Backpacking to Spectacle Lake and Pete Lake in Washington State’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a breathtakingly beautiful adventure.
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Length: 20 Miles Round Trip
Trailhead(s): Pete Lake Trailhead
Elevation Gain: 2,570’
Trail Type: Out & Back
Permit Required? Yes, One for Parking and One for Trail – Daily Parking Fee $5 per Vehicle OR Valid Recreation Pass PLUS Wilderness Permit (May 15-Nov 15) – Free; Self Issue at Trailhead
Considerations: Summer Crowds; Lingering Snow
Backpacking to Spectacle Lake and Pete Lake in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness is not only an unforgettable experience, it is a fantastic adventure and a great way to explore this wild and scenic area.
ALPINE LAKES WILDERNESS
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness covers 394,000 acres of incredible forests, mountain peaks, and valleys and contains over 700 lakes. With 47 trailheads and 615 miles of trail providing excellent access to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it is no wonder visitors flock here each summer to explore and recreate.
Backpacking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is wildly popular because it is easily accessible from the large population centers of Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. In fact, a portion of this wilderness (the Enchantments) is so heavily trafficked that access is managed and limited via a permit system. Whereas only a lucky few are granted permits to stay in the Enchantments, the Forest Service currently places no such restrictions anywhere else in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Backpacking in most of this gorgeous wilderness thus only requires obtaining a free Wilderness Permit before hitting the trail. For our three day backpacking adventure to Pete Lake and Spectacle Lake, we obtained this permit at the Pete Lake Trailhead.
PETE LAKE TRAIL TO PETE LAKE
Climbing haphazardly, the Pete Lake Trail follows the natural terrain of the valley above the Cooper River as it ascends to Pete Lake. Because of this, the trail both ascends and descends so that not only do we ascend 550 feet, we also descend 312 feet on the way to Pete Lake. Other than the pretty forest, there are no viewpoints of note so we simply enjoy the peacefulness of the surroundings as we hike up.
Pete Lake lies roughly 5 miles from the trailhead, making it a popular destination for both day hikers and backpackers. Some backpackers camp here on a one night trip, whereas others stop here on their way to or from longer adventures in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
When we arrive at Pete Lake there are several people hanging out around the shore. Clouds have been with us all morning, and they stubbornly keep the huge mountain peaks beyond Pete Lake hidden. The immediate surroundings are below the cloud cover, and we can see that this lake is impressively pretty.
After checking out the campsites nearby we decide they are either poorly situated or too cramped. Certain we can do better, we follow the trail a little further along the lake and locate a couple of campsites above the lake. Climbing down the steep, rocky slope below these campsites we assess the situation lakeside. A huge rock face rising above the opposite shore is very interesting, and we can see that the terrain offers no opportunities for camping down by the water. We climb back up, our decision made.
Setting up camp above Pete Lake we select the larger of the two sites. Big enough for both of our tents, it also had excellent views through the trees. In contrast, the other site was smaller and completely under tree cover. Since it was quite chilly at Pete Lake that afternoon we appreciated the intermittent periods of sunshine. To our delight, the clouds lifted almost completely late in the day. When they did, the soaring, snow capped granite beyond the lake was astounding. We smile. This is where we are heading tomorrow.
PETE LAKE TO SPECTACLE LAKE
Leaving Pete Lake the Pete Lake Trail continues to stays in the forest and has only a little elevation gain as it follows Lemah Creek. A mile from Pete Lake things get interesting when we encounter a creek crossing that unnerves me considerably.
Log Bridge at Lemah Creek
The bridge which crosses Lemah Creek is at the intersection of the Lemah Creek Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. This was on our planned route up to Spectacle Lake, but the bridge was not passable. The alternative was a makeshift log bridge. Having done many such crossings, we were unfazed when other backpackers informed us of this fact.
Leaving the trail, we follow rock cairns to a thin, but sturdy tree trunk spanning the creek. It sits a few feet above fast rushing water filled with boulders. Chris crosses on it easily, but I set one foot on the log and begin shaking. After a couple of failed starts I begin shaking uncontrollably. Unfortunately for me, my visual fear of heights has kicked in.
Despite Chris’ encouragement I refuse to cross the creek on this log, and must find another way. Bushwhacking upstream I spot a downed tree spanning most of the creek where the water is shallower and slower. Removing my boots, socks, and the legs of my pants, I tie my boots together, and hang them around my neck. Lowering myself into the freezing cold water I move slowly towards the tree. After giving it a firm shake to make sure it is secure I hold on tightly and make my way into the deeper, faster water. About a half hour after arriving at the log crossing, I am finally across.
