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Trail Guide to Gem Lake in Washington

Gem Lake is one of the most incredible hikes in Snoqualmie Pass – the trail is a short drive from Seattle, and features a stunning alpine lake where you’re likely to be one of the only people there! Gem Lake in Washington is a must do hike, or it can be done as a backpacking trip.

This guide will tell you everything you need to hike the Gem Lake trail – how to get there, when to go, and more.

Head’s up: some of these links are affiliate links, so I get a commission if you make a purchase (at no cost to you). But that’s great, because I was going to share anyway, and this helps me keep making free guides for you!

About the Gem Lake Trail

Here’s what you need to know before you hit the trail!

Gem Lake Stats

Length: 10.2 miles (16.4 km) out and back
Elevation Gain: 2713 feet (518 meters)
Difficulty: Moderate
Popularity: This is a really popular hike, until you get past Snow Lake. From Snow Lake to Gem Lake, there are very few people on the trail, and the lake is pretty quiet!
Hike Time: I consider myself an average hiker, and this trail took me 8 hours and 9 minutes, including a long break at the lake. You can check out my hike on Strava!

A view of a lake on the way to Gem Lake.

Leave No Trace on the Gem Lake Trail

Anytime you’re outdoors, whether you’re a beginner hiker or an experienced adventurer, it’s essential that you practice Leave No Trace (LNT). LNT is a set of seven principles that help us understand our impact on the outdoors – because while we usually have good intentions, the environment is more fragile than we think, and one snap-second decision can cause damage to the environment that will take the earth years, even decades to repair.

Leave No Trace means enjoying the outdoors without disrupting nature, as much as it’s possible to do so. Here are the 7 principles of LNT, and how they apply when you hike the Gem Lake trail!

  • Plan ahead and prepare – read this guide, make sure you know have the right gear, and be prepared for any weather.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces – stay on the trail to avoid trampling grasses and plants! If you’re camping, make sure you pitch your tent in designated campsites.
  • Dispose of waste properly – don’t leave trash, or anything else, behind. Pack it out!
  • Leave what you find – I know it can be tempting to take a cool rock or leaf, but leave these things where they belong! Animals often use these, and if everyone takes one, the trail won’t be as pretty.
  • Minimize campfire impacts – no campfires are allowed at Gem Lake.
  • Respect wildlife – don’t approach wild animals, and never feed them. There are a lot of pikas, and you might get lucky and see a mountain goat!
  • Be considerate of other visitors – yield to other hikers, and be respectful – no speakers or loud music.

The Best Time to Hike the Gem Lake Trail

The best time to hike this trail is July through October. Since Gem Lake is in Snoqualmie Pass, the mountains usually stay snowy until about mid July, and Washington is known for being rainy so it’s always a good idea to bring a rain jacket. It’s definitely possible to do this hike in the snow (and there will be much fewer people around), but make sure to bring snowshoes, and you also need experience navigating avalanche terrain.

I recommend hiking to Gem Lake on a weekday, as it’s a very popular trail and the parking lot can fill up on weekends!

A view of Gem Lake at the end of the hike.

Don’t Forget Your Pass!

Gem Lake is located in a national forest, and a pass is required to park at the trailhead. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass, and you can buy a day pass at the trailhead. But, if you hike often, an annual Northwest Forest Pass might be a good idea – it costs $30.

If you have an America the Beautiful Pass (an annual pass to all of the national parks), this is also accepted in national forests, so you don’t need to get both! If you visit national parks often (or at least more than twice a year), I definitely recommend getting this one. It’s an annual pass that will get you into every national park in the country for an entire year, for just $80, and you can get it online!

What to Bring to Hike the Gem Lake Trail

When you hike the Gem Lake trail, here’s what you’ll need to bring!

Bonus Tip: A lot of these links are for my favorite place to buy outdoor gear – Backcountry. If you install the free Lolli extension on your browser, you can earn free Bitcoin when you shop online at certain retailers, including Backcountry. You can transfer it to a crypto wallet, or just cash out to your bank account.

Directions to the Gem Lake Trailhead

The Gem Lake trail begins at the Alpental Ski Area in Snoqualmie Pass. If you’re flying in to Washington to explore the park, the closest airport is SeaTac, in Seattle.

Expedia is a good way to find flights and rental cars, I also super recommend signing up for Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) – they send you amazing deals, so you can find cheap flights to Seattle, and to destinations all over the world. The free account is great and totally worth the few minutes it takes to sign up, and I do recommend the premium account too!

