Rolling along 9 miles of river valley, the hike to Waptus Lake is perfect for backpackers or horse packers who want a lengthy trek without too much elevation gain. Unlike many other river valleys in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, no logging or mining road was ever created along Waptus River, allowing the area to feel more like a wilderness. Despite the large number of people who visit every summer, the grand size of the lake makes it easy to find a secluded spot to camp.
The hike begins at Salmon la Sac Trailhead, splitting away from the trails to Cooper Lake and Polallie Ridge before heading toward Waptus River. For 3 miles the trail passes through a dusty and sun-bleached forest of pine and fir trees before reaching the Hour Creek crossing and moving toward Waptus River. The trail begins to change there, surrounded by lush green ferns, wild roses, and devil's club, and it meanders through old-growth cedar, hemlock and fir.
Continue hiking or riding along the river, crossing multiple small streams and eventually reaching a fork with Quick Creek Trail, which leads toward the south tip of Waptus Lake and then to Waptus Pass. For the best lake views and camping, veer right toward the horse ford of Waptus River, avoiding the trail to a foot bridge that is now washed away. The river is fordable later in the season with either a horse or sturdy water shoes, but mind the current when water levels are high.
There are several sizable camping areas along the shore, the first of which offers stunning views of Bears Breast Mountain and Summit Chief over Waptus Lake. From base camp at Waptus, take a day trip up to Spade Lake or explore parts of the famous Pacific Crest Trail running nearby.