Ascending to Spectacle Lake
Upon reaching the other side of the creek we encounter a couple of huge downed trees which we walk across. They lead us to a footpath which puts us back on the Pete Lake Trail heading to Spectacle Lake. We follow this up to its intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail, which then takes us up to Spectacle Lake.
Along the way we hike through an area that burned in 2009. All around the trail we witness nature’s fierce will to survive in the vegetation that now surrounds the trail. When the trail begins climbing, it switchbacks up relentlessly, but the lack of tree cover allows us to enjoy the views. Once we hit the last mile of trail, the climb gets steeper.
Nearing Spectacle Lake, the trail takes us below a beautiful waterfall. We have to cross the water here, but this time we have a sturdy bridge and a few side streams which we cross via logs and rocks. More switchbacks follow, and they take us up to the Spectacle Lake Trail.
Once we are on the Spectacle Lake Trail we are done climbing. After traversing a ridge above Spectacle Lake we get our first glimpse of it below and begin our descent. At the lake we have two options for which way to go. The trail to the left leads out onto a beautiful peninsula which bisects the lake and is a popular place for camping. Since we prefer fewer bodies when camping we go right and work our way around the cove behind this peninsula. We luck out and find a gorgeous lakeside campsite where we set up our tents and set about trying to stay warm.
It was overcast, chilly, and very, very windy at Spectacle Lake. We sat in the sun when it poked through the cloud cover, but otherwise had to take shelter from the frigid wind behind a stand of trees on the edge of our campsite. Once the sun went down the winds died down as well, and it was more comfortable. It was still cold, but at least we were no longer hiding from the bone chilling wind.
As the afternoon progressed we watched many backpackers arrive on the peninsula and look for a place to set up camp. We witnessed some amazing feats. On top of the large flat rock opposite us we watched two people set up their tent and secure it by tying off lines to the rocks below it. A solo backpacker found just enough space nearby to squeeze in her tent. The best, however, was a group of four backpackers who set up on a large rock sitting out in the water. They had zero privacy from any angle, and had to wade in the water to get to and from their campsite. One of them was so ill prepared for the cold weather that he spent the afternoon wrapped up in his sleeping bag trying to stay warm.
Campfires are not permitted at Spectacle Lake, so that was not an option for staying warm for anyone. On our campsite, however, we can see that others have ignored this rule. There is a fire ring on this site. We toss rocks into it to discourage further use, but upon reflection probably should have disassembled it completely.
RETURN TO PETE LAKE TRAILHEAD
Climbing back up to the ridge the next morning we stop briefly to bid farewell to lovely Spectacle Lake, and then begin descending. Enjoying the clear blue skies which we did not get over the previous two days, we make quick work of the switchbacks that take us back down.
Retracing our steps back to the log bridge, I begin fretting about the creek crossing and it weighs on me. Can I overcome my fear? With Chris once again standing on the other side of the creek cheering me on, I stand on the log looking warily at him, it, and the rushing water. My legs start shaking. It was only going to get worse, so it was now or never. Focusing squarely on the log to keep the visual perception of height minimal, I take a deep breath and move swiftly across the log. Once safely across, I collect my “high five” from Chris and could breathe again.
The return hike was otherwise uneventful, but boy were we in for a surprise at the trailhead!
Too Many People
We returned to the Pete Lake Trailhead from Spectacle Lake on July 4th. Many backpackers were making their way to Spectacle Lake, but we saw no one else but us leaving. Because the lake was already jam packed with backpackers on July 3rd we could not imagine where all these people were going to camp. Clearly the easy accessibility from Seattle and Portland means a true wilderness experience will elude most of us here. It’s just too busy of a place, and we found out that on a holiday weekend it is a nightmare.
Arriving early on July 2nd, the Pete Lake Trailhead was not at all crowded and we had no problem parking. When we returned on July 4th, however, it was a totally different situation. Not only was the trailhead parking completely full, the road circling around the back side of the parking area was jammed full of vehicles parked along it as well. Since it is quite narrow, this made getting out unscathed virtually impossible. Multiple tree branch scratches scratched the side of our truck because we had to pull so far to the other side to get around them.
As we made our way back out of the area and to the main road leading back to Roslyn we were stunned. Cars were parked everywhere they could find a spot, and the crowds were thick anywhere there was access to water. To be honest, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. When we return, it will definitely NOT be over a major holiday, but we will be back.
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Additional Information (Click below to follow links.)
Spectacle Lake & Pete Lake Backpacking Slideshow
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Gear We Use for Backpacking
To see descriptions of the gear Chris & Mac use for backpacking, as well as links to manufacturers and retailers offering the gear for sale, please CLICK HERE.
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