Backpacking to Jade Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is about 20.7 miles, with about an additional 3 miles (RT) to reach Dip Top Gap. This trail gains roughly 5,000 ft of elevation (including Dip Top) and is rated as a hard trail with lots of foot traffic. This out and back trail is gaining popularity each year due to its stunning blue lake, and is extremely fragile. The footpath after Marmot Lake to Jade Lake and beyond to Dip Top Gap is unmaintained and includes crossing a scree field, and glacier if you are traveling up to Dip Top and Pea Soup Lake.
As of now, permits for this trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness are available at the trailhead. Campsites at Jade Lake are extremely limited (I believe I counted around 12) and there are only 2 places to pitch a tent on top of Dip Top Gap.
There are many more options located at the lower lake, Marmot Lake, and many backpackers choose to stay there and make a day trip up to Jade Lake.
↟ The trail in between Marmot and Jade Lake is not maintained and requires a bit of scrambling on a scree field marked by cairns. If you are not comfortable with this, please do not attempt. It is difficult.
↟ If you are looking to go up to Dip Top Gap, you will need to cross a glacier and should come prepared to do so. This means adequate equipment like micro-spikes, poles, crampons, (we also saw people with ice axes) and water storage as there are no water sources once you get up to the Gap. Make sure you are up-to-date with the latest trail conditions before attempting. Rock slides on warmer days are likely.
↟ NO DRONES ALLOWED
↟There is a pit toilet at Jade Lake- Use it.
↟ Parking can be difficult at the trailhead so make sure you arrive early. This is a popular trail with lots of foot traffic and outdoor folks looking for multi-day adventures. Doing this trail during the week is favorable.
↟Dogs are allowed in this wilderness area but must be leashed.
↟ Choose a campsite at least 100 feet away from lakes, streams, or trails and where the ground can handle the impact of a tent. It is very important to do this in order to protect fragile ecosystems.
↟ Recreate Responsibly, and Leave No Trace. Stay on trail, don’t cut switchbacks, pack out your TP and trash, and be a good nature-loving individual.
Trip Dates: August 31st- September 2nd, 2022
Total Mileage: 23 miles
Trail Type: Out and Back
Trailhead: Lake Michael Trail #1336
We arrived to the trailhead on a Wednesday, hopeful that we could get a coveted spot at Jade Lake during the week, and miss the Labor Day weekend warriors. The trailhead was full, but not quite as overflowing as the wheel-trodden grasses in the parking lot suggested. We swung our backpacks around and strapped in, our minds still hazy from the 850 mile drive from Santa Cruz, California to my families house in Puyallup the previous day.
The early parts of the trail were welcoming and flat. A reminder that the imminent elevation gain would be sharp and slow. We passed a few long lakes on the trail to our left as we head up towards the Pacific Crest Trail fork. The late-summer birds sung at the lakeside and the air was clean and warm. Hiking in the evergreens and springy forest floor was a nice change of scenery from the dry alpine rock of Sequoia Kings Canyon, our previous backpacking trip of Rae Lakes still fresh in our minds.
It wasn’t long after we started that the first group of hikers passed us coming down from their trek. The likelihood that they had spent the night at Jade was high. 1….2….3….4 groups passed us before the first few miles were up. I wondered how many backpackers we would pass on our way. Maybe the trail was a bit more popular than I thought.
The first incline came soon after we passed the lake, and the first thousand foot climb came and went without too much trouble. We arrived at the PCT crossing around and stopped for a snack, watching the early morning risers passing us on their way down the trail. A few of them mistook us for thru-hikers, likely due to the sizes of our packs, but we were much too clean. Still, I take the comment as a secret compliment, hoping that my legs could carry me up the steep climbs still ahead at a mere fraction of the speed that a PCT’ers would at this stage of their hike.
We leap-frogged the next several miles regularly with another small group of backpackers also headed up towards Jade Lake. By this stage, more and more groups passed us coming from Jade on their way back to the trailhead. 6…7…8 groups by this stage, and we were just passing the halfway mark.
When we finally made it over the crest to Marmot Lake, a wave of relief washed over me. The most difficult part of the hike wasn’t quite done, but the majority of it was. We made our way to the far end of Marmot Lake, passing at least a dozen campsites right off the trail with more likely hidden in the trees. It was around this area that the trail started to show signs of ending. Down trees popped up around every corner, and small footpaths were formed in a splay of directions. Once cairns started popping up towards our left, we knew we had reached the scree path.
