| January 6, 2017 |
My third day in North Cascades National Park was a solo trip. I planned to venture into the park before weather was supposed to turn over the weekend. My goal? To arrive at the trailhead of Hidden Lake Lookout early enough on a Friday morning in September to claim an overnight spot in the lookout! I packed my overnight goods in my car (with thanks to my friends who loaned me a poop shovel/trowel, bear canister, and Jet Boil), woke up at an ungodly hour, and drove 4 hours to Hidden Lake Lookout trailhead.
This hike was life-changing for nearly unexplainable reasons. In the challenge of reaching the lookout, I felt awe-stricken, confused, frustrated, determined, and awakened. I went through periods of doubt and assurance that I can make it. Certainly, this hike was a lot more challenging than I expected.
The magic of this place will resonate in my heart for quite some time. Read on to discover it with me…
Hidden Lake Lookout
Length: 8.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 3,300 feet
Highest Point: 6,900 feet
Location: Highway 20 (click to see map)
Parking Pass/Entry Fee: None, but backcountry permit required if staying overnight, which can be purchased at a ranger station.
I heard rumors about this place, saw the photos, and read the WTA reports of Hidden Lake Lookout. A good friend of mine had reported the lake feels like the middle of the Universe. She had done the hike on a rainy day, and was still in awe, so I knew weather wasn’t of particular consideration. I was simply GOING and ready to experience all Mother Nature had in store. I was in the car by 5:30am with goals to be at the trailhead of Hidden Lake Lookout by 10am the latest. As it was a Friday, I didn’t anticipate too much of a crowd, and my goal was to sleep in the lookout. As my first “big” solo trip (my first solo hike was at Mount Rainier), I didn’t entirely have the confidence yet to sleep in a tent alone in the wilderness. Nonetheless, I had a tent in the car just in case I decided to have a back-up plan.
Basically, you don’t need a backcountry permit to sleep in the lookout, but there’s no guarantee there will be a spot. Since it’s first come, first serve, the early arrivals get to decide if they want the entire lookout to themselves, or wish to share it with others passing through. If the lookout is already claimed, however, there’s a bunch of spots along Hidden Lake and the surrounding trail to tent camp, but this requires a backcountry permit.
On my way to the trailhead (I put the GPS coordinates into my Google maps, put on a Spotify Wild + Free playlist, and was on my way), I hoped I would pass the ranger station first as I wanted a backcountry permit ‘just in case’ I didn’t get a spot in the lookout. When the Hidden Lake trailhead sign popped out of nowhere on the lefthand side of the road, I opted to skip the whole permit deal, and just take a gamble with changes in the lookout. I figured my lack of confidence with tent camping wasn’t going to allow me to enjoy a night in the wilderness.
As I climbed the rocky road leading to the trailhead, a song began playing on Spotify that perked my ears up. Every time I hear it now, I think of this day in the North Cascades:
I felt like I was heading on a magical journey, and felt nervously excited as I pulled into the parking lot and began prepping my overnight pack. I pictured trailhead preparation before my first backpacking trip, where I had the knowledge of Sarah and Simon to assist with planning necessary items. I felt ridiculously overwhelmed with unfamiliarity as I packed my 65L Osprey Ariel at first, but took a deep breath and thought, I got this!
Remembering the 10 essentials and being absolutely ridiculous with planning for a day and night in the lookout, I (over)packed the following items:
- Navigation: A compass and map. AND I also took screenshots of the WTA trail directions, something I certainly recommend doing because services is never guaranteed!
- Nutrition: A bear canister filled with yummy food, including an Amy’s burrito I figure would defrost on the way up. And leftover Thai food in a Ziploc. Mmmm, the meals of a true backpacker (not). Plus, my favorite trail snacks to keep me fueled for the challenging hike in/out. (To note: my friend told me to make sure I knew how to open the bear canister prior to my journey. I figured it was easy to do and didn’t do appropriate research, and regretted this later…)
- Hydration: 3L in my CamelBak water bladder.
- Fire: I don’t know how to make a fire. I mean, I guess I could figure it out. I’m still working on actually being a wilderness woman. My food didn’t need a fire, and I had enough water, so I skipped out on one essential. Oops.
- Sun protection: Sunscreen and SPF lip balm from Kiss My Face (my favorite).
- First-Aid: REI Backpacker Weekend First Aid Kit
- Repair kit/tools: I thought the first aid kit must have duct tape, but it didn’t, so I fail in the this category… but I bet I could have fixed things if I needed to?
- “Emergency” shelter: My sleeping bag and sleeping pad… in case the bed was taken in the lookout.
