Washington PCT from Trout Lake to Cascade Locks

In addition to doing a larger chunk of the PCT in Oregon or California each year, I have been doing a smaller section of my home state each year with a friend.  This year the plan had been to do Chinook Pass south to Trout Lake, but shortly before we left there was a trail closure west of Mt. Adams, so we shifted to the piece south of there.  We spent Friday night at Cascade Locks and early Saturday morning our wives drove us to the trailhead, a dozen or so miles from Trout Lake on FS 23.

This 82 mile stretch of the trail is mostly heavily forested and seldom rises above the tree line.  The forest was beautiful, green and lush, but I missed having the scenic vistas that are so common throughout the rest of Washington.  The trail is generally pretty easy, the climbs, at least southbound, were no more than a couple thousand feet, the tread was good, and only in a few places did the brush encroach on the trail.  There were a few places with 10-12 miles between water sources, but there was really little issue with water.  The only time I carried more than 2 quarts was our one night of dry camping; most of the time I only used a single water bottle.  The temperature started pretty warm but cooled significantly by the end.

I was surprised Saturday by the number of other people on the trail.  We probably encountered nearly one a mile for the first 10-12 miles of the day, mostly thru’s, including a southbound pair.  But when we got to FS24 and the berry fields in the area, we started running into people in clumps, encountering another 3 to 4 dozen in the last 12 miles; and it seemed like most of the groups had one or more dogs with them.  Most of these folks were day hiking, either from a road and connecting trail, or camped near one of the area lakes.  I cannot remember ever seeing so many people out in the backcountry.  We also encountered a SAR group searching for an elderly woman who had disappeared while out berry picking. I read later that she was found the next day in good condition.

Towards the end of the day we started passing by a number of lakes, stopping at one for water and then going on to Blue Lake.  This is a beautiful clear lake that was very popular.  Signs were posted instructing us only to camp in designated spots, and they were all full.  So we plopped down in a day use area, went swimming, ate dinner, loaded up with water, fought off the dogs camped in the area, who without exception went into a frenzy when they saw me, and then headed on south another half mile or so.  We were both using hammocks so it was easy to find a spot to hang for the night, although our first attempt was apparently on a yellowjacket nest.  Fortunately we managed to escape with only a single sting.  The second attempt was better and we had a peaceful night after a 24 mile day.  The day was good in spite of the crowds, the dogs, the sting and only a single sighting of Mt Adams.

Sunday morning we were up and on the trail before 6, looking to get an early start to beat the heat.  There was a long dry stretch at the end of the day, and we were looking to get past it and to Panther Creek for the night, 22 miles away.  The day was mostly a long descent, broken up by a thousand foot climb in the middle.  We did manage to see Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood during occasional moments above the tree line, but the vast majority of the days was again spent cruising through the deep forest.  We encountered what appeared to be a Boy Scout troup preparing to cut a branch that was leaning over the trail, and then another dozen or so hikers.  While still more than I had expected, it was much better than the previous day.  Surprisingly, we did encounter a couple of light sprinkles, and it did seem a bit cooler than the previous day.  We had expected mid 90’s for the whole trip so the cooler temp was a welcome relief.

There were a pair of drying ponds along the route, but neither of them looked appealing.  South of them was what was identified in the halfmile notes as a piped spring along the trail, but when we arrived it was just a 10 ft long 1″ PVC pipe that was laying on the ground.  Tigger pushed it back against the seep that was coming from the bank and a bit of water started to flow; enough to fill our bottles.  This spring had more yellowjackets buzzing around than I had ever seen in one place before.  But their only concern seemed to be getting a drink.  A mile or so further south was another spring, and this one, just off the trail, had a convenient pool to scoop from and was nice and cool.

There is a front country campground at Panther Creek and we stayed there for the night.  Our spot was not far from the creek, making it easy to clean up and wash clothes.  Most spots in the camp were taken, but it was still fairly quiet with few people actually moving around. Turned in around 8 and slept like a baby, rocking in the tree tops.

