BY the time we reach Surprise Lake, at 4,500 feet in the Cascade Mountains, my friends and I are ready to take it easy. Lay down our packs. Enjoy the view of snow-clad peaks reflected in the lake's calm waters.
After all, we've worked for the privilege. We have hiked through ancient cedar forests inhabited by ferns and slugs, crossed a roaring stream using a fallen tree as a bridge, and scrambled on all fours up the last mile of steep switchbacks.
But there is one little detail we haven't figured on: About two-dozen other campers also want to pitch their tents by this scenic lake. There aren't enough good campsites to go around.
Our not-so-lonely outing, it turns out, is part of a larger challenge in this region known as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The magnificent hikes are barely an hour's drive from Seattle and its sister cities, with 2.5 million residents. Every one of those people, it seems, loves to hike, as do their friends from out-of-state.
So starting next year, parts of this wilderness will be accessible only to hikers who get a permit under a new quota system. Unless budget cuts hold it back, the United States Forest Service will cap the number of day hikers (but not overnight campers) who could go to Surprise Lake or several other popular sites. And in three broader areas in the region, camping will be limited as well as day hikes.
Similar limits already exist in a number of popular national parks and wilderness areas around the country, such as in parts of California's Sierra Nevada mountains. But the quota scheme draws protests from many Vibram-soled recreationists here, who relish the freedom to tread trails without prior reservations.
''We do not support the concept of limits ... simply to achieve some subjective criteria of solitude,'' says Edward Henderson of the Mountaineers, a 15,000-member outdoor recreation club based in Seattle. He says the club approves restrictions only if they are needed to protect landscapes from damage.
Meanwhile, environmental groups such as Wilderness Watch say the Forest Service is legally bound to aim for both goals.
Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, the Forest Service has the complex task of preserving the areas Congress designates as wilderness, keeping them accessible to visitors, and providing those visitors with opportunities for solitude. The Forest Service oversees the Alpine Lakes Wilderness as part of its Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Current Forest Service standards in the region call for hikers to encounter no more than seven other groups on a typical hike in certain areas. Backpackers should meet even fewer groups as they get farther into the wilderness.
These goals, however, are far from reality. Trails in the Alpine Lakes region attract an estimated 140,000 hikers a year. At Snow Lake, hundreds of visitors on a summer Saturday make the hike seem like a mass pilgrimage up Mount Fuji.
It is unclear if the Forest Service can stem the loss of lakeside vegetation, much less achieve the solitude goals. But critics say the agency should start by restricting camping only, not day hikers, who have less impact on the land.
The system, still being developed, could involve nominal reservation fees (perhaps $5) and a provision that one-fourth of any day's quota slots be held open until that day.
''Any kind of reservation system is awkward,'' says Ron Barensten, president of the Washington Trails Association, a group of trail-upkeep volunteers. ''We feel it would unnecessarily restrict the use of what are essentially public lands.
''You can still find solitude,'' he adds. ''You have to be in slightly better condition and you have to walk a little farther in.''
On our trip, my friends and I didn't have time or energy to go farther. So we circled the lake, finding some areas too rocky, some bumpy, and others roped off to restore trampled vegetation. Finally we found a decent spot and settled in despite noise and smoke from an illegal campfire nearby. Ah.... Wilderness?