Sand Lake

Area: White Pass
Hike Type: Family-friendly Pass: Free Wilderness Permit Req.  Available at the trailhead.
Distance: 6 mi RT Duration: 3-4 hrs Difficulty Level: Easy
Elevation Start: 4,423 Elevation End: 5,306 Elevation Gain: 900
Snow-Free: Mid-July – Late-Oct  

For an easy fall-color hike in the White Pass area, check out the trail to Sand Lake – not only is it a colorful hike in the fall, in winter you can also ski or snowshoe to Sand Lake or even camp at the Sand Lake shelter. We hiked to Sand Lake from White Pass where we began hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail (heading north). The trailhead is a little east of White Pass at Leech Lake, a pretty reed-lined lake with views toward White Pass.

The Pacific Crest Trail begins in forest and in about a mile crosses an old logging road – continue straight. In about 1-1/2 miles a junction for Dog Lake (right) is reached – continue straight on the PCT.

The PCT was engineered so the grade is never extremely steep and on this trail, the ups are short and spaced between level sections. The trail contours below a talus slope (left) where in September, the vegetation has already picked up fall color and mushrooms are beginning to emerge from the duff.

A lot of work has gone into keeping this trail in good condition; fallen trees have been cut out and cleared, the ends of some cut trees engraved with a smiley-face created by an anonymous volunteer or forest service employee. You can’t help but smile back.

There are muddy stretches along the trail; a combination of late snow-melt, rain, and horses on the trail. The PCT has always been open to horses so be prepared and polite when you encounter horsemen on the trail. Wear sturdy boots and gaiters are a good idea if you are in the trail during the autumn months. We met three jolly fellows on horseback coming out as we were going in. After a “howdy” and wishing each other well, we continued on our separate ways.

Small meadows appear as the trail gains elevation; these were tinged with fall color in early October. At another right, ignore the junction (right) for the Dark Meadow trail. We also saw a few late-summer flowers beside the trail including lupine, asters and a few clumps of ragged hellebore, its leaves golden and glistening with raindrops from an early morning shower.

In about two miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach a junction beside a large meadow where a spur trail (left) leads to Deer Lake with a couple of inviting campsites. Fishing is permitted though you’ll need a state fishing license.

We continued on the PCT as the trail levels out before Sand Lake. The lake is sandy and shallow enough to wade on a warm day. In summer this is an ideal hike or easy backpack for families – there are campsites on the west and north sides plus a shelter off the main trail not far from the lake tucked away in sheltering evergreens. The shelter has seen better days but is still standing and in good enough shape to provide shelter if needed.

The reason Sand Lake is shallow is because the lake is fed by snow-melt – there is no inlet or outlet. The lake dries up as the summer progresses and you can walk around the lake without getting your feet wet. We saw several elk tracks near the shore. The surrounding grasses and reeds created a colorful composition in gold, orange and bronze framed by blue sky and a line of dark evergreens. You’ll want to spend time at the lake even if you are planning to hike further. Another approach to Sand Lake is from the Sand Lake trail No. 60 – the trailhead is up from the WSDOT Service Garage near US.

On our way back to the trailhead the fall color seemed to have intensified in just the short time we’d been on the trail – since there have already been dustings of snow at higher elevations this is a great time to view the fall colors. And don’t forget those sturdy boots and gaiters!

Additional information: At White Pass the PCT trail is the boundary between the Naches Ranger District and the Cowlitz Ranger District. The Sand Lake trail No. 60 has a trailhead on the west side of White Pass (we have not hiked this route) and that is managed by the Cowlitz Ranger District. The PCT route to Sand Lake is managed by the Naches Ranger District. Wheels of any kind are prohibited on the Pacific Crest Trail and Sand Lake Trail No. 60. For additional information, rules, regulations and conditions call the Naches Ranger District at 509-653-1400 (Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest). For information on purchasing a fishing license refer to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

– Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert


Starting Point: 46.64475, -121.38251000000002
Notable Waypoints:

Trailhead (Pacific Crest Trail at Leech Lake): N 46° 38′ 41, W 121° 22′ 57
Sand Lake: N 46° 39′ 35, W 121° 24′ 49