Backpacking on a weekend–can it still be done? With the ever-exploding popularity of hiking and backpacking, finding a weekend no-permit-required hike-in campsite without driving six hours seemed improbable.
After reading advice from way-better-hiker-and-blogger-than-me Every Two Pines, the boyfriendo and I decided to roll the dice on backpacking along the Foss River Trail on Highway 2 near Skykomish. Most weekend warriors seem to pick I-90 or the Mountain Loop Highway, so we hoped that, and the fact that the trail had 5 designated camping areas beginning to end would increase our options.
The funny thing about backpacking when it’s first-come, first-served is how it brought out my competitive edge. I’m normally super competitive, but hiking is one thing where it’s not a race. However, from when we turned off Hwy 2 and started driving on the 6-ish mile road to the trailhead to our destination, every other person was The Competition for getting a primo camping spot. We’d be huffing and puffing and seeing people far less winded coming up and have to accept that we’d have to let them by and maybe miss out. I admit, that part of the experience wasn’t fun. But I digress.
We parked at the trailhead (by 10am Saturday morning the lot was already full) and attempted to grab a self-register overnight pass, but the kiosk was out. If camping, be sure to fill one out when available. It helps rangers track who is using what areas to better plan fund allocation. We then officially embarked. The trail starts off fairly flat from the trailhead, but even early on the large rocks everywhere were not fun for the feet–and they will only get worse. After about a mile we reached a large bridge over the Foss River and looked as the mountains around us seemed to explode out of the earth. To me, Highway 2 is more impressive of a drive for the mountain view than I-90 for this reason.
I had heard much talk about a “big tree” here. I saw many large trees and massive stumps with logging notches from a bygone era, but around a corner not long after the bridge it loomed–the Big Tree. You’ll know it when you see it, as it is massive! Being early along the trail means small kids can still see one of the coolest features of this hike for less than four miles round-trip. While taking pictures here we met a couple coming down who warned us of the “clouds” of mosquitoes higher up that were scaring campers away. While we had bug gear, this was concerning. However, as we approached Trout Lake, the bugs didn’t seem too bad, making me hope that morning’s brief rain had scared them away.
At only 1.6 miles from the trailhead, Trout Lake is a wonderful trip for those wanting to take younger kids backpacking for the first time. We walked by a few clearly marked campsites, and I almost suggested just getting a spot here, before the bugs got bad. We kept in mind that Trout Lake had sites and moved onward–and upward. Pretty much immediately after Trout Lake you begin gaining altitude. I knew it was ‘steep’ between here and our destination, but it turns out I had no idea.
For a while after Trout Lake, you’re mostly shaded as you climb along the sound of rushing water. You gain not only in slope here, but in having to step up over giant rocks everywhere, a fun challenge with a bum hip. WTA said near the top of the switchbacks that you’d see the top of a waterfall and that would mean you were close. We got to what seemed like the top of a waterfall and then climbed away, but the boyfriendo was cautious, pointing out that there was no way we had gone 2.4 miles since Trout Lake. He was right.
We turned a switchback into a large stretch of unshaded midday heat and saw it–the true top of the falls. Way. Up. High. Peek-a-boo views at first, well below where the picture here was taken. Panic overtook me. “I can’t do it.” Seriously, there was no way I was physically capable of climbing this, even if it were 20* cooler and I didn’t have an overnight pack. It was too hot, I was breathing too deeply, and I felt like I’d puke. The impending feeling of everyone passing us and getting the good campsites as I gulped for air did not help. The boyfriendo was a total champ here, encouraging me and letting me rest as much as possible, pointing out resting in the small bits of shade might be a better alternative than the sun.
As a downward hiker came around, I swallowed my pride and asked how close we were, something I *never* do. He said about a mile, but that there were two little water crossings coming up where we could cool off. Bless you. When we reached the first crossing we eagerly dunked our buffs in the glacial runoff and I let out a near pornographic “Oh, this feels right” to the enjoyment of another downward hiker. Not long after (but enough for my buff to be nearly dry again), we crossed a larger stream crossing that was like an oasis to the many hikers resting, splashing water on their face or dunking their feet.
