Ptarmigan Lakes via Tonga Ridge and Fisher Lake – ~15.5 mi, ~2000 ft gain
It wasn’t without risk. A bunch of our gear was new (including water filter and GPS), and the plan was “I think there’s a trail that goes to this lake, and there should be one campsite at either this one or the other.” Add a forecast of cold weather with possible rain, and there was definitely potential for a miserable weekend. But everything ended up working out beautifully.
Mike had suggested that we do one of the standard lake day hikes as an overnight, which I almost immediately vetoed. I find that sort of elevation gain to be hard enough without a pack, and I find carrying a pack hard enough without the masses of day hikers scooting around me on a trail. And those also tend to be crowded. So I opened up my Wild Sky book and started looking for candidates.
The Tonga Ridge trail emerged as the winner. It’s a pretty easy hike because it starts at a high elevation. 3 miles and 500 feet of elevation gain to Sawyer Pass and the first available campsites, in case things did end up being harder than we expected. But past the official trail, there was Fisher Lake at 5 miles, Upper and Lower Ptarmigan Lakes around 7 miles, and a slew of trips past that if we felt ambitious: Terrace Lakes, climbing Terrace Mountain to Lake Clarice and Marmot Lake, etc. In the end, we didn’t end up going for the side trips, not even the 700 feet up Mount Sawyer near the beginning of the trail (too overcast for good views) because the solitude we found at Lower Ptarmigan Lake had us content to rest there for two nights.
But first we had to get there. We grumbled up the slight uphill at the beginning of Tonga – Mike was carrying a 40 lb pack and I was carrying 30 – but cheered up a little at the sight of wildflowers (well, I did, anyway). As we got closer to Sawyer Pass, we started to notice berries along the trail. At the pass, there were fields of huckleberry plants with trails going through them. A nice snack along the way. :)
After the official trail ended, the hiking got a little rougher. There was one segment that was pretty steep and slightly muddy, without great foot holds. The trail also split several times, and we ended up taking the route that went over the highest point in the area, a mistake that we definitely avoided on the return trip. A few drops of rain had begun to fall as well. Finally, we made it to Fisher Lake. It didn’t look particularly spectacular with the overcast skies, but there were a number of empty campsites. We encountered a party of two that was occupying one of the better sites there. Mike wanted to drop his pack and camp there, but I passively rejected this suggestion by “looking for more campsites” until we were no longer at the lake. It wouldn’t have been a bad place to spend the night, but I knew there was more.
Okay, so I suck as a trail finder. We followed something of a trail for a short distance, then lost it. And essentially bushwhacked half of a mile or so, using the GPS to affirm that we were indeed heading towards a lake. Mike was getting pretty annoyed at me at this point, and the final straw was the giant boulder field we traversed at the end, which apparently was completely avoidable because there was a trail that went through the woods next to it. Oops.