Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hiking the Hidden Lake Lookout Trail

[Note: this article is based on my personal experience. If you are reading this because you are interested in this hike, I urge you to read all of the reviews and stories available on the Washington Trails Association website and take this review with a grain of salt.]

Today is the first day since our hike last Sunday that I've been able to walk down the stairs without cringing in pain. There's nothing quite like your muscles taking a beating to force you to start listening to your body and gain some perspective.

Hey, if I've gained anything from last week, it's perspective.

And perspective with a view, no less.

So, what went wrong? What we decided was that we made three distinct mistakes going into this hike, which made what could have been the most spectacular hike imaginable into one of the most treacherous and frightening experiences of my life.

A little melodramatic? Probably. But hey, when it's your life, things can get dramatic pretty quick.

Let's back up. A few weeks ago, Jon enthusiastically agreed to accompany me on a hike I had been planning on taking since before I moved up to Seattle 3 years ago. It must have been Sunset, or a similar Great Things to Do in the West magazine, that clued me in to the numerous hiking trails in the Cascade Mountains that lead to fire lookouts (a.k.a. great views). One particular lookout caught my eye: the Hidden Lake Lookout, described by many Web sites and hiking books as one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. (Read the best and most accurate play-by-play here.)

OK, twist my arm, why don't you. 

So in January of 2009, I started planning my summer trip up there. Then summer came and went. Then another. I was determined to get my act together and not let another summer go by without taking on this hike and seeing those views for myself. The fact that Jon is an extremely experienced hiker gave me loads of confidence, and I never questioned for a moment that this would be a somewhat-strenuous-but-doable afternoon hike.

Not sure why I thought this, but I did. And hey—I had learned my lesson from our hike on Tiger Mountain: know the length and terrain of the trails before you tackle them! So I did my research. I knew how long the hike was (9 miles round-trip) and I knew there was an elevation gain of 3290 feet. No problem! I read all about what type of terrain we would hit at what time in the hike. Great! I even understood we might run into some snow/glaciers (we don't own an ice axe—whoops?), there would be some 'bouldering' required (of which I have no experience), and there would be bugs (I hate bugs). Oh well, who cares?

Despite potential obstacles, the descriptions of heather-covered rocks, wildflower meadows, bustling creeks, and mountainous views overcame all reason. I was determined.

And—I felt—that I was prepared. With a new Camelback pack full of water and protein-packed food, an Underarmour shirt to keep me cool and protect me from the sun, I was ready for the best hike of my life.

Opting to leave the dogs behind (smartest thing we did all day!), Jon and I headed north up I-5 from Seattle toward Arlington and cut across some beautiful morning/mountain scenery to Hwy 20 and Marblemount. The roads aren't particularly well marked once you get to this point, but we followed the directions to go across the "steel bridge" and hoped we were, indeed, on Cascade River Road. Eventually we saw the steep and gravelly FR1540/Sibley Creek Road off to the left and started our ascent up the somewhat sketchy 4.5 miles toward the trailhead. There were a good amount of cars in the tight parking lot, but since we got there later in the morning, it was obvious some overnight hikers had left already, leaving open spots near the entrance. The drive from Seattle to the trailhead had taken 2 ½ hours, so we didn't arrive at the trail until 11:30 am.  

This would be mistake #1.

Utterly clueless about the significance of our start time, and excited to get started, we headed into the forest with a kick in our step.

It was a beautifully clear day; temperatures were hovering around 80ºF, and we knew we had lucked out as far as weather was concerned. The initial portion of the hike took us through the forest on a pretty steady incline through thick brush; the ground was lush, but dry. But it became clear pretty quick that locating the exact route through the forest wasn't going to be easy: trees had clearly fallen during the winter (or had been there for years?), which made it difficult to tell whether to climb over or find another way. Since we weren't familiar with the exact route of the trail, and there were no markings, Jon and I definitely got turned around a few times. A group coming through behind us headed off into a different direction, so we backtracked through dense brush and branches to get ourselves back on track.

Once we found the trail again, it was no issue making our way. You'll know you're close to the end of the forest line when you reach areas that have been boarded and laddered for the benefit of hikers.

Aw, how sweet.

Tricked into a feeling of security, we pressed on.

Coming out of the forest was both breathtaking and unnerving. The view of a vast meadow, glacier melt, and flowering plants was incredible...

But the bugs... The bugs were something I've never experienced. The density of the vegetation and the humidity in the air meant that the bugs were many and they were aggressive. Mosquitoes, flies, horseflies... The moment we stopped moving, we would be swarmed by them. I caught several mosquitoes taking bites of me through my shirt, so it became difficult to stop and admire the scenery. I kept scolding myself for not thinking to put on—or even bring—bug repellant.

That would be mistake #2.

