With my shin splints still in healing mode after our last backpacking trip, and desperation to get back on the trail growing, we headed to Highway 20 for a short hike. Despite my reluctance to drive more than an hour after last weekend’s 6-hour drive home from Ocean Shores, the promise of fall colors in the North Cascades drew me to Blue Lake.
Blue Lake is an absolute stunner, especially considering that it is only 2.2 miles of moderately graded hiking to get to the lake. And oh my goodness, in the fall, this lake was absolutely gorgeous. I recommend it to everyone and also no one because we enjoy our solitude.
Golden Larches come with a bit of reverence if you live in Washington. It is one of the most dramatic shifts of color you can find in a region dominated by evergreens, and the results are simply spectacular. Add to the fact that they are not terrifically common, and you have all of the qualities necessary to create a sensation.
Around the end of September, the social media comes abuzz and before you know it everyone is hunting for the elusive golden needles. Unlike pumpkin spice lattes and decorative gourds, these autumn-specific beauties are not overhyped. More about the biology on golden arches in next week’s looking back hike to Lake Ingalls, a basin filled with golden larches. But for today, enjoy the glorious fall colors at Blue Lake.
Blue Lake Trail
We arrived at a small trailhead around 10:30 am with a few parking spots still open. After a quick gathering of gear, with a few extra layers in case there was surprise snow, we set out on the trail. The trail starts with a few boardwalks across marshy ground and gentle switchbacks. The ground was composed of packed dirt, and it would likely be fairly dusty on a hot day, but was absolutely perfect after the rain during the week. We could still hear cars and see the highway as we continued up the trail. However, the views across the valley to Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain were so beautiful it was easy to forget the highway was there.
We followed forested switchbacks until reaching an open meadow, and our first sight of the golden trees. Also, our first sighting of Liberty Bell Mountain and the Early Winter Spires to the left. Soon we reentered the forest and continued up the trail. We reached a sign that said no camping within 1/4 mile of the lake and could hardly believe we were already there. At the end of a backpacking season, 2 miles feels like the warm-up and my shin splints were grateful.
We reached a sign that said no camping within 1/4 mile of the lake and could hardly believe we were already there. At the end of a backpacking season, 2 miles feels like the warm-up and my shin splints were grateful.
As we got closer to the lake basin, there were larches everywhere! We rounded the corner and saw our first glimpses of the blue water. The trail split and we went to the Eastern side first, knowing that we would want to spend most of our time on the western edge.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this lake. The short mileage made it feel like a low-elevation lake, but of course, the elevation is actually 6200′. How often do you get to go to that high of an alpine lake for only 2.2 miles of hiking? I was blown away when we rounded the corner and saw the bright blue water, the trees a mix of deep green, lime green and yellow gold. The granite almost felt like it was glowing with its warm striking features. Rocky lakes in the high alpine are my absolute favorite, and I had resigned myself to not seeing them again until next spring. I was so joyful to see this beautiful area that I nearly cried.
The North Cascades National Park and surrounding wilderness areas are one of my absolute favorite places in Washington. It has a delightful combination of small hikes that take you to stunningly beautiful places with easy access, and other trails that take you deep into the wilderness where solitude is key and wildlife abundant. There are so many new places to explore and yet I want to repeat hikes more often in this region than anywhere else.
As we crossed to the other side we came upon an old, dilapidated log cabin. At first, it looked like a series of fallen trees, then a structure of sorts emerged. I can only imagine how incredible a little cabin on this lake would have been…
The Internet seems to agree that this cabin was an old miner’s cabin and the North Cascades region has a rich history of mining. While mining began as a search for gold on the Skagit River, a lack of success drove miners to the high country. This focus on rock rather than rivers shaped the North Cascades infrastructure we recreate in today, by constructing bridges, networks of trails and roads, and a series of cabins in the backcountry to support the industry. Several trails in the North Cascades lead to more significant reminders of the trade, including old mines and extraction equipment, that are pretty neat to see. It is fascinating to look at the different structures and see how the trace we leave on the land changes over time. Of course, the use of this area goes far back beyond miners, as many of the early mining and trapping trails were modified from Native American use. Seeing the old cabin added a nice historic spin to a scenic hike.
As lovely as it was to look west, the east view looking over the lake to the larches and then up to Liberty Bell was phenomenal. The most common view of Liberty Bell (left) and the Early Winter Spires (right) is from Washington Pass overlook, just down the road. But the view of the other side, with the gorgeous foreground, is my favorite way to see it. Liberty Bell is a popular route and we passed the climbing trail on our way to the lake. We could hear climbers cheering and grunting from where we sat on the lake. Climbing Liberty Bell is on the bucket list, but first I need to heal my shins enough to make the approach. And learn how to trad climb. But goals!
After eating lunch, and visiting with several friendly chipmunks, we decided to continue exploring around the basin. We took nearly every social trail that was available and not closed off for restoration. A small tarn reflected the larches beautifully and we admired the peaks across the valley one more time. We turned down and made our way back down the trail. It was a wonderful short and beautiful fall hike.