Our first backpacking trip with the dogs this year was up to Gem Lake. The most common way to get up to Gem Lake is via the Snow Lake trail so that’s what we did. Snow Lake is one of my favorite dog friendly trails near Seattle because it’s not too hard but the destination is absolutely amazing.
It’s a 5 mile hike up to Gem Lake (about 1.5 miles past Snow Lake) so we got started in the afternoon to make it to the lake around 5 pm. The trail can be hiked in less than the 5 hours that it took us on weekdays but the trail is a superhighway of people on weekends, which slows you down.
It also took us longer because we also took our time and enjoyed having no real agenda – taking breaks when we felt like it to soak in the view and chat with a friend and his daughter that we bumped into.
I had never hiked past the viewpoint at the southeast end of Snow Lake. My hubby and I tried to find the trail that went past that point once but couldn’t. It turns out we missed it because the creek you have to cross was raging the day we were there. We went back this time armed with trip reports from the Washington Trails Association website and friends.
I will never stop at the first lookout point on the lake again! That is where the majority of the people stop so it’s crowed and, although the views are gorgeous, they only get better as you hike around the north side of the lake. I will always want to avoid the hoards of people, and enjoy even better views, in the future.
The hike did feel a little longer than 5 miles to us. It’s probably because this was the first time we were carrying an extra 28 lbs on our back this year. Taking all of those breaks also strung it out.
The trail did just as I had read in trip reports. After passing the usual stopping point and crossing the creek, the trail climbs up and traverses above the lake for a bit. I then touches back to the lake edge where you cross a log foot bridge across the lake outlet and then climb up again. You traverse along the lake again before climbing to a trail junction. Stay left here as the trail to the right climbs down, down to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Road.
Past the junction, the trail climbs up toward Gem Lake. Some of the trail reports said you will see a rooty section where the trail seems to veer off. The reports said to stay right there. To be honest, I saw a few places that they could have been talking about but never once did I feel confused about where the main trail was headed.
The trail surface was just as described – a moderate climb with packed dirt, stairs, roots, and rocky, scree slopes in places.
We passed a couple on the way down the trail when we were heading up. We asked them about the lake and they warned us that there were a lot of bugs up there. They suggested that we might want to use one of the campsites to the left when we got to the lake, instead of the campsites at the north end of the lake. They thought there might be less bugs there.
We did as they said and set up camp with a great view of the (mountain behind snow lake and the mountain behind Gem Lake). It was beautiful.
The couple was so wrong about the bugs though. I should have known because the area right below our tent was kind of marshy. I can’t imagine that there could have been more mosquitoes at the other campsites. We were constantly swatting them and being bit, despite the DEET we were slathering on.
I usually don’t react to mosquitoes but these left me with red welts. Chester had a really bad reaction and his face swelled up.
For a bit we thought we were going to have to pack back up and hike out to get him to the vet. Some Benadryl in my first aid kit brought the situation from freak out to mildly concerning though so we decided to stay the night as planned.
I took a jog around the lake to view it from the other end after the sun went down but it was still light enough for pictures. If you hike to lake, even for the day, you absolutely can’t skip hiking to the far end of the lake. The view was spectacular.
I told my hubby I would be gone about 20 minutes but I was gone much longer than that and he started to get concerned. I had attempted to go all of the way around the lake. At about 3/4 of the way around, the trail to Wildcat Lakes splits off and the trail gets less defined. I was able to pick my way through though but then it gets more faint and climbs a very steep side slope. I was almost back to camp so I thought I would give this “trail” (if you could call it that) a go. I thought I could turn around if I got to the top and didn’t see a clear way down.
I grunted about half way up the hill and then had second thoughts. I was already later than my hubby expected, the slope was not treed or well tread, I was alone. When I looked behind me, I realized that it was going to be really sketchy to go back down the trail. I decided to give up while I was ahead.
That meant that I had to go back around the whole lake though, which put my return at 45 minutes after I left. My hubby had gone down to the lake edge to look for me and, luckily, he spotted me on the talus slope on the other side of the lake.
The next morning we had the pleasure of using a toilet in the woods with the most amazing view. We hear there are two there but we only saw one.
The trail is pretty easily passable by dogs, even small ones. There aren’t any huge rocks to climb over. There are steps in some sections that a small dog might have difficulty with but my miniature Dachshunds did fine, only needing a very occasional lift.
One trail report I read said that her dog’s pads got cut up pretty bad on the rocky sections. I’d never had problems with Chester’s feet so I didn’t think much of it. However, his feet did get a bit scraped up and he was sore the next day. If you hike this trail with your dog, you should definitely check their feet often.
Also be aware that the trail is very exposed so it’s easy for dogs and people to overheat in the middle of the day. I suggest hiking up to the lake in the morning or lake afternoon for a little relief.
Trail Name: Gem Lake
Distance: 10 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 2,200 feet
Highest Point: 4,857 feet
Permits and Passes: A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead (Alpental Parking Lot)
Directions: From Exit 52 off I-90, drive to the ski area parking at Alpental. Be aware that there are private residences near Alpental and respect requests for No Parking that may exist.