Snow Lake Is The Best Day Hike Near Seattle
There, I said it. I know it’s a bold statement to make considering the number of unbelievably beautiful hikes in Washington State. But here’s the thing, The North Cascades, Olympic National Park, and Mount Baker all contain world-class hiking, but realistically you’re talking about a 3-hour drive to most trailheads from Seattle. That’s six hours round trip. I don’t know about you, but six hours is a lot of driving to tack onto of a full day of hiking. Enough to make you think twice about going at all.
To be honest, I’ve always been grateful to live within a few hours of so many stunning hikes. Within the context of the United States, a few hours is nothing – not even long enough to drive across most states. Then, a few months ago I struck up a conversation with the girl in front of me in an airport security line. It turned out she was from Austria. I immediately went into a diatribe about how beautiful the mountains were there. She laughed and told me that, unfortunately, she lived too far away from any mountains to enjoy them. Ironically she only lived a couple of hours away from where I had stayed during my trip to Austria. Which got me thinking, were there any trails I loved in Washington that were actually “close” to Seattle by these standards?
Sure, there’s Rattlesnake Ridge, Mount Si, Mailbox Peak, all within an hour of Seattle. And while I enjoy all of those hikes, especially for training during the off-season, I wouldn’t consider any of them a favorite. There is one hike, though, that kept coming to mind. A hike that I do almost every year not simply because of the easy drive from Seattle, but because I genuinely enjoy it. That hike is Snow Lake.
Snow Lake At A Glance
Type of Hike: Out and back
Distance: Approximately 7 miles round trip. There is no defined “end” to this hike, so it’s difficult to give an exact distance. It depends on how far around the lake you decide to hike.
Total Elevation Gain: Approximately 1,700 feet
Dogs: Allowed. Pets must remain on a leash at all times.
Length Of Time: It took us about 1.5 hours to get up to Snow Lake and a little less to get back down. We probably spent two hours at the lake eating, swimming, taking photos, and enjoying ourselves.
Best Season To Hike: July thru October are the best months to hike Snow Lake. Multiple avalanche chutes cross the Snow Lake Trail during the winter months. Only attempt the trail during the winter months if you have appropriate avalanche safety gear and experience. Moreover, the lake is frozen and covered in snow throughout winter and spring.
Permits & Parking Passes For Snow Lake
Snow Lake is located on National Forest land. You need to display a valid Northwest Forest Pass or Interagency Pass at the Snow Lake trailhead.
Wilderness Permits are required for day use and overnight trips in Alpine Lakes Wilderness from May 15 to October 31. Permits are free and available on a self-issue basis at trailheads.
Getting To The Snow Lake Trail Head
From Seattle, drive east on I-90 to exit 52, signed for Snoqualmie Pass West. Turn left (north), crossing under the freeway. Take the second right, traveling 1.3 miles to the end of the road at the Alpental Ski Area parking lot.
Hiking The Best Trail Near Seattle: Snow Lake
The trail to Snow Lake starts from the Alpental Ski Area Parking lot. It’s a big lot, and parking isn’t a huge concern even on the busiest days. From the trailhead, you ascend up a series of wood stairs. Every time I’m greeted by these stairs, I’m reminded of how much time and effort must go into maintaining this trail. It boggles my mind!
One of my favorite things about the hike to Snow Lake is that you clear the trees in a relatively quick fashion. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good stroll through the forest as much as the next person. But when you grow up in the PNW, it’s a real treat to encounter a trail that doesn’t require a few miles of switchbacks through dense trees before you get to any views.
The Source Lake Junction
Just before 2 miles, the trail splits at the Source Lake Overlook. Take the hairpin turn right to continue on to Snow Lake. Alternatively, you can take the short side trip (about 0.5 miles to the overlook). Once you hike past the fork, the trail really starts to climb. Thankfully, it’s also where the views really start to get good! You’ll ascend around 500 feet in .7 miles up to the wilderness boundary at a saddle above Snow Lake.
Pro Tip: The section of the trail between the turnoff for Source Lake and the top of the saddle is relatively steep and rocky. I’ve never thought much of it personally, but I noticed several complaints in various trip reports about “all the rocks,” so I figured it was worth mentioning. Don’t forget that hiking isn’t a race. If faster hikers want to pass, they can. The important thing is that you hike at a pace you are comfortable with to avoid unnecessary injury.