You need a car to get to the Gem Lake trailhead, so if you fly into Washington, you can rent a car through Discover Cars or Rental Cars. But, a great alternative to a rental car is a tiny home on wheels! With a camper van, you get a vehicle and a place to sleep, all in one! This is my favorite way to travel, and you can rent a fully decked out van with Escape Campervans. Another option for vans is to use Outdoorsy, which is more like Airbnb for campers – you can rent a van, RV, or trailer from a person in the area.

To get to the trailhead, you’ll take I-90. From Seattle, you’ll go east towards Snoqualmie Pass. The Gem Lake trailhead is located at Alpental, which is a popular ski area in the winter.

Gem Lake Trailhead Coordinates: 47.44542, -121.42353

Hiking the Gem Lake Trail

Once you’ve parked and are ready to start hiking, here’s what you can expect on the Gem Lake trail!

Gem Lake Trailhead

The Gem Lake trailhead is actually the trailhead for Snow Lake. You’ll park in the Alpental Ski Area, buy your pass if you don’t have one, then head to the beginning of the trail! One of the best things about this trail is that you’ll have pretty incredible views the entire way, starting from the trailhead.

An information sign at the Gem Lake trailhead.

Hike to Snow Lake

The popular Snow Lake is on the way to Gem Lake, so the first 3.4 miles are busy with hikers. The trail climbs through the forest for a little bit before opening up to mountain views. The trail is exposed with little shade, so make sure you have some sunscreen! Once you get to the Source Lake junction, the switchbacks start and the trail gets steeper, climbing up until you reach an overlook of Snow Lake. From there, you’ll head downhill for about a mile (1.6 km) to reach the shore of Snow Lake. There will be a lot of people here, but don’t worry – as you keep going, it’ll get much quieter!

For a more detailed overview of the portion of the trail that goes to Snow Lake, make sure to check out this guide.

Snow Lake to Gem Lake

From there, the trail ascends again. It’s about the same grade as the uphill portion to Snow Lake was, but it started feeling a little more difficult for me. You’ll walk away from the lake to mountain views on the other side, then come back towards the water. You’ll cross a log bridge over the water, and climb up towards Gem Lake. The views continue to be beautiful, with mountain views, vistas overlooking Snow Lake, and wildflower meadows. When you get to the big rock field, you’re almost there!

Keep going, and you’ll get to Gem Lake – with beautiful blue water and mountains surrounding it. There are usually only a few people at Gem Lake, and there are several secluded spots around where you can have a view all to yourself! Walk around the lake to take in the views, and I really recommend going swimming – the cool water feels so good after all that hiking.

A view of Gem Lake in Washington.

Back to the Trailhead

Once you’re ready to leave, head back the way you came to go back to the trailhead!

Where to Stay Near the Gem Lake Trail

You can turn your hike into a little getaway, and stay somewhere close by! Here are my favorite options for places to stay in Snoqualmie Pass.

Glamping, Cabins, & Yurts

For a unique place to stay during your trip, check out Hipcamp! It’s like Airbnb for campsites – and you can find yurts, cabins, glamping sites, and more. 

You can even get $10 off your first booking here!

A Camper van

With a camper van, you get a vehicle and a place to sleep, all in one! This is my favorite way to travel, and you can rent a fully decked out van with Escape Campervans. Another option is to use Outdoorsy, which is more like Airbnb – you can rent vans, RVs, and trailers from people who live nearby!

Find a Campsite

Whether you car camp, tent camp, or rent a tiny home on wheels, The Dyrt is the best way to find campsites! There are plenty of official campsites, but since you’re in the national forest, there are also tons of places where you can camp for free!

There are lots options for free camping near the trail – for tips on finding the best ones, check out this guide.

Try the Dirt Pro

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Cabins and Rental Homes

Snoqualmie Pass is a great getaway anytime of year, so there are lots of cute cabins and rentals that you can stay in. VRBO is a great place to look, with so many options nearby, like this gorgeous A frame or this house right on the slopes!

Booking.com is another good place to find lodging, with hotels, inns, and rental homes. For places to stay, check out this map. Make sure to change the dates, and zoom out to see all of your options!


More Adventures Near the Gem Lake Trail

Have you hiked this trail, or are you adding it to your bucket list? Let me know in a comment below!

For more trails in Washington, check out Scenic Hot Springs, or head to Olympic National Park on the other side of Seattle.

Pin any of these photos to save this guide to the Gem Lake Trail for later!

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A Pinterest graphic that says "Trail Guide to Gem Lake - Washington."
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