Necklace Valley, so called for its seemingly countless alpine lakes strung together like pearls, is a priceless natural heirloom to behold. Located in the Alpine Wilderness Area spanning the Central Cascades of Washington state, the Necklace Valley boasts some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen to date and, let me tell you, we had to work for it!
We began our trek at the West Fork Foss Lakes trailhead ready to complete the, according to AllTrails, “25.3-mile and 7,559-foot elevation gain” Alpine Lakes High Route loop trail. 34.8 miles and 8,737 feet of elevation gain later, we completed our journey and AllTrails earned the nickname “All-FAILS” amongst Charles and me. *Full disclosure: we continue to use AllTrails and still recommend the app, but urge you to read up on past reviews and study others’ recorded routes before taking the AllTrails summary stats for mileage and elevation gain at face value. Past reviews are also helpful in lending advice that might help mentally prepare one for expansive scree fields that will slow your pace to 60-minute miles, long stretches of unmarked trail that will leave you constantly guessing on your next move, and scrambling along steep cliffsides that will challenge those with an adversity to heights. If you’re catching my drift, these are some of the tests the Alpine Lakes loop laid before us that we did not anticipate since, well, you look at the AllTrails trail map and see a red line designated as a trail and assume that this means there is an established trail to follow that couldn’t possibly lead you astray…right?
Well, you have been warned.
These obstacles and many other feats tried us both physically and mentally. But that’s why we embark on these wild journeys in the first place isn’t it? To push our limits, recognize our weaknesses, and discover our strengths that get us through the toughest elements. Backpacking is challenging, uncomfortable, frustrating, exhilarating, tiresome, empowering, and insanely fulfilling and we’ll take all of it any day of the week. And that’s only the half of it! The other half is the ability to experience nature in its purest form. In order to get even the slightest taste of what the natural world is like outside of the reach of anthropogenic influence, you have to travel deep into the wilderness. A pair of legs and a pack of supplies on your back is your ticket in to these backcountry oases. I suppose a permit of sorts as well most places you go; especially in Washington state.
Our first night we made it to an unnamed cairn located 11.3 miles in from the trailhead and situated at an elevation above the Chetwoot Lake basin. Before we reached the cairn, it was a day full of mishaps, lessons learned, and perseverance. Again, thanks to AllFails, we had 2.3 miles worth of unplanned distance to endure before reaching our first camp. That being said, the first obstacle was the rain; I don’t think it stopped raining once from the moment we stepped foot outside of the car. Hiking in the rain isn’t so bad, except in this instance because we did not have rain covers for our packs. Overtime this allowed the rain to penetrate into those areas one hopes remains dry. Not to mention I had my clothes bag strapped to the outside of my backpack (thankfully, this stuff sack was highly water resistant). Lunch time rolled around and we were desperate for some relief from the weather where we could light our stove, cook our food, and continue on our way. Ideal shelter was hard to find, so we did the best we could off trail within the tree line. We couldn’t wait to try our new dehydrated meal (Smoked Three Bean Chili by Good To-Go). After filling the bag with water, Charles quickly realized how warm the bag felt between his hands. Next thing I know he is slipping the warm package underneath his shirt. “Genius…” I thought to myself as I stood shivering in the icy wind and rain. We laughed and reveled in our ingenuity as we took turns passing the bag back and forth and caressing it like a baby beneath our clothes to warm our cores. It was all fun and games until that dreaded moment in which the bag flipped resealable-side down during retrieval from beneath my shirt. Play time was over. Laughter could no longer be heard. We looked at each other with despair, and then back down at our lunch littering the ground, Charles’s backpack, and my right shoe. This was devastating and worrisome for many reasons. The main ones being that we had not packed any extra food and our person and pack was now covered in food that could attract potentially undesired wildlife. I mentioned it was freezing conditions, so we high-tailed it out of there to get our body temperatures back up in a much less risky way.