- Illumination: headlamp!
- Insulation: I had my Smartwool long sleeve shirt, Northface thermoball puffy, prAna hiking pants, Darn Tough socks (my favorite), and pajamas. Actually, I brought my onesie that says “Happy Camper.” Because I figured I’d want to wear it.
- KConn Essentials: Canon T3 camera with two lenses (10-18mm and 60mm), two books, a journal, three pens, and a 6-pack of beer. Just kidding on the beer, but I like that idea.
Okay, looking above, I somewhat failed on preparation… but I had more soulful goals in mind for this trip. I was ready to connect with nature, endure a challenge, and have some reflection time…
I began the hike once I put all my belongings in my pack, and passed a few people descending on the way. They had not seen anyone ascending just yet (score!), and reported a bunch of people had crashed in the lookout the night before (a rowdy crew, apparently, which sounded fun!). I had a feeling the lookout would be available, but even if it wasn’t, I saw this hike as great training for backpacking trips! A positive mindset was easy to nurture early on in the hike with streams on either side of the trail and a thick forest of switchbacks.
I didn’t see to many people for about 1 mile, as the trail began opening up beyond the forested area. As the trees parted, I began ascending through a valley. To my right, a small peak began peeking its head out behind the mountain ranges. Mount Baker was like a prairie dog in the distance, just barely visible.
Yet, as I continued climbing, Mount Baker made an even more dramatic appearance, and stayed beside me through a large portion of the hike. I almost felt protected by the mountain’s presence, and sat upon a rock just to look at Mount Baker (and apply moleskin to bilateral malleoli/ankles to prevent blister formation)…
The trail began drastically changing from open green valleys to jagged rocks. I felt like I was heli-dropped into an entirely different hiking trail! I looked behind me just to make sure…
Once I made it to this area, things started getting tricky. The trail went from well-defined to not defined at all. I circled around a pile of rocks about 4x before I realized I was getting nowhere fast. I bumped into a couple setting up camp, and asked them if they knew how to proceed. They had not made it further on the trail, and were deciding to claim their spot before continuing on. Guessing, they pointed in a general forward/upward direction.
Two younger guys I had seen as the path was changing to rocks reappeared as I was doing a million circles. They thought I had made it to the lookout/summit already, and were impressed. I humbled their views when I told them I was very lost, haha. I referenced my screenshot directions on WTA’s website, and found no true directional guidance. Eventually, we found a rocky path that seemed to head in the right direction.
Confused and a little flustered, I wasn’t ready.
Yet, we turned a corner, and there it was: Hidden Lake… In all of its other-worldly glory.
I simply stared. I had no idea what to do. Then tears started forming in my eyes, and I almost fainted in pure amazement. I almost felt nothing at all because I was intensely present in this moment. I could not believe the contrast of the jagged peaks with the lake’s surface. I examined each peak, snow patch, tree, and rock, completely absorbing my surroundings.
Awe-stricken doesn’t even begin to summarize my feelings. I just… was.
I was intensely connected to my existence as one with nature. This connection was energizing, and I felt my heart racing.
At first, I didn’t even see the lookout. I scanned the lake, but couldn’t quite capture it in my sight. Then, looking to my right and along the jagged rock formation we circled to reach the lake, I scanned up toward the sky. There it was. I have no idea how high up it was, but I’d definitely agree with WTA’s report of it feeling “menacingly unattainable” to reach the lookout summit. From this point, the trail became “much more informal;” a choose-your-own-path bouldering mission. The two guys I journeyed with opted to head toward the lake to claim an overnight spot (they were tent camping, which was a score for my lookout mission), while I decided to begin the climb. They wished me luck, and said they’d watch how I did it so they could mirror it later.
How am I going to do this, I wondered with grand degrees of self-doubt.
I took five shaky deep breaths.
I was not entirely confident, I am not going to lie. I had a huge pack on, probably weighing about 35 pounds, that made me feel incredibly unbalanced. I also had difficulty extending my neck to look at the rocks ahead, so I moved my camera from the brain of my pack and clipped it to the outside so I could have more neck mobility. I knew I could not give up at this point. I had made it this far, and I knew I was strong enough. I just had to trust myself.
So I climbed.
My hands and feet moved synchronously with my breath. I took occasional rests to breathe and assure myself I was going to make it. I was alone on this climb, but heard voices ahead at the lookout.
