bpw   Benjamin P. Wood
Tank Lake, Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Foss Lakes Loop

After lackluster weather and work to get done conspired to keep me indoors for a couple of weekends, a bubble of crisp sunny weather was forecast to float over a small window in my schedule this week. I kept an eye on the forecast through the weekend, and on Monday threw together a midweek escape to the western Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Earlier this fall, I had been dreaming of a quick, light through-hike of the Wonderland Trail. I probably would not consider doing this loop in the summer, when it can be quite crowded, but now, with the crowds largely gone for the season, I could find large stretches of solitude. (Though with this year's snow pack, I understand traffic was much lighter than usual, even in peak season.) I would only need an extended weekend with reasonable weather. Of course neither of those was likely to arrive on its own, let alone together, so I had been collecting ideas for other shorter loops that could work in the fall. One of those proved to be empty of any other humans a couple weeks ago. The loop I chose for this week shared crowd characteristics with Wonderland: too crowded in summer, less traveled in fall, especially midweek.

View Foss Lakes Loop in a larger map

The Foss Lakes Loop is a "classic" route in the western Alpine Lakes Wilderness that connects trails in the West and East Fork Foss River valleys via some off-trail travel through lake-riddled high country. The trailheads are only a 90-minute drive from Seattle, which explains the summer crowds. It has many names and variations, so I have just (re?)invented a name for my variation: begin at the East Fork Foss River trailhead (a.k.a. Necklace Valley trailhead), and proceed 2.5 miles up the dirt road to the West Fork Foss trailhead. Lacking a car shuttle, I planned to walk this part. However, I did not complain when another hiker passed me on the road (in a car) and kindly offered a lift. It turned out the West Fork trailhead was just 500 feet around the corner at this point, but the ride was appreciated anyway. Before I met my ride, there was one obstacle on the road to overcome: a shallow ford just a couple inches deeper than my interest in wet feet. A fortuitously placed down tree is ten yards upstream from the road and offers a convenient crossing.

West Fork Foss color

From the West Fork Foss River trailhead, it is 6.5 miles (and about 3000 feet) up the valley, past numerous waterfalls, Copper Lake, and Little Heart Lake, to Big Heart Lake, where the trail officially ends after crossing the outlet of Big Heart Lake on a log jam. Below the lakes, fall was in full swing, with some nice pockets of color. Above about 4000 feet, frost and snow coated the landscape, with a couple inches at Big Heart Lake. From here, a way trail continues south along the narrow ridge between Big Heart Lake and Angeline Lake. This ridge drops steeply to Big Heart Lake to the west and plunges dramatically into the depths of Angeline Lake to the east.

Angeline Lake

The way trail is mostly easy to follow, but with a few inches of new snow on sun-sheltered slopes, a couple spots took some searching. Tracks before me showed that plenty of others had used the path recently, just not humans. Previous reports suggest this section takes longer than one would expect. Even with this knowledge, it took longer than I expected. Eventually, it drops to Little Chetwoot Lake, where a crossing of the outlet leads you onto a much less well-defined section of the route.

Share the road.

From Little Chetwoot, there are two main options, with plenty of variations. The high route takes you up across steep (and according to some, movable) talus slopes on the north side of Iron Cap Mountain. Given that I was solo, traveling in a few inches of recent snow, at midweek, in October, I opted for the (presumably safer) low route. From here to Iron Cap Pass, I made much slower progress, as the route is steep and often brushy or on large talus slopes.

Little Chetwoot Lake

At Little Chetwoot, follow a string of tarns via small Azure Lake to the southeastern corner of the Azurite Lake basin. From here, descend roughly along a drainage down towards Azurite. This is very steep and gets cliffy in places. Near lake level, follow the southern shore east. Near the southeastern corner of the lake, continue this pattern of travel, but higher up the slopes, as the immediate shore is too steep to travel. Above the southeastern corner of Azurite, hook clockwise around the ridge, dropping a bit to a talus slope above Otter Lake. If you hit this slope too high like I did, there's a lovely buffer of thick slide alder and some variety of thorny bush to negotiate before emerging on the open talus. Continue, contouring or slightly climbing SSE along the talus to a small saddle between a 4400' knob on the NE and the main ridge on the SW. Here there is a nice flat area to contour continuing SSE. Somewhere near the outlet of Iron Cap Lake (the tarn high on Iron Cap's northern slopes), it is probably a good idea to contour around the next ridge to enter the Otter Creek inlet valley, but this could be quite steep. I tried to go over this ridge to meet the Otter Creek inlet at the lower of two small ponds/bogs shown on the topo map. This route went, but only after several false starts and a number of slips back down steep snow- and evergreen needle-dusted slopes; I don't wish to repeat it.

Once at the upper ponds/bogs along the inlet below Iron Cap Pass, it is fairly straightforward to follow the creek up the valley to the pass, via some talus and ledge. After the second pond, I pulled out my headlamp, since dusk was closing in. Above the ponds, ascend the rightmost (west-most) drainage over talus slopes, heading nearly due south before hooking east to Iron Cap Pass, 5300'. From here a number of way trails should lead up to Tank Lakes, with views to Iron Cap and the stunning peaks across the Middle Fork Snoqualmie valley to the south: from east to west, the trio of Little Big Chief, Middle Chief, and Summit Chief, then the two Chimney Rocks and Overcoat Peak. With the stars out by now, I was not able to find or follow any way trails, so I made camp a short way NE of the pass. There are a few little creeks and tarns here for water, though I had to break ice to get at the one near my camp.