The fun didn’t stop there. The grand finale of Day 1 turned out to be the unexpected storm. We had finally reached our first camp spot when the clouds in the distance turned bleak against the scattered clearings of blue sky in the distance. We were exhausted, rain soaked, and ready for a meal—our first one of the day since breakfast if you remember the lunch debacle. Charles setup the tent while I filtered water to cook our food and replenish our bladders. I setup shop on a conveniently flat rock situated in the cairn just off shore. As I pumped away with the hand pump filtration system, the winds picked up. A light rain began to fall. I all but ignored it because I needed to finish the task at hand, or there would be no dinner or drinking water and I knew once I got into the tent to sleep I was not coming back out until morning. The light rain grew stronger and stronger. By the time I finished filtering, the rain turned to a freezing rain. And then sleet and hail made an appearance. Thankfully, Charles had the tent setup just in time so we were able to scurry inside to change into our driest, warmest clothes. I say “driest” because the majority of our clothes were damp at best. On my way to take shelter I found Lola trying to take shelter beneath a rock. I guided her back to the tent where she quickly curled up into a ball and fell fast asleep. Her snores could be heard within minutes. Meanwhile, Charles and I, chilled to the core even with our warmest layers on, busted out the emergency blankets and hurried to gather food supplies. I was so hungry I broke my number one tent rule—NO EATING INSIDE THE TENT—and scarfed down half a bag of crackers I had planned to eat with a separate meal entirely while Charles began boiling water to cook our food just outside the tent beneath the shelter of the rain fly (another usually forbidden act). We redeemed ourselves by venturing outside of the tent to actually eat our food. We had Patagonia Provisions lemon pepper wild sockeye salmon with rice. We heated both up and mixed them together in one bowl to share. Now, I am normally pretty picky about eating fish skin, but every bite I took tasted like a gourmet meal—fish skin and all. We took refuge in the tent shortly after eating, curled up in our sleeping bags, and crossed our fingers this storm would pass.
Our wish was granted.
We awoke to blue skies and sunshine beaming into the tent. A sigh of relief washed over us. We scrambled out of the tent to find it coated in a thin sheet of ice. In fact, our entire surroundings were covered in a blanket of frost. The air was still cold, but the sun felt warm as it lifted our spirits and did work to melt away the wintery scene. The first thing we did was lay all of our clothes, shoes, and bags out to dry, rotating them throughout the morning to keep them within the sun’s range. It was quite the scene—laundry atop a mountain using the rocks as a sort of clothesline as shown in the photo below.
While we waited for our clothes to dry and after breakfast and coffee, of course, we explored the area a bit. We scrambled over rocks and looked out over our inviting little campsite shown in the photo below. "Spot the Tent" Challenge #1 alert! (see details at bottom of post or click here to jump to instructions now). We packed up after lunch to head out to our next destination. With a set of dry clothes on our backs and in our packs, Day 2 was looking up.
Our next stop on this journey was Iron Cap Peak. Mind you, we had originally planned to stay two nights at the unnamed cairn, hike to Iron Cap Peak for sunset only, hike back to the unnamed cairn, then all the way to Tank Lake the following day. After the previous day’s happenings and how technical the trail turned out to be, we revisited this plan and opted to head straight for Tank Lakes. Thank goodness we did, because little did we know after plummeting down the steep slopes to Chetwoot Lake and traversing up a nice grassy hill lay scree field after scree field after scree field with absolutely zero trail marking to verify you’re headed in the right direction. Let’s just say it took us six hours to make it the two miles to Iron Cap Lake. Tank Lakes would have to wait one more day. We nestled into a sweet little camp spot near the lake on the flattest plot of ground we could find (Spot the Tent Challenge #2 alert!).
It was a surreal feeling being here. I had truly never felt so deep in the wilderness before. There was a moment while lying awake in the tent trying to sleep that I noticed just how eerily quiet it was and that it was equidistant from where we lay to either trailhead in the event of an emergency. It was both a chilling and exhilarating sensation. One in which you truly learn to trust yourself, your companion(s) if you aren’t flying solo, and the surrounding wild.
We awoke the next day feeling anxious to get moving as we had intended to cover much more ground the day before. At this point there was no telling what this trail would throw our way next. But, there was only one way to go from here; and that was forward. So, we did.
I had to really dig deep this day as we scaled the perimeter of Iron Cap Peak. There were no established trails, very few carats to help guide the way, and loose dirt on extremely steep grades that sloped toward a sheer drop to the valley floor below. Heights I can handle, but physically being near the edge of a cliff is another story. Spoiler alert—we all survived! It was so empowering to have made it to the other side. And the other side was beyond my wildest dreams. To this day I have not laid eyes upon a more beautiful scene: Tank Lakes.
