|Distance:||4.9 miles, RT|
|Hiking Time:||2-3 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||650 ft|
|High Point:||5,770 ft|
|Snow Free:||July - Mid-November*|
|Trailhead Pass:||Northwest Forest Pass Required|
|GPS Waypoints:||Chinook Pass (PCT) Parking Lot:|
N 46° 52' 31", W 121° 31' 07"
Sheep Lake: N 46° 53' 39", W 121° 30' 06"
* Make sure Chinook Pass is still open before you go.
A beautiful mountain walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, the hike to Sheep Lake from Chinook Pass offers up scenic views, grassy meadows, dense forests and easy off-trail scrambles. It's a popular hike for families and those always on the lookout for wildlife. The area is home to a many species of birds, mountain goats, deer, marmots, martens and the occasional bear.
Our recent hike to Sheep Lake was in early November, with just a trace of snow on the trail. By the time we reached the PCT trailhead/parking at Chinook Pass, morning fog had dissipated and the sun was bright. The trail had a thin coating of snow at Chinook Pass and there were a couple stretches where we needed to be careful of our footing on icy patches where water had frozen.
We always enjoy the views from the trail looking east and down to the Rainier fork of the American River. The only thing missing from the scene was a herd of elk; it looked like an ideal setting for them as there are no trails that drop down into that valley.
We hoped for last-minute displays of fall-color before winter sets in, but in early November the fall color is fading though there are still a few colorful displays of mountain ash here and there.
There is little elevation change along the trail the first mile or so as it contours above State Route 410 with views all around. Since the hike is short you'll have plenty of time to stop and enjoy them. There are also views of Yakima Peak and Naches Peak before the trail enters the forest. After the trail leads into the trees, it climbs a little more steeply toward the lake. In the forest look for Alaska cedars with their shaggy bark.
After a short, final climb through a raggedy meadow and another swath of forest you'll suddenly arrive at the lake. It feels "sudden" because there is little transition between the forest and the lake; suddenly you're there.
On this chilly day we were not surprised to have Sheep Lake mostly to ourselves and we had our choice of lunch spots. We encountered a couple of hikers just leaving the lake who said the gray jays were out in full force. We stopped at the lake (5,770 feet) for photos and compelling views of Sourdough Ridge above the lake. Thus far, the ridge appears to be snow-free and Sourdough Gap was still within reach of hikers as of November 3, 2011.
We continued following the path to the far side of the lake so as to position ourselves in the sun. When we settled down for lunch we were soon surrounded by gray jays - it resembled a scene out of Alford Hitchcock's film "The Birds." However, we enjoy the antics of these "camp robbers" with their bright, merry eyes and optimistic stance as they hope for handouts. These particular jays were so accustomed to being fed by hikers that they landed on our packs, our heads, even our hands. One was brave enough to snatch a cracker out of my hand before I could get it to my mouth. Watching them is always a delight but resist treating them; it makes it more difficult for them to survive in their natural habitat if they depend on us for their food source.
Gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis) may have merry eyes and a cheerful appearance but they are more akin to pickpockets than anything else. Not only do they snatch food out of our hands they can even enter tents and help themselves to goodies, they have even been known to grab candles, tobacco (and matches!). They roll their booty into a lump that they cache to retrieve as needed - this ingenious technique allows them to winter over in snowy terrain without needing to migrate. They also have very well-insulated nests.
We spent about an hour at the lake, walking around the shore to photograph and enjoy colorful reflections of late fall colors in the still waters - there was also a fringe of ice around the east side of the lake that made it look more wintry than it felt.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, we spotted a group of 10-12 hikers coming down from Sourdough Gap so it appears other hikers were also taking advantage of the stellar hiking conditions in early November.
A note to those hiking in late fall: To compensate for ice, take along trekking poles for more security on slippery trails. Be sure you get an up-to-date weather forecast for Mount Rainier and check WSDOT for road conditions. Don't forget that chains are required to be carried on all roads into Mount Rainier National Park annually on November 1st.
To get there: from Enumclaw drive east on State Route 410 to Chinook Pass. At the pass, drop down a few feet to Chinook Pass/Pacific Crest Trail trailhead/parking lot and facilities, elevation 5,435 feet. A Northwest Forest Pass is required - dogs are allowed on the PCT but not on trails inside Mount Rainier National Park. The map is Green Trails No. 269S (Mount Rainier Wonderland) or Green Trails No. 270 Mount Rainier East.
- Karen Sykes