Thunder Mountain Lakes Blew My Mind

Note to the reader – this blog post describes a trip to fragile ecosystem via a risky trail. If you decide to follow me here, please use caution and turn up your leave-no-trace skills to 11. 🙂

The third time really is the charm. In June I tried to make it here but the road was still snowed in. In early July I started from a different lower-elevation trailhead, but the pass was…. still snowed in. The snow finally melted in early August – success!

I finally completed this truly magical backpacking trip.

I started from the Hope Lake Trailhead up Tunnel Creek Road off of Highway 2, just a few miles west of Steven’s pass. The Hope Lake trail heads uphill to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail, where I turned south. There’s a rockfall just south of Hope Lake that has a booming and adorable small mammal population – I saw 2 families of marmots and a family of pikas! After the steep first 2.5 miles of the hike the trail flattens out, the trees open up, and all of a sudden you expect Julie Andrews to pop out and start singing the Sound of Music.

The hike from here to Trap Lake is a delightful ramble through wildflower meadows and groves of pine trees.

I got to Trap Lake around noon, claimed a campsite, and made ramen for lunch. And then I started to climb. To get to Thunder Mountain Lakes you head up the PCT to Trap Pass, and then turn south onto a seriously sketchy trail that follows the county line south and up to Thunder Mountain Ridge. Sketchy as in if you slip, you fall 500 feet. Not for the faint of heart, and it could be risky for dogs.

The trail takes you up above the snow line, and starts to be marked with cairns to guide hikers through the snow field and bare granite. There are a few islands of vegetation, including stunted pine trees, pink heather, and blue dwarf lupine. The bees were going wild on the heather – I guess they only have a short window for foraging up here.

At this point I was 6.5 miles from the trailhead and 3,300 feet higher up in elevation. Just as I was having to start counting my paces to keep myself going, I turned a corner and my jaw dropped.

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I had made it to Thunder Mountain Lakes! I could see all the way to Mt. Daniel and Hinman Glacier in the distance.

I hiked down to the lake and sprawled on the nice warm granite to eat a chocolate bar. As I got up to look down at the lower lake, I heard a rustle….

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… and there was a mountain goat with her fuzzy baby! They’re such lucky creatures, getting to live here full-time. I hung out with them until they made their way along the ridge. The baby kept trying to sprint up onto rocks only to fall – luckily straight into its mom. It takes true love to be your offspring’s bouldering mat.

I lingered up by the lakes until the sun started to sink close to the ridgetop. The nice thing about hiking downhill is that it leaves me with more energy to spare to admire the rocks. The downside of admiring the rocks is that I get distracted and loose the trail. But these rocks were great!

They’re all granite, but conceal a subtle story. Textbook illustrations often depict magma bodies as single lumps that rise and cool neatly independently. Reality, as always, is more messy. Magma bodies (or batholiths, as they’re referred to once they cool down) in reality can merge, or pick up bits of other batholiths, or be reworked once they’ve cooled.

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For example, this photo (above) shows a light gray batholith that cracked under pressure once it had cooled. A different kind of magma forced its way through the cracks as it rose, forming the dark grey stripe. Later the line of weakness was reopened and filled with hydrothermal quartz, creating the white streak. It’s kind of like a turducken of igneous rock.

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And in this photo, the dark grey magma body ripped up chunks of a paler batholith as it rose and incorporated them into its mix, Pac Man style.

As I headed north back to Trap Pass I got phenomenal views of Glacier Peak as well as glimpses of Mt. Baker to the northwest.

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Heading downhill back to my camp I met several fat marmots. Two of them were engaged in a clumsy but effective high-speed chase and high-volume screaming match. Their counterpart above Trap Lake obviously don’t think much of humans and screamed at me to let me know it. (lower left photo)

Trap lake was an idyllic place to spend the night, especially on a Sunday night when most of the weekend backpackers were long gone. I really got a prime campsite (above right) and enjoyed the luxurious packable chair that my sister (the one featured in all the Twin Trek posts on this blog) gave me for our birthday. Glamping all the way!

I spent a leisurely Monday in camp and then headed back to the trailhead at an equally leisurely pace. I really didn’t want to leave. Between snack, scenery, lunch, and pika -appreciation breaks I managed to stretch the 5 miles into 6.5 hours.

I may have had to drive back to civilization that day, but I’m definitely coming back here!

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