Though the temperature had hovered near freezing during the day, the dropping sun brought gently dropping temperatures. I suspect it was in the mid to upper 20s by the time I made camp. I was happy that the layers I used with my 30-degree bag and bivy kept me plenty toasty, with a down jacket to spare. I did not put up the tarp since the sky was cloud-free, with no precipitation in the forecast overnight, and the breeze plus a little tree covered seemed enough to fend off a dew. Unfortunately, the stiffening breeze repeatedly woke me and made catching any appreciable sleep difficult. At least the stars were bright and numerous, and a couple meteors joined them in the wee hours.

Little Big Chief, Middle Chief, and Summit Chief; Chimney Rocks and Overcoat Peak, above Overcoat Glacier

Early light woke me from a long-awaited couple hours of sleep just before 7am, and I packed up while watching the sky change colors over the spiky peaks south of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie valley. Last night, they had been obscured by darkness when I arrived, but this morning Little Big Chief, Middle Chief, and Summit Chief, and their western neighbors Chimney Rocks and Overcoat Peak were hidden no longer! Breakfast was consumed in the comfortable lee of a ledge with a view. The light breeze of the previous evening had stiffened through the night, bringing in a thin high shelf of clouds with it. At about sunrise, around 7:45am, I departed my camp and continued east and northeast, soon catching a cairned way trail to upper Tank Lake (the southern of the two). The view back over the lake to the Middle Fork peaks (pictured at the top of this post) is a classic, though it was a little too breezy to catch any reflections of the peaks in the lake. I perched on a rock for a while to let the beauty -- and my thoughts -- sink in.

Tank Lake

Moving on towards Foehn Lake and the gentle pass towards the Necklace Valley presented some difficulties. My sleep-deprived sense of scale failed me and I spent quite a while with the map and compass trying to figure out how to get through the giant ridge I was looking at. The map showed a pass near Foehn Lake, south of Otter Point, but this formidable wall of rock in front of me, besides being across a small valley not on the map, was offering up no such option. This couldn't be the ridge... but where was the correct ridge then? I finally continued to a nearby knoll to get a better view of my local surroundings, and Foehn Lake appeared at my feet. I muttered some choice words about scale, lack of sleep, 7.5' quads, and 40-foot contour intervals: the ridge I was looking at was the large unnamed ridge on the other side of Necklace Valley, connected to Mt. Hinman. I had already crossed the pass I was seeking without realizing it, and was exactly on my planned route.

Foehn Lake tarn and Glacier Peak

Reassured that this brief unsettling episode was over, I paused to reflect on the view north to Glacier Peak above Foehn Lake, then began the descent into the Necklace Valley, first over talus, then through steep meadows, both covered in four inches of powder. Arriving at a trail near the valley floor, I soon came to a maze of way trails and Necklace Cabin. Now I was definitely in the right place! The main trail passed Emerald and Jade Lakes (I dropped into the valley below Opal), which were partly frozen and green enough to live up to their names, then began the long descent to the the lower East Fork valley. The trail was in poor shape in places, with plenty of drainage issues. Below the lakes, I met a day hiker headed for Opal Lake. We chatted about the deteriorated trail conditions and the loop route, and exchanged the obligatory "well, looks like this is about it for the season" comments that all Washington hikers seem to share this time of year, whether we mean it or not. Beyond, the descent seemed to continue interminably, but I eventually dropped to the flat valley and shifted into cruise, covering the last few miles quite quickly, enjoying the river bank views and deep mossy forest along the way.

new ice on Emerald Lake

more photos

Thoughts on the route

I would recommend this route to others, but I might suggest trying the high route on Iron Cap to avoid steep brush-bashing, of which there was a little more than I expected. In particular, the section from Azure Lake to the Otter Lake inlet below Iron Cap Pass was a little tougher than I had expected. While not acutely problematic, the snow did slow my travel in several sections, complicating talus and slicking steep wooded slopes, but it was also a nice cushion for descending talus slopes into the Necklace Valley. I could negotiate drops off boulders or ledges that I would avoid without the snow by sitting on the edge and sliding down.

I saw 14 named lakes, many more small tarns, and 4 other people, all of whom were on trail. Besides wildlife tracks (including plenty of bear), I was breaking trail on all the snow I negotiated. Keep in mind this was midweek in late October... during the summer, this is a heavily used area, though heading off trail will give you a little more space.

I found the Necklace Valley to be less interesting than guidebooks suggest. Perhaps this was because I did not go up to Opal Lake or because I did not have time to explore. The West Fork Foss trail was in much better shape and offered (in my opinion) better scenery than the Necklace Valley trail. On the other hand the green lakes were fascinating, and the area above the Necklace Valley (Foehn Lake, Tank Lakes, west to Iron Cap Pass, or east to La Bohn Gap, etc.) is gorgeous, and a more accessible off-trail destination than via the West Fork approach.

I carried the Big Snow Mountain USGS 7.5' quad for detail on the off-trail section and the Green Trails Skykomish map for the trails and wider area.