Arriving at Tank Lakes felt like walking into a dreamworld. The lakes were scattered across an expansive flat area boasting a mosaic of white and gray granite boulders grouted with green grass with these insanely rugged, jagged-peaked mountains as their backdrop. It felt like being on an island suspended in air, as if the ground I stood on had detached from the earth itself and floated up into the atmosphere to meet the mountain peaks. The whole scene left me entirely breathless. This is the happy place I go to in my mind whenever I find myself seeking peace and serenity. To me, this place embodied both of those values.
When it comes to landscape scenery, seasoned photographers may not agree, but I say you can sort of place photos into three different categories from a lighting perspective: sunrise, full-light daytime, and sunset (astrophotography being a whole other playing field in itself; more on that below). Each one sets a different mood and I’d bet that if you’re really drawn to one of the three, you’re not as enthused by the others. I for one get off on the sunset photos. No contest. So, if you’re on team sunset enjoy the shots below (Spot the Tent Challenge #3 alert!).
We also had a BLAST playing around with some astrophotography, which is quickly rising to meet my love for sunset imagery.
The moment we arrived we were wishing we had a second night at this place. Unfortunately, we had only planned enough meals for four days, three nights. So, we trekked out the next day to complete the final leg of our journey, but not before we caught the sunrise at Tank Lakes.
We did not make the final day of the trek very easy on ourselves. Thirteen miles to the car, three of which were on a dirt road past the Necklace Valley Trailhead, where we looked longingly at the cars parked there, signifying the end of the journey for so many. But not for us. With over thirty miles under our belts, the last three miles along the road between trailheads felt the longest by far. Two guys in a truck pulled over as they passed us on the road to make sure we were okay—likely because they caught me temporarily doubled over to stretch my lower back. We relayed our journey to them and impressed them by the fact we didn’t leave a second car at the Necklace Valley Trailhead to carry us across that road to the car at our actual starting point. Although hiking along that road absolutely sucked, nothing was more rewarding than walking away knowing we hiked the entire loop, start to finish.
The out-of-body elation we experienced at first sight of the car was quickly replaced by hunger. There was no time to bask in the glory of what we had just accomplished. All that mattered now was where and how quickly could we get to food.
Thankfully, we had the perfect spot in mind as we had eaten there the night before and knew they tailored their menu to Pacific Crest Trail through hikers. On the main street of the awesome backpackers’ town of Skykomish stood the Whistling Post Saloon. Almost everything on the menu, aside from the sausages, was panko breaded and deep fried served with a side of Jo-Jo’s. What are Jo-Jo’s you ask? Giant potato wedges lightly breaded and cooked in a pressure fryer. Perfectly golden brown and crispy on the outside, fluffy potato on the inside. That being said, we ordered three fish sandwiches with housemade tartar sauce and slaw complete with a lemon wedge for flavor as if it needed more and Jo-Jo’s on the side. Nothing—literally, nothing—has ever tasted so good. After dinner, a hot shower, and a very long stretch session we crashed and slept soundly until morning.
We awoke the next morning at our sweet little Airbnb oasis feeling incredible. Legs sore, but mind and spirit completely rejuvenated and healed. After breakfast we made our way into town for groceries and lunch. I ate the lightest, freshest, and healthiest salad full of leafy greens, veggies, and seeds to make up for the night before. We then nestled into our day of rest, which consisted of soaking in the hot tub, reading on the back patio, snoozing on the couch (**cough** Lola), and of course more stretching.
Unsponsored author plug real quick because the book I hold in my hand in the image above is amazing – The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. If you dream of experiencing India and its culture and cherish a kind, strong, smart and independent female character then I highly recommend The Henna Artist. Alka Joshi has a beautiful way of transporting you into the lives of the characters she writes about and her writing is exquisite in both structure and content.
We spent two blissful days at this nourishing sanctuary and reminisced on our first trip through the Necklace Valley. We are already planning our next trek in the Alpine Wilderness Area and have even started talking about when we might start devouring the PCT. Stay tuned…
For the love of adventure,
SPOT THE TENT CHALLENGE INSTRUCTIONS:
Remember "Where's Waldo" from when you were a kid? Well, we're bringing it back in backpacker style! If you made it through the entire blog post (thank you for reading, by the way!), then you saw three images designated as part of the "Spot the Tent" challenge. Those same three images are shown again below for your convenience. Find the tent in each one of the three photos, notify us either with a screenshot of each with the tents circled, or briefly describe their respective locations in an email (email@example.com), site message using the submission form at the bottom of our Home Page, or direct message on Instagram @picturesquefineart, and receive 25% off your next purchase!