Backpacking Snowy Lakes In The North Cascades

20 miles round-trip
4,500 feet
Mid-summer to early fall
Explore stunning landscapes and the natural beauty of northern Washington with a backpacking trip to Snowy Lakes. These high alpine lakes are an ideal backpacking destination, tucked deep in the heart of the North Cascades and surrounded by a multitude of snowy peaks.

On this 20-mile out and back, you'll spend the majority of your hiking time well above the treeline, taking in constant views of the Cascade Range. Wildlife is also abundant on this trail, which you may be lucky enough to see (we saw mountain goats and a solitary black bear). While Snowy Lakes is suitable as a day hike for experienced hikers, it's best experienced as a backpacking trip. This will allow you to spread out your miles and fully experience the gorgeous campsites at Snowy Lakes.

The trail starts at the Pacific Crest North Trailhead across Highway 20 from Rainy Pass, just outside the North Cascades National Park. Campsites at Snowy Lakes are first come, first serve, and there are no required permits for backcountry camping along this stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
Snowy Lakes, Washington.
Pacific Crest Trail headed north and Mt. Hardy

Getting There

The trail to Snowy Lakes begins at the Pacific Crest North trailhead on the north side of Highway 20. There is a decent-sized dirt parking lot at the trailhead capable of parking at least 30 vehicles. Be aware that while this trailhead is not usually too busy, it may fill up with hikers going to the Maple Pass trail on the other side of the highway during peak season (near the end of September/beginning of October).

The following pin shows the location of trailhead.

Snowy Lakes Hiking Details

The first five miles of PCT takes you through dense forest, as the trail gradually climbs and opens up to expansive views. Along the way, you'll encounter several small stream crossings that are easily traversed by mid-August. At the five-mile mark, you'll reach Cutthroat Pass, a high point that offers a stunning view of a mountainous lake basin. Take a moment to look for Cutthroat Lake, which lies far below the pass.

As you reach Cutthroat Pass, there are plenty of flat areas to stop and rest. I suggest taking a break here to have a snack or eat lunch.

We saw the most wildlife in the trail section before Cutthroat Pass. We even came across a black bear just 50 yards off the trail on our way up, and ran into a mountain goat by the pass on our return trip.

North Cascades below Cutthroat Pass

Past Cutthroat Pass, continue hiking for around 2 more miles along a high ridge line that eventually drops down to Granite Pass. Beyond Granite Pass, the trail continues a few miles more through the gorgeous high country before to reaching the Snowy Lakes cutoff trail, which is clearly marked. On your approach, you will see the peaks of Mt. Hardy, Golden Horn, and The Tower.

Washington's North Cascades.

Take the Snowy Lakes trail off the PCT, and climb up 500 feet in 0.8 miles to Lower Snowy Lake, with Upper Snowy Lake being 0.2 miles further. Both lakes offer established campsites, but finding a favorite spot may be difficult as both lakes are astoundingly beautiful. We stayed two nights here, camping at both the upper and lower lakes. I recommend camping just past the upper lake, where you can enjoy sunset views of Mt. Hardy.

The campsites at Snowy Lakes are basic backcountry sites with minimal facilities. Pit toilets have been constructed at both lakes (look for signs to find the trail to the toilets), and water can be filtered/purified from either lake. Be sure to pack extra bug spray and sunscreen for your trip as there are usually mosquitoes present at the lakes and there is no shade.

Lower Snowy Lakes, Washington.

If you have extra time at the lakes, scrambling the ridges around Snowy Lakes leads to even better views overlooking the lake basin. The spur towards Mt. Hardy is rocky and full of scree, but the trek behind the lakes is not too bad. You'll find a very light trail to a saddle between the mountain peaks of Golden Horn and The Tower, with some minimal route finding. The view from just below the saddle was the best we saw on the entire trip.

If you decide to continue your hike on the PCT, know that the next 8-10 miles descend steeply into thick forest. We spent the better part of a day exploring this section of the trail, and found no remarkable landmarks beyond Methow Pass, which is shortly past Snowy Lakes on the PCT.

Snowy Lakes, Washington.
Snowy Lakes is best hiked from August through the end of September. The hiking season is kept short by the lake's high elevation and position on the cold, northeastern slopes of the Cascade Range. Be aware that hiking this trail in the snow and ice is incredibly dangerous, as there are many steep drop-offs and ledges that would become quite hazardous to pass.
You're likely to encounter PCT thru-hikers along the trail, who will be completing the last leg of their journey to Canada. I suggest stopping to chat with these hikers, as they often have interesting stories to tell from their months of hiking, and recommendations for backpacking trips you might never have heard of.
Washington's North Cascades.

What to Pack



Goat Lake Campsite

Camp Kitchen

Oatmeal at Ramona Falls


Backpacking near Jade Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness


Backpacking the Timberline Trail on Mt. Hood


In addition to your regular backpacking gear, I strongly recommend bringing the following extra items on your trip to Snowy Lakes:
  • A bear canister or bear bag such as an Ursack. Black bears are commonly spotted nearby.
  • DEET and/or Afterbite - bugs can be annoying at the lakes, especially depending on the season.
  • Plenty of sunscreen and/or sun protective clothing. Exposure is high, and you'll mostly be in the sun.
  • Swimwear for the lakes - they'll be freezing cold, but it's fun to take a plunge!

Bear Safety

When exploring Washington's beautiful North Cascades, it's important to be aware of and prepared for bear encounters. The North Cascades are home to both black and grizzly bears, which can be dangerous if approached or encountered unexpectedly.

To stay safe, always make noise while hiking to alert bears to your presence and avoid surprising them. Keep your campsite clean and store all food, trash, and scented items in bear-resistent containers, bear bags, or hung at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from tree trunks.

If you do encounter a bear, stay calm and give it plenty of space. Don't approach, feed, or try to get a closer look at the bear. If the bear approaches you, make yourself look as big as possible and try to scare it away by shouting or clapping. If the bear persists or acts aggressively, deploy your bear spray if you have it and try to retreat slowly and calmly. By following these guidelines and being bear aware, you can help ensure a safe and enjoyable trip to the North Cascades.
Still have questions? Send me a message over email to connect. Happy Trails!
Golden Horn, Washington.
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Thanks for visiting our travel blog, Trails And Trekking! We're Lauren and Anders - an adventure loving couple currently stationed in the Pacific Northwest. We're avid hikers, backpackers, and travelers. We're both originally from Oregon, but we've spent the last two years traveling the Pacific Northwest and beyond. We created this blog to share our passion for exploring the outdoors, and to inspire you to get outside.