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jaysway
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jaysway
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PostWed Oct 06, 2021 11:35 am 
I had plans to backpack to Cutthroat Pass last season, but after one night at the Hidden Lake Lookout followed by a night at Wing Lake, I was too exhausted to spend a third night in the backcountry. Disappointed in not getting to see Cutthroat, I vowed to come back next season. As I was doing research recently on larch hikes, I started reading a lot of great reports of larches from along Section L of the PCT, and low and behold I discovered that Snowy Lakes was just a few miles past Cutthroat Pass. I would get to see Cutthroat Pass, and then continue onwards towards even more larches!

Day One

We hiked the Maple Pass Loop the evening before, and then came back the next day and parked on the opposite side of the pass to start hiking the PCT towards Cutthroat Pass and Snowy Lakes. We arrived just before 8:30am and got a good parking spot in the lot even though there were many cars parked along SR 20, presumably for the Maple Pass Loop. As you would expect from the PCT, the trail is in fantastic condition. There were plenty of people on the trail, but when the views are this good, it's hard to complain.


The day started off cloudy, with some glimpses of sun as we finally started getting close to Snowy Lakes.


There were a few tents already set up at the upper lake when we arrived, so we scouted for a while and picked a semi-secluded spot that was mostly out of the wind. An hour later, five or so more groups showed up, and while a couple weren't far from us, there were plenty of campsites (the next day as I was doing some cross-country exploring, I found lots of other great private places to camp that required a 5-10 minute walk from the lake - it feels like in places like this you can always find privacy if you're willing to look for it).

I walked up on the little ridge to the south of the upper lake, and decided it would make a great spot for enjoying sunset later.


An hour before sunset, we hiked a few minutes above our campsite up onto the ridge to enjoy the sunset. A couple of groups were camped up on the ridge, and we ended up talking to one of the groups while taking in the wonderful views. The clouds to the west were foreboding and dramatic, and had the sun lit them up instead of dipping out of sight it could have been an epic sunset.


After sunset, as we were cooking dinner, a group camped on the little ridge right above us started yelling at a group who had started a campfire down at the lower lake  mad.gif . I don't know what the rules are about campfires at Snowy Lakes, but I felt the anger of the group near me. I'm personally against building most campfires in the backcountry, so again while I don't know if they are technically allowed or not here, wildfire danger and the potential for people to chop down the poor larches here make me feel that fires shouldn't be allowed.

Day Two

An hour before sunrise I woke up, and after quite a bit of mental struggling I managed to extricate myself from my warm, cozy sleeping bag to start heading up the ridge to the north of the upper lake to take some sunrise photographs. It was almost entirely cloudy out, so I knew there was a decent chance that there wouldn't be a real sunrise, but I decided to head up onto the ridge just in case. My original plan was to scramble partway up Golden Horn on the eastern side that is dotted with scruffy plants, but low-hanging clouds were hiding the summit of Golden Horn from view, and I was worried that even if my spot was below the clouds, there was a chance that the clouds would come down. Instead, I scrambled up to an unnamed little point at about 7448 feet on the ridge NE of the upper lake because I figured if fog or low-lying clouds obstructed my views, I would be able to quickly descend back down to the lake.

The hike up to the point on the ridge was easy, and I managed to get up well before sunrise. I had Golden Horn on one side of me, Tower on the other, with views both down towards Snowy Lakes and off the other side towards the Tower Creek drainage.

Love this cute, lonely larch
Love this cute, lonely larch

As the sun started to rise everything towards Mount Hardy remained dark, while a bit of colorful light started to make its way into the sky above Straight Ridge. Eventually, little sections of mountainside looking towards Snowy Lakes started to become illuminated by the rising sun!

The point on the left at the "top of the triangle" is where I had originally planned on spending sunrise. Next time!
The point on the left at the "top of the triangle" is where I had originally planned on spending sunrise. Next time!

After a while it was time to start heading down frown.gif I could have stayed up here for hours! Gratefully, the views on the descent were fantastic.

If you're bored, I can spot 12 tents in this photo. Can you find them all?
If you're bored, I can spot 12 tents in this photo. Can you find them all?

After making breakfast, we packed up our things and started heading down the trail.


As we hiked out, clouds filled the Swamp Creek valley, at times completely engulfing us, and at other times parting just enough to see near and distant peaks. It was absolutely beautiful, and I couldn't think of better conditions for the hike out. It wasn't long before we started seeing thru-hikers making their journey north. Many of them looked miserable  frown.gif .


Once we reached the high point of the trail after Granite Pass that traverses over to Cutthroat Pass, the misty clouds almost vanished! The closer we got to Cutthroat, the more and more people we started seeing. Sooooooo many people!


We stopped for lunch, and within 15 minutes the memory cards in my camera were full! Oops, I had not bothered to check how many pictures I had left. I had a spare in my backpack, but figured that running out of space was maybe a blessing in disguise, as I was massively slowing us down by stopping every minute or two to take more pictures. Plus, I had taken pictures on the hike in.