From the saddle, the main trail continues right down a series of switchbacks to the lake. But before you head down to the lake, I recommend taking the less obvious trail to your left for some great aerial views of Snow Lake and Chair Peak in the background. The short side trail will take you to a large rock face perfect for resting, eating, and taking in the views of what’s to come. It’s also a decent place to turn around if you are short on time.
Final Stretch Down To The Snow Lake
Continuing on the main trail, it’s another half mile and a 400-foot drop in elevation to the lake. Here, some short side trails lead down to the shore. Although at times it can be difficult to distinguish one path from another, try and
stay on established trails in the basin to minimize erosion in this heavily used area.
I get the feeling that many people call it a day at this point and begin the trek back to the parking lot. But my favorite area of the lake is actually a bit further. In fact, I generally skip these initial side trials to the lake altogether.
For the best views (in my opinion), rejoin the trail, and continue another half mile to where the lake’s outlet drains to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley. Eventually, the trail meets the shore, and the views really opens up! Chair Peak towers over the translucent turquoise water below. If it’s warm enough outside, this is the perfect spot for an alpine dip.
Where To End Your Hike
The trail technically ends shortly after this at an intersection with two other trails. One leading to even more glistening alpine likes and mountain vistas (more on that below), and the other eventually winding its way down to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley. My favorite photo op is actually along the trail to Gem Lake, just past this intersection. At Rock Creek, you will come to a small log bridge with great big views. This is usually where I turn around.
Extending Your Hike To Gem Lake
If the hike to Snow Lake has left you wanting more, you’re in luck! Nestled at the foot of Wright Mountain, Gem Lake is a mere 2 miles further. While it is much smaller than Snow, it is no less picturesque. Adding Gem Lake to your Snow Lake hike makes it 10 miles round trip with 2,200 feet of elevation gain.
To get to Gem Lake, follow the main trail along its eastern edge of Snow Lake until you come to an intersection with signs to Gem Lake. Take a left and follow the well-defined trail from there.
Pro Tip: The trip to Gem Lake makes for a beautiful beginner backpacking trip.
Backcountry Camping At Snow Lake
Another thing that makes Snow Lake the best hike near Seattle is that you also have the option to camp there! Almost all of the other popular hikes near Seattle that I can think of are day use only. That means that Snow Lake can be your final destination, but it can also be the beginning of a much longer adventure in the area.
- Backcountry camping is permitted at Snow Lake only at designated sites within 1/2-mile of the lake.
- There is a primitive toilet available just before reaching the lake. You will see signs for the toilet on the trial. Pit toilets aren’t always appealing, and I understand the temptation to go elsewhere, but please use the designated privy! We don’t want the entire area turning into a landmine of human feces. Trust me, that would be way grosser.
- Fires are not permitted in the Snow Lake Basin or above 4000 feet.
- An overnight Wilderness Permit must be filled out at the trailhead and carried for the duration of your trip. Max group size is 12.
Snow Lake Sounds Amazing. What’s the Catch?
You know the old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is? Well, that’s not exactly true in the case of Snow Lake, but there is a catch of sorts. Given Snow Lake’s close proximity to Seattle, relative ease, and shimmering alpine lake goodness, it’s not surprising that Snow Lake gets CROWDED. In fact, it is the most frequented hike in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Locals even joke that it’s the “superhighway” of the wilderness. The truth is, if you show up on a sunny weekend, parts of the trail are going to resemble a queue.
I know from experience that this is a popular trail, and I set my expectations accordingly. Perhaps that’s why the crowds have never really bothered me. I kind of like seeing everyone out enjoying a little slice of nature. But if it’s solitude you’re after, then this trail may not be your cup of tea. That being said, if you show up early or on a weekday, you won’t need to share the trail with nearly as many people. Otherwise, bring your patience and a friendly smile, and leave behind preconceived notions about what a wilderness experience should look like. There’s plenty of beauty up here for everyone!
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace provides a framework for enjoying the outdoors while leaving the smallest possible footprint. The goal is to respect the places we play and leave a location in the same state (or better) than you found it. The next people to visit shouldn’t be able to tell you were there! The Leave No Trace principles include:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (aka stay on the trail)
- Dispose of Waste Properly (use the provided pit toilets)
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impact (campfires are not permitted around Snow Lake)
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
I hope you enjoyed this post about the best hike near Seattle! Obviously, this is just my opinion and there are so many beautiful hikes in the area other than Snow Lake that I still haven’t done. But as the saying goes, some places are popular for a reason. If you want to throw a different hike into the “Best Hike Near Seattle” debate, let me know in the comments! I’m always curious which hikes you are loving.