patch of ripe and deliciously sweet huckleberries before beginning a rocky climb up to Rampart Ridge. Halfway up the ascent, views of Rachel Lake emerged. This higher viewpoint allowed me to appreciate Rachel Lake's size: it's fairly large for a subalpine lake halfway up a ridge! The lake's waters also appeared more serene and jewel-like from above.

Rachel Lake
Less than a half mile of hiking from the lake brought me up to Rampart Ridge, where a temporary paper trail sign marked the junction of the trails towards Rampart and Lila Lakes. I took the right fork towards Lila Lake. The trail visited a few rocky viewpoints with views of Rachel Lake, Hibox Mountain, and Box Canyon before arriving at an unsigned junction with a large cairn about a quarter mile further down. Here, the main trail continued to the right towards Lila Lake; the unsigned branch to the left marked the trail to Alta Mountain. I took the left fork, which immediately broke out into a meadow and began an extremely aggressive ascent up a knoll in the ridge.

After emerging at the top of the first knoll, I found that the views had already widened: I could see both Rachel and Rampart Lakes to the south. The sharp false summit of Alta Mountain rose ahead of me and the ridgeline of Alta was decorated red with the fall colors of berry bushes. The path was well defined and actually easier to hike than the climb to Rachel Lake, as the tread was mostly dirt.

Fall colors on Alta Mountain
One of the prettiest parts of the emerging view was of the many ponds and lakes in the Lila Lake basin, with Nobox, Hibox, and Lobox rising behind the lakes.

Hibox Mountain and Lila Lake along the ascent to Alta
Twenty minutes of ascent brought me to the top of the 5950-foot false summit, from which I caught my first view of Alta Mountain's true summit. This false summit offered an excellent southward view of the ridge that I had just ascended and Mount Rainier in the far distance.

Alta Mountain ridge
From the false summit, I also caught my first views of Chikamin Peak, one of the most impressive mountains in the Snoqualmie Pass area.

Chikamin Peak
From the false summit onward, the trail followed the rocky, narrow ridgetop. Generally, the trail was not too difficult or exposed; exposure was at most confined to one side of the path. There were more views of lakes below in the basin of Lila Lake and impressive views of the massive cliffs that formed Alta Mountain's east face. The most harrowing part of the hike was a short bit of scrambling necessary at a point where the trail had exposure on both sides, but most hikers with scrambling experience who don't have a fear of heights will find this section quite manageable. Upon reaching the summit block, a final steep uphill push with a decent bit of rock scrambling brought me up to the summit.

Alta Mountain ridgeline scramble
I stayed at the summit for nearly an hour, sharing the rocky peak with two other late-day hikers who had come up from West Seattle. Clouds drifted in and out and the sun disappeared and reemerged, giving the landscape a notable dynamism as fall colors dulled and popped with the presence and absence of cloud shadow.

The view to the south and the west showcased the peaks of the Snoqualmie Pass region: I could spot the lookout atop Granite Mountain; the pyramid of Silver Peak, the tallest mountain in the area south of I-90; the Snoqualmie Pass ski area; Gold Creek Pond; the spire of McClellan Butte; the thread of the Pacific Crest Trail traversing the Kendall Katwalk; Chair and Kaleetan Peaks; and the sharp granite mountains of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley.

The most impressive aspect of the view was to the west and north to nearby peaks. Autumn had painted a burnt color on Mount Thomson's slopes, creating a remarkable contrast with the dark waters of Alaska Lake nestled in a high basin on the mountain's slopes. Sharp Huckleberry Mountain and jagged Chikamin punctured the northern skyline.

Alaska Lake, Mount Thomson, and Huckleberry Mountain
To the east rose the rocky summits of Box Ridge, most notably nearby Hibox Mountain; neighboring Lobox and Nobox Mountains were either blocked or seemed barely prominent from this high viewpoint. Three Queens mostly blocked the view of Mount Stuart, the state's second highest non-volcanic peak, which was actually better viewed from along the ridge just before the summit. Lila Lake and Box Canyon lay far below and in the distance, behind the forested ridges of the Teanaway, I could make out a few of the wind turbines in Kittitas Valley near Ellensburg.

Mount Stuart from Alta Mountain
The view to the south was dominated by features both near and far. The ridgeline that I had hiked in along, as well as Rampart Ridge, were prominent proximal mountains; much farther off, lenticular clouds capped both Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. Although Rainier was not close, I was surprised by the level of detail I could discern on the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers and the Willis Wall from Alta Mountain.

Mount Adams from Alta Mountain
When I was able to avert my eyes away from the view, I found the source of meeping among the summit rocks: a pika scurried about, too familiar with the panorama to be impressed by it any more.

Pika amongst the rocks
By that point it was getting late in the day, so I set a quick pace to get back to the trailhead. From along the ridgeline, I was able to spot both Rampart and Lila Lakes and noticed the absurd density of tents lining the shorelines of both lakes, even in late September. This area definitely isn't for anyone who wants a true wilderness solitude experience.

I timed my return such that I reached the trailhead just after sunset. Along the way, I ran into some day hikers still heading uphill towards Rachel Lake without flashlights or many of the Ten Essentials. You don't want to be stuck on any trail at night without some light source, but you especially don't want to be stuck on the root-filled section of trail near Rachel Lake in that situation. The summit of Alta Mountain is a beautiful destination, but know what you're getting into and if you do decide to hike here, don't assume you can show up in tennis shoes without all essential hiking gear just because the trailhead is so close to Seattle. This isn't Mount Si.

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