The Rainbow Lake and McAlester Pass Loop in Northern Cascades National Park is your perfect multi-day trip on lesser crowded trails of the national park. The trail uses a short section of the PCT before breaking off to Rainbow Lake, a destination that’s too far for the typical day hike leaving an primitive feel.
Quick Stats of The Rainbow-McAlester Loop
Distance: 29 Miles
Elevation Gain: 6,600 Feet
Highest Point: McAlester Pass at 6,000 Feet
Start/End: Bridge Creek Trailhead
Average Time: 2 – 4 Days
Hiking Season: June - September
The trailhead of Bridge Creek is in the south-east corner of the Northern Cascades National Park. It’s one trailhead further south on Route 20 than Rainy Pass Trailhead which is famous for the Maple Pass Loop.
I think of this trail as a long form version of the Maple Pass Loop because of the similar terrain, views, and vantage point you get of the lake below coming into Rainbow Lake.
You’ll face two large climbs along this loop, one up to McAlester Pass and the other heading to or from Rainbow Lake. Other than those two inclines, the trail is mostly moderate with extended sections along creeks and through meadows.
The trail is well-marked with few intersections and easy to follow. Some sections may be overgrown depending how late in the season you’re hiking but nothing close to impassible, just brush rubbing against you.
Best Route Choice
I hiked in a counter-clockwise direction which I preferred and would choose to do so again for a few reasons.
The first reason is that going counter-clockwise, there is minimal elevation the first 9 miles up to Dan’s Camp.
A second is that I found hiking up and over a pass before having Rainbow Lake come into view and having that view in front and to my side when approaching was a better experience than seeing the lake up close and then the view to your back as you climb.
The final reason, and this depends on the month you hike, is that if you’re hiking southbound on the PCT, you’re more likely to cross paths with thru hikers who are about to finish the trail!
This was an exciting aspect for me as someone who had friends hiking the PCT simultaneously and a sister hiking the CDT at the time. I ended up meeting a Calendar Year Triple Crowner (someone who hikes the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in the same calendar year).
This person was about to head to the CDT and I told them to look out for my sister and gave each other the others trail name and two weeks later received a selfie of the two crossing paths in southern Montana.
Ultimately, the camping permits that you’re able to secure will dictate your route, but if it can be planned, hiking counter-clockwise passing Rainbow Lake and then McAlester Pass I think is preferred.
A second route option to consider is a slight variation coming down from McAlester Pass back to the trailhead.
You can either meet back up with the PCT that you hiked in and use that to hike the three miles back to the trailhead or take the Stiletto Spur Trail which remains on the opposite side of the creek as the PCT.
I chose to take the spur trail as something different but would heavily advise to avoid this trail. It’s a true spur trail that’s unmaintained and includes countless fallen trees and overgrown brush.
It’s a slightly shorter distance but timewise will be longer.
Permits and campsite availability will ultimately dictate your trip, but if able to choose, Rainbow Lake Camp is the favorite here. It’s one of the furthest from any trailhead and located directly on a beautiful lake.
Another similar option is the McAlester Lake Camp. Located directly on the high-altitude McAlester Lake, these spots also have great lake views.
I fast-packed this trail and ended up only staying at Dan’s Camp but was quite happy with that being my name is Dan.
You can’t go wrong at any of the camps here, they are true backcountry sites and well secluded.
Maps & Guides
There is an abundance of maps and information available for this hike given that it’s in a national park. Checking in at any of the ranger stations will have paper maps available for purchase.
Where as it’s always good to carry a paper map, I typically rely on GPS apps on my phone such as Gaia GPS and AllTrails.
If you’re relying on these make sure to have the full downloadable version. There is almost no service anywhere in Northern Cascades National Park.
Important Items to Carry
Food Storage – Rangers will discuss this when getting permits but you should plan to have a bear canister or bear hang accessories.
Water Filtration System – Sawyer Squeeze is my go-to for backcountry water filtration but any purification method will suffice.
GPS Device – I use a Garmin Inreach Mini 2, there won’t be any cellular service and this is a remote area especially if you happen to wind up off trail.
Last Tips & Knowledge Shared
Coming in from the west on Route 20, Marblemount is your last reliable place to resupply. This includes gas.
It could be 100+ miles going out from there to a trailhead and back so I highly recommend topping off the tank there.
The only other potential place to get supplies is at a General Store in Newhalen but the hours were limited and only weekdays during my trip in Summer 2022 making it an unreliable stop.
If you are doing more than this hike in one go, grab more supplies than you think you need, including refreshments that will be left in the car like beer, soda, Gatorades. It’s a long trip out of the park and back.
The same goes for communication to the outside world. Marblemount is the last place I had Verizon coverage before heading into the park and going dark.
If you’re planning to meet anyone in the park, meet at Marblemount, I’d suggest at the ranger station in Marble Mount is a good plan.
If you need to meet at a trailhead, campsite, or other place within the park a GPS device that you can communicate with others with or being extra specific on plans beforehand will be important.
Hope you're able to take away some knowledge from this post and have a fun and successful trip in the Northern Cascades!
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