Two days after a backpacking trip this weekend and my quads still ache, but sore legs are so welcome! It was my first backpacking trip since Lily Lake and North Butte in May when a shin splint flare-up forced me to engage in other activities. After resting for two and a half months, I was beyond excited to do some proper backpacking. I love alpine swimming, and I hoped to find a swimming spot, as we needed low mileage for the day. Rumor has it that one can waterslide on Otter Falls, so I planned on spending the day at Otter Falls and setting up camp at Marten Lake.
It was my first backpack of the year with my friend Meg, and I always love our trips together. In what has become a tradition of sorts, Meg and I planned for an easy, straightforward backpacking trip and ended up doing a boot path scramble to a secluded lake, complete with bushwacking and a mortal fear of bears. A marvelous time was had sliding down an icy cold waterfall, despite the fact that it was only 70ºF.
Marten Lake & Otter Falls
The route starts from the newly paved Middle Fork Snoqualmie Road. This was my second time on this road and it is still beautiful! We started 0.4 miles from the trailhead, as the gravel road has two large washouts that I had no interest in navigating my Subaru over. We did happen to see a minivan attempt the smaller washout and it looked (and sounded!) terrible. After navigating the washout by foot, the road continued parallel to Taylor river until reaching a bridge and accessing the original trailhead.
Day 1: Marten Creek Path
The trail was flat and easy, with pocket views of Taylor River. An old logging road designed to connect North Bend and Skykomish, the trail was wide enough to walk side-by-side. We saw a few hikers and pups but otherwise had the trail to ourselves. The miles went by quickly as we sauntered in the woods. After about 2.7 miles, we reached the large bridge crossing Marten Creek. Slightly before the bridge, we found a turn-off that would take us to Marten Lake.
In our blind ambition, we thought would climb up to Marten Lake, drop our overnight gear, return to the main trail and spend the afternoon at Otter Falls. Then, we would return to Marten Lake for sleeping, and hike out in the morning, . After about a quarter-mile on the Marten Lake “trail”, we determined there was no way we would be going back down this trail only to come back up again in the same day.
Listed at the trailhead as an “overgrown boot path”, the route to Marten Lake was steep, but easy to stay on route. The trail started out nicely with a reasonable grade through a wooded area. It took a bit of route-finding to determine the correct path through the duff, but chasing Marten Creek up the hillside made it difficult to truly veer off course. Eventually, after passing several astounding old-growth cedar trees, the trail began to level out slightly. We foolishly believed this was the last flat section before arriving at the lake but were horrendously wrong in this regard. The woods opened up to fields of ferns, vine maple and berry bushes. The foliage was heavily dense, and it was difficult to see anything but a faint trail at your feet.
The ranger posting at the trailhead mentioned a bear sighting, and we stumbled across some fresh bear scat. This made the dense brush a source of fear, rather than annoyance, as I really did not want to sneak up on any bears. We sang several bear songs and proceeded slowly through the dense underbrush. Eventually, the brush gave way to a more forested area that climbed steeply. Crawling over root ladders and rock piles, we slowly made upward progress. After a very long 1.1 miles, we arrived at the lake. Two dayhikers sat on a log, but we were the first backpackers and claimed the large tent area at the top of the lake. This is the primary place to pitch a tent, and there is room for multiple tents.
As I mentioned, we abandoned the idea of going back down the trail and bumping up to Otter Falls. It took us over an hour to climb the 1.1 miles to Marten Lake and given that it was already 2:00, we were not keen to leave. Luckily, Marten Lake has excellent swimming spot and the water was deliciously warm. There was a large, slabby rock near the shore covered in algae, and the easiest way to get in the water was to stand on the edge of the rock and “slide” in, while standing. It looked ridiculous, but was highly effective. We swam all afternoon and ate some delicious chicken salad for lunch, as clouds began to fill the sky.
After adding some layers, we crawled into bed at 5 and had a little nap. There is nothing quite as luxurious as sleeping in a tent, in the sunshine. Eventually, we emerged from our cozy cocoons to eat dinner. Peanut noodles were on the menu, and we enjoyed watching the lake as the weather continued to change. After a few chores and a cozy little fire, we climbed back into bed.
I was quite excited to sleep in my still relatively new enlightened equipment quilt but seemed doomed to insomnia. Huddled in my quilt, I lay awake panicking about my shin splints, even though they felt fine, worrying about being devoured by bears, and the overwhelming largeness of the universe. After barely managing to doze off, I felt gentle sprinkling on my face. A rain shower passed through the region, despite not being in the forecast (though not entirely unexpected, given the clouds). After a quick scramble to attach the rainfly, and I snuggled into my quilt and fell into a deep sleep.
When we woke, the lake was delightfully moody. Cloaked in a mist, the craggy peaks were obscured and the water breathlessly still. Rather than the early start we had planned, we chose to slowly drink our coffee and enjoy the constantly evolving lake scene. The rain from the previous night continued as a gentle sprinkle, but the temperature was relatively warm. Eventually, we packed our gear and headed back down the trail. The route down went faster, as we were no longer route-finding and the brush was much less oppressive on the decline. We were slowed down by abundant huckleberries and a particular hiker who cannot say no to delicious berries (Meg). In truth, one of the reasons I love hiking with Meg is the time she takes to truly enjoy a trail, so berry stops were quite alright with me.
We arrived back at the Marten Creek bridge and determined there was time for Otter Falls. After a quick, flat mile, we made it to the spur trail to the falls.
Unfortunately, the falls were not running nearly as swiftly as they were a week ago, so no watersliding. We still took some time to play on the granite slopes and bask in the sun. After realizing there would be no swimming at Otter Falls, we hurried back to Marten Creek to a swimming hole with a beautiful waterfall.
The waterfall and pool were significantly colder than the near bathwater at Marten Lake. Unfortunately, the weather was also chillier; about 70ºF and clouds that appeared every time we tried to jump in. Regardless, the waterfall looked so marvelous that we simply had to swim. It appeared that there was a “slide” from the waterfall to the pool, and so we braved the cold.
We found that if you swam quite quickly to the waterfall, you could climb out of the frigid water before your body froze. Then, with some slippery navigation, strange hulk-like straddling of the flow and backward shuffle, you could climb into the pool directly below the waterfall. It was not the most graceful approach, but in the end, we were able to stand directly in the waterfall. The slide was perfect and short, with just enough water flow to send you into the water.
After getting our fill of swimming, we piled on many layers and began the chilly walk back to the car. We joked that we were truly Pacific Northwesterners, hiking in down puffies in July, just so we could swim in icy streams without getting hypothermia. The 3 miles returning to the car felt slow and slightly miserable. But the flat and easy trail made the walk go pretty quickly. Before we knew it, we were back at the car, on the new smooth road and nearly home.