West Fork Foss River & Lakes

July 25, 2012

Location: Central Cascades (Skykomish/Highway 2)
Length: 15 miles round trip to Big Heart Lake
Recommended Hiking Time: 10-12 hours or overnight
Rating: Easy to Moderate

Last weekend I backpacked the West Fork Foss River Trail, a new destination for me within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It is a gorgeous hike, which starts with an easy walk along the river up to Trout Lake (a great camp location for families). The ferns and moss then give way to wildflowers and eventually heather and alpine scrubs. I saw bleeding heart, tiger lily, thistle, and columbine just to name a few. With the amount of snowmelt, the waterfalls throughout were very full. At 4 miles you hit Malachite and Copper Lakes and at roughly 5 miles in you hit Little Heart Lake. An additional two miles up along a ridge (and clear weather) will give you views of the surrounding ridgelines and Glacier Peak to the north. From the ridge you can also see Delta and Otter Lakes below you and a major waterfall flowing out of Big Heart Lake, the largest of all the lakes along this trail.

Big Heart Lake

This trip was over my birthday and was also my first solo backpack trip. A lot of people looked at me strangely when I told them my big birthday plans, but as a hypersocial animal, I really wanted some quiet time away from life to clear my head, do some thinking, and take a breather. While at first a little apprehensive when I left town, I am really glad I did this and would recommend it to anyone else who has backpacked before and is toying with the idea of heading out alone. It is totally freeing to hike at your own pace and on your own timeline, being able to either take it easy or explore more miles up trail as your mood dictates. That is, as long as you stay out of trouble and follow a few simple, safety guidelines

  1. Make sure you have the 10 essentials with you at all times
  2. Leave a trip itinerary with a few reliable people back home.
  3. Stay within your comfort zone and be ready to turn around at any point if conditions seem unsafe since there might not be anyone nearby to help if you get hurt.
  4. Set a specific turn around time so you don’t get caught in the dark (or after the return time you left with your loved ones — who tend to worry).

I headed out Friday evening and had planned to hike the 1.5 miles into Trout Lake, but left later than planned and ended up just camping in the parking lot since it was dark when I arrived. The dark has its perks, though; I saw two owls fly overhead on the drive up Forest Service Road 68. Aside from the owls, though, my wildlife sightings were limited to birds, slugs, newts, a field mouse, and bugs (yes, lots of bugs).

Thistle

The next morning I got started at 8am and made quick time to Trout Lake. From there the real climbing began, but a nice waterfall and the flowers along the trail kept me going. I took the short, but steep side trail to Malachite Lake to have an early lunch and had the place all to myself. This wasn’t too surprising since it was still pretty snowed in. There was only one obvious flat camp spot on bare ground and it was pretty marshy. I explored around a bit, but the rest of the sites were still snow covered. There might have be a few spots on the west side of the lake’s outlet, but it didn’t look too promising so I decided to skip the stream crossing.

Back on the main path I hit a few small patches of snow before reaching Copper Lake’s outlet. The stream is wide, but low enough to easily cross on some large boulders. There were much better campsites here, the best of these looked to be on the west side of the stream on a small peninsula. The sun came out so I took another break here and watched the waterfalls flowing into the lake until the bugs got to me.

From here I headed further up valley to Little Heart Lake, just a little over a mile up the trail. I found more snow patches, but nothing major. From the trail I crossed the lake’s outlet on a log jam and found several good sites, picking a 1-tent site right on the lake. There was also a larger snow free spot with views of Malachite Peak and the lake. It was so beautiful and there wasn’t another soul in sight for most of the day. The only issue was the toilet here is out of commission (found wooden pieces from it spread over a 20 foot area) so bring something to dig a cat hole with if you decide to camp here.

Little Heart Lake with a perfect reflection in the still water

Once I was all set up and had some nice down time laying in the sun, I still had 6 hours of daylight so I decided to see how much further up the trail I could get. Climbing up from Little Heart, the path is clear most of the way with snow patches getting heavier about halfway to Big Heart Lake. The trail is melted out enough though, that trail finding isn’t difficult and all the snow traverses (save one that is a little tricky with a pack) are on flat areas. Views along the way were awesome and I stopped several times on the ridge before descending down the switchbacks to Big Heart. At the bottom there were a few more snowfields, again these are flat and easy to cross, but be careful where you step since they are melting out. (You might just end up with a wet foot, but a guy I saw hiking down on Saturday poked through the snow and actually punctured his leg on a snag.)

Delta Lake with Glacier Peak in the background

Once down the switchbacks, I was at Big Heart Lake before I knew it. It was pretty with its thin layer of patchy ice still hanging on and a snow capped, craggy backdrop. For those with adequate navigation skills you can go off trail from Big Heart to reach Chetwoot and Angeline Lakes. With the conditions, time of day, and being by myself, I decided to turn back and leave those for another time and just enjoy the rest of my day at Little Heart. I felt pretty grateful for the clear weather and fortunate to have gotten all the way up the established trail. I imagine getting up here was a lot more challenging a couple weeks ago.

Malachite Peak

That night I cooked and ate a fajita wrap and chocolate bar dinner at the camp spot with the view of Malachite Peak. I spent the rest of the evening reading, napping, and relaxing in my tent with the rain fly off so I could watch the stars come out. Having grown accustomed to the Seattle night sky, there were so many stars that it was sort of overwhelming to me. I slept soundly through the night and took the following morning slowly getting up around 9 to eat breakfast and stretch my sore muscles. The clouds had rolled in over night and I hoped that they would lift, but around noon it was clear they weren’t going anywhere so I broke camp.

West Fork Foss River

I wasn’t in any hurry to get back, though, and stopped several times on my way down the trail, even catching a few of the small sun breaks that pierced through the cloud cover. The most memorable stop was at Trout Lake, which was now completely deserted. I just sat, breathed, and watched the trees’ wavering reflections in the surface of the water. I realized the familiar stress tension in my neck and shoulders had completely evaporated — despite the fact that they had carried 35 lbs over 15 miles with 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. It was curious to me that while physically taxing, this trip had me more relaxed than I’ve felt for a long time.

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