Monday was going to be a shorter day, so we slept in and didn’t get on the trail until close to 7.  Because of another longish dry stretch we decided to stop at Rock Creek, 16 miles down the trail. The route proceeded through some pretty dense forest, across a farm and a couple of substantial creeks/rivers for several miles before beginning the climb for the day.  This 2000 ft climb was pretty steady and at times fairly steep.  And, while it was still cooler, it was pretty humid, and long before we had hit the top my shirt was completely soaked and the sweat was running halfway down to my knees; worst sweat-out I can remember.

We reached Rock Creek around 2 and found two sites on the creek, one recently occupied, and the other unsuitable for hanging.  But there was another one at the top of a short ridge that the creek looped around, and this one was quite adequate to hang in.  Setup camp, ate lunch, bathed in the creek and then relaxed for a few hours before turning in for the night.  I believe that ridge above Rock Creek was my favorite camp of the trip.

Tuesday morning was also going to be a short 16 mile trip to Gillette Lake, which was only 4 miles from Cascade Locks.  My wife was going to pick us up Wednesday morning, so the plan was to mosey down to the lake spend the afternoon and evening, and then make it to Cascade Locks by 10 the next morning.  The day started off with a 2000 foot climb and I found myself drenched again, I assume because of the humidity.  It was the coolest day yet, and even had a few rain drops; but I was soaked long before hitting the top.  But we finally did get some nice vistas, having periodic sightings of the three previous volcanoes as well as Mt Rainier and the Columbia River.  We stopped on a big rock before beginning the long descent to the Columbia and had second breakfast, looking down at the Columbia and across to Mt Adams; probably the most scenic spot on this section of trail.

Next began a 3000 foot descent, and near the bottom we started to encounter poison oak.  It was pretty thick in places, and once we got to Gillette Lake, we found that most of the sites there had PO in or around them.  We sat there and ate lunch and debated about whether or not to stay, ultimately deciding that a burger would taste very good for dinner and pushed on to Cascade Locks.  A mile from the lake we rounded a corner in the trail and nearly ran into a bicycle heading our way.  After more than 2000 miles on the PCT, this was my first bike encounter.  I informed him that he was not supposed to be on the PCT. He seemed surprised at that, turned around and took off.  A mile later we found were he had probably hit the trail, and sure enough, there was nothing to indicate any restrictions on bicycles.  I am generally pretty non confrontational, so was surprised, and pleased, that I was able to confront this biker, although I am sure that it helped that he did seem surprised and contrite.

The final step was crossing the Bridge of the Gods at 5:30 P.M.  There was a steady stream of cars coming across, but without exception they moved over for us and we crossed without any undue excitement.  Found a hotel room, a burger, a bed and a ride the next day and the trip was over.  This was easily the least scenic stretch of the PCT I have been on in Washington (and I have done all of it but the Goat Rocks), and it had the most people on it.  But I did enjoy the trip; the walking was generally easy, the forests were lush, the occasional views were nice and the company was good.

Tigger and Eeyore ready to hit the trail.

One of a few sightings of Mt. St. Helens

Several lakes toward the end of the first day were visible through the trees, although the trail only directly passes by Blue Lake.

Mt Hood in the distance.

Tigger taking a picture of Adams with Hood in the background.

Mt. St. Helens

Mt Adams

Sheep Lake was one of two small drying ponds along the way.  We did not need water near badly enough to venture through the muck to them.

Very little of the forest had a bare floor.  Most of it had a thick green carpet.

Tigger demonstrating the proper technique for using a hammock.

A nice swimming hole on Rock Creek.

The bridge over Rock Creek was typical of stream crossings in the area.  Most of them had pretty substantial bridges.


Looking down from our camp at Rock Creek, you could see the creek on three sides.

There was a short section of the trail that afforded views of Mt Rainier in the distance.

First view of the Columbia River

Gillette Lake was pretty, but infested with poison oak, so we opted not to stay.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.