The previous evening we’d hiked south from Chinook Pass. This morning we wanted to explore north. Drink coffee, break camp, pack car, head out. The trailhead parking lot already held plenty of cars, but we nabbed a spot, pulled on hiking shoes, and hit the trail to Sheep Lake and Sourdough Gap in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The first section of the Sheep Lake trail traverses the slope above Highway 410, the Stephen Mather Memorial Parkway, named for the National Park Service’s first director. An enthusiastic proponent of building good roads to bring people to the nascent national park system, Mather would have appreciated the honor. And although the trail’s location means highway noise is sometimes audible, the wildflower show on the open, sunny slopes is plenty distracting.
On this southern face, Western columbines announce their gaudy presence, shooting red and yellow stars. And there! Tiger lilies. Or rather, TIIIIIIIGRRR LILIES!!! The jaunty orange blooms always remind me of Miriam, my late mother-in-law, who adored these flowers and would sing out TIIIIIIIGRRR LILIES!!! at the top of her lungs whenever we spotted them. And since she would have been 97 years old the day after our hike, seeing tiger lilies here was a special treat.
Sheep Lake and Sourdough Gap
The trail moves away from the highway, gently rising into subalpine forest before reaching Sheep Lake at just under two miles. Situated in a pretty cirque, the lake is an easy and justifiably popular backpacking destination. Parents sipped coffee in the cool morning air while children and dogs played nearby. Rounding the southern edge of the lake, we started climbing toward Sourdough Gap at the top of the cirque. The grade is gradual and it didn’t take long to reach the top, even with stops for admiring the views.
Into Mount Rainier National Park
From the gap, it’s a quick walk across another glorious flower meadow, this one with views down the Morse Creek valley. The Pacific Crest Trail branches off just below the notch, a tempting option for hikers with inclination and energy. We had both, but alas, also had to get home at some point. Instead, we continued to an unnamed notch where a sign marks the boundary of Mount Rainier National Park. As soon as we crested the notch, Mount Rainier appeared, huge on the horizon. A short walk downhill brought us to a stunning view of the mountain over upper Crystal Lake, nestled 600 feet below. You can reach Crystal Lakes (there’s a lower lake, too) from the west, and we immediately added that hike to our must-do list.
We lingered, gazing at the mountain and the lake and chatting with other hikers until the sun’s warmth reminded us a hot afternoon lay ahead. A pika scampered across the meadow below the trail. A marmot whistled from a talus field. Back across the flowered slope to Sourdough Gap, down to Sheep Lake, past the tiger lilies, and on to the trailhead. Validating our strategy of hiking early was a good one, we passed many more people on the way out than we saw during the hike in. After an elk burger at Cliff Droppers in Packwood, a 40-minute drive from Chinook Pass, we headed home. The weekend in the mountains had been exactly what we needed.
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