West of the Pass: My 5 Favorite I-90 Hikes

The I-90 corridor is a magical place that injects adventure seekers right into the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near the Snoqualmie region of the Central Cascades.  On a good day, you can be hiking within an hour of Seattle.  That’s a hard-to-beat commute considering that the views are some of the best in the state (for being right off a major highway).  So I’ll tackle these from west to east as we drive out of Seattle and into the mountains. 

The Suck Line: Most of these hikes exceed the Suck Line. The suck line is 1,000 vertical feet of gain over 1 mile.  That’s not to say that you’ll walk straight uphill at that ~30 degree grade, but you’ll certainly be stepping up a number of times and even the strongest of hikers and runners will fatigue to some point.  Be warned.

Exit 34: Mailbox Peak 4.7 miles in with 4,000 ft. gain
best for elevation and strength training

Mailbox has a reputation in Seattle as being the standard for calling yourself a hiker.  When two people talk about hiking, you’re almost guaranteed to hear, “Have you done Mailbox?”  It’s a bear of a climb, it really is. Feeling masochistic? Take the old trail up which is shorter and therefore steeper at an obscene 2.6 miles in with the same 4,000 ft. gain.  The views on the way up are non-existent, but the dense forest is lovely and shields you from the wind which can really howl at the top.  Rainier awaits you to the south.  Hike strong!

mailbox
A good weather day at Mailbox in Late March.

Exit 42: McClellan Butte 4.5 miles in with 3,700 ft. gain
best for a change of pace, the Butte is on south side of I-90 fresh views to the north

The Butte!! This is a deceptive trail that gains nearly no elevation over the first mile thanks to  John Wayne Pioneer Trail link up, which is inviting and rolls around the mountain side until you reach the ‘actual’ trail. The real fun begins once you cross the forest service road at ~1.6 miles in where you’ll blast your way up from 2,200 to 3,600 over ~1.3 miles. Suck Line achieved. What I like about this hike is that you’ll take the peak from the south, so you’ve got to work your way around and then up.  Be careful in the early season, as there are quite a few avalanche chutes to cross as you work you’re away around to the south and west faces of the mountain.

Exit 45: Bandera Mountain –> Mason Lake –> Mt. Defiance 4 miles in with 3,700 ft. gain to Bandera
best for options and repeat trips 

If I had to pick one exit to do my hiking on, it’d be exit 45.  The Ira Spring trail leads travelers up to the Bandera Mountain junction and continues onward Mason Lake.  Tackle some of the steepest section of trail in Washington and power up to Bandera or bang a left and head over to Mason Lake past several designated camp sites and beyond to Mt. Defiance.  You could choose to spend a multi-day excursion here by camping at Mason Lake and exploring deeper to the west to Thompson Lake and Thompson Point, or to the east to Pratt and Tuscohatchie Lakes.  #Alltrailsconnect.  You can get as far east as Melakwa Lake or Granite Mountain, should you so choose. *check out my Instagram for better photos atop Bandera*

Exit 47: Granite Mountain 4.3 miles in with 3800 ft. gain
            best for hanging out at the top (look out)

Granite has a special place in my heart because of how dramatically it changes throughout the seasons.  Early season, this is gnarly climb straight up snow fields and around cornices clawing your way to the top with an ice axe and spikes.  Peak season, Granite Mountain bakes beneath an unforgiving summer sun and zaps you of energy until you can recharge at the top.  Late season, it’s a crap shoot; the moody PNW weather will keep you on your toes as you scramble for the last epic view of Rainier to the south and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to the north and east.

Exit 52: Snow Lake –> Gem Lake 5 miles in with 2,000 ft. gain
best views for 5 miles of hiking

Everyone knows Snow Lake.  It’s the most frequented lake in the region and it’s got the parking lot to prove it.  Holy cow.  Anyway, I really suggest beating the ever present crowds and taking your journey an additional 1.5 miles to Gem Lake which rests above Snow, and has, in my opinion, some of the best views to be had in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  I honestly have no idea why people stop short of Gem. It’s probably a combination of lack of awareness and the additional effort (really +2 miles and like ~500 ft. gain), but the pay off in insane. Take it all the way to 100 and scramble up Wright Mountain for what is sure to be the best view of Chair Peak, Roosevelt Peak, Gem Lake, and Snow Lake short of actually climbing Chair Peak.

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