Looking for an outdoor day hike to beat Seattle cabin fever? One of the most popular hikes in the Washington Alpine Wilderness is the Snow Lake Trail. With its incredible vistas and natural beauty, and only an hour from Seattle, Snow Lake Trail is a well-known secret to area hikers.
The Snow Lake Trail is a moderate hike to a gorgeous alpine lake through an old-growth forest. The view of the lake is breathtaking and well worth the hike but continue on to see the captivating Franklin Falls which partially freezes in the winter. The Snow Lake Trail deserves five stars for its natural beauty alone.
The surrounding peaks frame the Snow Lake Trail with breathtaking vistas as it proceeds up the valley at Snoqualmie Mountain. With a well-maintained, but well-traveled trail, Snow Lake Trail is a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts looking to escape the confines of city life. This ultimate guide will cover the history, trail overview, flora, fauna, and everything you need to know when planning your hike to Snow Lake Trail.
Welcome To The Snow Lake Trail
- Region: Snoqualmie Region — Snoqualmie Pass
- Trail length: 7.00 miles (11.27 km.)
- Elevation: 3,000 feet (914 m)
- Difficulty: Moderate with a steady gradual increase in elevation
- Best times to hike: summer and fall
- Website: www.wta.org
The trail was built in 1909-1910 by H.A. Noble, most likely to move private property up there and in an attempt to irrigate the east slopes of the pass. The original plan was to build drainage down into the valley and east over the pass. Remnants of the drainage project can still be seen along the Pacific Crest Trail just north of the pass where it crosses the old logging road.
Snow Lake Trail was used by prospectors around the turn of the century to access mining claims on Chair Peak (named in 1887 by prospector Harry Whitworth for its resemblance to an armchair). Somewhere on a ridge east of Chair Peak, a 300-foot horseshoe-shaped tunnel was dug, and another 50-foot tunnel as well. All remains of the tunnels have been obliterated.
Around 1967, a subdivision started at Alpental, and a road was made up to present-day lot 1. The trailhead was then moved to its present location, and a new starting section was made going uphill to meet the old trail 100 feet up. You can still find small sections of that old trail which was abandoned over 50 years ago.
Modern History of the Snow Lake Trail
There was a cabin next to Snow Lake (part of the lake was actually privately owned for a long time), the remnants of which were visible even back in the 1960s. Before the area gained full federal protection, environmental groups had to do some heavy lobbying. These groups included the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, and The Mountaineers. They solicited members to write opinion pieces, lobby members of Congress, and performed work behind the scenes
Two U. S. Presidents, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, finally accorded the area the full legal protection granted under the 1964 Wilderness Act. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Alpine Lakes Area Management Act that made a portion of the area a wilderness.That act was strengthened when four additional portions were entered shortly thereafter into the National Register of Historic Places.
Ford’s signature was influenced by a coffee-table photo book issued by Mountaineers Books in 1971, The Alpine Lakes. To show him what was at stake, Washington governor Dan Evans presented the book, at a time when Ford was contemplating H.R. 7792, a bill to make the Alpine Lakes area an official wilderness of some 392,000 acres. The president was so impressed, he defied his bevy of advisers and signed the bill.
In December 2014, Congress added 22,000 more acres to this wilderness as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. President Barack Obama signed it into law that month. The Alpine Lakes book that was so influential in 1976 – illustrated by Ed Cooper and Bob Gunning, edited by Harvey Manning, and written by Brock Evans – had become a collector’s item, selling for as much as $100.
Flora and Fauna of Snow Lake Trail
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness saddles the Cascade crest, and thus exhibits a striking range of vegetation communities from west to east due to differences in elevation and precipitation. The crest annually receives some 180 inches of rain and (mostly) snow, while lower elevations in the eastern portion may see just 10 inches of precipitation a year.
Seasonal temperate rainforest of Douglas-Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar cloaks lower western slopes; upslope, a subalpine forest of Silver Fir, Noble Fir, and Mountain Hemlock gives way at timberline to a mosaic of fir/hemlock tree islands and alpine meadows. Avalanche chutes are brushy with alder, vine and Rocky Mountain Maples, and other shrubs.
The leeward alpine zone includes magnificent stands of Alpine Larch–the golden autumn foliage of which flares the Enchantment Lakes Basin–as well as Subalpine Fir, Whitebark Pine, and Engelmann spruce. Lower eastern ridges and slopes include grassy woods of Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine.
Beyond the series of pristine lakes, cascading water, smooth granite formations, craggy peaks, and golden larch trees, the Snow Lake Trail winds through wonderlands of many different species of wildflowers including Cinquefoil, buttercup, Sitka Valerian, and Glacier Lilies.
Below the saddle hikers may find: Bracted lousewort, Valerian, Beargrass, Spreading phlox, Arnica, False hellebore leaves, Bistort, Lupines, Alpine pennycress, Cusick’s speedwell, Columbine, Thistle, Asters, Subalpine fleabane, Pink spirea, Harsh paintbrush, Smooth mountain dandelions, and Lomatiums.
While at the saddle the wildflower array includes: Spreading phlox, Yellow penstemon, Stonecrop, Avalanche lilies, Penstemons, Pink Mountain Heather, White Mountain Heather, and Lomatiums. The best time to view the wildflowers is heavily dependent on the weather and precipitation patterns, so accurate predictions are difficult. In most years, many flowers will be blooming by mid-July, and by the first of August, the floral array of the meadows should be very impressive.