Not sure how much it would have helped, but I'd like to think a lot. Because it was seriously terrible for the entire mid-section of the hike. Little wind, humid air, moist plants equals loads of bugs. And as I said: I hate bugs. Especially ones that bite. For many people, the bugs probably wouldn't seem too bad; perhaps nothing more than an annoyance. But whenever I would stop to admire the view, stretch my legs, drink some Gatorade, or take a picture, I'd be covered.


Not to suggest this section of the hike was entirely deplorable. On the contrary, Jon and I kept a pretty good pace and, though it was quite strenuous, we lapped up the challenge. The trail leading through the meadow was a steady and often steep incline, back and forth along switchbacks and heading up towards the glaciers that were clearly still in tact.

It was right in the middle of the afternoon, so the sun was hot and unrelenting at times. But the stunning variety of the wildflowers and increasing views of the surrounding mountains were well worth the effort (and the bug swatting).

Depending on the time of year, reaching the top of these switchbacks might bring you face to face with some snow. Everything I read warned that it was not advisable to try crossing the ice without an ice axe, but there wasn't much ice to worry about and we saw others traverse the tiny glacier with no problem. It took no effort at all to bi-pass the ice entirely and cut around the bottom.

So far, so good.

Immediately after crossing the first baby-glacier, the plants became less dense—as did the bugs. Though some horseflies seemed set on tagging alongside us, it was significantly less distracting than before.

Good thing, too.

The views from here on out were nothing short of spectacular. I don't pride myself on being very knowledge about the Cascade Mountains (or any mountains), so I can't tell you what any of the peaks are called. But seeing everything come into view the higher we climbed was awe-inspiring.

Hm... based on what I've read, I'll go ahead and say that that's Mount Baker (though someone could correct me if I'm wrong). Also, getting a near-bird's-eye-view of the switchbacks we'd hiked was a rather rewarding sight.

Nice job, us.

As we moved further up, the dirt trail gradually turned more and more rocky, with large slabs of granite and loose stones to climb and watch out for. Some glacier melt also created lovely but potentially hazardess streams. Nothing major, but being vigilant about watching our step was key.

Next is where, in hindsight, it might have been wise to turn back and call it a day. If we'd had the dogs with us, we would have.

Yep, that snow just keeps on going...

We reached this ice shelf and I definitely hesitated. Looking across, I knew we could make it, but the fear of losing my footing and sliding 200 feet to the rocks below (certain death, people!) loomed over my head; knowing we didn't have that recommended ice axe made me question whether we should take the risk.

Needless to say, at Jon's reassurance and guidance, we took the risk and made it across. All I could think about was how absolutely effing terrified I was of having to cross it again on the way back.


But we pressed on. Another glacier to cross (frightening, but not nearly as treacherous as the previous one) and we found ourselves walking a rocky but stable trail alongside the mountain. And, with the sound advice of some previous hikers...

... we traipsed over the last few rocky slopes with our final destination in view.

Oh, no, not those beautiful wildflowers (I wish). Hm, you probably can't see it very well. Let's zoom in:

Yep. That would be the Hidden Lake Lookout, perched mind-bogglingly high on the granite slopes—easily as high as most of the mountains that taunted us in the distance.

From this angle, I couldn't fathom how we'd be able to make it to the top, so I maintained I would not be trying to make it up there, thank you very much! The copy of All Quiet on the Western Front that I was lugging around in my pack to donate to the Lookout Library would just have to go back to Seattle with me. Too bad, so sad.

We trudged on, continuing to admire the view and resolute in our decision to make it to the Hidden Lake Overlook (the area just below the mountain where you can see the actual lake), rest for a bit, and turn back around. No need to kill ourselves just to see a 10'x10' room with a bed and cook stove.

But then, as we got a bit closer, some cool hippie hikers were coming down the trail and asked if we planned on going to the "tippy top."

"No way," we replied, still resolute and stuff.

"No? Oh, you've got to!" the braided leader of the group insisted.

"But we don't have an ice axe," I admitted, bowing my head in shame for being a stupid novice hiker.

"Neither did we! You won't need one. Once you get to the overlook, just veer up to the right. There's a trail along the backside of that mountain that leads you up. It's not even half a mile—it's easy, promise." His totally rad, tie-died friends nodded enthusiastically.

"Oh, well in that case!!" I proclaimed (like a moron) while Jon casually and coolly thanked them for their advice.

They moved on, and so did we. Maybe I'll give it a try, I thought. But I'll make no promises, 'cause I'm skeeeered.

We walked along the giant glacier coming down from the peak, and I noticed a few people had decided to camp at the bottom of the mountain.

This is when I started to get a little worried. Were we going to be the only ones heading down the mountain, this late in the day? We'd started just after 11:30am, and it was nearing 4:30 at this point.

