I knew I would love this area before I set eyes on it, yet when we rounded the corner to Robin Lakes, the view of the granite basin and blue water took my breath away. Well, that and the heavy wildfire smoke we endured to get there. The hazy smoke made the entire situation feel unearthly, the confluence of people, natural splendor and smoke creating a strange amalgamation of nature and civilization.
August is traditionally my favorite time to backpack, along with most other backpackers in Washington state. The weather is reliably gorgeous, bugs tend to die down and even the highest alpine locations allow access for a brief month before fall weather starts to close that window again. I wait all year for August. Robin Lakes in August with its incredible blue water resting languidly in bowls of granite is stunning–I imagine even more so when Mt. Daniel is visible.
There has been a lot of talk about fire management around the internet the past few weeks, along with the general fear of this being Washington’s new normal. I found this video to provide excellent information about historical and current land management uses and how that impacts mega-fires. It ends with a bit of optimism and a call to action, which is appreciated at this moment when I feel a little powerless.
I have watched some of my favorite recreation areas burn in previous years, though last year was the first time I felt the entire outdoors was inaccessible. Sending out a fiery hope that new land management practices can take us away from these smoky weeks and return the long days of August backpacking. And I will be back on the marvelous trail to Robin Lakes, breathing deeply.
Day 1:Tuck Lake
As we approached the forest road, I remarked to Michael that this sure didn’t look like the clear skies we were promised. I had spent a few hours researching the smoke levels around Washington, trying to find a spot that wouldn’t be terribly smoky, but unfortunately, the winds appeared to have changed in the three hours since we left home. A smoky haze coated the area and Cathedral Peak that shone so brightly a month ago was nearly completely obscured. Hoping it was just a temporary haze, we decided to continue the backpack as planned.
The trail began gradually, with a few ups and downs before we reached Hyas Lake. Already tired from the smoke, we opted to take a break. I also was sporting new Salewa Rapace GTX hiking boots after finally giving up on my Asolos which had been giving me horrifying blisters since Alaska. After adjusting laces and having a snack, we hit the trail again, only to snack on more huckleberries. Yum! At about 3.5 miles the trail ceased to be the gentle, meandering forest-walk we had been enjoying and we started to gain altitude.
The grade was moderately steep but well-maintained and we kept a reasonable pace before reaching the junction. After dropping a small bit into a valley the trail began to climb dramatically. Alternating between steep, rocky sections and mercifully flat traverses, we slowly made our way to Tuck Lake
At last, we emerged on the shores of Tuck Lake, only to realize that the smoke was significantly worse at the higher elevation. It was time to make a decision: continue on to Robin Lakes and hope that climbed above the smoke line? Stay at Tuck Lake and call it a day? Turn around now and head to the car before it gets worse?
I have wanted to visit Tuck and Robin Lakes since the first time I read this book, and it has taken me four years to get there. After a long drive from Seattle and a climb to Tuck Lake, the smoke levels didn’t seem poor enough to warrant turning around. So, we grabbed our backpacks and started up the trail to Robin Lakes.
Day 1: Robin Lakes
We thought the route to Tuck Lakes was steep, but the route to Robin Lakes proved to be even steeper. Following cairns, we wandered around rocky ledges and scrambled over boulders. This is one of my favorite types of backpacking and even with the reduced visibility, I was thrilled. Eventually, the trail leads to open granite slabs. Ready to be at our campsite, we quickly scampered up the slabs, and I was grateful for my new boots and their thick, rubber soles.
Finally, we crested the ridge and I spied the lakes I had dreamt of for so long. The hazy cobalt blue sparkled under rolling granite rocks, so white they seemed to glow. Even in the smoke, the allure of this area was abundantly clear. Shallow blue lakes surrounded by smooth rocks is one of my absolute favorite backpacking destinations.
Unfortunately, it is a favorite of most of the Pacific Northwest and the basin was packed. Robin Lakes has a reputation for being extremely crowded, particularly in August, so this was not a surprise. As we wandered, nearly every camping spot seemed full, but eventually we found a spot that followed all of the leave no trace principles. More people continued to file into the basin as we set up our tent and became more and more creative with where they pitched a tent.
Leave No Trace
I talked a bit about campsite selection and Leave No Trace (LNT) on my post about Royal Basin and wanted to touch on it again here. Unlike Royal Basin, Tuck and Robin Lakes do not have limited permits, and it is a very popular place. Picking a campsite can be considerably more difficult in busy areas, as the ideal spots are often already gone. In high-use areas, LNT recommends finding areas that have already been highly impacted and have already lost their vegetation cover, rather than potentially impacting new spots.
We opted for a sight that had a little more greenery on the ground than we would typically pick because the other option was along the lakeshore. Riparian areas are more fragile and camping there can degrade the area. The flat areas next to the lakes with no vegetation and no hope of it coming back felt like a good LNT choice, but we also knew that there are a lot of mountain goats in this area. There was only one beach left that still provided water access for wildlife, so we opted to maintain that corridor by camping farther away from the water. Indeed, the next morning we watched a family of mountain goats struggle to find access to water between tents and dogs. Finding the balance can be tricky, and requires care and consideration every time we pick a campsite.
Meghan Young recently posted an awesome blog post about outdoor elitism and the issues that arise when we blame environmental degradation on beginning backpackers. One of her 6 recommendations for empathetic outdoor experiences that still aim to reduce negative environmental impacts was to opt out. This concept really struck true to me, especially in this area. I waited for a long time to visit, worried about it being too crowded. Now that I have experienced this area, Michael and I agreed to only return on weekdays. Not only because I enjoy solitude, but to reduce the impact when it is busy and allow for more LNT friendly campsites to be available. By finding other wild areas to recreate in, I can let someone else have their “turn”.
In fact, one of the classic guidebooks “100 Classic Hikes in Washington” by Harvey Manning recommends to:
camp in this neighborhood of heaven only when essential to your soul, and not too often; don’t be a hog.”
I know my soul will want to return, but for a bit, I will be content with the other magical corners of Washington state, and leave this sliver of paradise for the next backpacker.
We cooked dinner and watched the blazing sun dip behind the mountains. We could hear laughter and merriment echo throughout the basin, but between the elevation gain and smoke, we were too sleepy to keep our eyes open after nine.
Day 2: Robin Lakes
In the morning, I woke to the sound of thundering hooves. Poking my head out of the tent, I saw a group of four goats galloping up the granite slabs. As I watched, they tentatively made their way back down the valley over the ridge and when spying a dog, they ran up the hill again. This repeated several times, and while it was marvelous to watch these creatures maneuver around rocks and be generally adorable, it was clear they were trying to access the water source–completely blocked by dogs and tents. There was a lot of food for thought about why leave no trace principles require you to camp away from water sources.
After watching the goats and eating a little breakfast, we packed up our gear, filtered some water and hit the trail. The smoke was significantly worse today than yesterday but we took our time descending to Tuck Lake.
Day 2: The Descent
After a lengthy break on the lakeshore, we continued down the steep trail to the junction, my quads quietly protesting. The heavy smoke was starting to get to us, and every 2 miles required a 15-30 minute rest before continuing on.
Before we knew it, we reached the junction and then finished the steep section. We had only 3 miles to the car, but it was slow-going. One more long break to recover from the smoke at Hyas Lake and then we had a final push to the trailhead.
My legs were quivering and my eyes stung, but I was pretty thrilled to be mostly blister-free at the car, heading to Roslyn for Mexican food.
This route is included in the Backpacking Washington book by Craig Romano. It includes details about mileage, tide information, headland crossings, and campsites.