McAlester Pass - Rainbow Lake Loop

August 15 to 19, 2009

To reach the trailhead follow State Route 20 and park at the Bridge Creek Trailhead 1.2 miles (1.9 km) east of Rainy Pass, near milepost 159. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead ($5 per day, $30 annual) plus a free backcountry permit.

Cross the highway to reach an unmarked trail junction and turn left. This path is part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a long-distance mountain hiking and equestrian trail that runs from the United States border with Mexico to its border with Canada.

The trail makes its way through subalpine forest and soon splits in two, turn right for the Bridge Creek Trail which descends to cross Bridge Creek before turning southward.

Top: Bridge Creek Trailhead
Junction: Turn right

Eventually you will reach a junction, turn left towards Fireweed Camp. This is the beggining of McAlester Lake Trail which climbs at a steady pace besides the rushing torrent of McAlester Creek.

McAlester Lake has both a hiker camp and a stock camp at its north end. These are the most heavily used camps in the area. Fires are permitted at both the stock and hiker camps in the grates provided. Camping is no longer permitted on the lake shores to allow these fragile areas a chance to recover.

Top: Hock Mountain
Bottom: McAlester Lake

From the shore you can have views of Hock Mountain. Hock Mountain climbs to 7,566 feet (2,306 meters) above sea level. The north face of Hock is steep granite rock, but the western slope is wooded and moderate.

Day 1
Distance: 15.2 km (9.44 mi)
Total Time: 4.5 hours
Total Elevation gain: 542 m (1778 ft)
Download route in GTM format

After returning to the trail, the trail zigzags moderately up through the forest to reach the alpine tundra at McAlester Pass. From here you can do a sidetrip to South Pass.

Between the passes, you will traverse a high slope with blue lupine and red Indian paintbrush.

Hiking towards South Pass

As you keep going up the vast expanse of the meadow reveals itsef. These alpine meadows form where sediments from the weathering of rocks has produced soils deep enough to support plant growth.

Once you reach South Pass you can walk on two unmarked trails, once leads to DeeDe Lakes, the other one goes higher towards a good vintage point.

At 9,220 feet (2,810 m) Mount Goode is the highest peak located in the North Cascades National Park, between the Skagit River and Lake Chelan. It is the fourth highest non-volcanic peak in Washington, and the twelfth highest summit overall.

Top: South Pass
Bottom: Mount Goode

Going uphill, with every foot gained, the panorama expands. The giants of the North Cascades, capped by 10,500-foot Glacier Peak, came into view to the west over the Lake Chelan trench.

McAlester Mountain (7,928 ft / 2,146 m) is an important summit on the Chelan crest. The summit form is broad and rounded, but the mountain is steep and rocky on the north and east.

Top: McAlaster Mountain from South Pass
Bottom: Wildlife

There is abundant wildife, around the pass you can see frogs and marmots.

On your way back from McAlester Pass, turn left towards Rainbow Creek Trail. On your way down you will cross a vast talus slope giving way to a subalpine forest of fir and mountain hemlock.

Top: Black Bear
Bottom: Deers at Bench Creek Campsite

Day 2
Distance: 4.3 km (2.67 mi) - McAlester Lake to South Pass / 9.80 km (6.08 mi) - South Pass to Bench Creek Campsite
Total Time: 6.0 hours
Total Elevation gain: 235 m (770 ft)
Download route in GTM format for South Pass and Bench Creek Campsite

From the junction at Bench Creek Camp, go right to continue on Rainbow Lake Trail which descends steeply to reach Rainbow Creek.

The trail once again goes up crossing a subalpine woodland of spruce and fir before crossing several grassy meadows filled with the blossoms of lupine, aster, and paintbrush.

Each of the meadows was created by avalanches from the rocky ridge above them, and periodic snowslides prevent the forest from encroaching into the openings.

The path now levels off and runs northwest across open slopes, with fine views of Rainbow Meadows and increasingly unobstructed vistas of Mount Lyall as well as of Tupshin Peak to the west of it.

