backpack: Alpine Lakes Wilderness – Pete Lake + Spectacle Lake
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington is one of my favorite subalpine/mountain locations. Filled with granite slabs, over 700 mountain lakes, and peak after peak, it’s subalpine glory at its finest.
- distance & elevation gain to Pete Lake: 5 miles, 400 ft. gain
- Pete Lake to Spectacle Lake: 5 miles, 1,860 ft. gain
- hike out: 10 miles, 2,060 ft. loss, 400 ft. gain
- best months: July – September
- location: Alpine Lakes Wilderness; nearest town: North Bend
- land management: Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
- trail conditions: Spectacle Lake Trail #1306
- hike description: Washington Trails Association – Spectacle Lake
- permits: self-issued at the trailhead
- trailhead pass: NW Forest Pass
- regulations: campfires are not allowed at Spectacle Lake
- note: this area is extremely popular and gets overcrowded on weekends, so trips during the week are highly recommended
Day 1: hike in to Pete Lake
5 miles, 400 ft. gain
After a long drive from Portland, we started the trip with an easy first day and set up camp at Pete Lake. From the Pete Lake trailhead, it’s just over four miles to Pete Lake. The trail is relatively flat, with gentle ascents and descents to cross many small streams. It had rained quite a bit over the past several days, so the trail was fairly muddy at times. This trail is popular with equestrians – we saw two groups on horses during this trip. When we reached Pete Lake, we continued past the first group of campsites. These sites are close to the trail and fill up fast since this is a popular easy backpack destination. We continued on the trail for about half a mile to a large secluded site on the northwest side of the lake next to Lemah Creek.
It started to rain lightly while we were setting up our tents, and stopped long enough for us to cook dinner. Mosquitoes were definitely out but the mosquito repellent devices that two of us brought worked well to keep them away while we relaxed at camp before it started to rain again. I like the sound of rain falling on my tent so I didn’t mind when it poured off and on all night. However, due to all of the rain, I didn’t get a single photo of Pete Lake. : (
Day 2: hike to Spectacle Lake
5 miles // 1,860 ft. gain // 660 ft. loss
The next morning, we packed up our wet gear and headed out for our hike to Spectacle Lake. A mile from our camp, we had to decide if we were going to ford Lemah Creek at the main crossing or use the alternate route, which adds about 2 miles to the hike. One of my friends has a lot of experience fording streams, so she scouted the route to see if it was safe to cross. We determined that it was, which was good since we’d have to cross it again on the hike out and didn’t want to add more miles to the ten mile hike out by using the alternate route.
At the main crossing, Lemah Creek has two sections to ford – the first is shorter but deeper and the second is wider and shallower. We unfastened our hip belts so if we fell in, our backpacks wouldn’t drag us down. We faced upstream to watch for oncoming obstacles and used our trekking poles to ford, maintaining three points of contact at all times. The water was super cold, and the current was fast in a few places where the water came up to my knees. We took it slow, and overall, it was much easier than I expected it to be.
If the water is too high here, the alternate crossing is accessible by heading north on the Lemah Meadow Trail, crossing Lemah Creek on a bridge, then fording another section of the creek that’s not as wide as at the main crossing area.
The next section of trail goes through a burn area from the Lemah Creek wildfire in 2009. After 0.7 miles, the Pete Lake Trail ends at a junction with the PCT. If you were taking the alternate Lemah Creek ford route, this is where you would rejoin the trail to Spectacle Lake.
The trail switchbacks up a ridge on a gentle grade through the burn area made nicer with views of the Three Queens. Near the top of the ridge, we crossed a large bridge next to Delate Creek Falls.
As we hiked higher up the ridge, views of surrounding peaks came into view. We turned right at the Spectacle Lake trail junction. We were soon treated to the first views of Spectacle Lake and the peaks on Chikamin Ridge above it! We could see the peninsula that we planned to camp at and were excited to finally be reaching our destination.
From the top of the ridge, the trail down to the lake is steep and rocky. The first side trail on the left leads to the peninsula, so we took this route to find a campsite. There are additional camp areas on the east side of the lake if you continue straight instead of heading to the peninsula. The lake area is filled with large slabs of granite and stands of subapline evergreens. If you plan to camp here, stay off the meadows and look for one of many camps on bare ground and rock. To get our tents staked, we needed to use rock to stake our tents.
My favorite time of day for taking photos is at dusk, when the harsh shadows of the sun are gone and everything is bathed in the same light. The peaks of Lemah Mountain were covered with a thin layer of clouds that kept moving, revealing parts of the mountain to us as we stood there and watched it after the sun went down.
Day 3: explore Spectacle Lake
The next day was warm and sunny, so we stayed at Spectacle Lake and explored the peninsula and the east side of the lake. It was nice to spend a full day in such an incredibly scenic area.
Day 4: hike out to the trailhead
10 miles // 2,060 ft. loss // 400 ft. gain
We had a long hike out, and another ford of Lemah Creek, so we got up early and packed up and on the trail. The hike from the lake up to the ridge is steep with a lot of roots and large rocks, so it’s slow going. Once we started the descent, it was much easier. The day was very warm, with full sun and temps in the high 70s, so the burn section was a bit hot. This time, the cold water of Lemah Creek felt refreshing. Mosquitoes were thick near the creek and we couldn’t put on any repellent on our legs since we were getting ready to ford the creek, so we rushed across. The rest of the hike was easy on the flat trail from Pete Lake to the trailhead, but as usual, I was happy when I saw the cars at the parking lot. I loved this trip and hope to return to Spectacle Lake another time.