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(Last Updated On: March 1, 2021)

Summary: everything you need to know about backpacking Gem Lake in Washington, Snow Lake, what to bring *I use affiliate links and may receive a small commission on purchases. Thanks for your support!

Backpacking packing list

We all know what a strange summer it has been. Between the pandemic, politics, and natural disasters, it has been rather difficult to get outside and safely “unplug”. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to get out backpacking twice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I could have gone out more. We got so lucky and had an incredible time at Gem Lake and I’ll tell you everything there is to know about backpacking Gem Lake so that you can have your own overnight experience too!

Land Acknowledgment: Coast Salish, Snoqualmie, Tulalip, Duwamish, Puget Sound Salish. Find what Native Land you are exploring using the app Native Land!

Backpacking Gem Lake

Backpacking Gem Lake Trip Details Summary:

  • Length: 11.0 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 2,670 ft
  • Difficulty: Rated difficult – continue reading for details on a moderate option.
  • Solitude: Crowded on trail and around Snow Lake, minimal-moderate traffic on the trail to Gem Lake, minimal people camping at Gem Lake (We were one of 2 tents that overnighted on a Thursday)
  • Camping: first come first serve in established campsites. NO campfires
  • Bathrooms: at trailhead and at Snow Lake
  • Dogs: allowed on leash
  • Fee: Northwest Forest Parking Pass
  • Distance from Seattle: 1 hour

Notes on the Difficulty Level

I want to give you a reference for the difficulty level because they can be interpreted so many ways. Yes, Backpacking Gem Lake is rated as difficult, but I want to say it is manageable for the average semi-in shape person. I had not been hiking much before this trip and this was my first backpacking trip of the year. I definitely took lots of breaks and it was incredibly hot out, but if you have plenty of time and the right gear, this could be a good one to challenge yourself with. My friends that backpack regularly rated this as moderate.

Alternative Option for Moderate Difficulty

The great thing about this trail is that just over 3 miles in is Snow Lake. If you’re aiming for Gem Lake, but realize you are not cut out for this, push yourself to Snow Lake and camp there!

Snow Lake

  • Length: 6.4 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation gain: 1,669
  • Difficulty: Rated Moderate
  • Solitude: Crowded on trail and around Snow Lake. Campsites fill up more here. I would advise hitting the trail early to ensure a campsite if needed here. I am unable to find exactly how many campsites there are, but I saw at least 10 spots in my short wandering.
  • Camping: first come first serve in established campsites. NO campfires

Recommendation: Start EARLY. We started at 11 am and had to pass so many people and snow lake was quite crowded when we arrived.

Getting There

To get to any trailhead, I typically use the AllTrails app directions feature. This allows you to route to the exact trailhead using google or apple maps. I’ve definitely made the mistake of typing in trailheads on google and then arriving with no idea where the trailhead is and no cell service. Luckily, Snow Lake and Gem Lake trailhead is easy to find and actually can be found by routing to Gem Lake Trail on google maps. The Alpental parking lot is used for skiing in the winter and has a LOT of room, but it still gets decently packed. Exact GPS coordinates for the trailhead are: 47.445040, -121.423730


Just because this is a popular, accessible hike, does not mean $h*t can’t happen. Unfortunately in my research for this blog post I read that someone recently went missing here. There is always risk in the backcountry, but having proper gear and doing a little research can significantly reduce that risk.

Backpacking Gem Lake

Things to Consider:


Always check the weather before hitting the trail. You can do this through the AllTrails app, but I would also cross reference NOAA/National Weather Service. Even with predictions of gorgeous weather, always be prepared for the worst. Weather in the mountains is unpredictable. I also use my Garmin Mini GPS for weather checks while in the backcountry. This is absolutely not necessary to go out, but it gives me a lot of peace of mind, especially when solo backpacking.

Snow Lake/Gem Lake can have snow up until mid July! Maybe that’s why it’s called Snow Lake…? Check trail reports on WTA and AllTrails for the latest snow information. I do not recommend this trail during the winter or spring as it sits on an avalanche shoot. Also be sure to check for fires during the summer months. Check HERE for alerts.


I’m still working on a comprehensive 10 essentials list, but a version put out by REI is this: See more info at REI HERE

  1. Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger (the Garmin Mini I mentioned earlier)
  2. Headlamp: plus extra batteries
  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen (lots of areas of FULL SUN on this trail)
  4. First aid: including foot care and insect repellent (DEFINITELY needed insect repellant for this trail)
  5. Knife: plus a gear repair kit
  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
  7. Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
  8. Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation
  9. Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation (I recommend bringing a water filter on this trail to minimize how much water you have to carry. I use the Sawyer Mini or the Grayl Compact purifier
  10. Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation

If you’re interested in what backpacking gear I use check out my blog post on it HERE

Backpacking Gem Lake

Leave No Trace (LNT)

These seven principles are EXTREMELY important to protect yourself, others, and the environment. Read REI’s article HERE for more information on each.

  • Plan ahead and prepare.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces. (Camp only at established campsites and camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams)
  • Dispose of waste properly. (Pack it in, pack it out! Burry solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails.)
  • Leave what you find.
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire – if they are even allowed).
  • Respect wildlife.
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

As always, if you have any questions, ask in the comments, or message me on Instagram at @miss.rover! Gem lake really is a gem 😉

Thanks for reading,


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  1. Nichole the Nomad on October 7, 2020 at 7:02 pm

    Gem Lake looks SO beautiful!! Washington has so many hidden gems, and I’m so excited to revisit and see them all. This is such a helpful guide when planning a backpacking trip to Gem Lake. I hope when I visit Washington next we can do some backpacking!

  2. Emma on October 7, 2020 at 7:13 pm

    MY friend recently posted a picture of Gem Lake and it looked just as beautiful as in these pictures. I did some hiking this summer and feel like I’m more prepared for hikes like this now so I would love to try this when the borders open. And I’m in Vancouver so it’s nice and close. This area is so gorgeous I would love to camp there and spend some time just relaxing by the lake and in the mountains.

  3. Demi on October 7, 2020 at 7:23 pm

    Great information. Though I have not travelöled to the U:S this place looks amazing. Lake looks so beautiful!! Will tag my friend who lives there. Thanks for sharing

  4. Karen on October 9, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    Looks like a beautiful place for a trip. I appreciate the land acknowledgment you included and the emphasis on LNT. Great photos.

  5. Karen Warren on October 9, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    This looks like a lovely area for a backpacking trip. Your photos sure do it justice. I appreciate the land acknowledgment and the LNT emphasis.

  6. Anna on October 9, 2020 at 10:12 pm

    Stunning photos! Would really love to do this one day.

  7. Vanessa on May 25, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    Attempted this hike 2 years ago in late September and lost the trail 🙁 Didn’t make it to Gem Lake, will have to go back!

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  11. Mal on August 21, 2023 at 4:54 pm

    Are there trash cans at Gem Lake campgrounds?

    • Miss Rover on August 21, 2023 at 5:56 pm

      No there are not! Great question. It’s required to pack out all your trash and everything you bring.

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