I know I can, I know I can, I know I can…
When the lookout came to clear, attainable view in front of me, I climbed over the last few jagged rocks to its entrance. There was a group of people gathered around the lookout that I greeted before dropping my pack on a rock, mentally patting myself on my back, and beginning to soak in my surroundings.I entered the lookout, which was far more outfitted than I imagined. The bed looked incredibly comfortable, and there was a camping stove, utensils, and various other supplies stocked throughout.
I returned outside to soak in the 360-degree view surrounding me. Silent and observatory, I didn’t communicate much with the others at this time. I felt enveloped by complete magic. The peaks in this view (Sahale, Triad, Eldorado, Torment, Boston, Forbidden, Klawatti, Sharkfin) looked so close I could touch them. I made my way back into the lookout to reflect further. On my way in, I asked the group of people if anyone was planning to stay in the lookout. One man answered, “Yes, we are!” with no clear designation on who the ‘we’ encompassed. He asked if I was planning on staying, and I stated I hoped to! With no objection or clear further communication, I happily dumped my overnight pack on the floor of the lookout to explore its intricacies.
It’s recommended to donate $15-20, especially if spending the night in the lookout, in order to help with supplies and maintenance.
I made my way over to the registry book, where people express their gratitude for the lookout in their own ways (drawings, poems, hike details, etc.). I wrote:
I was so thankful for this beauty that I rummaged through my overnight pack for my prayer flags I decided to bring on my overnight trips. I was planning to hang them in the lookout if I stayed overnight, and then would have taken them down in the morning. Instead, I felt this place resonated so deeply with the magic and love I feel for the world that I decided to simply place them in the windows, and hope they stayed for some time. Used to bless the surrounding area, I figured these flags would offer peace, strength, and wisdom to all those who pass through the lookout. When I again returned outside to converse with the group of people, I noticed the man who had claimed his spot in the lookout was with a girlfriend. I learned they had camped by the lake the night before, and rose at sunrise to claim a spot in the lookout. Their devotion to sleeping in the lookout, combined with the love they seemed to share, made me feel silly for wanting to crash their party.
So, I let go of my desire to spend the night.
Instead, I decided to enjoy a snack and soak in my surroundings a little longer. I would descend back to the car and not spend the night. If tonight wasn’t my night, it would come in the future.
I wanted my leftover Thai food and burrito, but my Thai food was in the bear canister I had borrowed. When I tried to open it, I was surprised with the trickery imposed on the canister! I didn’t think bears had opposable thumbs… and I definitely thought I could use common sense to open the canister… but I failed. Good thing there wasn’t a spot in the lookout because I would’ve been hungry (or embarrassingly would have asked someone to help me open it). When I later got to cell service, I found a YouTube video to instruct me through the silly process of opening the canister. Lesson learned. Luckily, my burrito was wrapped in foil on the top of my pack, so I had delicious fuel while absorbing the views. Once I was resolved on the fact that I wasn’t spending the night, had appropriately absorbed my surroundings, and connected deeply with the present moment, I was ready to descend.
As I started climbing down, I somehow thought I needed to descend on the opposite side I had ascended. I started walking down a grassy path on the other side of the lookout, only to discover I was not anywhere near the path. Panic sets in again, and I yelled up to a fellow a few feet ahead to point me in the right direction. Turned out, I was nowhere near the path, hah!
I tagged along with the older man until we made it past the scrambles, and for about another 0.5 miles. Once I felt incredibly confident in the path and directions, I was feeling held back by his speed, so I thanked him for his presence, and continued along solo.
I felt a sudden burst of energy, and ended up running down 75% of the trail to the car. I wasn’t in a rush, but I felt exhilarated! Anew! BURSTING with gratitude!
When I finally made it back to the trailhead, I saw a little wooden box at the entrance. When I opened it, the only thing I saw was a pen. I had no idea what this box was for… so I decided to write a little note and poem.
On the back, I wrote a poem:
From roads afar,
And beauty unfathomable–
To peaks and valleys,
Rivers and lakes.
We meander on a winding path;
May your road lead you
To your heart’s desire,
And all your life
You feel inspired.
I hoped that others would remove my note and write something new. But, instead, about a month after this hike, I received an inbox on Instagram who reported they found my note on the trail, and sent me a screenshot of all the others who left their mark:
It also turns out that the prayer flags have been there for quite some time as well! I was so happy to leave a place, but feel it in my heart, and also leave a small piece of myself with it.
A part of me will always be on the trail at Hidden Lake Lookout, and I will one day return to find myself again.
Namaste, Fellow Dreamers.
Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored to mention any of my above products, and I won’t make any profit off you clicking any links. Feel free to ask questions though! I love this stuff! 🙂