This hike could be done in 2 long days, if you don’t take a 3rd to attempt the south side of Summit Chief, a 4.5 mile side hike. The first day will take you to 2 pretty and remote tarns that have incredible views from their eagles perch to Lemah Mt. and Chimney Rock, a large monolithic rock with sheer vertical walls that provide a worthy challenge to those that attempt its apex. Some guide books have listed the names of these two tarns as Vista lakes, and it’s a worthy moniker.
The first day starts at the Pete Lake Trailhead, #1323, and is well maintained and relatively flat to the shores of Pete Lake, at 4 miles. It’s heavily wooded and only at times will you see nearby Cooper River, which flows into Cooper Lake near the trailhead. The trail is shared with stock so Pete Lake in itself is a destination for those looking for a close- in lake to experience the backcountry, to go fishing, or as a layover for riders on the PCT, there is a trail junction for them to cross Lemah Creek a mile from the lakeshore. There are several campsites around its shores. Continue on trail #1323 through old growth forest another mile to the “primitive” crossing of Lemah creek for those on horseback, a spur trail that re-joins the PCT in another .8 miles, or for those headed to Spectacle Lake, at the base of Lemah Mt. Follow the trail along the Lemah Creek drainage for another .6 miles, to where the trail joins the PCT near Lemah Meadows, and you will now stay on the PCT until you reach little Vista Lakes.
At mile 6.7, right as the trail begins its switch backs uphill, you will get a incredible view of Whinnimic Falls, as they pour over steep cliffs at the base of Lemah Mts. You will be able to hear its roar most of the way uphill, as it echoes through the valley. The trail, since its part of the PCT, is remarkably well maintained, and the switchbacks are well engineered, to help take some of the steeps out, as well as keep the track from being eroded. As you wind your way up steep hillsides, with gradually diminishing tree cover, the rounded edge of this ridge becomes more barren and rocky, giving you great sight lines over to Lemah Mt, as well as further south to Chikamin Ridge.
Near the top of the ridge and the tarns, you will enter an area that has been burned, and the ghostly remnants of that fire still stand vigil, stark white like bleached bones standing erect to remind you that once a forest thrived here. Lots of purple Lupine and yellow daisies dot the landscape, adding greenery and taking the edge off the harshness here. You will reach the first of Vista Lakes in 11.58 miles, and 2695ft of elevation gain, most of it coming in the last 4 miles of switchbacks. Vista Lakes have no doubt been named for their incredible views of Lemah Mt, and majestic Chimney Rock, outlined in stark contrast against the blue of the afternoon sky. And, if you look north, along the ridgeline, you will also see Summit Chief Mt, a peak that deserves closer attention tomorrow.
The water here is clear, cold, and refreshing, and it’s an often used watering hole for PCTers on their way through. There are a couple of stellar campsites here next to the lake; also, there are a couple of sites near the shores of the upper lake, only about 100 yards away. Pikas and Marmots call the talus fields and rounded rock here home. If you decide to take the cross country jaunt up to Summit Chief, either for a closer look, or for peak bagging, these two lakes are ideal as a base camp, so pack up light for an alpine start, and follow the ridgeline up staying to the left of Summit Chief Lake, and then skirting below the jagged spires along the upper ridge, towards the middle of the mountain, then back up into a bowl shaped landing at the bottom of the mountain itself. From there, it’s a challenging scramble to the left, to gain the ridgeline that reaches the top of Summit Chief, only to be attempted if you are an experienced scrambler! Otherwise, just getting close is in itself an adventure, and allows you views across the valley below to nearby Chimney Rock.
The next day will have you travelling on the PCT again, and the next 1.5 miles will be an easy trek along the ridgeline, past several unnamed tarns and great sight lines looking over Escondido Lake far below. You will leave this scenic ridgeline as it rounds the leading edge of this ridge, doubles back on itself through small hillside meadows with lots of bloom in season, and then leaves the PCT at mile 2.97, and joins the Waptus Pass Trail #1329C. Having gotten used to the PCT, this trail will seem less well maintained, but still easy to follow as it continues downhill for 3.3 miles to the Waptus Pass/Pete Lake Junction. Turn right here, onto trail #1329, towards Pete Lake. Still in old growth forest, you will continue on for another .5 miles before you see the trailhead to Escondido Lake, #1320. Continue straight for another mile where you will reach the steep switchbacks that run down this ridge next to a small stream. It’s only a .75 stretch, but it is steep, losing over a 1000ft of elevation, and loose with rounded rocks about baseball size, making footing treacherous, and it’s exposed for the most part, so the afternoon sun will beat on you if you reach this section during the heat of the day. We noticed surveyor’s ribbon on the trail, indicating future trail work to be done by the WTA, a local trail organization.
At mile 8.35, you will reach the trail junction with Pete Lake, and turn left onto trail #1323 once again, and follow it back to the trailhead, for a total of 10.9 miles.
- Distance: 42.9
Location: 47.500157, -121.246207
One of two nice camps next to the first of Vista Lakes.
Location: 47.50152, -121.217315
Noticed a signed camp area here on the PCT, with some water, in a meadow.
Escondido Lake #1320
Location: 47.486894, -121.210554
Trailhead to Escondido Lake.
Merge with PCT
Location: 47.48394, -121.259338
Here the trail ends, and joins with the PCT
Waptus Pass #1329
Location: 47.476901, -121.230684
Where we ended our loop, turning left to head back to the trailhead.
Junction to road 235
Location: 47.457734, -121.212516
Trail junction that leads to road 235
Spectacle Lake jct.
Location: 47.476782, -121.252767
Signage for "primitive" crossing to Spectacle Lake, and the PCT
Waptus Pass/Pete Lake #1329
Location: 47.486373, -121.200622
Turn right to head for Pete Lake.
Waptus Pass #1329C
Location: 47.498776, -121.212998
Signage here depicts Waptus Pass, and Waptus Burn, trail #1329C. Follow this trail.
Location: 47.477507, -121.236405
Lemah Mt., Whinnimic Falls
Location: 47.492327, -121.26018
The falls could be heard roaring for most of the way up the switchbacks.
Location: 47.500185, -121.246877
Great vistas from the lakes of Lemah Mt. and Chimney Rock.
Summit Chief Sunrise
Location: 47.500358, -121.245804
Incredible views of Summit Chief, as the rising sun plays across its face.
Location: 47.500214, -121.24692
The sheer face of Chimney Rock, highlighted by the morning sun.
Sunrise with coffee
Location: 47.49975, -121.245675
Summit Chief Sunrise with Coffee.
Location: 47.501634, -121.246834
Ghostly sentinels reflect off of small pool on the ridge to Summit Chief.
Summit Chief Mt, and its brothers
Location: 47.508186, -121.254044
Summit Chief, Middle Chief, and Little Big Chief, starring left to right.
Summit Chief Lake
Location: 47.509954, -121.257477
Mt. Rainier, and Chimney Rock
Location: 47.520824, -121.267648
Location: 47.503142, -121.236706
Small tarn along the PCT trail.