On Thursday, Sept 6th, my hiking buddy and I set out on our second annual end of summer backpacking trip. We are both lucky enough to have wives willing to take the kids and give us a few days each year to unplug, unwind, and get off the grid. No work. No internet. No phones. No stress. Well, a different kind of stress, at least. We enjoyed this trip even more than our trip last year. However, I am finding as my life stretches close to its 37th year that it's becoming harder and harder to recover from the exhaustion wrought by these types of trips. But it's a good, satisfying exhaustion, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
So where did we go, you ask? We did a loop trip from Salmon La Sac over Polallie Ridge, down the Quick Creek Trail to Waptus Lake, with a day hike up to Spade Lake and eventually a return via the Waptus River Trail. Roughly 30 miles of hiking and almost 8000 feet of climbing in 3 days with full packs.
On Thursday after work we headed over Snoqualmie Pass to the warm sun near Salmon La Sac, WA - just northwest of Cle Elum. Along the way we drove through Roslyn, WA which was the filming site of the television show Northern Exposure, for those of us old enough to remember. All of the lakes along the way (Keechelus and Cle Elum) appeared to be extremely low after an almost record length dry spell in Western Washington. That night we car camped near the trail head at the Salmon La Sac campground. The campground itself was very nice but damned near empty. We had a few beers and worked on lightening our packs which had been much too heavy last year. It wasn't long before a dark clear sky fell upon us and revealed a countless number of stars that we can never see from the city. "A good omen for the trip," I thought.
Friday morning we were up early and were treated to a breakfast of delicious blueberry muffins courtesy of my hiking buddy's wife (Thanks K!). Soon after we were packed and ready to go so we drove about 1/2 mile up the road from the campground to the trailhead and set out for Diamond Lake via the Polallie Ridge Trail.
The first picture below includes a description of the trail that I took at the trailhead so I won't bother to repeat it here. However, I will say this. The 2900 foot gain is a lie. Oh sure, the trail starts at 2500 feet and ends at 5400 feet, but at times it taunts you with very steep climbs and then heavenly descents. Heavenly, that is, until you realize you have to regain lost elevation multiple times. In just the 4.2 miles from the trailhead to Diamond Lake we had to climb up to 5100 and descend back down to the lake at 4900 (so tack on 200 feet in that stretch). Of course, I may be exaggerating a bit as this wouldn't be too horrible with a daypack but with my heavy multi-day pack it was a bit much.
It actually took us 3 hours 19 minutes to reach Diamond Lake. Once there, we took about a 30 minute break for a snack and water and relaxed (last couple photos below) in our highly recommended 21 ounce Alete Butterfly chairs. I'm not getting paid to promote these chairs - they are just that awesome. I recently read a report on WTA.org complaining that the Polallie Ridge trail doesn't have that great of views and I would agree if talking only about the section to Diamond Lake. Beyond that point it's another story.
As we departed Diamond Lake we discussed filtering water there but decided instead to filter at Quick Creek down the trail. This decision would have interesting repercussions later.
The trail from Diamond Lake climbs immediately skyward over a ridge and into a basin meadow then back over another ridge into another basin meadow and then back up to the Polallie Ridge high point of 5547 feet (according to Green Trail map #208). The basin meadows (first couple of pictures below) were big and the trails across both of them weren't immediately obviously until we spotted some cairns built by helpful hikers before us. At and beyond the high point the ridge really started to reveal a lot of nice views of mountains close by and far away including Mt. Rainier.
Just before intersecting the well marked Tired Creek Trail 3.3 miles from Diamond Lake, we climbed for the last time that day and came across the foundation of a long gone fire lookout on a bare bit of hill at just under 5500 feet. The views were pretty fantastic from that spot - the best of all spots along Polallie Ridge. The one other thing we noted along the ridge was the presence of Navy F-18 fighters (from Whidbey Island NAS?) flying up and down the valley. Did I choose the wrong profession?
After that we followed the Tired Creek Trail quickly down to the Quick Creek Trail. This stretch of trail drops 1200 feet in just 1.3 miles so it was a really nice relief from the repeated climbing and descending offered by the ridge. We reached the Quick Creek Trail 3 hours after departing Diamond Lake and found ourselves with no real desirable area to get water. There were some standing puddles but no really nice quick flowing water. Luckily, we spotted a large camp (last picture below) and were offered a fill-up on filtered water (trail magic) from one of the elk hunters staying there. They were on a 15 day hunt but because of the extremely dry conditions they weren't having much luck.
After departing the camp we started picking up steam and making really good time. From the camp the Quick Creek Trail descended quickly - 1200 feet in 3.2 miles. At times the trail was steep and at times exposed to the sun but with our destination finally in site we practically ran down.
Just before arriving at the southwest edge of Waptus Lake we crossed Quick Creek. To call it a creek is a misnomer right now. It was dry (3rd picture below). Bone dry. Not a drop of water anywhere. Also, it was a little difficult to discern where to cross the bed of dry rocks and hook up with the trail on the other side. Eventually we noted a couple of more cairns leading the way.
Upon reaching the lake hikers have the option to turn left up towards the Quick Creek Camps but we instead chose to go right for 0.5 miles to the Waptus River Horse Ford. The hiker bridge over the Waptus River has been washed out for 5 years. For most of the winter and early spring this ford can be very dangerous to impassible for hikers. Luckily for us it was only running about 16 inches deep. We traded our socks and boots for bare feet and sandles and trudged across (last 2 photos below). To say the cold water was a shock to my feet would be an understatement but we made it in short order without any major difficulty.
