slow and steady | thunder mountain lakes backpacking
September 9, 2021
14 miles . 3700 ft gain . 5130 ft high
It’s wild to think that when you find a *new* trail or place to visit that it’s likely a. been visited by humans before and b. it’s probably a more popular trail than you think. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this campsite, but I’d be lying if Instagram didn’t have a small component of it. I had visited the area another summer but didn’t quite reach the Thunder Mountain Lakes since we decided to stop early due to the snow. But I was determined to visit the area again. However, the stats have started to fall a little more on the easy side for me and my friends, so I wasn’t sure how I’d fit this in. I’d been wanting to take my mom backpacking again ever since she raved about the Lake Ingalls trip we did a while back. Normally I’d harp on taking it easy in terms of mileage and gain when it comes to backpacking trips for newer folks, but it was a hard task to find a trail that fit the bill and had those alpine views. You usually have to work for it. There are very few places you can just drive up to and those still have a very different feeling of wilderness. It would be a stretch but our game plan was to go nice and slow over the 7 miles up and 3700 feet of gain. It’d be the most my mom would have hiked in a day in terms of gain.
We had a slightly later start than we originally intended but the vibe for the trip was to take it easy. There’s no need to push too hard. The first section is probably the steepest gain per mile to Hope Lake. With conversation, time passed quickly and we took our first official break at the lake, where we saw more people come up after us. We’d be passing them on and off the whole weekend. We let them all pass us as we started the next few miles towards Trap Lake. Blueberries and huckleberries lined the trail the whole way, making it tempting to stop every chance you get. As we started traversing the hillside, the views opened up right away and the red bushes created that fall technicolor scene. I don’t think I can stop thinking about the song Technicolour Beat by Oh Wonder every Washington hike around autumn. Wildflower season is beautiful but what paints the mountains is the fall colors as the berry bushes and vine maples turn a vivid orange and red.
With no time to lose, we continued past Trap Lake. I doubt it would have been worth the visit because viewed from above, alpine lakes are the prettiest. We kept oogling our eyes at the lake and the gorgeous scenery around until we were finally at the saddle point of the PCT where the other side drops down to Surprise Lake. Another break here and we’d begin the scrambly bit of the trail. I was honestly surprised to have found a pretty legit, well-worn trail. For an unmaintained trail, it was pretty maintained. You begin by traversing across the ridge on its east side and then through the forest on the west side before starting the steep uphill to reach the subalpine meadows and boulder fields. From there we followed some tarns until we found another trail to follow. On and off boulders we’d go. I think my mom was having a fabulous time! Boulder hopping makes you feel like a kid again.
I started feeling pressed for time as the sun set behind the mountains so the last hundred feet, I hurried ahead to catch some of the pre-sunset light before the big show began. Soon enough my mom caught up and we were both giddy to take pictures and capture the moment. It was awesome to see her enjoy the views as much as I do. This time in person, instead of through my pictures. We were so enthralled that we neglected to set up camp and make dinner until the sun had fully set. But dinner was well worth the wait as we sat and enjoyed the last bit of light in the horizon.
Overnight, it stayed dried, as opposed to the light rain forecasted. That sort of wrong forecast is the kind I’m always down for. We were the only ones up at sunrise. I think maybe everyone thought it was too cloudy, but there was some pretty cool light on the mountains further away. My best guess is that’s Granite Mountain. We finished watching sunrise before we ate breakfast and packed up. Everyone else was having a lazy morning, but we weren’t going to be fast, so we made the most of our time. Going down was probably as much time as coming up on the off-trail sections, but we were treated with some pretty nice morning light as we descended. Plenty of people were hiking up from Trap Lake as a day hike but I was glad to have camped so high!
Back on the trail, we kept stopping at every huckleberry bush until we realized we were moving way too slow to get back at the car at a reasonable time. So we kept the stops short because you can’t fully eliminate berry picking this time of year. I think this was a 10/10, dare I say 11/10 experience for both my mom and me. It was incredible to take her up to the alpine, which is something I chase all the time. It definitely took some patience to go at a very different speed, but my axiom is that anyone can hike anywhere given the time. This proved it true. Maybe I could have hiked it in half the time or less, but the goal here is not speed. It’s the enjoyment of being in nature, being self-sustainable, and finding your own capabilities. So who will you take next?
No reservations needed. Self-issued permits issued at the trailhead are required for day and overnight hikers, standard Alpine Lakes Wilderness restrictions apply.
We started at Tunnel Creek for less elevation gain, but you can also start from Surprise Creek. Tunnel Creek probably offers more views sooner since it opens out on the southern aspect meadow slopes.
The ridge at the start of the off-trail from the PCT is narrow and steep, use caution when crossing. It’s the only section that feels that exposed and slippery. There is some class 2 scrambling to get to the lakes. The cairns are useful to follow, but following on gps is also advised for the beginner scrambler. In theory you can take any route that’s not a cliff by heading due south. The cairns, however, will take you on some trails, making it easier to travel overall. Allow more time for this last mile due to route finding and more technical terrain.
There are plenty of established campsites at the Thunder Mountain Lake and many are slightly hidden so it feels like you all have enough room to breathe and enjoy some solitude if you want.
Alternatively you can camp at Trap Lake, although the views there are limited at the lower elevation in the forest.
There’s no toilet at the trailhead but there is one at Hope Lake. Look for the signs.
I carried most of our gear, all of the group gear including tent, food, and cooking supplies. I also fit 2 sleeping bags inside my backpack and the 2 sleeping pads stayed on the outside. I still had a lot of room for camera gear, extra water, extra clothes. My mom carried just her extra clothes and toiletries and a small water bottle. I think the weight distribution worked out great. My bag was around 30 pounds, which is pretty average for most average backpackers, as far as I know.