|Scenery:||(4.0 / 5)|
|Difficulty:||(3.0 / 5)|
Tumbling down a half mile of sheer granite rock face into half-acre Lipsy Lake, big and bold Otter Falls may not be as famous as some of the other cascades in this vertiginous country on the wet and wild west side of Snoqualmie Pass — and that’s just the way locals like it. Given the 5-mile hike in and the hard-to-find, off-trail location — find it after cresting a spooky and dark forested knoll — it’s likely to remain our little secret. And getting there on foot along a former logging road that has returned to the wild over several decades is half the fun.
Start at the Snoqualmie Lake Trailhead kiosk at gate across Taylor River Road Trailhead kiosk. Leaving the car behind at the parking area, walk north first through a little maze of concrete barriers, set there to deter cars and trucks from continuing onto the Taylor River Road, which has been reverting back to a trail since it was closed off to logging trucks and other vehicular traffic in the late 1970s. Continue walking on this old logging road for about 0.2 mile and pass a choice river-front campsite on your left. Stay straight on the main trail/road and continue on another 0.2 miles to the official marked trailhead for “Snoqualmie Lake Trail” (which will take you to Otter Falls) where there is a small kiosk with an overview map of the trails in the region and a metal gate (with a big “Road Closed For Vehicles Beyond This Point” sign on it) blocking cars from accessing the trail. Walk around the gate and across the little bridge spanning the Taylor River and continue straight/north over a bridge spanning the scenic and fast-moving Taylor River below, which at about 50 feet across is the widest you’ll see on the hike.
Keep moving on the main trail/road as it becomes increasingly narrow and crowded with underbrush, and dip down to riverbank on your right to see the Taylor up close and splash your face with a little of its cool glacier-fed water. In another half mile of hiking, the Quartz Creek Trail (a spur that winds its way 8 miles deep into the forest above the river valley) forks off uphill to the left, but stay straight on the main trail with the Taylor River on your right.
In another quarter mile or so the trail starts gaining a little elevation to get your heart pounding and soon curves slightly inland and uphill from the river. Deep into second-growth forest primeval you go, with a few old-growth stumps still around serving as nurse logs for younger trees. The river is still within earshot and occasionally viewable downhill through the trees, but no longer the key feature in your viewscape.
In another 2.2 miles look for a little unmarked side trail to the left/north — possibly marked by a small cairn — and follow it up over roots and brambles as it corkscrews up over the course of ~100 feet and deposits you in a dark hollow next to Marten Creek, which at this point in its run has formed into a small and scenic woodland waterfall in its own right. This is a great spot for a little forest meditation or a snack break. Once you’ve had your fill of this secluded little waterfall and snapped the requisite picture or two, pick your way back down to the main trail and continue on your way to the left/east. In another 200 feet, you’ll see another side entirely of Marten Creek, now much wider as it cascades down a granite rock face in a much bigger waterfall — Marten Falls — and crosses under the footbridge you are hiking across. Drink in the mists of the fast-rushing river from the level platform of the bridge, take a moment for another picture, and then continue on, destination Otter Falls.
After another mile and a quarter, the trail dips down into a dry creek bed. Pick your way through this jumble of boulders and over a broken, rusted brown metal culvert to the other side and pick the trail up again as it re-enters the darkness of the forest. Just 400 feet further on, keep your eyes peeled for an unmarked junction with another side trail — this one to Otter Falls and Lipsy Lake — forking off left and uphill. Other hikers may have marked the spot for you with a cairn, a couple of pink streamers tied to trees at eye level, and/or an arrow on the ground made out of small stones to point the way. If you’re on the lookout for it, the turn-off — although unsigned — is hard to miss. Take it and do your best to follow what passes for a trail as it snakes up and over roots, rocks and pine scree for 300-400 feet, cresting out at a small ridge. Look straight ahead and through the trees you’ll see (and hear) massive Otter Falls — or at least the lower third of its 1,600 foot fall (the upper sections aren’t visible from the bottom) — streaking down across a cliff face. Follow the rest of the little trail down to the waterline of Lipsy Lake (Otter Falls’ “punchbowl”) below. If it’s a hot day and you feel so moved, cool off with a dip in the lake. Either way, break out that lunch or snack and indulge in the waterfall-bejeweled lakeside setting for a while.
When you’ve had your fill of Lipsy Lake bliss, turn around and make your way back the way you came to the main trail (Taylor River Road). If you have the energy and the will to see one more waterfall, continue left/east for another half mile to the bridge over Big Creek, which comes tumbling down from on high in a torrential cascade emanating from Dream Lake a mile (and some 2,000’ vertical feet) to the north. Staring up at Big Creek Falls, which drops ~300 feet across a series of granite benches and slides punctuated with boulders the size of VW buses and fallen trees layered over each other from either side of the chasm created by eons of concentrated water pressure.
For most people, the bridge over Big Creek makes for a fine turnaround point at five miles in. Retrace your steps back towards the trailhead. Of course, the hike back will be quicker without the side trips to Otter Falls and Upper Marten Falls, not to mention the slight grade in your favor heading west.
If you’re feeling adventurous and spry and have plenty of daylight left, instead of turning around at Big Creek, you can continue hiking east into the nearby Alpine Lake Wilderness to scenic gem Snoqualmie Lake (2+ more hiking miles in) and beyond to Deer Lake, Bear Lake and Lake Dorothy.
Finding the trailhead: Take Exit 34 off I-90 and go left onto 468th Ave. Follow this road past a truck stop for about a half mile, then turn right onto SE Middle Fork Road, also known as Forest Road 56. Continue on FR 56 — formerly a miserable, rutted dirt road but now paved for its entire run thanks to a 3 ½ year reconstruction project that wrapped up in mid-2017 — for 12 miles when the pavement turns to dirt and soon dead-ends altogether at a series of concrete barricades and a couple of composting toilet bathrooms marking the beginning of the hike.
For more info, contact: Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Snoqualmie Ranger District; (425) 888-1421