Bullseye Traverse (day 1): Stevens Pass to Chain Lakes via Josephine Lake
After an incredibly painful 6 months of lockdown in Melbourne that recently restricted all outdoor activities to 1hr per day within 5km of home, I packed up and flew (fled) to Seattle last week to spend the remainder of 2020 enjoying relative freedom stateside. First on the agenda was just getting outside and stretching my legs on the trail, something I’ll truly never take for granted again.
Dad and Eileen were all too happy to facilitate an autumn backpacking trip for my first weekend in Washington in 4 years (and my first visit longer than 2 weeks since I moved to Australia back in 2012), organising a 4-day loop through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness that would squeeze in plenty of trail kilometres, a crag summit and, of course, some ice-cold mountain lakes. Bushfire smoke from Oregon eventually forces us to adapt the route into a 3-day, 50km traverse, but the scenery is still absolutely spectacular, the company is excellent, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be back in boots and fully-laden under the weight of a pack.
Trail stats: Stevens Pass to Chain Lakes via Josephine Lake
Elevation gain: 1070m
Trail hours: 7hrs
Highlights: Autumn colours overlooking Cowboy Mountain; swimming in clear and sparkling Josephine Lake; incredible reflection of the Bull’s Hoof at Lower Chain Lake; camping in front of the Upper Icicle Mountains and falling asleep under an entire galaxy of stars and planets
Campsite: Middle Chain Lake
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We roll out of the house at 8am, in no apparent hurry to reach the trailhead this morning— between our leisurely start and the sit-down breakfast at Starbucks in Monroe, it’s nearly 11am by the time we finally arrive at the PCT trailhead in Stevens Pass. We stuff around with repacking, change into boots, do our final weigh in (a modest 16kg for me)— and then we’re off!
This morning, we are following a small section of the Pacific Crest Trail before veering off onto the Icicle Creek Trail near Josephine Lake and, later, onto the Chain Lakes Trail to our final campsite for the night.
For my Aussie (or other non-American) readers, the PCT is a famous 4,270km trail from Mexico in the south to Canada in the north via California, Oregon, and Washington State. I regularly toy with the idea of through-hiking the trail (mostly for the glory), but it’s always challenging to envision putting ALL other travel plans on hold for the better part of a year.
Thankfully, it’s possible to section-hike many of the trail’s highlights, and our short stretch this morning is stunning, particularly with the autumn foliage and bright fall colours that have begun to paint splashes of red and orange across the textured mountains.
It’s my first time hiking in Washington in 10 years, but the sights and smells are instantly recognisable; it all takes me back to the summers spent following dad up dusty mountain trails in search of crystal-clear lakes, a lake bagger before I even had a word for it.
The trail is loose dirt, littered with tree roots and rocks that seem to reach out and grab the toe of my hiking boot (trail snakes, according to dad), our ascent popping in and out of tree cover under towering evergreens. September also brings the added thrill of autumn colours along the hillside, and though the leaves have yet to completely change, there’s still a warmth to the shrubs and late-season wildflowers that texture the hillside.
Providing a worthy backdrop this morning is Cowboy Mountain, displaying dramatic talus fields and sharp-cut trails that beautifully contrast the softer slathering of trees. Despite extreme fire warnings in the area, air quality notifications due to nearby bushfires in Oregon, AND the heavy cloud of smoke hanging over Seattle, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness appears largely unscathed— this we attribute to clean living.
The trail is mostly shaded from the surprisingly warm midday sun, as well as being very gradual, so we quickly reach the top of the closed ski gondola and break for a snack and some photos. Opposite Cowboy Mountain and in the direction we’ll be walking after our break, we can faintly make out the jagged peak of Bull’s Tooth in the distance. Hard to believe we’ll be on the summit by this time tomorrow!
Fuelled by the perfect weather (and a rather generous handful of candy), we set off in the general direction of the Bull’s Tooth, making our way down a switchbacking trail that essentially undoes all the climbing we did this morning.
The steep descent is hard on the knees, but around 7km-in, we pass Lake Susan Jane and then, after a short but very steep climb up and over a ridge, the famed Josephine Lake (famed in the sense that I learned about it this morning and am very excited to go swimming in it).
As promised, Josephine is an absolutely beautiful alpine lake, its blue-green waters sparkling in the sun as we descend to the quiet shore. As a child, the only way dad could convince me to join him on a hike was to promise a cold mountain lake— there was nothing I loved more than swimming in icy waters, having spent my early years at our family cabin in Lake Chelan fighting hypothermia (and yet denying that I was cold so I could stay in longer).
I no longer require bribing with alpine lakes to go hiking, but it does make any backpacking trip 10000x better. After 3 hours of sweating on a dirty trail, I’m extremely ready to hop in.
We spend the next 1.5hrs at Josephine Lake, eating lunch in the sun and splashing around in the lake (although I guess that’s mostly me).
I do manage to get dad in the water with me after lunch, and I can’t help but feel nostalgic about all the summer hikes we did together when I was little. It’s undeniably been a major influence on my interest in hiking as an adult, even if it did take me some time to properly come round to the idea (after I decided I “didn’t like hiking” as a teenager).
Finally, we pull ourselves away from Josephine Lake and push onwards to Chain Lakes, buoyed by the freshness of cold water and the rush of icy muscles.
The going is extremely pleasant, mostly in direct sun but still gradually downhill, facilitating idle chit chat for 3.5km until we get to the Chain Lakes Trail junction.
From here, we turn upwards and climb an agonising 650m over only 4km, nearly all the way to Bullseye Pass, the high point for the trip. All conversation dies off as we struggle in silence up the staggeringly vertical trail. I try to find a good rhythm with my trekking poles and think about something, anything, other than how much I’m sweating.
Just over an hour later, dad and I crest onto flat-ish ground and are delighted to find ourselves at Chain Lakes, a feeling that only magnifies when we get a glimpse of Lower Chain Lake, smooth as glass, providing a mirror for the fiery granite Bull’s Hoof on the opposite bank. The entire scene is lit up in autumn colours, exaggerated by the low golden light filtering in through the trees.
I pester dad with requests to take my photo in front of the lake, but growing tired and hungry, we soon continue on towards Middle Chain Lake to set up our camp for the night. Shortly thereafter, we hear Eileen shouting across the lake, and dad runs off to fetch her and lead her to our secluded paradise in the trees.
We’ve got a spectacular view of the Upper Icicle Mountains immediately from our tents— I even decide to leave my rain fly off (the first time ever) for a chance to wake up to this view. The added bonus is sleeping under a million stars, something I never expected to find during bushfire season.
The lake is perfectly calm, secluded (save for one group camped on the opposite shore), framed by dramatic granite peaks, and possibly one of my very favourite campsites ever. After an enormous dinner of cheese dip, chilli, and margaritas, I fall asleep under the Milky Way, with Jupiter and Saturn glimmering in the distance, dreaming of what’s to come tomorrow.
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