Quick Access Points to the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington

Quick Access Points to the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington
Weekends are brutally short, so alpine freaks need to reach high points quickly, wasting as little time in the forest as possible. The main highways' mountain passes are excellent sources of elevation, but you often don't want to slog through ski areas en route. That's why it's key to know where to find other locations that provide fast access for brief hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Remember, forest passes for vehicles are required at most trailheads.

Hope Lake

An hour and 15 minutes east of Everett, the Stevens Pass Highway (U.S. Highway 2) takes a left horseshoe turn at Tunnel Creek. Coming out of it, turn right up Road 6095 and drive to the end (1.3 miles). The Tunnel Creek trail climbs through a clear cut, then divides its time between forest and rocky areas, with the lovely creek always below in a deep ravine.
Hope Lake and its attendant ponds appear after a mile and a half, and 1,200 feet of elevation gain, at the PCT crossing. To the left is a short romp to Mig Lake and points beyond on the upper slopes of the Stevens Pass ski area. A right (west) on the PCT climbs through terraced heather to wide-open cirques and a side-cut route to scenic Trap Pass. A long day's loop can be made by turning right on the Surprise Creek Trail west of the pass and following it to the highway (about 3 miles from your car).


Harts Pass

Harts Pass might not seem so "quick" for all the driving, but if you're staying on the east side of the Cascades, there is nothing closer to "instant" access from your car to the PCT. From North Cascades Scenic Highway (State Route 20) at 1.5 miles east of the Early Winters Campground, take a left turn, crossing the Methow River, and then another left in a half mile at the mini-town of Mazama. This sets you on the Harts Pass road (Forest Service 5400), which reaches Harts Pass in 20 miles. Turn left here, and in 2 miles you will be on the doorstep of the PCT to Grasshopper Pass, Slate Creek and terrific views. If you turn right, you'll find a trailhead in 1.5 miles, which provides access to points north, all the way to Canada and beyond, on a high-flying, exceptionally scenic portion of the PCT.

Smithbrook Trail

The Smithbrook Trail dumps you on the PCT in a trivial 0.9 miles and only 500 vertical feet. Its trailhead is about 3 miles up the Smithbrook Road (Forest Road 6700), which is reached by driving east from Stevens Pass for 4.1 miles and turning left. About 3 miles up gravel Smithbrook Road you'll find the parking area, on the left. From the trail's intersection with the PCT, you can hike south to comely Lake Valhalla and on to Stevens Pass, or north toward Lake Janus, Glasses Lake and many more, with easy climbs up Union and Jove peaks along the way.

Snowgrass Flat

This is a camping trip, because the area is remote. But once on the trail, it's just 4 miles and 1,200 vertical feet through forest and bits of meadow to Snowgrass Flats and the PCT. Hiking north on the PCT takes you up the haunches of Old Snowy Mountain and to dazzling ridges beyond. Cispus Basin and Nannie Ridge are landmarks on a southerly walk, with wonderful looks at Mount Adams and Gilbert Peak. The Snowgrass Flat trail begins 21 miles southeast of the town of Packwood, which lies along Highway 12, south of Mount Rainier. Use a Gifford Pinchot National Forest map or a Goat Rocks Wilderness map to find the route.

Cutthroat Lake

Reaching the sensational Snowy Lakes/Golden Horn section of the PCT north of Cutthroat Pass requires a little work, both behind the wheel and on your feet, and two routes focus on the prize. For the first, drive east from Newhalem on the North Cascades Scenic Highway to Rainy Pass and park on the left in the north trailhead area. The PCT advances gently for 5.5 miles to the pass, gaining 2,000 feet through forest and meadows.
The other route entails driving past Rainy Pass to Washington Pass, then about 4 miles to Cutthroat Creek Road, turning left and driving to its end in 1 mile. About 2 miles from the trailhead, lovely Cutthroat Lake makes a great campsite or rest stop. Four more miles finds Cutthroat Pass, 2,300 feet above your car.

Cady Pass

The speediest access to the PCT on the southern flanks of Glacier Peak is the Pass Creek Trail through old-growth forests, pulling just 1,200 feet in 5 miles. From the city of Everett, take the Stevens Pass Highway (U.S. Highway 2) about 50 miles to the Beckler River Road (Forest Service 65, just past Skykomish) and turn left. Drive about 15 miles, over Jack Pass, to a right turnoff at Forest Road 63. Follow it to the end, about 6 miles. The route goes north on Trail 1051 for 1.5 miles to the intersection with the Pass Creek Trail (Number 1053) and then climbs to the PCT near Cady Pass in 3.5 additional miles. The most spectacular direction is north, toward Lake Sally Anne and the ridges approaching Glacier Peak.

Highway Passes

When crossing the North Cascades, Stevens, Snoqualmie, Chinook and White passes, the wheels of your car cross over the Pacific Crest Trail. From each of these passes there are splendid PCT hikes and backpack trips. The Stevens, Snoqualmie and White passes have ski areas to contend with in at least one direction, and all the highway passes are fairly busy with both vehicle and hiker traffic.

Article Written By Barry Truman

Barry Truman has published many outdoor activity articles in the past five years with International Real Travel Adventures, the Everett Herald and Seattle Post Intelligencer newspapers, Backpacking Light Magazine and Trails.com. He has a forestry degree from the University of Washington.

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