I immediately wished we'd thought to bring a tent and sleeping bag—at the very least, the latter. If we'd been able to stop here, it would have been perfect timing, and we would have been able to get some much needed rest. We could have eaten and stretched our legs—maybe even played in the snow, or washed off in the snowmelt. We could have reveled in the beauty of the landscape as the sun went down and the sky filled with stars. We city kids would have slept in perfect silence.

And that would be mistake #3.

We didn't bring sleeping bags. We didn't bring a tent. Sleeping here wasn't an option. So we quickened our pace to reach the overlook.

Stepping onto the glacier, and walking up towards the left of the peak, I was anxious to finally see the lake. And then, all of a sudden, there it was.

Stunning. With the exception of the lookout (that would be the shadow on the bottom right corner), there was nothing much higher around us. We could see in all directions.

And we relaxed. I was content, and proud of having made it this far—a measly hiker like me. Jon surveyed the scene while I sucked down obscene amounts of water, beef jerky and a peach. I snacked on almonds while snapping umpteen photos of the lake.

The beautiful lake below.

It's an 800 foot drop down the slope to the lake; only people carrying back country hiking permits are allowed to access it. Not that it was something I considered. It was actually daunting to look down the gravelly cliff face and imagine people choosing to hike down there. I really am an inexperienced hiker, I admitted to myself. This is quickly becoming clear.

As I sat, I started to feel the strain of the last 4 ½ hours. I was still uncertain about tackling the granite bouldered pathway up the last 0.3 mile to the lookout. I told Jon he was free to go without me.

So he started up, along with my book. I felt OK about not going up, but I admit it was hard to get this far and not make it to the very end. But after a few minutes, Jon returned to tell me the trail wasn't all that bad and he was confident I could make it. Hesitantly, I agreed.

Honestly, it was much harder than I had anticipated. Maybe it wouldn't have been if we had stayed the night and then climbed up in the morning, after my legs had rested. I don't consider myself particularly scared of heights, but the uneasiness I was feeling while on my feet increased my anxiety significantly.

Large granite slabs, piled on top of one another, make up the majority of the walk up the side slope. There's always a foothold, somewhere, but still... Like with the glacier passes earlier in the hike, one slip and we're talking serious injury or death. I realized as I climbed that this was the first hike I'd taken that put me so "close to the edge." I'm sure many who have taken the hike would read this and think I'm a total wimp. I thought the same thing myself. But no... Jon—an experienced hiker!—reassured me that this was, indeed, an extremely strenuous hike. As far as "basic, no gear required" hikes are concerned, this was up there. ("If this hike was a 10, then Half Dome would be a 6.")

Well good.

The final leg was daunting enough that I got no pictures of the way up. With my eyes fixed on my feet, I slowly (very, very slowly) made it to the top.

Needless to say, being lucky enough to sleep in this lookout without others around would mean the quietest of silent sleep I could imagine. With weather this calm, I doubt there would be breeze strong enough to brush the windows. It was eerie just how high we were, and how tight the space around the lookout was.

So again, we sat.

And just enjoyed the calm.

I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay and sleep on the floor. I was close to suggesting it, were it not for our dogs waiting for us at home. I was already dreading the hike back...

And my knees were starting to ache pretty severely. I reminded myself to thank my mom for passing along her shitty knees to me...

We struck up a conversation with some cool cats who planned to stay the night at the lookout, and explored.

I located the library and made my book donation deposit, which I signed and dated, of course, because I needed to prove in multiple ways that I actually did it you guys wow go me!... I also signed the registry.

We even got our pictures snapped together.

This was right before the guy taking our picture asked if we planned on staying the night. We told him we were heading back, of course, and he looked slightly surprised.

And then he said this:

"Well, it's—what, 5:30? Hopefully you guys brought head lamps."

My heart sank. We had, of course, brought a flashlight (JON'S SMART!) but the idea that it could potentially get dark before we reached our car struck the most frightening nerve in me. I remembered the forest—how the fallen trees and uneven trail had made it difficult even in the noon brightness to find our way. I was struck with the most intense urgency to get back down the mountain as soon as possible.

(Okay, things are about to get really dramatic. Looking back, it seems crazy to have been so intensely afraid, but the memory of how scared I was is still very clear... I'm going to explain this exactly how I remember it. Don't judge me.)

From here on out, there are no more pictures. I have nothing more to say about what we saw on the way down, because the truth is, I saw nothing but my shoes. No comments on how the sun looked as it started to set or how the wildflowers had changed colors as the air cooled and moonlight gradually appeared.

Our 3 hour, 4.5 mile race down the mountain was exactly that: a race with the sun to the finish line.

And my knees... Oh lord, my knees. They went from "uncomfortable" to "excruciating" pain in a matter of minutes as we tread carefully along the granite. As anyone with bad knees knows, walking downhill on uneven rocks is a nightmare. And because we had very little true daylight left, there was no time to rest or stretch my legs.

