Friday, July 25, 2014

Alta Lake (via King Spruce Trail)

Alta Lake owed me one. Five weeks ago, Ray and I camped in snow, rain, and endured a cold night that was somewhere in the 20s, temperature-wise. A mere five weeks ago, but what a difference! The intervening weeks have since been as warm as a barbecue grill set on high and presumably the snow and ice is so yesterday, just like last year's teen idol. Hopefully, Alta Lake has wisely used the five weeks to feel contrition and a desire to atone for her rude treatment of Ray and I.

Rough trail

I've hiked to Alta Lake like a million times already and while nice, this hike needed a little something different added to the mix. About 0.7 miles into the hike from the Seven Lakes Trailhead, the trail forks and the left fork has a sign tacked onto a tree that faintly reads "King Spruce Trail" with the intersection with the Alta Lake Trail following a mere 3 miles away. I'd always bypassed the King Spruce because the guidebooks used words and phrases like "seldom used", "sketchy", "faint trail", "lost hikers", "never seen again", and "next of kin".

"Why not?", Tiger Lily?
Okay, I made the last three up, but the fact remained I'd never been on the King Spruce, so with a "why not?" I set out to add the King Spruce Trail notch on my hiking pole by doing the loop hike by taking the King Spruce and the Alta Lake Trails, and then returning by way of the Seven Lakes Trail. Half of the hike would be familiar and half would not.

I can relate to the bald-headed coneflower

The Seven Lakes Trail heads relentlessly uphill on its way to Alta Lake but the King Spruce Trail was much more agreeable as it politely lost elevation in the first half-mile. Despite the downhill, the hike was some work as the trail was badly overgrown by huckleberry, one has to stay alert so as to not lose the trail tread. And speaking of trail treads, the tread was very rough and rocky and it was hard to get a hiking rhythm going. 

Tall delphiniums
The trail did eventually quit going downhill but still remained fairly level as it contoured around a large meadow. The path was circling the lush meadow but remained in the forest all the while. A short bushwhack down to the meadow revealed the meadow was not grass so much as it was a dense thicket of willow trees. Amazingly, delphinium was poking up and out of the willow trees making these plants somewhere around 8 feet tall. On the map, this area was marked as "King Spruce (site)" and I never saw anything that looked like a formal site of whatever this used to be site of. You might say I hiked around the meadow, site unseen.

Gah! What is that thing that landed on my shirt?
As previously stated, the Seven Lakes Trail heads relentlessly uphill to Alta Lake. Since the King Spruce was also going to to Alta Lake, I was perhaps a little naive in thinking that the lake would be reached by hiking downhill or on a level path. Never fear, the King Spruce Trail quickly disavowed me of that notion by climbing around a forested ridge that leaked spring after spring after spring. Small trickles ran down the trail in their quest to eventually become Sumpter Creek and small pools just off trail supported an entire nation of bullfrogs. Bog orchid, monkshood, paintbrush, columbine, and tiger lilies all contributed to the floral rainbow surrounding the springs. An amusing moment of disconcertment occurred when a black winged insect landed on my shirt; it was large with long antennae and certainly came from another planet. Good thing no one was around to see my spastic hand-waving "gah!" moment.

Wet trail

Just like me, things dried out as the trail headed uphill. The trail had been alternating between shady forest and sunny meadow until it rounded a ridge and turned towards the northeast. The trail continued to gain elevation, with the lush vegetation morphing into a thin and stunted forest of hemlock with no ground cover underneath. The trail really became faint at this point, and fallen trees complicated the routefinding. Enterprising hikers had stacked rocks on the fallen trees on the trail and I was most appreciative of the markers. 

Typical scene on the King Spruce Trail
The trail was nowhere as steep as the Seven Lakes Trail but it went on and on. The philosophical question among hikers about hiking uphill is which is better: More pain for a shorter distance or less pain for a longer distance. I've never been able to emphatically resolve that question and my answer always tends towards the opposite of what I am currently hiking on. So, after nearly three miles of slogging ever upwards, I could only enviously ruminate on the fact that the Seven Lakes Trail would have been heading downhill by now.

It was longer than 3.5 miles
It was somewhat surprising to find the intersection with the Alta Lake Trail clearly and prominently marked, considering the overall sketchiness of the trails. It was hard to tell while walking through viewless forest, but I had attained the ridgecrest that would eventually become Violet Hill. I turned right and immediately continued uphill; if I would have walked (without a trail to follow) straight ahead and downhill, I could have reached Lake Ivern in the Seven Lakes Basin. I'm filing that one away for a future cross-country venture.

Boulder Pond
The next item of interest was Boulder Pond, a small stagnant pond below a prominent pile of rocks. The pond was not your basic glamour destination, but the dragonflies flitting around seemed happy enough with the tepid water. From the the rock pile, a pika called out a warning to all his pika friends that a big scary hiker was coming. Through the trees and in the distance, I caught a brief glimpse of Mount Thielsen peeking over the shoulder of Crater Lake's Llao Rock.

View to Middle and Grass Lakes
Once the trail crested the ridge, it dropped rapidly to the north end of long and narrow Alta Lake. It was interesting to compare the then and now of this hike versus the winter expedition of five weeks prior. The lake was blue under a blue sky and nary a patch of snow was seen either around the lake or on the nearby peak of Venus. A brief side trip to our formerly icebound campsite provided a magnificent view of Middle, Grass, and Cliff Lakes reposing below prominent Devil's Peak.

Devils Peak
By this point, I was tired and most grateful that the trail headed downhill all the way to the car.  The trail basically is a rock-filled chute all the way down to the end and the hiking was still fairly slow, no sense twisting an ankle by trying to speed walk. Up until this point, this hike had been basically mosquito-free but the little buggers pestered me from Frog Lake on forward, that's just another reason to hike to Alta Lake via the (mosquitoless) King Spruce Trail.

Meadow at the King Spruce site
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album. 


  1. Nice Hike, Richard. I am glad your sky was smoke-free. Our Sierra air was not so crystalline.

  2. It was wondering if I could use this write-up on my other website, I will link it back to your website though. Great Thanks.
    Dentist in Spruce Grove
    Spruce Grove dentist