The PNW has a tiny window–sometimes a non-existent one–between when fall color is out and when they either fade or get covered by snow. Mama Boots and I decided to squeeze one last colorful hike in and we still had some snow!
Sheep Lake is an often-mentioned hike for fall color. Abundantly, the hills here are carpeted with huckleberry that turns a blazing red color in fall. While we might have been a few days past prime, the weather was glorious, and the crowds non-existent compared to Larch Madness.
On a Friday, we were able to get parking easily at nearly 11am. The trailhead bathrooms were closed temporarily, but there are others nearby. You actually drive through Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, then through Mt, Rainier National Park, before you arrive at Wenatchee National Forest (so dogs are allowed on these trails, but not the ones a mile away in the National Park).
Signage was not great, unfortunately. Tons of unmarked forks, meaning right from the get-go we were a little hesitant (as my Gaia did not save the trail), but luckily, a woman set us in the right directions. Heading left on the trails from the trailhead takes you on the PCT to Naches Peak Look and Tipsoo Lake (which you likely drove past closer lots for), but right takes you to Sheep Lake and further on the PCT.
Mama Boots was pretty excited to be on the PCT, but we were both elated by the weather. It was nippy but sunny out, with us both carrying layers and knit hats. The majority of the trail to Sheep Lake is along the highway, so the road noise was a mild deterrent, but the hike is nice and gradual, so we saw a gamut of ages on the trail.
Between use and frost, the trail was muddy and slick in some places, but nothing too bad. You reach Sheep Lake in under two miles. The crystal-clear water had some small fish jumping here and there, but mostly it was still and quiet at the lake. The trail curves around the lake, so there are tons of places to stop for lunch or a snack.
Wanting to get our money’s worth out of the trip, we decided to push on to Sourdough Gap. Unless limited by time or physical limitations, I wouldn’t dream of not pushing onward the extra distance to make it at least to Sourdough Gap. You wind up the side on the mountains around the lake until you have beautiful views from higher up down to the lake. While there was more red huckleberry here, in July and August there’s wildflowers in bloom providing color as well.
The wind did pick up significantly as we got higher. There was no sign but Sourdough Gap was blatantly obvious, as it was a clear ‘gap’ in the mountain wall. The other side of the ridge was dusted with snow. If you push a little past Sourdough Gap, I’ve been told there’s killer views of Mount Rainier and Crystal Lake. It was pretty slick in places, but we walked gingerly and were okay. There’s a fork with a sharp right of the PCT, but straight will take you to the viewpoint. Unfortunately, the steep hillside here had more than a dusting of snow and not having poles, we decided the tiny peek-a-boo of Rainier was better than risking injury for more.
We head back as we came, seeing more people on the trail. It was hard to believe on a day like this the lack of crowds, but maybe everyone was clamoring for larches. Also unbelievable is we saw tons of dogs, but only one was unleashed! While your mileage may vary with those things, a constant is the gentle grade and large payoff that makes this trail worth checking out.
Distance: To Sheep Lake was 1.9 miles (1.8 according to WTA); to Sourdough Gap was 3.0 (same as WTA. Round trip for us going a bit past Sourdough Gap was 6.5 miles.
Elevation: 334 feet to just Sheep Lake, total ascent to Sourdough was 1246 feet. Very gradual and well-spread out.
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass
Bathrooms: Pit toilets at trailhead are currently closed, Tipsoo Lake is a quarter mile away and they are open as of now.
Food Storage if Backpacking: Safe storage recommended.
Fires: Admittedly I am unsure if they are allowed at this altitude.
Best Beer Bet: Unfortunately masking in Enumclaw, the nearest town on the way back, was pretty bad, so there’s not anywhere I can recommend at this moment.