This stunning hike, with some of the Northwest's most impressive views, very quickly became something out of a movie for me. I've said it many times in the last week: as melodramatic as it may sound, I had doubts in my mind that we'd be making it out alive. Silly, perhaps, but with the speed we were going, it was not far-fetched to imagine losing my footing—on the ice, the granite rocks, or the mud that had accumulated on the trail. I fell numerous times on the way down, though (thankfully) only enough to knock me on my ass and not off a mountain.

Jon was a saint. He helped me down the rocks to reduce the impact on my knees; he did his best to carve footholds in the snow to ensure I wouldn't slip because of my shaky legs; he guided me through the thick brush of the lower meadows and talked me through everything. I knew he was slowed down because of me, but he never made me feel bad for needing time.

I'm so in love with this man, and now more than ever.

But I could see he was worried for me, and worried for us—that there was no way were were making it back to the car while there was still visible light.

After nearly 2 ½ hours, we reached the forest just as the sun went down.

Up until this point in my life, I've never felt such intense purpose. Sounds like hyperbole, I know, but it's the truth. I've never wanted anything more than to be sitting safe in our car. The mere idea filled me with such intense and emotional longing, I couldn't help but imagine the possible obstacles in my way.

I saw us going further and further down the mountain and away from the trail. I saw myself wandering, dirty and drained, in the woods until my legs gave out. I saw us curling up in the dirt, having to wait out the night.

I saw bears.

Going as quickly as I could manage, I urged Jon to pick up the speed and to not worry about helping me unless I asked. Not easy in the dark with a small flashlight guiding both our way. It was when our trail hit a dead end that I knew we'd gotten off track and I started to panic uncontrollably.

Jon, naturally, kept his cool as best he could while dealing with a hysterical person on the verge of tears. After too many minutes of climbing, falling, and careful maneuvering, Jon found the trail again and I resumed my quickened pace. I knew we had to be close, but because our pace had changed so drastically from when we began, I no longer had any concept of time or distance.

But then we hit another dead end and in that moment, I gave up. I sat down in the dirt and resigned myself to spending the night in that spot unless Jon was able to find the trail, for certain, as in definitely the right way. This whole trek back from the top of the mountain had last nearly as long as The Godfather Part II and I literally couldn't get my body to take one more futile step.

So Jon employed his superior hiking skills and backtracked without me. He rounded around some nearby trees and cut down into the brush. I followed the light of his flashlight with my eyes for several minutes as he searched.

It's the most scared I've ever been.

Then finally: "I found it!" He said it with such confidence, I didn't question it for a moment. I threw myself down the hill towards him and nearly pushed past him along the trail.

We were back on track and I knew we were headed in the right direction.

Several minutes later:

"There's the registry!"

I started hyperventilating with joy as I saw the trail registry that we'd signed at the start of the hike.

Another minute later our flashlight lit up the parking lot and I could see the car.

I nearly collapsed.

Grabbing Jon, I kissed him and told him I've never been more thankful for anyone. Not ever. He'd been there when and how I needed him, and did not judge me for a moment.

And with that, we got the hell off that mountain.

~ ~ ~

So here's the gist: This was an absolutely spectacular hike. It's the most beautiful scenery I've ever laid eyes on, and having gotten my distance from our personal experience, I wouldn't take it back. Had we not made those three key mistakes, everything would have been different. If we had planned on doing the hike in one day we should have arrived no later than 9 am. We should have brought camping gear, just in case we couldn't make it back. And we should have brought bug spray, because shit, bugs are seriously awful, yo!

This hike humbled me. I am not the intermediate hiker I thought I was. I do not fully understand the workings of the wilderness, or what I would need to do to survive common situations like we faced. If it had been left up to me, I'd wouldn't even have considered bringing a flashlight.

Shows how much I know.

Lesson learned. Again.


  1. You are so brave! I would've given up after 5 minutes just seeing the bugs. At least you got the gorgeous pictures out if it - they are breathtaking. PS- You look super skinny. xoxo.

  2. <3 - (ps, you left out the part where I forced you to walk in the near-dark until the very last minute we could wait and still have sight, in order to conserve our batteries :D )

  3. I was there last weekend, AMAZING hike!

    The good news is that after this experience, all other hikes will seem very easy in comparison. :o)

  4. Stacy,

    I stumbled across your blog from facebook and i just had to tell you what a beautiful writer you are. i love the way you write with such a balance of humor, wit, honesty, and sincerity. the way you write about jon is genuinely touching; you convey such a powerful and true love shared between you.

    anyways, sorry to be a creeper stalker (i know its been years since i saw you!!!!) but i just had to let you know. i hope all is well for you and maybe someday we can get a cambridge reunion together!!

    - Megan Jones (from summer in cambridge years ago :))