Sheep Lake ~ Chinook Pass
If you are in Washington and you ask me where to take your little one on their first backpacking trip, I will almost always say Sheep Lake at Chinook Pass (since we have at least three Sheep Lakes). The trail is 1.5 miles to a lake with only 400 feet of elevation gain. This equates to a minimal comparable effort for a big payoff. Plus, when your little one arrives, he or she will be met with many new backpacking friends. If you time it right (mid-August to mid-September), your little one will get the chance to high-five some Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers.
This was my third year backpacking to Sheep Lake only this time we were completing Section I of the Pacific Crest Trail. My first year was the mother/daughter trip and last year was “run out of diapers” trip. I didn’t mean to return, but my nephew was joining this time and we wanted our almost three year old to be able to walk the entire way. We spent three fun and relaxing days exploring Sheep Lake, Sourdough Gap and Crystal Lakes. The kids swam in a cold alpine lake, climbed rocks, told “scary” stories, swam with a pelican and remained covered in dirt the entire time. These four kids had a blast!
After crossing over from Dewey Lakes and meeting up with family, we started up the trail. It was a little slow going with Little Red, who is 2, making her way up the trail with her backpack on. She only had a sleeping bag and sunglasses in her pack but that was enough. My nephew was also a little slow going, he may have had a little more in his pack than he was used to. We arrived at Sheep Lake two hours later…..those tiny feet take tiny steps. Once we found a good camp site, we quickly set up camp and made lunch. After lunch all four kids raced down to the lake with swim suits on. Just as predicted, they jumped in, felt that crisp cold alpine lake temperature and immediately ran back out. After the first jump in, it took each kid to talking themselves into going back into the frigid water. The water was just so tempting.
After breakfast, we packed up and prepared to climb Sourdough Gap and head over to Crystal Lakes. Being that we had a dog with us, one of us would have to stay at the summit and not proceed to Crystal Lakes, where dogs are prohibited (Boundary of Mt. Rainier). We left camp and headed toward Sourdough Gap (a 2 mile/700 ft. climb to a pass between to small summits. The kids were all excited to “climb a mountain.” After an hour, we arrived at Sourdough Gap “summit”. The kids were amazed at how small Sheep Lake looked from the summit. We took a break at “the Gap” and ate some snacks. The kids were able to observe the trail as it goes over the gap and heads north along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was exciting to the kids to see Thru Hikers coming from Mexico and passing them on the trial. For many, only one to two weeks remained! We greeted them with high fives and wished them the best on wrapping up their amazing accomplishments.
After snacks, I led the kids and my brother-in-law toward Crystal Lakes in hopes of seeing Mt. Rainier. As we followed the trail over to the lakes, the Mountain was covered in clouds. Instead, the kids took turns summiting small knolls and catching neat view points of Crystal Lakes and other viewpoints. After a half hour, we headed back toward Sourdough Gap to pick up Jonathan, Little Red and Cinder. We descended back toward Sheep Lake and the kids immediately changed back into bathing suits to head to the lake. This time, they took our new inflatable pelican. It became a hit at the lake for the next hour.
That evening, the kids spent time exploring the meadows behind our campsite and meeting other kids camping around the lake. Little Red even managed to find another two year old to talk to. As the sun began to set, we quickly made dinner and enjoyed telling “scary stories” or rather “obnoxious stories.” Little Red was so wiped out from the big hike and swimming in the lake that she feel asleep before dinner and slept through the night.
We initially intended to spend another full day and night here, but the kids decided it would be nice to head out later in the day in order to do another fun activity. After breakfast and more goofiness, we began the chore of packing up our camp and stuffing everything back into our backpacks. By noon, we were double checking the cleanliness of our camp site and heading down toward the shore of Sheep Lake. We spent another hour letting the three older kids explore the entire circumference of the lake and Little Red practice her rock climbing skills with the big boulders by the lake.
We finally said our goodbyes to Sheep Lake, took a final group photo, and headed down the trail toward the cars. The three older kids took off with my brother-in-law, while Jonathan and I stayed behind with Little Red. The last half mile was especially difficult for her. She was tired and hot. We continued to encourage her to finish the hike out. Eventually, she was welcomed at the trailhead by her siblings and cousin. We stowed all the backpacks and headed down toward Greenwater for ice cream at Wapiti Woolies.
Even though my kids have backpacked into Sheep Lake, they seemed to enjoy this trip just the same. As they get older, they find new reasons to enjoy old favorite destinations. Bringing their cousin, uncle, dad and little sister along was an awesome bonus!