Backpacking to Bear Lake

With HOT weather in the Labor Day forecast and no AC at home we wanted to head to the mountains to literally chill out. We thought about backpacking to Wall Lake (west of Olallie Lake) but thought there might be too much smoke, so headed to Indian Heaven instead, even though we knew it would be packed there. When we arrive at the East Crater Trailhead at 11am Saturday morning the car said it was 78 degrees, but it felt hotter than that. On the plus side, there were huckleberries available! We had hoped to find some on our hike, but didn’t expect to be able to pick them from the car. Sweet!


We hit the trail at 11:30, noting that there were no signs about a fire ban at the trailhead. That’s odd. It’s way too dry for campfires. We were glad for the cool shady hike as the temperatures continued to climb:



Sometimes our pace slowed to a tasty crawl as we picked huckleberries:


After 2.5 miles and an hour and 15 minutes we reached the PCT and turned north, passing Junction Lake. The lake was low enough that the outlet was bone dry:


In fact, every single creek crossing was dry:


We had planned to camp at Acker Lake, having read that there was a lovely campsite there. But we couldn’t find the trail down to it and in any case when we saw Bear Lake we decided that was a fine place to camp.



That little peninsula at the east end of the lake has “day use only” and “no camping” signs:



We managed to snag a campsite nearby, though:


Then we went for a swim. Ah, that felt good!


We spent the afternoon sitting in the shade by the lake, eating snacks and reading and staying cool. We saw several dozen backpackers arrive throughout the afternoon. There weren’t nearly enough campsites for all of them, so I don’t know where they ended up going. Some people just set up camp on the lakeshore where there were was plenty of dry land since the lake level was low.

In the late afternoon Greg took a nap while I went exploring. I hiked to trail’s end at Elk Lake, where there seemed to only be a handful of campsites. This lake only didn’t seem as good for swimming due its somewhat inaccessible shoreline.



Back at Bear Lake I read until dinnertime. The sun disappeared behind the tree tops at 6, and we enjoyed a long dusk sitting by the lake eating dinner and drinking wine. It was warm enough that we were sitting there in short sleeves and I was SO glad we were not back home in our sweltering house. Despite all the people that we could see and hear, we were all dispersed enough that it didn’t matter. No one brought along a bluetooth speaker (thank god) and all the noises were just usual camp noises. Several people had campfires, though, which seemed crazy to me. Not only because the forest was SO dry, but because who wants a campfire when it’s 80 degrees out? I just don’t get it. If you need a campfire when you go backpacking, then don’t go during a drought.

Sunday morning our blue skies from the day before were gone (we didn’t know it yet, but the skies were hazy due to the Eagle Creek Fire that started the previous afternoon). We couldn’t smell smoke, though, and the lake was calm and peaceful. It was nice to just sit there enjoying our breakfast, tea, and the quiet morning. One of my favorite aspects of backpacking!



Since we were staying two nights, today we decided to hike over to Lemei Rock and the nice viewpoint above Lake Wapiki.


Along the way we checked out Deer Lake:


And Clear lake:


Now that we were out and about we could see just how bad the smoky haze was. The sunlight was orange.


Along the last stretch to the viewpoint we got a view north to Mt. Rainier, whose summit was obscured by the smoky haze:



Lemei Rock:


We got to the viewpoint above Lake Wapiki. Mt. Adams was visible, but definitely shrouded in smoke:


Lake Wapiki:


Smoke and haze:


At this point we had a signal and although I normally try to stay unplugged in the wilderness I thought I’d check the forecast. That’s when I learned about the Eagle Creek Fire that started the previous afternoon and about the 150 hikers who had been trapped overnight and had to hike out to Wahtum Lake in the morning. The whole story was horrifying. And now we knew why it suddenly got so very smoky overnight.

Greg did the crossword while I read on my Kindle, then I decided to pick some huckleberries further along the trail. I turned around to bring some berries back to Greg and saw a huge plume of smoke rising up to the west.



The fire looked to be in the general direction of Bear Lake, so we quickly started hiking the three miles back there. From information we gathered from other hikers we figured out that the fire was near Blue Lake (which turned out to be slightly inaccurate; the fire was at East Crater), that it had just started this morning, and that everyone had to evacuate. Everyone at Bear Lake had already left. My guess is that they got the evacuation order shortly after we left on our day hike. Our afternoon plans for swimming and relaxing lakeside were not to be. As we packed up our site and the temperatures rose, I grumbled about the irresponsible jerk who didn’t properly put out their campfire and started a wildfire (they haven’t proven that’s what happened, but that’s my guess).

A firefighter we encountered told us the East Crater Trail back to our car was closed because the fire was pretty much on top of it. He told us to hike out to Cultus Creek Campground and a shuttle would take us back to our car. So we retraced our steps back up the Indian Heaven Trail, and when we passed Clear Lake we got a good view of the smoke. Holy crap.


At Cultus Creek Campground they had closed the trail:


Other backpackers also evacuated here, but there weren’t as many as I expected. I think most of them had already come out earlier in the day. After 90 minutes at the campground a FS guy admitted our best bet to get back to our car was with a member of the public, so we did just that. A huge thanks to Jack and Sydney, who were headed to Trout Lake and went out of their way to take us to our car. They couldn’t go the last 1.5 mile due to a ditch in the road that their low-clearance car couldn’t cross, so I ran the last stretch with just my keys and phone. I got to the car at 8pm after a long stressful day. So much for a relaxing day in the wilderness. But it could have been worse. We were safe, we were able to retrieve our gear, and our car didn’t burn up.

An hour later when we crossed the Bridge of the Gods, we got our first look at the Eagle Creek Fire and it was devastating. By then the news sites had reported that the fire was started due to teens playing with fireworks and we were shocked how big the fire got in such a short amount of time.

As for the East Crater Fire, it was intially reported to be 1,000 acres but once they got a look at the perimeter they revised that and today it’s listed as 467 acres. Cause is still listed as “under investigation”. I asked the GPNF on Facebook why there was no campfire ban in effect but they didn’t respond.