Exploring Snow Lakes

Looking down onto Nada Lake, I see the sun has finally touched the spot where my tent was. Too late Mother Nature! I got tired of waiting for you and moved on.
Looking down onto Nada Lake, I see the sun has finally touched the spot where my tent was. Too late Mother Nature! I got tired of waiting for you and moved on.

My night was soooooo cold, even though I finally bought a new sleeping bag for this trip. I don’t have a thermometer, so I do not know the low temp. The forecast was for mid-30s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in the 20s. My old sleeping bag is rated to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but it has lost much of it’s down and warmth. It will be my summer bag now.

In the morning I unzipped the tent and little snowshowers fell as ice broke from the zipper. I hopped around shivering while I made my first cup of coffee, then carried the cup back and got into the sleeping bag to read a book while I waited for it to warm up a little. After an hour, it began raining inside the tent. It wasn’t until I packed up the tent that I saw why: my body heat had caused condensation between the rain cover and the tent itself. Then, that layer of moisture had frozen into thin strips of ice all over the top of the tent! As the day warmed, the ice was melting onto me.

The best way I could think to get warm was to start hiking again, so off I went, wet gear and all.

Luckily there were more switchbacks right away. Ha! Who would have thought I would say “luckily there were switchbacks?” Soon I was in the sunshine and high above my little peninsula. Soon after that, I could feel my feet again.

I took this picture for you: so you could see how steep the climb is between Nada Lake and the Snow Lakes.
I took this picture for you: so you could see how steep the climb is between Nada Lake and the Snow Lakes.

It was a climb of only 500 feet in less than two miles to reach my next camp site, so a super easy climb day for me on Wednesday. I had planned to go the extra mile (heh heh – literally and figuratively) to camp on the far end of Upper Snow Lake, which is as far as my permit would allow. However, once I arrived at the lake, I saw that I would not be able to access the water, and I need water in camp.

The trail reaches both the Upper and Lower Snow Lakes at the same time, as it comes out between them. I passed between the two lakes by walking on a stone wall built by the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. There is an aqueduct that runs underground from Upper Snow Lake into Nada Lake, and this is opened as needed. The water is used to keep the valley streams flushed with cold water in the hot summer months to keep the salmon population healthy, and is also used on crops by farmers. I have never seen a mountain lake drained in this way, and it’s disconcerting to see. It is far too low for a human to attempt getting close enough to touch the water in Upper Snow Lake. I am curious as to whether the lake refills to the top each season, or if what I saw is the result of drought.

Upper Snow Lake - drastically diminished due to feeding the crops and salmon in the valley.
McClellan Peak rises above Upper Snow Lake. The water level is drastically diminished due to feeding the crops and salmon in the valley.
Lower Snow Lake is at normal levels, since it is not part of the Fish Hatchery system.
Lower Snow Lake is at normal levels, since it is not part of the Fish Hatchery system.
The dam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes doubles as part of the trail.
The dam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes doubles as part of the trail.
Ice beside the stone wall shows that it was still cold even after I reached the Snow Lakes.
Ice beside the stone dam shows that it was still cold at the Snow Lakes.

Lower Snow Lake had plenty of water, so I stopped between the two. I happily dumped my heavy pack in the shade (to keep the perishable food cold). Not quite ready to decide my campsite, I set up the tent so that the sunshine would melt the remaining ice and dry it out. Then I grabbed my camera and followed the trail to the end of the lake, looking for a campsite closer to the trail that would lead up to the higher lakes.

I walked to the other side of the lake (references say it is either 1 mile or 1 1/2 miles to the end of the lake, so that gives you a sense), but found no campsites with water access. I did, however, find other things that amused me. I had been passing multiple signs stating “toilet” with an arrow, and this struck me as highly unusual that someone would take the trouble to construct a toilet at 5500 feet in the mountains. I followed one of the trails and found one.

A mountain toilet. You lift the lid, and sure enough there it is! I find this hilarious... though probably necessary in this very popular wilderness area that fills with inexperienced hikers every summer.
A mountain toilet. You lift the lid, and sure enough there it is! I find this hilarious… though probably necessary in this very popular wilderness area that fills with inexperienced hikers every summer.

I also was delighted to see a few pikas and what is likely the first ptarmigan I have ever seen. Dogs were banned from this trail in 1982 in an attempt to bring back ptarmigan populations.

