Mason Lake and Mount Defiance Hike
For this venture into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I strongly suggest making it an overnight trip – two if you can swing it. The hike is certainly doable in one day, but the trail up to the top of Mount Defiance from Mason Lake is a bit of a haul and arguably much more enjoyable with fresh legs. And waking up next to an alpine lake is an unbeatable experience.
I spent two nights at Mason Lake with my brother and his girlfriend in mid-June. We headed out on the Ira Spring Trail on a Friday evening, with about 6 hours of daylight left. Plenty of time to take it slow up the trail if we needed, set up camp, and make dinner before it got dark. The trail up to Mason Lake starts out with a gradual grade on an old logging road. The road has narrowed considerably into what is now a wide and quite lovely trail. Early on, a brand new log bridge crosses a moderate-sized creek. This is a good spot to stop and let dogs get a drink or to fill water bottles if you need to, as there are not many other opportunities until you reach the lake about 3 miles later.
The trail narrows and steepens considerably as you veer left where old logging road ends and becomes a regular single-track trail at about 1.5 miles. The remainder of the trail is just under 2 miles of moderate grade, some of which is under tree cover. Near the top, the trail opens up for some incredible views of Mt Rainier and the surrounding peaks. At one switchback 2.9 miles in, you will reach a junction with the trail for Bandera Mountain. Stay left and continue toward Mason Lake. Soon, you will again find tree cover as you descend toward the lake, dropping about 300 feet in elevation.
The trail continues to the left once you reach the lake, passing several campsites. We were the only people there when we arrived, so we had free choice of campsite locations. Knowing we would be staying over the weekend and, hoping to avoid some of the masses of visitors in the morning, we passed up the first site and continued on to the second spot we saw that would fit two tents. If you have only one tent, I recommend choosing one of the sites a little further off the trail and closer to the lakeshore if possible. Two more sets of backpackers arrived before dark and setup camp in 2 of the remaining sites that night. If you arrive on a Saturday with nice weather, your options may be more limited.
There were a fair number of mosquitos in the evening, but they were easily deterred by our natural bug spray. I did end up with a few bites on my legs. Next time, I’ll make sure to bring thicker pants, as the wool pair I wore at night weren’t thick enough to keep the mosquitos away. Fortunately, we didn’t see any during the day or after dark and were able to swim and hang out in the sun with no problems.
Mason Lake is a beautiful, if busy, spot to camp. We had day hikers passing by from about 8:30am on on Saturday. Taking the opportunity to avoid some of the traffic, I decided to explore a bit and hike up to the top of Mount Defiance with Newton. From camp, I hopped back on the main trail (which is clearly marked with signs) and continued from there. The trail reaches a signed junction less than half a mile from Mason Lake. Turn left here onto Mt Defiance Trail. Shortly after the junction, the trail climbs in earnest through the forest until it opens up into large wildflower fields and flattens out a bit. Continuing on, you will reach an unmarked junction. The trail to the left descends to secluded Thompson lake. Stay right to climb even more steeply to the top of Mt Defiance. This part is a bit rough, but short and safe. If you are like me, you will take several short breaks to marvel at the views along the way.
I was unfamiliar with Mount Defiance at that point, but I had a map and a description of the terrain, and thought it would be fun to check it out. Sometimes I think it’s better not to know too much about a trail, in terms of views and wildflowers (always make sure you are knowledgeable about trail details such as directions and level of difficulty). When I don’t have high expectations, great trails seem all the more incredible. Mount Defiance was no exception.
Reaching the top of Mt Defiance is incredible. At just under 5600 feet, you are provided with panoramic views of surrounding peaks including Mount Rainier, Bandera Mountain, Mount Teneriffe, and many others. Below, you can see the large Lake Kulla Kulla, as well as Mason Lake and Little Mason Lake. The peak itself is pretty small, so you might have to take turns with other groups standing at the top on a busy day, though there is some room to spread out and grab lunch if you would like to stick around for a while. I was even able to find a spot in the shade to sit for a while.
I made my back down the trail and was at our campsite by 11:00 am. With close to 11 hours of daylight remaining, I made lunch, sunbathed, and swam with my camp-mates who spent the day at the lake. Though I wouldn’t call it warm, Mason Lake is the warmest lake I have found yet in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Especially on a hot day, it is refreshing at first and ends up feeling quite comfortable after swimming for a few minutes.
