McAlester Lake Trail

The more civilized man becomes, the more he needs and craves a great background of forest wildness, to which he may return like a contrite prodigal from the husks of an artificial life.
-Ellen Burns Sherman
Distance - one way Elevation gain Use Difficulty
SR 20 to McAlester Pass: 8.8 miles (14 km) 740 ft loss (226 m), 2100 ft gain (640 m)

Hiker and stock


McAlester Pass via South Pass Trail: 8.7 miles (14 km)

3000 ft (914 m) gain

Hiker and stock Moderate
McAlester Pass via Rainbow CreekTrail: 9.7 miles (15.6 km)

4800 ft (1463 m) gain

Hiker and stock Moderately strenuous
A hiker enjoys the tranquility of McAlester Lake.
NPS/Chelsea Gudgeon
A hiker enjoys the tranquility of McAlester Lake.

NPS/Chelsea Gudgeon


The McAlester Lake and Pass area offer scenic views of subalpine forests, meadows and lakes, with a variety of opportunities for backpacking and riding or stock packing. Many trails combine to create loops or interesting side trips, the open forests and meadows provide good opportunities for off-trail exploration, and many of the high lakes in the area offer good fishing. Mountain hemlock, subalpine fir, and subalpine larch are among the trees you will encounter in this spectacular Cascade crest area. You can approach this area from the north (State Route 20), the east (Twisp River Road) or the south (Stehekin). See the detailed trail description for more information.

Special Concerns:

  • Pets are allowed only on a leash within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (pets cannot enter via State Route 20, Bridge Creek Trail).
  • Hunting is allowed in season in the Lake Chelan Recreation Area. Washington State hunting and fishing regulations apply. Hunting is not allowed in North Cascades National Park.
  • Black bears are common-proper food storage is essential.

Backcountry Camping: A backcountry permit is required for all overnight stays. Permits are limited. There are numerous hiker and stock camps in the area-stock must stay at designated stock camps at Fireweed, McAlester Lake, or Hidden Meadows. Food storage is essential, and many (but not all) camps provide wires for food hangs-bring a long line.

Access via State Route 20: Drive State Route 20 to mile 159, just over one mile (1.9 km) east of Rainy Pass. The parking lot is located on the north side of the highway. To access the trail, cross the highway and look for a short connector trail that takes you to the main trail, the Pacific Crest Trail. A Northwest Forest Pass or federal recreation access pass is required to park, and is available at any ranger station.

Access via Twisp River Road: From the town of Twisp, follow the Twisp River Road to either the South Creek Campground or the Twisp River Horse Camp. Follow the South Pass Trail to McAlester Pass. A Northwest Forest Pass or federal recreation access pass is required to park, and is available at any ranger station.

Access via Stehekin: From the town of Stehekin, take the Stehekin Valley Road 2.5 miles (4 km) to the lower Rainbow Loop trailhead.

Looking down at Hidden Meadow Camp  NPS Photo
Looking down at Hidden Meadow Camp.

NPS Photo

Detailed Trail Description

Via Bridge Creek Trail: Pick up the Bridge Creek Trail (part of the Pacific Crest Trail) on the south side of the parking area. The trail heads gently downhill through a mix of forest and avalanche paths, crossing small creeks at times. Wildflowers are lovely in early summer. The trail enters North Cascades National Park after 1.4 miles (2.3 km). It is another 1.7 miles (2.7 km) to the junction of the Twisp Pass Trail. Turn left (east) and continue past the Fireweed stock and hiker camps for .4 mile (.6 km) to the junction with the McAlester Creek Trail. Turn right and head south 4.1 miles (6.6 km) to McAlester Lake. Shortly after the junction, the trail crosses the East Fork McAlester Creek. There is no bridge over this creek, which can be difficult or impossible to cross in early summer during the peak of snowmelt (June, early July). The trail continues through mostly forest with occasional meadows, gaining elevation at a steady rate as it enters the Lake Chelan Recreation Area, and gaining elevation more quickly via a series of switchbacks before reaching the lake. From the lake, it is 1.0 mile (1.6 km) to the broad meadows of McAlester Pass. Total hiking distance is 7.6 miles (12.2 km) to McAlester Lake and 8.5 miles (13.7 km) to McAlester Pass.

Via South Pass Trail: After 1 mile in the Okanogan National Forest you enter the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. It is another 6.3 miles (10.1 km) to South Pass and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, this trail's high point with views to east and west. Drop down through mostly open meadows to reach McAlester Pass in another 1.4 miles (2.3 km). Total hiking distance is 8.7 miles to McAlester Pass and 9.6 miles (15.4 km) to McAlester Lake.

Via Rainbow Creek Trail: Follow the lower Rainbow Loop Trail 1.8 miles (2.9 km) to Rainbow Creek Trail near Rainbow Bridge Camp. Then it is 7.9 miles (12.7 km) with a steep elevation gain to McAlester Pass. Along the way there are three more camps: Rainbow Ford (4.2 miles or 6.8 km), Bench Creek (5.2 miles or 8.4 km), and Bowan Camp (6.2 miles or 10 km).

Tranquil and shallow McAlester Lake sits in a small basin with a mix of meadows and forest surrounding it. A hiker and stock camp are located at the north end, with separate cooking and sleeping areas. Campfires are allowed within the fire grates. These camps are popular, and good fishing can be had in the lake. Please be sure to camp in the designated sites, as the lakeshore is fragile and restoration efforts are underway to repair damage to this area.

High Camp is located at the north end of McAlester Pass, a broad swath of meadows with some boggy areas in early season. High Camp is tucked in the trees at edge of the meadows, and offers a splendid opportunity for solitude in a subalpine setting. Fires are not allowed in this meadow environment. A cooking area is separate from the sleeping tent pad. Be sure to pitch your tent and cook within the designated site, to help protect revegetated areas near the camp to recover. After the water dries up in the meadows, the closest stream is about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) toward the lake or Hidden Meadows.

At over 6,300' (1920 m) in elevation, Hidden Meadows Stock Camp is nestled in a spectacular subalpine meadow. Fires are allowed in the established fire pit, but firewood must be gathered from at least a half mile away to avoid depleting the area of downed wood. Grazing of stock is allowed in the dry areas of the meadow (away from the small streams and boggy areas). A grazing permit must be obtained at the same time as the wilderness permit. Parties traveling off-trail are limited to a combination of six riders and stock.

Wilderness logo of wolf howling at moon.
Ninety-three percent of North Cascades National Park Service Complex is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, set aside by law for "the American people of present and future generations" for our protection and enjoyment. Please follow all Leave No Trace hiking and camping practices to reduce your impact on this special place and leave it unimpaired for future generations.

Last updated: September 1, 2021

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810 State Route 20
Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284


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