A pika holds still and poses for me.
A pika holds still and poses for me.
I took a dozen photos of this lovely bird. However, the light was very low and it would not hold still, so most are too blurry to use.
I took a dozen photos of this lovely bird. However, the light was very low and it would not hold still, so most are too blurry to use.
A fascinating fungus.
A fascinating fungus.
Bleached white log beside the aqua-coloured water that was continually captivating to me.
Bleached white log beside the aqua-coloured water that was continually captivating to me.
The view from the far end of the lake, back toward the stone dam, near where my tent is pitched.
The view from the far end of the lake, back toward the stone dam, near where my tent is pitched.

Once I decided I would have to camp back at the other end of the lake, I turned around and made the trek back to camp. I organized my gear, read more in my book, climbed around rocks and beaches, and generally enjoyed myself. The chipmunks and whiskey jacks were distinctly interested in me, and like all the other misbehaving outdoor adventurers they had met before: I shared a few peanuts with them. Yes, do not follow my example folks. Feeding the wildlife: very bad behavior.

The light makes grasses in Lower Snow Lake glow.
The light makes grasses in Lower Snow Lake glow.
An area that would be underwater if Upper Snow Lake were properly full. The cracked mud makes interesting patterns.
An area that would be underwater if Upper Snow Lake were properly full. The cracked mud makes interesting patterns.
Another pika. Cuteness.
Another pika. Cuteness.
A woodpecker pecks only on the shaded side of the tree - specifically to thwart my photography efforts.
A woodpecker pecks only on the shaded side of the tree – specifically to thwart my photography efforts.
Whisky Jack says,
Whiskey Jack (aka Grey Jay )says, “Yo! Toss me something good to eat, lady!” When I didn’t, he hopped all around me as I sat on a rock, eyeing my clothing for crumbs.
The chipmunks and whiskey jacks mounted a joint attack force and my resistance was futile. I shared my peanuts to their great appreciation.
The chipmunks and whiskey jacks mounted a joint attack force and my resistance was futile. I shared my peanuts to their great appreciation.

26 thoughts on “Exploring Snow Lakes

  1. Not only are you adventurous, but tough too. It all looks lovely, but sounds a bit rugged. I have no doubt however that a getaway like this could help someone figure out everything. Every last thing. Just you and your trail mates can get to the bottom of it all.

    1. Oh, and many of us do, too. We sit around in small circles, gazing into our little gas-fueled flames with Nalgene bottles of filtered lake water and figure every last thing out. Then we go to sleep and the thin air of the high altitude wipes our brains clean, and we wake up with no knowledge of the previous night and thoughts of coffee and food only.

  2. I don’t know what a pika is – despite your photos. Obviously some kind of rodent, but I have never heard of this one before. Can you tell us more about them? The fact that you laugh at a mountain toilet tells me you know how to pee in the wilderness without ruining your trousers 🙂 That climb was very steep. I remain deeply impressed!!

    1. Sure Pauline, a pika is a mammal. Though it looks just like a rodent, it’s related to rabbits and hares. These appear to be rock-dwelling pikas, but some live in burrows. They are herbivores and do not hibernate, so they spend the summer gathering winter stores. They will actually harvest plants and lay them out in the sun to dry, so they can be stored. How cool is that?!

      You found me out: I do know how to keep my feet dry. I’ll tell you a little more about me. When I was a teenager, my mother and stepfather bought 7 acres in the woods. It took all their money just to get the land, and in the first year they built a one-room cabin that we all (parents, me, three brothers) shared. For years we did not have running water or electricity, and yes…we got pretty comfortable peeing in the woods.

      1. Wow to the pika and to your parents and a real back to basics childhood – now I understand the camping/hiking thing!! Thanks for continuing my education in this way Crystal – such a privilege!!

  3. Seeing that gorgeous country makes me jealous, Crystal. I’ve been cleaning out one of my sheds and reorganizing my backpacking gear. Always fun. When we had our book club here two weeks ago, I showed up as a PCT hiker (the trail is about ten miles away) and unpacked, explaining gear as I went. The book for the time was Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It was a fun evening. Peggy and I also had the club watch Wild. –Curt

    1. That sounds like a really fun night Curt! And what a good idea, to unpack your pack and explain things. I like the way you take so many opportunities to reach out to people. I hope you showed up as a PCT hiker early in the trip, so your stuff wasn’t filthy like mine was when I got home. Whew! I’m afraid people in a 5 mile radius could probably breathe easier after I took a shower.

    1. It really was, Michael. It’s a completely different world, and so close to our daily lives it’s hard to believe it’s there. I was blessed with perfect, perfect weather all four days of my hike, so it was a bit of a charmed impression of the mountains.

    1. *Mwwaahh!* That was kisses. First for being here, and second for noticing that photo with the grass in the water. In that one I actually switched the Nikon to manual and tried to be a legit photographer. 🙂

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