Tank Lakes: An Overnight in Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Trip Date: 7/27/19 - 7/28/19
Tank Lakes is one of those places that I’ve been dreaming about visiting for a couple years, but something has always gotten in the way. This summer I made it my goal to make it to this tough-to-reach yet wildly scenic spot in the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. To make sure I accomplished that goal I decided to plan the trip for earlier in the summer rather than later and reached out to my friends Andrew and Kaelee and asked if they would be up for the 22 mile, ~4,600’ of elevation gain hike and they were both thrilled at the prospect!
The hike to Tank Lakes begins at the Necklace Valley Trailhead. The first five miles meander leisurely through a beautiful forest, these miles flew by on the hike in, when we were fresh and eager to get to our destination, but we knew these miles would be much more challenging the following day. But for the time being, we didn’t worry about that.
After the five mile mark the trail crossed a boulder field which is when the ascent began in earnest—nearly 1,000’ per mile for the next few miles, and after that we ran into the real crux of the hike a little over one mile from the lakes: a steep, hellish talus field. We gained another 1,000’ climbing up and over unstable talus. We were tired but the terrain demanded 100% concentration, one misplaced step could have sent us careening backwards.
Finally, after seven hours of hiking the awaited Tank lakes came into view and they were every bit as beautiful as I had hoped, except for one small problem. There were massive clouds rolling over the peaks above the lakes, completely obscuring the mountains from view. This was in the forecast and we had anticipated the overcast skies, but it wasn’t any less disappointing.
Since it was already late in the afternoon (and the mountains were hidden) we didn’t linger long at the lakes and quickly began looking for a place to set up camp. We found some nice flat slabs of granite high above the lake that afforded us a panoramic view of the lakes and gave us privacy from the other campers that had set up lower. The clouds played peek-a-boo with the mountains all evening, allowing us a few glimpses of the peaks for a moment, but then shrouding them in secrecy once again. We didn’t let the clouds dampen our spirits, though. Andrew had surprised Kaelee and me with Ghirardelli hot chocolate (complete with mini-marshmallows) to mix with whiskey, so we enjoyed some hot beverages and talked until the light faded from the sky and we retreated to our tents.
The forecast called for the skies to clear as the night progressed and I set a few alarms so I could check on the conditions intermittently. My first alarm went off at 11pm and I excitedly unzipped the tent and peeked my head out but my excitement was short-lived. The sky was still full of clouds. I went back to sleep and an hour later awoke to my second alarm. I repeated the routine—with a little less excitement this time—and was disappointed, although not surprised, to see clouds still stubbornly clinging to the mountains. An hour later my third alarm sounded and once again the conditions remained unchanged. I gave up hope and cancelled the rest of my alarms. However, at 3:30am I heard someone moving around outside my tent. Andrew was taking photos. This was a good sign. I looked outside the tent for the fourth time that night and finally, finally, the clouds had completely cleared, revealing the peaks they had kept hidden for so long. I began gathering my gear.
Technically complete darkness was over, so my hopes to capture the Milky Way reflecting in the lake were dashed, but I could still take some star photos. I took a few photos from the ridge near our camp before heading down to the lakeshore to catch a few starry reflections. The night was perfectly still and there was not a single cloud in the sky. It felt as if so much more time had passed than a few mere hours.
As I sat on the shoreline taking photos the sky brightened. The sun was already beginning to rise but I hoped to get a little more rest before our long hike out so I headed back to my tent and managed to sleep for 45 minutes before it was time to watch the sunrise.
As I stepped out of my tent and into the final minutes of blue hour I knew it was going to be a good sunrise. A few wispy clouds had formed over the mountains, the air was calm, and the lake was still. I quickly found a good vantage point of the landscape and watched as the most spectacular sunrise unfolded before me. First the clouds were tinged with the faintest bits of purple and pink. The color spread and saturated the clouds until they were soaked in vibrant shades of magenta. Then the color began to paint the mountains, first their summits and then slowly the orange seeped down to their bases. These brief moments and fleeting scenes were well worth the long hike and the overcast evening!
Shortly after sunrise we ate breakfast and began packing our things, anticipating a long slog out. And a slog it was! The knee-jarring descent did a number on my knees and feet and the final, undulating five miles did a number on my mental state and exhaustion, but we made it! The lakes were absolutely beautiful and have fueled my desire to visit even more lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. There is so much to see and explore in Washington, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.