ENUMCLAW, Wash. — Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. He could very well have been talking about the Greenwater Lakes Trail.
The lakes themselves are not really the reason to undertake this hike. Don’t get me wrong, they are lovely little pools where the Greenwater River slows to a crawl, but the trail itself is simply stunning. This is a rare trail combination, beautiful and very easy. With its minimal elevation gain spread out over nearly 2.5 miles (it’s roughly 5 miles roundtrip) this trail is extremely popular with families with small children. Kids seem to love the numerous bridges crossing the river and the trail is not especially challenging
The area around USDA trail #1176 can be busy in the summer months. FR 70 leading to the trailhead can look like a campground as cars, recreational vehicles, and tents pack every pullout sandwiched between the road and the Greenwater River.
This is a hike that is best undertaken in the early morning when the campers are still sleeping and the only sound you will hear is that of flowing water. The trailhead parking lot will fill rapidly as the day progresses and locals arrive to escape the heat under the tree canopy. Luckily there are many other trails nearby if this one is too busy. Remember the rule, if there is nowhere to park the trail is likely very busy.
This trail does require a NW Forest Pass.
When we hiked the trail a few weeks ago the bathrooms were unlocked and fairly clean, but it is worth checking recent trail reports to be sure. Bring your face covering, you will need it on your return voyage as the trail becomes more crowded, and the likelihood that you will encounter other hikers increases.
The trail is generally wide and provides ample opportunities for social distancing, but the many bridges are narrow and will likely require you to wear your mask. Many overnighters park at this trailhead and either camp at the Greenwater Lakes or further up the trail at Echo Lake (a lovely lake to visit if you'd like to lengthen your hike). You will likely encounter them hiking out as you head up the trail.
You will start your journey under a canopy of evergreen trees. The forest here is thick and the trees large. The trail is blanketed in a deep coating of fallen needles, muffling your footsteps. It’s a very peaceful walk in the woods. Before long, you will begin to hear the rumble of raging water as you approach the Greenwater River, your companion for the rest of the hike.
The trail takes a sudden dip, and on the right, you will find a short spur trail giving you your first chance to see the river up close. As you continue you will cross over multiple log bridges, each accompanied by a ford for equestrian use. Then the trail rises as the river briefly enters a deep gorge. One last bridge will give you your first glimpse of the first of two small lakes. These pools of crystal-clear water are separated by yet another short gorge where the river roars free and the trail clings to the riverbank. While not quite as stunning as many of the other mountain lakes dotting this area of the Cascades, they do provide excellent camping opportunities, or in our case simply relaxing spots to stop for lunch before heading back downstream.
Remember to pack out whatever you pack in. While the bathrooms at the trailhead were open last time we checked, garbage collection may not be as frequent as previous summers.
To quote a second cliché in one article: "Take only photographs and leave only footprints." Together we can keep our trails clean and safe.
Happy hiking, stay safe.
About the author: Originally hailing from the Southwest Washington coast, Ben Rupp has been a Washington state resident for all but two days of his life, the first two days. His mother gave birth a week early while visiting family in Oregon. He eventually forgave her for this misstep. When he is not pushing buttons as an engineer at KING 5 News, Ben can be found snowboarding, skateboarding, traveling, digging through record stores for obscure vinyl records and going on adventures with his wife Darlene and their 65-pound husky mix Bonnie, all with a camera firmly attached to his person.
The music in this video was provided by Jim Goodreau.