Mason Lake is surrounded by Lake Kulla Kulla, Rainbow Lake, Blazer Lake, Little Mason Lake, and Island Lake, as well as a few other small, unnamed lakes. Becoming restless after a few hours of relaxing, I took advantage of the long day and explored some more. A clear trail leads to Island Lake, which is considerably smaller, more secluded, and less crowded than Mason Lake. To get there, once again follow the main trail to the junction with Mt Defiance Trail. Here, take the trail to the right and follow it for about 1.3 miles to Island Lake.
When I got there around 4:30pm on Saturday there were only two other people on the opposite side of the lake. There was quite a bit more wildlife, and I saw a Ring-necked Duck with newly hatched ducklings bobbing up and down all over the water. If I came back to the area, I would happily hang out at Island Lake for much of the day. I would also consider checking out campsites at Rainbow Lake, which sees much less foot traffic and would be potentially more enjoyable on busy weekends.
By the time I returned to Mason Lake around 6:00pm, most of the day hikers had left and the site had regained much of its wilderness feel. We noticed that the busiest time of day for day-hikers was between 10:00am and 2:00pm. By 3 or 4 in the afternoon, the crowds had thinned considerably, and most people were gone by early evening.
Easily my biggest complaint with this hike was the large amount of trash left by day hikers. It mostly consisted of food scraps, such as pistachio shells. There were also gummy bears spread around the area near our camp site. This is a definite downside to visiting a busy trail, and another reason I would be interested at finding a spot at Rainbow Lake in the future.
We woke up early, ate breakfast, and were back on the trail by 8:45 on Sunday morning. We passed 5 or 6 small groups of hikers on the way down, and overall the foot traffic seemed quite a bit lighter on Sunday than on Saturday. It took about 1.5 hours to get back to the car. The trail isn’t too steep, which my knees very much appreciated on the way down.
I would recommend this hike to just about anyone. If you can, it would be worth it to go on a weekday to avoid the crowds. Start early if you plan to go all the way up to the top of Mount Defiance. If you can spend the night I would definitely take the opportunity to do so. Aside from the fact that sleeping in the woods is exceptionally enjoyable, it’s nice to have time to relax and explore the area and to take on Mount Defiance ahead of the crowds coming up from the trailhead. If you can’t stand hiking around other people, this trail might not be for you, but it is beautiful and fun and worth the trip.
These are some of my favorite gear items for day hiking:
- Backcountry Pack – I have had my women’s Deuter pack for about 5 years and am in love with it. Prior to this pack, I used unisex packs and they never quite fit right. This pack makes heavy loads feel manageable, with excellent hip support and an adjustable chest strap that moves up and down and changes width-wise. I also really like the size of this pack – it’s big enough to fit everything I need for a few nights, including a bear canister, and small enough that it doesn’t overwhelm my smaller frame
- Stove – The MSR pocket rocket stove is ideal when space is limited, and can quickly and easily boil water. It requires fuel canisters, which take up a bit more space, but a single canister goes a long way. The pocket rocket stove folds up into a storage container that fits inside my set of cookware.
- Bear Canister – A bear canister is absolutely essential if you go backpacking anywhere in the world that is home to bears. They have become mandatory in many areas, as hanging food bags is unreliable, and it is dangerous to both you and the bears when food is kept within reach of wildlife.
- Water Filter – A little bulkier than some other options, my Katadyn filter is still by far my favorite of any that I’ve used
- Sunscreen – Badger is free of toxic chemicals like oxybenzone, instead relying on zinc as a safe physical barrier to protect your skin from sunburn
- Knife – A good knife is an absolute must-have on day hikes and longer backpacking trips
- Whistle – One of the simplest and more important safety tools for hiking
- Water Bottle – I like to have a traditional water bottle and a bladder hydration system to keep in my pack to drink while walking
- Bug Repellent (non-toxic) – For particularly buggy hikes, it’s nice to have some repellent to prevent bites from mosquitos and flies
In addition to being important for nourishment, tasty hiking snacks are so rewarding at the end of a tough hike. For summits, I prefer treats that include chocolate – these are some of my favorites:
- Peanut Butter Cups – Theo makes delicious peanut butter cups that are free of palm oil.
- Mint Coconut Butter Cups – Eating evolved coconut butter cups are a great alternative to peanut butter if you don’t tolerate or prefer not to eat peanuts. Mint is by far my favorite flavor.
- Chocolate Covered Banana Bites – I recently learned that these are made with mis-shapen bananas that were slated for disposal, which makes my love for them even stronger.
- Vegan Chocolate-Covered Peanuts – These candies are an awesome vegan alternative to M&M’s. They taste surprisingly similar and are free of dairy and artificial colors.