Shedding the Crowds at Gem Lake

Shedding the Crowds at Gem Lake

By: Shelby September 12, 2016 9:05 pm 1 comment

Summer is quickly drawing to an end here in the PNW. It’s beginning to get dark around dinner time, all the light has a wonderful golden quality to it, and the leaves on certain trees are starting to turn. The rain made a glorious appearance last week before Labor Day, heralding the end to the sun drenched weekends we’ve been enjoying for what feels like so long now. While I’m ready for the return of blanket season, I’m not quite ready to give up the high alpine elevations that are so accessible right now. This weekend, we set our sights on Gem Lake, a hike that’s been on my list for a couple years now, ever since hiking to Snow Lake for the first time almost two years ago.

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Snow Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Washington state, so normally Spenser and I and most other avid hikers avoid it like the plague. I feel like I’m pretty lucky with this one though. When we hiked it last time, I strategically chose it for the morning after Halloween when hopefully people would be too hungover to hit the trails. It wasn’t particularly crowded then, and surprisingly, today wasn’t that different. We hoped that the crowds wouldn’t be too bad since today was a little cloudy, and opening day for the Seahawks, but we didn’t expect it to be this dead. We arrived to the parking lot at 9:30 and the vast upper parking lot was maybe a quarter of the way full. There weren’t too many people on the trail in the morning; we saw maybe 10 groups while we were going up to the saddle of the mountain. A few of those were backpackers coming down from camping. The trail is mostly flat as shoots straight back through the valley, until the switchbacks start at the Source Lake turnoff.

Parking lot at 9:30

Parking lot at 9:30

We powered up over the ridge and down to Snow Lake in just over an hour, which was awesome. Right as we turned off the main trail to get a good seat down at the lake, we watched the fog roll in and then the rains came.

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Snow lake

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Here, as we put on our rain jackets, we briefly considered turning back, as we knew Gem Lake was further up in the clouds and might not even be visible at all. Luckily after 10 or so minutes the rain passed and the clouds parted.

After a couple more minutes, we decided that it might be safe to continue on. Now it was borderline cold, so I put on the layers that I had stripped off previously and we joined back up with the main trail and continued the hike around the lake. A few minutes later I would take those layers off. This would be an ongoing struggle…

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the trail along Snow Lake

the trail along Snow Lake

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As soon as we passed the last large day use area on the edge of the lake, suddenly we felt like we were alone. Snow Lake feels huge, and as soon as we were around a bend in the trail it was like we were seeing a completely different lake than everybody else. The massive granite walls of Chair Peak tower dramatically above the lake. As we hiked further away from the crowds, the terrain became more incredible.

After crossing over a log at the outlet of the lake, which drains into the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, the trail continues up and up into glorious alpine meadows. The clouds were blowing through, casting an eerie fall light on the meadows and deep valleys below the trail. We climbed up the jagged trail through talus fields and pikas chirped at us continuously.

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Blueberries! So many blueberries

Blueberries! So many blueberries

Meadows and stuff

Meadows and stuff

Right as we were just starting to gasp for breath and slow down, we came upon bushes that were just full of fat blueberries. I popped a handful in my mouth and just like that, I had energy to climb again.And then before we knew it, we were coming around the ridge to Gem Lake.

She was gorgeous! The water was the most beautiful sapphire blue, and aside from some hikers crossing around behind the lake to on the trail up to Lower Wildcat Lake, we were completely alone up there. The crowds of Snow Lake felt like they were a world away. We got some acroyoga in and figured out how to get Spenser’s phone to take pictures for us by saying things like “whiskey” and “kimchi.” We relaxed for a few minutes before it started to rain again and we turned to head back down.

Gem Lake

Gem Lake

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acroyoga!

acroyoga!

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Rocks rocks rocks

Rocks rocks rocks

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Up in the clouds

Up in the clouds

The weather was weird today

The weather was weird today

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Crossing the outlet at Snow Lake

Crossing the outlet at Snow Lake

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We bounded down the trail and made it back to the crowds and sunny weather in no time at all. By the time we were climbing back out of the Snow Lake basin, it was stop and go traffic on the trail, with huge lines waiting at narrow chokepoints. “This is why we woke up early” we thought, as we navigated down switchbacks that were now swarming with people.

Despite the crowds who were all out just like us enjoying the last bit of sun before the darkness sets in, I loved this hike way more than I expected to. I had no idea of the magic that awaited anybody who wandered just a little bit further down the trail.

Northwest Forest Pass required.

Total mileage: 10 miles
Total elevation: 1800 ft (combined climb of 6500 ft)
Hiking time: 5 hrs

Directions: From I-90, take exit 52 and take a left underneath the interstate. Turn right towards Alpental and park at the end at the giant parking lots.

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