After crossing the horse ford we hiked another 0.4 miles on dry dusty trail up to the base of Waptus Lake (2nd photo below). There are numerous nice camping spots at the base of the lake but instead we decided to hike another 0.6 miles up the northeast edge of the lake to a number of camping spots near the Pacific Crest Trail.
13.5 miles of hiking, 4000 ft of climbing, and 9 hours after leaving the trailhead we finally found a campsite that we liked. To the glorious relief of our shoulders and feet we dropped our packs, mixed up some Gatorade, and relaxed for a good long time. Through the brush we found a fantastic little private beach accessible only from our campsite. We got out our chairs, relaxed, and had dinner before finally getting the energy to set up camp (tent, bear wire, etc).
Saturday morning we were up and on the trail by 8 AM. There was a 0.2 mile trail from right next to the campsite that climbed 200 feet up to the PCT. From there it was 2100 feet straight up in 1.6 miles. Though we left the majority of our weight at the campsite, this was still a brutal climb because of the hiking we'd done the day before. The map (Green Trails #176) showed a high point of 5300 feet (2300 feet above Waptus Lake) at what we found to be yet another completely dry creek bed.
From there it was another 1.3 miles to Spade Lake in the shadow of Mount Daniel. This 1.3 miles is up and down and up and down and very exposed to the sun. It was pretty tough as we were reaching a point of exhaustion. This 1.3 mile stretch wasn't all bad, however, as there were many opportunities to get sweeping views of the Waptus Lake Valley and the peaks and ridges surrounding it. By the time we reached Spade Lake at 5200 feet I estimate that we had a cumulative elevation gain of 2800 feet. It had taken us 3 hours 18 minutes from our campsite.
Needless to say we spent a considerable amount of time relaxing once we arrived. We had the entire lake to ourselves and it was gorgeous. The water near the shore was various shades of clear blue and green and it was obvious that the shelf dropped off very quickly by the very dark shade of water not too far from shore (last picture below). At the upper end of the lake there is a trail up to Venus Lake 500 feet higher and beyond that sat Mount Daniel and its steep scree filled slopes. We made no attempt on Venus Lake as we were already wiped and running lower than we would have liked on drinking water.
I had naively left my filter at the campsite to save weight. I did, however, have a gas canister, stove, and pot set so I boiled up some lake water and had a very nice gourmet lunch of Ramen Noodles. I honestly hadn't had Ramen Noodles since college and had never particularly enjoyed them, but this lunch was one of the best I'd ever had. The extreme salt content of the meal was welcome and the extra fluids didn't hurt.
After a very long rest at Spade Lake we made our way down. It took us considerably less time to get down - 2 hours 3 minutes. On the way down we exhausted our drinking water at about 1000 feet above Waptus Lake. By that point it was so hot and we were so thirsty we powered down at a rate of over 50 feet per minute. We are at times good for climbing 1000-1200 feet in an hour. This day we descended 1000 feet in under 19 minutes!
We reached our campsite beside Waptus Lake around 3 PM on Saturday afternoon and after filtering fresh water and re-hydrating we spent the rest of the day acting like true bums. It was the first time in a long time that either of us could just sit and relax with no obligations to our jobs, our families, house maintenance, other chores, etc. We swam in the lake which was fairly cold but plenty refreshing because we were pretty disgusting after 2 days and 20 miles of hiking. We also saw a couple of guys in an inflatable raft moving slowly and lazily across the lake. Why didn't we think of that?
Later in the afternoon ominous clouds started to roll in over the lake. They were particularly big to the southeast down the Waptus River Valley and the the northwest over the end of the lake. Thankfully we were spared any afternoon rain near mid-lake though it was evident in the distance all around us. As dusk fell upon the lake the storm to the southeast really started to pick up steam. We watched lightning down the valley for 4 or 5 hours before finally going to sleep. At the same time we had clear skies above us. We later learned that lightning storms across the state had sparked over 60 different wildfires that night.
Obviously I am not a professional or even a really skilled photographer, but I made an attempt on some night-time photos. The 6th photo below was our view of the sky directly above on Saturday night. At the same time, the 7th photo below (my luckiest photo ever), was our view down the Waptus River Valley. Despite having clear skies above us, just before retiring for the night we organized all of our gear and covered it with rain gear. This turned out to be a very good decision. By midnight the thunderstorm and moderate to heavy rain had moved in right over us and the rain didn't stop until about 6:30 the next morning. The last of the photos below show the lake right after climbing out of the tent and just before departing for home.
After breakfast we packed up quickly and headed for home. We would complete the loop by returning to the trailhead via the Waptus River Trail. Again, I'll skip a full description and defer to the description in the first photo below. Of course, there are similar asterisks to the description of Polallie Ridge. The 560 feet gain (in the lake-bound direction) is a lie. While it is true that Waptus Lake is 560 feet above the trailhead, there is quite a bit of climbing and descending in between. If one were traveling toward the lake they'd actually climb about 1600 feet cumulatively (1100 feet cumulatively traveling toward the trailhead).
The Waptus River trail itself does have some nice views but nothing too special. There are about 4 or 5 nice campsites at various locations along the river for those looking for a shorter trip. It took us 1 hour 17 minutes to hike the 2 miles from our campsite to the intersection of the Waptus River Trail and Trail Creek. That time included a stop to filter water and a shoe change at the horse ford. From there the final 8 miles took us just 3 hours 15 minutes as we had home in our sights.
All in all in was a great trip! We had hiked 30 miles and climbed close to 8000 feet in 3 days. The weather was near perfect except for the Saturday night rain. There were almost no bugs to be found. We had plenty of time to relax. What more could you ask for?