Knowing we had to be close, we got our butts in gear upwards. The trail levels off, at least compared to the gauntlet before, but the giant rocks were still everywhere. We did get passed by one couple and all I could do was beg the universe to not let them be the ones to get the last spot. A well-weathered sign appeared for the turn off to Malachite, and also reminding all that there are no fires allowed in that section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It’s a short distance to go from here, but it’s a steep route. It felt like a rudimentary scramble that had been made up and bushwhacked days before, more than a oft-traveled trail, but the end is near.
We spent a moment taking in the sights before we quickly surveyed our accommodations. Veering to the left, the camping sites were less clearly labeled here than at Trout Lake, just flat spots where tents clearly had been (and remnants of illegal fires, harrumph), but there were all unoccupied–yay! I had really been hoping most backpackers either went to Copper Lake or pushed on forward to the other two lakes, and was thrilled to be right. Having our choice, we took one right along the lake. The bugs, as promised, were horrendous, but moving a few feet away from the lake up a hill wasn’t going to make a dent in that, so why not have the stunning view?!
We unloaded and set up camp, and got into our swim suits. Time for my first swim in an alpine lake! The gallon of sweat I was covered in disappeared as soon as I got a foot in the water and I was tempted to call it good with just wading, but the boyfriendo convinced me. The cool water felt great on my aching lower body, and it seemed to scare the bugs away. The afternoon melted into the evening with a nap and quick excursion to Copper Lake, which is about a quarter mile-further once back on the main trail. Regardless of which lake you camp at, I’d recommend making a side trip to the other one. Copper Lake was much larger than Malachite, and while still breathtaking, I was happy with our choice.
Dinner, a beer, and bedtime beckoned. While I had seen a few frogs along the lake shore earlier (well-fed from the ten thousand mosquitoes that had to have been present), all was silent, minus the boyfriendo doing his best impression of the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles (why oh why did we eat beans for lunch and for dinner?).
Morning came, with it bright outside our tent before 6am. Bats circled above, and I mentally implored them to eat every mosquito that was crowding around our tent trying to get in. They did not. I spent all morning swatting away while we had breakfast and broke camp. Sunday was supposed to be in the low 90s and I did not want a repeat of the previous day’s struggles in the unshaded areas. We admired one last view of the lake as the sun began enveloping it and tore ourselves away, back on the trail.
The first mile downward was 10x easier than the day prior. Partially because our packs were a little lighter, but for me downhill is always easier (until it’s so steep it isn’t). While the heat wasn’t nearly what it was going up, I still dunked my buff into the ‘oasis’ from the day prior. However, we soon again reached the steepness. With the rocks everywhere, my poor quads were working overtime to make sure I stayed upright and in control for nearly the whole stretch down to Trout Lake.
The miles seemed to fly by as we passed landmarks from the previous day. I felt so proud of this backpacking trip–this would have been a challenging day hike, but especially in a heavy pack I felt a much larger sense of accomplishment compared to my first backpacking experience at Cape Alava. While the price of admission is steep–1900 mostly-unshaded feet in <2 miles–it was worth it to have an alpine lake practically to ourselves on a summer weekend. While getting to Big Heart Lake would have been an impressive feat (maybe a good two-night trip?), I wouldn’t have changed our trip at all.
Minus the bugs. And temperature.
Distance: 3.2-14.6 round-trip, depending on where you stop (about 8.0 even for Malachite)
Elevation: About 400 feet to Trout Lake, 2467 feet total (according to Runkeeper) to Malachite with Copper being a similar climb, 3300 total to Big Heart Lake
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass, self-register if camping at trailhead
Bathrooms: Pit toilet at trailhead and at Malachite and Copper Lakes
Food storage: Not required, but always smart.
Fires: No fires allowed at Copper or Malachite Lakes (yes for Trout, pending burn bans)