The Pacific Crest Trail is a national treasure, but one that gets treasured a lot more in summer. Once there is snow on the ground, the PCT can really clear out, relatively speaking, even in the popular stretch leading from White Pass to Sand Lake.
In part, that's because it isn't always easy to follow: it doesn't have those familiar blue diamond markers, and if you're making fresh tracks, you could be left orienteering your way through. On the other hand, that touch of navigational uncertainty means you're quickly away from the more developed feeling of the White Pass Nordic Center and into the muffled world of subalpine meadows and snow-covered lakes.
The trail leaves from the east side of White Pass Nordic's Lake Loop and is easily discernible for most of its first half, twisting upward through old-growth until it crosses into the William O. Douglas Wilderness and turns east under an exposed slope. From this point on, the route may be a little less clear: at about 1.75 miles you'll pass a large meadow on your left and continue climbing slowly to the east. Less than a quarter mile after that the trail curves to the left and into a small clearing. Head straight up the slope in front of you using the shallow draw at the right edge of the clearing.
This takes you to the edge of an enormous meadow around which the trail bends clockwise. Deer Lake is a few hundred feet south of the clearing, and the snowmelt-fed Sand Lake is half a mile to the north at mile 3.5. Like a lot of winter lakes in this part of the world, Sand and Deer lakes look more like snowy plains than bodies of water, but they still make for nice lunch spots. Sand Lake even has a dilapidated shelter near its western shore, although it can be hard to find in winter.
Sand Lake makes a good day trip turnaround or campsite. If you have time to overnight, though, taking the PCT farther into William O. Douglas opens up plenty of other explorations: Cowlitz Pass, at mile 8, is a popular winter camp.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.