The Trail Not Taken: Misadventures on the Smithbrook Trail to Lake Janus

Daniel and I found ourselves with some unexpected free time this past weekend and so we decided to take a last minute backpacking trip. The night beforehand , I spent hours pouring over maps agonizing over what route to take. I was hoping for a trail near an alpine lake or with alpine views (or both!) – but with a relatively easy level of difficulty. Daniel is slowly recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee and I’m worried he may re-injure it if we push too hard.

I finally settled on Lake Janus in the Stevens Pass area. The hike is 7.2 miles roundtrip with 1550 elevation gain – so about 500 feet per mile. That seemed like a reasonable incline, and plus it has the added bonus of being located on the PCT. I was worried that camping near the lake may be too buggy, but I’m familiar enough with the PCT to find alternate campsites if need be.

On the road to Stevens Pass

Road trip!

And so Friday afternoon found us on a roadtrip to Stevens Pass. It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon and we meandered along windy backroads to avoid road construction before joining Highway 2 at Sultan. I was bouncing with excitement as the towering craggy mountains that makeup Stevens Pass came into view. I’m so used to hiking along the I-90 corridor that I had forgotten how magnificent the mountains in this area can be.

Daniel’s ready for an adventure!

And so am I!

At the Smithbrook trailhead, we were immediately mobbed by a swarm of bugs – flies, mosquitoes, and other aggressive insects that I couldn’t identify. Daniel was zapped multiple times before he had a chance to apply bug spray. I’m not typically bothered by bugs but even I found the situation barely tolerable and regretted not bringing my headnet.

Crossing over a downed tree near the trailhead 

Once we were sufficiently covered in sunscreen and bug spray, we hit the trail and began heading uphill towards the PCT. After rounding several switchbacks, I noted that the initial grade of the trail was steeper than I had anticipated. The trail continued on in the same vein for the for the first 1.5 miles and soon we were sweating buckets.

 Hiking on the Smithbrook Trail

At the junction with the PCT, we paused and took stock. I pulled out a map and realized my mistake – the trail heads almost entirely downhill from this point towards Lake Janus. This means that all the elevation incline was front-loaded to the beginning of the hike, resulting in a steeper trail initially. We hadn’t hiked a trail this steep together before – even without carrying heavy backpacks – and Daniel’s knee was starting to get sore.

Daniel strikes a pose at the intersection with the PCT

We made it to the PCT!

We continued along the trail for a little longer and his knee began to get worse, so we stopped again. This time, we decided to call it. Clearly, I had picked the wrong hike. We have other hikes planned this summer and decided to play it safe – it’s not worth it to risk a knee injury that could take him out for the rest of the summer . We’ll have to do some more training hikes with weight and elevation before again attempting a hike of this caliber.

So we shifted some of the heavier items from his pack to mine and turned around. The change in weight seemed to make a big difference as he felt less knee pain on the return trip.

On the PCT

On our way back, we ran into a PCT hiker named Caveman. We chatted with him for a moment and learned that he had through-hiked all the way from the Southern terminus. I was surprised – it’s extremely early in the season for a through-hiker to have made it this far already. He must have started really early in the season or be hiking incredibly fast (or probably both).

Once back at the car, we considered car camping at some spots along the road but ultimately decided to head home. Daniel urged me to drop him off and head back out to enjoy the rest of the weekend on my own. He needs to rest his knee for the remainder of the weekend and won’t be able to do any more hiking. I was hesitant at first, as I was really looking forward to spending the weekend with him. But he is right. We only get a couple of months each year when the mountains aren’t covered in snow. I have been chomping at the bit to backpack in some alpine wilderness areas and I would have been miserable if I lost my chance.

Trail selfie

So, it was time to come up with a new plan. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from hiking the PCT last year, it’s how to be flexible.

And thus I found myself hunting through guidebooks for the second night in a row, looking for the perfect hike. Where should I go? Stay tuned to find out in my next blog post…

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We stopped at Stevens Pass on the way home just after sunset

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