Parting thoughts

I can't recommend this place highly enough. It's not like the place is a secret, it's off of the PCT and there must have been at least a dozen groups camping at the upper and lower lakes, but it certainly isn't mobbed. As long as you don't mind the other people, this place is a gem. I'll end this with a bit of controversy: if I had to choose between Rainy Pass to Snowy Lakes or the Enchantments and only be able to hike one for the rest of my life, I think I would choose Snowy Lakes.

Prosit, Alpine Pedestrian, geyer, HikingBex  awilsondc, GaliWalker
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Slim
This space for rent



Joined: 31 Aug 2004
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Slim
This space for rent
PostWed Oct 06, 2021 12:00 pm 
Thanks for the great pics and narrative.  Super underrated area for sure.

I was up there (Cutthroat pass) the day before you on Friday at it was busy but not mobbed.   I was amazed to see a dozen or so bicyclists at the pass.  They had come up the Cutthroat Lake trail which apparently is OK for bikes.  Who knew ?  Not me.

~Slim

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"Our flapjacks sell like hotcakes"
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neek
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neek
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PostWed Oct 06, 2021 12:08 pm 
Nice.  I never noticed that little way trail on the map.  Looks like it was just added to OSM last year.  But I guess that's how the route to Tower starts.

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HikingBex
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PostWed Oct 06, 2021 12:55 pm 
Great pictures! Looks like a wonderful trip

Snowy lakes was the first place I ever backpacked in Washington (it was in September before the larches had turned but was still incredible). Definitely gave me a bit of an unrealistic expectation for what all backpacking in WA must be like  wink.gif  -  such a beautiful spot. There were lots of NOBO PCT hikers practically trail running because they were so close to finishing which was really fun

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Gwen
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PostWed Oct 06, 2021 6:27 pm 
jaysway wrote:
It's not like the place is a secret, it's off of the PCT and there must have been at least a dozen groups camping at the upper and lower lakes, but it certainly isn't mobbed. As long as you don't mind the other people, this place is a gem.

It wasn't that long ago that it was largely unknown. I camped at Snowy during larch season, had the place to myself on a Friday night and shared with only 2 other parties on a Saturday. That was (give or take) 2015ish. We live in a different world now.

I'm not sure that fires are banned in that area, but ethically and environmentally they are to be discouraged. What's fallen should be left to the ecosystem to provide food and habitat for all manner of creatures. When I was up, I cleaned up a HUGE fire pit (and packed out all the garbage from it) and dismantled several more. One area near the lake had something like 6 fire rings all within a 30' radius.  shakehead.gif

trip report here

Glad you enjoyed your trip, it is a wonderful place.

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Tomorrow's not promised to anyone, so be bold, scare yourself, attempt something with no guarantee of success. You'll be amazed at what you can achieve. -Olive McGloin
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GaliWalker
Have camera will use



Joined: 10 Dec 2007
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GaliWalker
Have camera will use
PostWed Oct 06, 2021 7:28 pm 
Gwen wrote:
jaysway wrote:
It's not like the place is a secret, it's off of the PCT and there must have been at least a dozen groups camping at the upper and lower lakes, but it certainly isn't mobbed. As long as you don't mind the other people, this place is a gem.

It wasn't that long ago that it was largely unknown. I camped at Snowy during larch season, had the place to myself on a Friday night and shared with only 2 other parties on a Saturday. That was (give or take) 2015ish. We live in a different world now.

In late September, 2007, I saw a total of zero people there, but the destination was hardly a secret even then.

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bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
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Kim Brown
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Kim Brown
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PostWed Oct 06, 2021 7:53 pm 
I'm with you jayway about fires there; so far as i see on the Okwen website they are allowed (i got curious  after reading  your report). Unless a sign is posted. Nothing on thier website about it But the USFS websites are sometimes vague. Re campfires, they say to  refrain. That doesn't sound like a prohibition, but probably  the hope is that people will either take it as a prohibition,  or, that if someone  goes through the  effort to find the information  about campfires, they will refrain.

I bet if you send an email to the District  Ranger they would appreciate it.  They may be hoping to gather enough complaints to establish restrictions there. They also say they don't want anyone camping at the lakes. Again; not prohibited.

Pretty photos! I  am wearing my jealous hat!

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" I'm really happy about this! … I have very strong good and horrible memories up there."  – oldgranola, NWH’s outdoors advocate.
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geyer
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geyer
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PostWed Oct 06, 2021 9:52 pm 
Great photos. I think it was a picture similar to this one at snowy lakes that first caught my attention and made me want to hike in the fall. (And yet I've still never made it there!) Hopefully another generation can get inspired by your set biggrin.gif

jaysway wrote:

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Backpacker Joe
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Backpacker Joe
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PostSat Oct 09, 2021 7:24 pm 
Beautiful pics.  Thank you for the report.  In 2007 I hiked into the Snowies.  As I rounded the ridge above Cuthroat lake I ran into this:

Snowy Lakes 7-30-31-2007 050
Snowy Lakes 7-30-31-2007 050

That is a parachute!  A parachute over the crest trail. Can any of you figure that out? I couldn't.

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"If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide."

— Abraham Lincoln
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