Monday, July 24, 2017

Lake Valhalla and Mount McCausland

Lichtenberg Mountain and the Central Cascades rise over Lake Valhalla
8 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain (7 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain for just Valhalla)
Difficulty: Easy-moderate to Lake Valhalla, Moderate to Mount McCausland
Access: Gravel road in okay shape to the trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Lake Valhalla is a deep blue gem with a small beach in the heart of Washington State's Central Cascades, just a stone's throw away from the popular winter ski area at Stevens Pass. The hike to the lake is fairly easy and includes a stretch of hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. Hikers who reach the lake and want more can add a mile to their hike and reach the summit of Mount McCausland, which offers a fragmented 360-degree view of the Central Cascades. I found this to be an enjoyable but not outstanding hike; the lake was pretty and the summit views were beautiful, but nothing about this hike screamed uniqueness.

I hiked to Lake Valhalla with four friends and a dog on a nice July weekend day. We took the standard route towards Steven Pass, leaving Seattle on Highway 522 heading northeast and then taking US 2 east from Monroe. About four miles over Stevens Pass, we turned left onto Forest Service Road 6700 towards the Smithbrook Trailhead; this turn is easy to miss. We followed NF-6700 for the final three miles up a gravel road to the Smithbrook Trailhead; there were a few very large potholes on the road, but most cars should be able to handle this by driving sufficiently slowly. There were about 30 to 40 cars parked at the trailhead, which is not terrible for being less than 2 hours from Seattle on a nice summer weekend.

A word of warning about the drive back: I have twice been stuck in bad traffic on US 2 heading west this summer already; maybe best to avoid having to drive back to Seattle on US 2 in the middle of the afternoon on Sundays.

The trail started out flat, running parallel to the road, with sparse canopy coverage. Valerian and arnica bloomed near the trail. A hundred meters into the hike, the trail met the road at a switchback in the road. After leaving the road, the trail delved into the forest and began a steady ascent via switchbacks. A few blowdown blocked the trail in places but were all fairly easy to handle. Bugs were unfortunately pretty bad: mosquitoes and deer flies were everywhere and frequent application of bug spray failed to fully deter the onslaught of bloodsuckers.

Valerian and arnica
After about a mile and a half of following the Smithbrook Trail on a sustained but reasonably gentle uphill, we came to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail at Union Gap. We took the left fork here, following the PCT south towards Lake Valhalla. The next mile of the PCT was generally flat and stayed in the forest. At about 2.5 miles from the trailhead and a mile past the junction, the PCT began to break out of the woods at spots, with decent views of Lichtenberg Mountain. The trail then began to climb again to reach the saddle between Lichtenberg Mountain and Mount McCausland at 3 miles. The unmarked trail towards Mount McCausland broke off to the right just north of the saddle, while the PCT continued through the saddle and descended towards the lake.

The lake was visible through the trees almost immediately after we passed through the saddle. The trail tread had generally been pretty smooth up to this point, but was a bit rockier in the final half mile descent from the saddle down to the lakeshore. Upon reaching a small basin just above the lake, a spur trail for lake access split off to the left from the PCT; we followed the spur all the way down to its end by the lakeshore.

First view of Lake Valhalla
There were a number of campsites by the lake, as well as a large rock by the lake signed "Day Use Only" and a small, sandy beach that one of my friends remarked was a much more pleasant spot than Alki. The overhanging rock pinnacle of Lichtenberg Mountain towered above the lake; we sat on logs on the beach and enjoyed the sun.

Lichtenberg Mountain towers over Lake Valhalla
Many hikers will find that Lake Valhalla is a sufficient and worthwhile destination; it certainly is a very reasaonble hike to access an alpine lake. Hikers who come away from the lake wanting more can add the one-mile round trip detour to the summit of Mount McCausland, the less dramatic of the two peaks bordering the lake. We elected to add McCausland to our hike, backtracking a half mile from Lake Valhalla to the saddle between Lichtenberg and McCausland and then following the unmarked spur trail north towards the summit of McCausland.

The path up McCausland was steep, gaining 600 feet in just half a mile. The hillside was dotted with huckleberry bushes and blooming heather, although other wildflowers were scarce. As there is no officially maintained trail up McCausland, there were multiple points at which the path split into multiple social paths; there's no signage here, so pick the paths that visually appear to best lead towards the summit.

Heather and huckleberries on the way up McCausland
As we climbed up, views  to the south widened. Lake Valhalla lay below us like a gem while the jagged and snowy high peaks of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, including Mount Stuart, Cashmere Mountain, and the collection of glaciated peaks around Mounts Daniel and Hinman emerged.

Mount Stuart and Cashmere Mountain behind Lichtenberg Mountain
The steep and at times eroded trail flattened out at the summit ridge. A beautiful, flat stretch of trail winded through an alpine garden along the top of the mountain, with views of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness peaks to the south and of the Wild Sky Peaks (Baring, Gunn, Merchant, Fernow) to the the west.

Trail near the summit of McCausland
We followed the summit trail along the ridge to the true summit, which required one brief drop to a saddle and a final climb to a rocky, north-facing viewpoint. Here, there was a 200-degree or so view to the north of peaks of the Central and North Cascades. The most immediately apparent summit was that of Glacier Peak, which was nearly due north from here. To the right of Glacier Peak, we spotted many of the high peaks near the Chiwawa and Napeequa Rivers; I believe that we may have spotted Mount Maude and Seven Fingered Jack.

Glacier Peak and the North Cascades
Closer in, the mix of forested and meadow-filled ridges near Stevens Pass hid tiny Dow Lake; Mount Howard lay a little farther away. We took a look at the summit register, enclosed in a sturdy box, while we sat at the summit. We passed one group coming down the trail while we ascended, but otherwise had the summit to ourselves, a nice contrast to the slightly more crowded experience that we had down by the shores of Lake Valhalla.

East view from McCausland, Dow Lake below
Looking to the west and northwest, we also spotted many of the sharp peaks of the Wild Sky Wilderness and the Monte Cristo massif: Baring, Index, Merchant, and Gunn were all distinguishable and Kyes and Columbia in the Monte Cristo peaks were joined by the sharp point of Sloan Peak, which had temporarily hidden in the clouds during our visit.

Baring, Index, Merchant, and Gunn from McCausland
Monte Cristo peaks and Sloan

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