Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Blanca Lake

Blanca Lake
7.5 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; few trail obstacles but lots of elevation gain
Access: Decent but long unpaved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required ($5 daily/$30 annual)

The turquoise waters of Blanca Lake are nestled in a cirque beneath the high peaks of Washington's Monte Cristo Range and are one of the most brilliant sights in the North Cascades. The uphill hike to the lake is consistently steep and perhaps a little tedious, but the view of the lake glimmering below snowcapped peaks is certainly worth it. The hike is in the Henry Jackson Wilderness in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, about a two hour drive out of Seattle; the hike itself is feasible for anyone in decent shape during the summer, with few obstacles save the long 3000-foot uphill climb that forms the bulk of the hike. In the winter, snow adds a magical touch to the trees and peaks but can make route-finding and travel much more difficult.

A friend and I hiked to Blanca Lake on a crisp December day, heading out of Seattle early in the morning to take as full advantage as we could of the brief sunlight hours of the Northwest winter. We took Route 522 (Lake City Way) northeast from Seattle, merged onto US Route 2 at Monroe and followed Route 2 east under the shadow of the dramatic facades of Mt. Index and Baring Peak. We turned left onto Beckler Road just after passing Skykomish, continuing on the road as it turned from pavement to gravel and into NF-65. After crossing a low pass, NF-65 brought us downhill to a junction with NF-63; we turned right at this junction and soon arrived at the Blanca Lake trailhead on our left, about 2 hours out of Seattle.

The trail gets straight to the point, almost immediately beginning the uphill switchback climb after leaving the trailhead and entering the forest. The next two miles involved an uphill ascent with over thirty switchbacks. We initially ascended through a forest filled with sizable Douglas firs. As we worked our way up the switchbacks, the vegetation became less impressive, with less massive trees. A little over halfway up the switchbacks, we encountered the first traces of snow; after ascending a few more switchbacks, snow began to cover the trail entirely, so we put on microspikes to ease the remainder of the ascent.

Ascent through the forest
Trail through the snow
After over thirty switchbacks, the trail began to follow the top and then the side of the ridge, providing brief views of Mt. Daniel and Chimney Rock through the trees on one side and more open views of Kyes Peak and Glacier Peak on the other. Snow levels were unseasonably low for December during our hike, but there was still well over a foot of snow on this section of trail.

Glacier Peak
The snow got progressively deeper as the trail reached the crest of the ridge, with up to two feet of snow at a ridge-top meadow with views of Kyes Peak and Monte Cristo. The snow was heavy and thick enough to weigh down the branches of the small conifers nearby. We could tell that the wind was strong higher up on the mountains: a streak of windblow snow extended from the summit of Kyes Peak.

Atop the ridge
A short descent from the meadow brought us to Virgin Lake, which was entirely frozen over. The ice on the lake was thick enough that we were able to briefly stroll on the lake before continuing onward.

Virgin Lake, frozen
Past Virgin Lake, the trail began a gradual descent on the west side of the ridge, with occasional views of a deep valley to the west. After the trail finally flattened out, Blanca Lake came into view. Our first view was from a gully above the lake, from which we could see across the lake to both Columbia and Kyes Peak. The lake was thankfully still unfrozen, so we could still see the intense turquoise water color. The Columbia Glacier (no relation to the similarly named tidewater glacier in Alaska) lay across the lake, in a basin between Columbia and Monte Cristo Peaks.

Blanca Lake
We descended the final section of trail to the lakeside, passing a few blowdowns before we could stand at the edge of the slightly-misnamed lake. The lake's unique color is the result of glacial flour, an extremely fine silt produced by glacial erosion. Glacial meltwater carries the flour from the Columbia Glacier down to the lake. This flour absorbs short wavelength light, leading to greener (and less blue) waters when glacial flour is abundant.

After admiring the lake and its beautiful backdrop, we began to make our way back, returning to the trailhead just before the early sunset characteristic of Northwest winter days. Although we were able to hike this trail in December, I strongly encourage you only to visit Blanca Lake during the summer months (July to October) unless you are aware of the snow conditions near the lake and have the proper equipment and experience to do the hike in the winter months.

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