Monday, November 3, 2014

Lake Ingalls

Mt. Stuart above Lake Ingalls
9 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Bumpy gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

I decided when I moved to Seattle about a year ago that I wouldn't blog about my hikes in Washington state. This was for good reason: there was a plethora of information about hiking in Washington already and I wasn't nearly as familiar with the area as I am with Virginia because, well, I didn't grow up nearby. I've reneged on that decision (somewhat); I'll be posting write-ups of hikes that I've found most rewarding since moving here and I'm a little too lazy to start a new blog altogether. Since I'll just be posting highlights rather than all my trips and I occasionally do return to Virginia, I anticipate a healthy future mix of relevant (Appalachian) and non-relevant hikes and fairly regular updates.

I couldn't not write about Lake Ingalls; it was much too good of a hike, with the trail from Ingalls Pass to the lake through Headlight Basin delivering some of the most jaw-dropping scenery and fiery fall color one could experience. The hike is perhaps a moderate-strenuous by Virginia standards; it's generally not too difficult but the trail is rocky and sometimes wet in parts and a minor bit of scrambling is required during the last quarter-mile before the lake. The rewards are ample starting from Ingalls Pass, 3 miles into the hike: the last third of the hike passes through the beautiful larch forest in Headlight Basin, offers unparalleled views of Mt. Stuart, and ends at the stark, rocky basin of the lake.

The hike is in the Teanaway, a region on the eastern (drier) side of the Cascades. The trailhead is a nearly two-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle, quite an endeavour- and the dirt road leading to the trailhead is potholed, rough, and long. It's a full day excursion from Seattle, but it's undoubtedly worth it in early to mid October, when the larches of Headlight Basin shine a golden autumnal light. On any nice weekend, the parking lot overflows with hikers from Seattle; consider a fall weekday. For the most current information on the trail, check for the latest trip reports on the hike on the Washington Trails Association website. You'll probably won't want to do this hike any earlier than July if you want to avoid large amounts of snow.

I headed to Lake Ingalls with two friends on an October weekend with overcast Seattle skies. We encountered rain on the way through Snoqulamie Pass on I-90, raising worries about the weather in the Teanaway, but we relaxed on seeing blue skies in Cle Elum. We arrived at the trailhead around 1 PM to slightly grey skies but decided to go ahead anyway. The early parts of the hike were uneventful; the trail started out by ascending alongside the North Fork Teanaway River, which here was nothing more than a stream. Within a third of a mile, we came to a junction with the Esmeralda Basin Trail; here we took the right fork uphill, towards Long Pass and Ingalls Way.

North Fork Teanaway
The trail proceeded to ascend at a moderate slope through the dry pine forests of the Teanaway. At about 1.5 miles in, the trail reached a junction with the Longs Pass Trail; we continued on Ingalls Way. At this point, many views of Esmeralda Basin opened up. The trail itself narrowed considerably, hugging the side of the mountain on open, exposed slopes and crossing a recent rockslide area.

Esmeralda Basin
After traversing the open mountain slope, we began the ascent up to Ingalls Pass. This was the more strenuous portion of the hike, with a steady uphill through an open forest to the pass itself. Arriving at Ingalls Pass brought a very sudden change in scenery: standing at the pass, Esmeralda Basin and the familiar peaks of the Teanaway were behind us, while in front us rose the incredible massif of Mt. Stuart, one of the tallest peaks in a state with some very tall mountains. Here, we first saw the golden larches; ahead of us was even more, a subalpine basin decorated with yellow foliage at the foot of rocky Ingalls Peak.

Headlight Basin and Ingalls Peak
The trail dropped slightly from the pass down into Headlight Basin, an extraordinary cirque filled with larches, fluorescent moss, a meandering stream, and head-on views of Mt. Stuart. From this viewpoint, Stuart is tremendous, a great granite prow culminating in the pinnacle of the second highest non-volcanic peak in the state. As we hiked further into the basin, we also had a unique vantage point down the deep canyon of Ingalls Creek, with the peaks of the Enchantments rising to one side and the Teanaway rising on the other.

Mt. Stuart and the larches of Headlight Basin
Larches at the headwaters of Ingalls Creek
The larches of Headlight Basin are a fascinating species- they have somehow managed to qualify as being both deciduous and coniferous. More simply, they're conifers that shed their needles in the winter; in the autumn, they put on quite a color show. Larches are quite common in the northern Cascades and Rockies; Headlight Basin is in the southern part of their range. When backlit by sunlight, the golden needles of fall larch almost seem to glow.

Larches of Headlight Basin
After meandering through the basin and enjoying its remarkable scenery, we made our way through the last half mile to the lake. This portion of the trail was poorly marked and extraordinarily rocky, making it the most difficult part of the hike. Before the hike, we had read trip reports suggesting we might see mountain goats at the lake; on our way through this rocky scramble portion, one of my friends mused whether we were expected to see goats on this hike, or just become goats. A final steep scramble up to a low rocky ridge brought us to the lake basin.

The lake was surprisingly stark and exceedingly beautiful. With the exception of some grass, the lake's environs were barren; the bare granite of the surrounding mountains reinforced that feel. From the lakeside, we could see Mt. Stuart tower over, along with the other peaks of the Stuart Range. Clouds played around Stuart's summit, casting occasional shadows over the lake.

Lake Ingalls
Due to our late start, we had to return at a brisk pace. We recrossed Ingalls Pass just before sunset and saw a stunning interplay of light, clouds, and mountain in Esmeralda Basin; after stopping briefly to admire it, we hurried the rest of the way back to the trailhead.

Sunset over Esmeralda Basin
This was a highly enjoyable and scenic hike. It's a little far from Seattle, but the trail from Ingalls Pass to the lake is beyond stunning and certainly a must-hike in autumn.