Total Ascent: 2700ft
Highest Point: 4900ft
Total Distance: 9.5 miles
Location: N 47° 39.4980, W 121° 8.5020
Required Permit: None
Over the years we’ve had a number of folks pointing us toward Surprise Lake for both summer and winter hiking. A few weeks ago we decided it was time to see if the hike could live up to the all the good reviews. Enough snow had fallen around Stevens Pass that we packed up our snowshoes and set out on what we thought might be our first snowshoe of the season.
Surprise Lake is one of a two glacier-fed lakes tucked into a narrow valley between Spark Plug Mountain and Thunder Mountain. The lake is in a depression, and was named for the “surprise” that comes with finally reaching the lake after cresting the small ridge that surrounds it. Along with nearby Glacier Lake, the duo is collectively known as Scenic Lakes, named not just for their scenic beauty, but also the nearby community of Scenic.
Back in the late 1880s when the Great Northern Railway was working on connecting Seattle to the rest of the Midwest, railroad workers enjoyed the natural hot springs found near the tracks. One of the first railroad stops on the west side of Stevens Pass was called Madison, but that name was quickly changed to Scenic when a hotel was built in 1904 to take advantage of the hot springs. The Scenic Hot Springs Hotel lasted until 1908 when it caught fire and burned to the ground. The owners were undaunted and the hotel was rebuilt the next year and became nationally famous for its baths. A small settlement sprung up around the hot springs, becoming Washington’s highest elevation community west of the Cascades. The hotel was demolished in the 1928 as part of the construction of the Cascade Tunnel.
The trail begins along a service road running beneath a set of massive powerlines. The road quickly transitions into shaded trail and within a half-mile or so the route passes into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Almost immediately you are greeted by expansive stairs, wooden boardwalks and bridgework. Large portions of the lower trail are comprised of this boardwalk, the product of hundreds of hours of trail work. Climb your way past giant cedars and massive hemlocks as you cross creeks and pass the occasional waterfall. In about a mile reach Surprise Creek, currently spanned by a single log. Use caution crossing during the winter, where it could be easy to slip into the fast-flowing creek.
Beyond the creek, the trail continues its fairly mild climb up the valley for another mile. At this point the trail becomes more serious, climbing nearly 1000ft in a series of tight switchbacks. The switchbacks eventually begin to level out as the canopy gives way to wider expanses and your first glimpses of Thunder Mountain. As you near the lake, drop down to cross over Surprise Creek again before climbing up to the rocky shores of Surprise Lake nestled beneath the shoulders of Spark Plug Mountain.
Find a spot to settle down for a snack, or continue onward to Glacier Lake, crossing over the Pacific Crest Trail along the way. The trail winds up through trees that refuse to give up really big views of the nearby peaks before dropping down to Glacier Lake. Tucked in a bowl at the feet of Surprise Mountain and Spark Plug Mountain, boulder-lined Glacier Lake offers pristine views and more than one campsite for those looking to stay a little while. Still yearning for some more trail time? Head back to Surprise Lake and take the signed spur trail up to Trap Pass for some incredible views.
We recommend this hike for anyone looking for an engaging hike throughout the year. It is a little long for more causal hikers, and the elevation gain is not insignificant, but most of the work is a short series of switchbacks at around the three mile mark. However, if you budget enough time, this hike should be attainable for almost every hiker. The lakes are more than worth the effort, and the hike even makes for a decent little backpacking weekend. While Surprise Lake is popular in the summer, few people make the trek in the winter, making this a good time to do some exploring and get the lakes all to yourself.
To get there, take Highway 2 out past Skykomish toward Stevens Pass. Just past milepost 58, look for an unmarked road on your right just beyond the Iron Goat Interpretive Site. Turn onto the access road and follow it across the Tye River to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks. Cross the tracks and head to the right paralleling the tracks for a short distance to a spur road heading into the trees. Follow this road a few tenths of a mile to the trailhead. -Nathan
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