If you’ve ever looked at an alpine lake and what lies at the base of a dip on the horizon, it’s likely scree. Loose stones, rocks, and boulders on the side of a mountain- and that was our path. I felt relieved to have trekking poles to keep my balance and help propel myself forwards… upwards.
The path between Marmot and Jade lake, mileage wise, is short. Maybe a half mile, or just a bit longer. The gain through this half mile was brutal, and took us (well…me) about an hour to get through. Once Reid and I made it to the top of the scree path, it wasn’t too much longer before we could see the vibrant blue of Jade Lake through the trees, a perfect turquoise.
We still had a few hours until sunset, so we chose a spot near a break in the trees to set up camp. A quick dip in the freezing water and a nice, hot bag of the Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki dinner was calling my name.
Groups continued to trickle into the area looking for campsites. One solo hiker asked if he could set up his tent nearby. With the lack of space around the lake and the exhaustion we could see on his face we had no problem with it. “I didn’t realize how hard that last part would be” He said. “That was hell”.
“Big props to you too” I said sincerly, gesturing towards his feet. “There’s no way in hell I would have been able to do that wearing Blundstones”.
We slept in a bit to give some extra rest to our sore legs, knowing our trek today would be much shorter. Still, we wanted to make it to the top of Dip Top Gap before the heat of the sun melted the snow too much. After packing up camp, I strapped my microspikes to the outside of my pack, and we head up towards the glacier.
After scaling down a steep cliffside and making our way to the base of the glacier, we carefully stayed to the side of the snow until it was clear our only path up would be on the ice. Reid and I took a short break just before, filling our water bottles to the brim and scarfing down a quick bar. We could hear the trickle of the melting water under the glacier, and just beyond us was a glassy ice patch with tunnels of melting water. As someone who personally has not had a ton of experience backpacking or hiking on snow or ice, I felt a bit unnerved. Reid however, a man who had completed the PCT during a high snow year, felt right at home, and calmed any nerves I had on our way towards the top of the gap.
The view from the top was breathtaking. Pea Soup Lake and Mt. Daniel came into view, an incredibly vast peak with a pristine rocky lake at its base. The horizon line was a bit smoky, with lingering wildfires catching around the area, but was clear enough to see the slices of earth.
A day hiking group arrived not long after us, remarking about how big our packs were and not noticing us in the shadows of the rocks taking a nap. “We’re planning on camping up here tonight” I said, starling the man leading the group. He smiled back at us. “Hope it’s a beautiful night!”
I am sure that the Alpine Gods were smiling down at us that night. The wind was next to none, the air barely cooled, and the stars were so clear I could make them out through our tent perfectly. (We had also gotten incredibly lucky because after this day, the wildfire smoke moved in heavily and really shut down the rest of the season.)
We woke up early this time, catching sunrise on our way down the glacier back to Jade Lake, hoping for firm snow and ice and a quick 12 miles back to the trailhead. Once we reached Jade, the campers from the previous night were starting to come out of their tents. The man leading the group from yesterday saw me and waved. “How was the wind up there?” He asked.
“No problem at all. The sunset last night was awesome” I replied, not slowing my pace.
I asked Reid to guess on how many groups we would see on our way back to the car. It was now Friday, and the Labor Day weekenders were undoubedly making their ways to the trailhead to start the trail. “18” he said. I thought around the same, hopefully a little less.
Reid and I made it to Marmot Lake with little issue. Nearly all the campsites we saw on our way to Jade a few days prior were full, and backpackers were loading their packs for day trips up towards the lake. We kept our pace, moving through the lakeside with pep in our step.
By the halfway mark we had passed 7 groups. People who had likely had an early start and moved out of the way for us coming down the trail. Trying to catch an extra breath before continuing their climb. 13…14…15 groups were seen before we made it to the PCT. Both of us now doubting our numbers would be on par.
The last two miles, I must admit, I struggled hard. The exhaustion had finally hit me and I was having an increasingly hard time keeping a healthy pace, or even one foot in front of the other. By the time we made it into the parking lot, I wanted to collapse- and that is a feeling I haven’t had often.
Our final count of groups? Any final guesses?
32. And just to be clear- that’s groups, not people. Every group we passed had at least 2 people, sometimes more, and some with dogs. For a lake with such a reputation, there is no chance it would be able to shelter them all. My only thoughts now, though, was getting back to town and scarfing down a pizza. My tired legs deserved it.
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