By Rebecca Agiewich
As a Seattle-based hiker I’d gotten a bit jaded about the hikes on the I-90 corridor. “They’re fine for day hikes,” I’d think snobbily about the stunning scenery in my own backyard, but “for backpacking I want something more exotic, more distant, less crowded!”
Then on a drizzly Fourth of July weekend in 2010, my boyfriend Dave and I backpacked into Pratt Lake for one night. Suddenly I was a convert to my own backyard.
It took only forty-five minutes to get to the trailhead. The climb down into the dramatic Pratt Lake basin was gorgeous, with pink and purple wildflowers lining the lakeshore and mist hovering above the lake. We got a prime lakeshore campsite and –- after shedding the crowds near the trailhead — had the place practically to ourselves. (Except for the mouse that broke into our tent at 2 a.m. which is another story entirely).
One year later…
Flash forward a year. I’m racking my brain trying to decide where to lead a one-night backpacking trip for the Seattle Mountaineers. I consider far-flung destinations: Goat Rocks, the Olympics, the Pasayten. Then I remind myself: Gas is expensive and you like to sleep in.
So off we went to Pratt Lake on a sunny late August weekend, but this time with a twist. We would use a car shuttle, parking at two adjacent trailheads off I-90, and link five different lakes in two days: Talapus, Ollalie, Pratt, Lower Tuscohatchie, and Melakwa (in that order).
Sunshine, swimming, and rocky spires
And what a glorious trip it was! Starting at the Talapus/Ollalie Lakes Trailhead, we saw those two lakes within the first two hours. Ollallie shimmered before us in the sun, big and inviting. A swimmer in cap and goggles was swimming the perimeter of the lake. Isn’t he freezing his butt off?, the three of us asked each other, amazed.
But four hours later, we were in Pratt Lake ourselves, marveling at how warm and clear the water was –the warmest mountain lake in which I’ve ever dared to dunk myself. On this sunny weekend, Pratt was much more crowded than the first time I’d camped there but we still found a campsite and had a peaceful night’s sleep (no mice in the tent this time).
The short half mile between Pratt and Lower Tuscohatchie Lakes (on the Melakwa Lake Trail) was one of the most beautiful sections of the trail, with wide open views of rocky spires framed by pretty pink fireweed. (We also saw tiger lilies, columbine, purple asters, and foam flowers throughout our two-day trip).
We filled our bottles from the rushing streams that flowed into crowded Lower Tuscohatchie Lake, saluted the WTA workers who were doing maintenance on the Kaleetan Lake trail, then continued on our way to Melakwa Lake on a lovely and solitary forest trail, thick with wildflowers and creeklets. We encountered hardly any people along this peaceful stretch, which meant more huckleberries and salmonberries left for us.
Back in civilization
After a short, steep climb we finally emerged to join the masses again at Melakwa Lake, probably the most dramatic (and definitely the most crowded) of all the lakes on our route. Towering peaks crowd around crystalline Melakwa Lake: Denny Peak, the Tooth, Chair Peak, and Bryant Peak (to name a few). You can see why it’s such a popular day hike for people and dogs of all stripes.
From there it was all downhill. Literally. The rocky 2000- feet descent on the Denny Creek Trail was not kind to my feet or knees but the blisters were a small price to pay for the stupendous scenery we’d witnessed in the last 29 hours.
Plus, the Denny Creek trail has many rewards of its own, including views of the fantastic Keekwulee and Snowshoe Falls, and dramatic vistas of the steep valley above Denny Creek. And, like we did, you can always take your boots off and dip your feet in the cold, clear waters of Denny Creek as it rushes through its rocky corridor and meets the trail to create a wilderness water park.
On a hot summer weekend day you’ll be surrounded by dozens of families with children and dogs in an atmosphere that is more like a public pool than wilderness. But it’s OK because you’re almost home and you have the memory of many solitary, wildflower-washed moments on the trail to hold on to.
You still have plenty of backpacking weather left! If you want to go:
• For fewer crowds, try hiking during the week or in the fall when temperatures dip but crowds thin, foliage turns, and the berries burst forth.
• You’ll need these Green Trails maps: Snoqualmie Pass (207) and Bandera (206)
• The hikes are described in 100 Hikes in Washington’s Alpine Lakes
Share your own favorite weekend backpacking trips!
Do you have your own favorite quick mountain getaways: easy to get to from where you live but with lots of bang for your buck? We’d love to hear what they are.