Wildlife of Snow Lake Trail
The region surrounding the Snow Lake Trail is also well known for an abundance of resident wildlife, including mountain goats, black-tailed deer, picas, hoary marmots, pine martens, and ptarmigans.
Be on the lookout for the mountain goats. They crave salt so please urinate in backcountry toilets when possible. When toilets are unavailable, please urinate on rocks, otherwise, the mountain goats will tear up the ground and vegetation.
Overview of the Snow Lake Trail
Snow Lake Trail lies tucked underneath the uppermost 2,000 feet of Chair Peak. It is the most visited lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. One hike and you understand why. This well-maintained trail is carefully planned to minimize erosion. With log steps the first 200 feet of incline, it slopes off to a gradual ascent through the old-growth forest.
After the first two miles, the trail becomes rockier as it switchbacks to the top of a ridge. Past the junction, continue on to Source Lake where the trail gradually becomes more rugged. As you work your way up the steep switchbacks, use the breathtaking views of the Snoqualmie Pass for your inspiration.
In another three-quarter of a mile, the trail begins its mercifully short climb. Over the next two-thirds of a mile, the trail weaves its way up 500 feet to the wilderness boundary at the saddle atop Snow Lake.The lake comes into view as you crest the ridge, your well-earned reward for the hike.Take a minute to savor the panoramic views of Washington’s Alpine Lake Wilderness from this picture-perfect height.
Many hikers pause here for a bit to enjoy the view from the many campsites and picnic areas but don’t pause too long. Experienced hikers know not to settle for the first view: it gets better and better.
One-half mile from the saddle, the trail takes a 400-foot drop in elevation and leads to an inlet to the lake. A short side trail travels to the lakeshore where there are the remains of an old log cabin. A reminder of when this area was private property. Wander down to the lakeside to enjoy the prior owner’s daily view.
And an incredible view it is, of Roosevelt Peak standing guard at the head of the lake. Many hikers call it a day here when unbeknownst to most, and even more spectacular terrain lies just out of sight beyond the shoulder of Chair Peak. Rejoin the trail, cross the inlet, and continue another half a mile to where the lake’s outlet drains into the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley. Along the way, peer into the translucent clear, cold water. The beauty of the water is only transcended by the ramparts of the neighboring mountains surrounding you.
After crossing the inlet, the trail continues down to the lakeshore. From here you can observe the full majesty of Chair Peak. From the mountain’s heights, waterfalls snake their way down to sheltered coves often stripped by ribbons of snow until well into July–the lake’s name is no accident.
If you can tear yourself away from the view, you will see what appears to be the end of the trail. It is not the end at all but rather an intersection with two other trails. One leads a long way down to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley, the upper peaks of which are visible in the distance. The other trail leads to yet even more amazing mountain lakes.
While there may be yet more views to be had, you can safely turn around here. You’ll be secure in the knowledge that the reward for the effort will be no greater than what you have already attained. That is the true beauty of Snow Lake–how readily it shares the splendor of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
How To Get There
From Seattle, drive east on I-90 to exit 52, the Snoqualmie Pass West. Turn left (north), crossing under the freeway. Take the second right, traveling 1.3 miles to the end of the road, the Alpental Ski Area parking lot.
The parking pass required is the Northwest Forest Pass. Peak summer traffic means you’ll be sharing the hike with other hiking enthusiasts, some four-legged. Yes, leashed dogs are welcome on this well-maintained trail. Weekends are a busy time, get there early (before 9 am) for easy parking.
Hiking Safety and Considerations
Every hiker should carry some food and water. Most people drink around one liter of water every two hours. Pack more than enough water and snacks in case the hike takes you a little longer to complete than you thought it would.
Dress appropriately for the Snow Lake Trail hike. This trail has a pretty steep rocky area where thin materials like yoga pants can get easily punctured or shredded. Wear comfortable clothing, sturdy pants, and waterproof hiking boots. Bring a brimmed hat in the summer and a wool jacket in the winter.
Check the weather and trail conditions the days leading up to your hike. Then check it once more the morning of your adventure. Knowing the temperature, the chance of rain, and wind speed will make a big difference on your hike. It can also help you plan accordingly.
Before you go hiking always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Stick to your plan and try not to deviate from it unless you notify your contact of your changes.
Once you are near the Lake, it may be difficult to get cell phone service and it is always a good idea to let people know when you arrive back safely from your trip. If you are not back by your designated time, have a plan in place for your contact to reach out to the park rangers and authorities who can begin a search for you.This is one of the best ways to be quickly found and rescued if you become stranded on a hike.
Snow Lake Trail is A Beautiful Hike Just Outside of Seattle
The Snow Lake Trail is a beautiful day hike, right in Seattle’s back yard. Some of the trail can be challenging during the rocky parts but the view of the lake makes it all worth it in the end. Many hikers who hike the Snow Lake Trail return time and time again to take in the natural beauty of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness through this beautiful trail.
If you are looking for other great hikes close to Seattle check out our article The Ultimate Guide to Mailbox Peak Trail in Washington for 2021. Have a great hike on the Snow Lake Trail!