Top: Rainbow Pass on the distance

Eventually a waterfall coursing across a rounded face of granite heralds the approach of Rainbow Lake. This alpine gem is guarded by cliff of white granite, the outliers of McGregor Mountain. The rugged summit of Bowan Mountain guards the eastern shore of the lake.

Rainbow Lake and Bowan Mountain

At the lake there is a campsite where you can retreat your steps and have views of the valley below. Marmots cavort among the meadows and boulders at the foot of the lake. Anglers will find that the waters are stocked with small rainbow and cutthroat trout.

Rainbow Valley

Day 3
Distance: 8.7 km (5.40 mi)
Total Time: 5 hours
Total Elevation gain: 676 m (2217 ft)
Download route in GTM format.

From the foot of the lake, the trail zigzags up onto the talus apron below Bowan Mountain, then turns west for the final climb to a high pass. There are fine aerial views of the lake as the trail ascends, a fitting foreground for the broad panorama of peaks to the south.

After crossing the pass, the path drops on its way toward the headwaters of the South Fork of Bridge Creek. Looking northwards, you can have distant views of Black Peak, flanked by the lesser summits of Mount Benzarino to the left and Corteo Peak to the right. As the slope steepens, the path drops onto the western slope of Bowan Mountain, descending across a broad face of talus.

Mount Benzarino (left), Black Peak (middle) and Corteo Peak (right)

The trail bottoms out in a boggy meadow, which is fed by a beautiful waterfall that hangs in silver tresses down the cliffs to the east. A subalpine forest awaits at the meadow's edge, and the trail drops through it. After a brief descent, the trail levels off to cross an avalanche path revealing the multiple peaks of McGregor Mountain lining the head of the valley.

McGregor Mountain and Sandalee Glacier

The path then dissapears into the forest once more for the long and zigzagging descent to the South Fork of Bridge Creek. Near the bottom of the grade, avalanche slopes offer astounding views of McGregor Mountain, with the pocket icefields of Sandalee Glacier drapped across its north face.

Bridge Creek

After crossing the creek you will reach South Fork Camp

Day 4
Distance: 12 km (7.45 mi)
Total Time: 6 hours
Total Elevation gain: 213 m (698 ft)
Download route in GTM format.

From South Fork Camp follow the path until you reach a junction, go right. Now you are back to Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) / Bridge Creek Trail. Each year, about 300 people, commonly called thru-hikers, attempt to hike the entire trail from end-to-end. The trip usually takes between four and six months. Around 180 complete the hike each year.

Frisco Mountain

The brushfields offer views of Bridge Creek, the granite heights of Frisco Mountain and tantalizing glimpses can be had of the more jagged crags down the valley.

The trail continues up the valley, ascending gently across avalanche-scarred slopes. Once you reach the junction where you loop started, retrace your steps towards Highway 20. This junction is close to Sulphine Mine, which produced small quantities of silver and lead during the 1920s.

Bottom: End of loop

Day 5
Distance: 9.7 km (6.02 mi)
Total Time: 4 hours
Total Elevation gain: 362 m (1187 ft)
Download route in GTM format.

This is one of the four most popular loop tris in the North Cascades National Park. The other three are Beaver Loop (55 km / 34.2 miles - 3 to 4 days), Cooper Ridge - Chilliwack River Loop (54 km / 33.5 miles - 4 to 6 days) and Devil's Dome Loop (65 km / 40.4 miles - 4 to 5 days).

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01. N48.505064 W120.719377 Elev 1384 m Parking area
02. N48.429559 W120.677608 Elev 1668 m McAlester Lake
03. N48.424729 W120.663561 Elev 1810 m McAlester Pass
04. N48.413272 W120.648632 Elev 1918 m South Pass
05. N48.378601 W120.687014 Elev 1181 m Bench Creek Campsite
06. N48.401323 W120.737043 Elev 1716 m Rainbow Lake
07. N48.462526 W120.769273 Elev 1002 m River Crossing
08. N48.463233 W120.769120 Elev 1025 m South Fork Campsite

Distance: 51 km (31.67 mi)
Total Time: 5 days
Total Elevation gain: 2029 m (6656 ft)

Download route in GTM format Free software download at
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Driving distance from Vancouver: 276 km (87 mi)
About 3 hours 52 mins

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