|Hibox Mountain and Lila Lake Basin from Alta Mountain|
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, due to roots along trail and scrambling and exposure near peak
Access: Pothole-filled unpaved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required
Alta Mountain is one of the better summit hikes that can be accessed within an hour and a half drive from Seattle; that said, the trail is not pleasant, so neither the hike to Alta Mountain nor the trail to just Rachel Lake are recommended to novice hikers. The 6244-foot summit of Alta Mountain is reached by a thrilling ridgeline walk with expansive views of the Central and South Cascades. Rachel Lake is a pretty but not spectacular intermediate destination; I wouldn't recommend Rachel Lake as a day hike, as the trail is both crowded and poorly constructed. If you're just looking for a day hike that isn't too far from Seattle, pick something else: Snow Lake, Lake Serene, and Annette Lake are all easier and preferable alternatives to Rachel Lake. The views of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness from atop Alta Mountain, however, make the trip worthwhile despite the unpleasantness necessary to attain the summit.
I hiked up Alta Mountain on a fall Saturday that was cloudy in Seattle but clear east of Snoqualmie Pass. I drove out from Seattle on I-90 across the pass to Exit 62, then turned left onto the road and followed it north to Kachess Lake; I turned left at an intersection signed for Rachel Lake onto a dirt road and soon after stayed right at the next fork in the dirt road to continue towards Rachel Lake. The road was heavily washboarded and full of potholes, but was navigable in a sedan at low speed. The parking lot was overflowing by the time I arrived: both upper and lower lots were full, so I had to park along the road.
I filled out a wilderness permit for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at the trailhead before beginning my hike; there is no quota or charge for permits but they're necessary for hiking in Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which is one of the most popular and heavily visited units of the National Wilderness Preservation System. I started on the trail into the forest; the trail began to climb steadily right from the trailhead as it made its way uphill along the north side of the V-shaped Box Canyon. There were no views to speak of but the trail passed through an impressive old growth forest with a number of impressive firs.
The trail flirted with the creek, following it closely at times but often maintaining a bit of a distance from the tumbling waters. About a mile from the trailhead, I hiked past a section with boardwalk and passed a last set of tiny cascades and then came to the flat, calm bottom of upper Box Canyon. Here, the trail stayed flat for the next two miles, alternating between old growth forest and overgrown clearings from which I could see the cliffs of Hibox and Lobox Peaks rising nearby. I encountered many blowdowns along the trail: in many cases it was necessary to climb over or duck under fallen trees, and in some cases a use path had been beaten out around the downed trunks. Rain from earlier in the week had also turned much of the trail into mud and had converted more than a single low-lying area of the trail into a pond. In many of the clearings, abundant vegetation almost covered the trail, which was surprising for a hike that sees so many visitors.
Despite these qualms, the first three miles of the hike were not particularly difficult to hike: the tread of the trail was typically soft dirt or mud and elevation gain was extremely reasonable or nonexistent. At the upper end of Box Canyon, after crossing a creek, the trail ended the previous niceties and embarked on a furious uphill climb to Rachel Lake that was punctured with countless roots and rocks.
The climb was punctuated by occasional nice moments: at one point, the trail happened upon a cascading stream that skipped its way down rocks to a small pool, a scene that was somehow reminded me of the way Appalachian streams tumble bubbly down the Blue Ridge.
|Box Canyon Creek|
|Root-filled trail up to Rachel Lake|
After emerging at the top of the first knoll, I found that the views had already widened: I could see both Rachel and Rampart Lakes to the south. The sharp false summit of Alta Mountain rose ahead of me and the ridgeline of Alta was decorated red with the fall colors of berry bushes. The path was well defined and actually easier to hike than the climb to Rachel Lake, as the tread was mostly dirt.
|Fall colors on Alta Mountain|
|Hibox Mountain and Lila Lake along the ascent to Alta|
|Alta Mountain ridge|
|Alta Mountain ridgeline scramble|
The view to the south and the west showcased the peaks of the Snoqualmie Pass region: I could spot the lookout atop Granite Mountain; the pyramid of Silver Peak, the tallest mountain in the area south of I-90; the Snoqualmie Pass ski area; Gold Creek Pond; the spire of McClellan Butte; the thread of the Pacific Crest Trail traversing the Kendall Katwalk; Chair and Kaleetan Peaks; and the sharp granite mountains of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley.
The most impressive aspect of the view was to the west and north to nearby peaks. Autumn had painted a burnt color on Mount Thomson's slopes, creating a remarkable contrast with the dark waters of Alaska Lake nestled in a high basin on the mountain's slopes. Sharp Huckleberry Mountain and jagged Chikamin punctured the northern skyline.
|Alaska Lake, Mount Thomson, and Huckleberry Mountain|
|Mount Stuart from Alta Mountain|
|Mount Adams from Alta Mountain|
|Pika amongst the rocks|
I timed my return such that I reached the trailhead just after sunset. Along the way, I ran into some day hikers still heading uphill towards Rachel Lake without flashlights or many of the Ten Essentials. You don't want to be stuck on any trail at night without some light source, but you especially don't want to be stuck on the root-filled section of trail near Rachel Lake in that situation. The summit of Alta Mountain is a beautiful destination, but know what you're getting into and if you do decide to hike here, don't assume you can show up in tennis shoes without all essential hiking gear just because the trailhead is so close to Seattle. This isn't Mount Si.