Friday, September 30, 2016

Maple Pass Loop

High country above Maple Pass
8 miles loop, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The hike to Maple Pass in Washington State's North Cascades is not just a great autumn hike to see larches; it's one of the best and most easily accessible stretches of alpine country in the Pacific Northwest. While plenty of other trails access the high alpine, few do so with relatively little effort from a trailhead accessible by a paved mountain highway. On any clear day, the panorama of the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse and of the Washington Pass peaks make the trip up to Maple Pass easily worthwhile; but on autumn days, it is almost a crime not to hike the loop to see the brilliant reds of berry bushes in the subalpine meadows and the golden hues of that odd deciduous conifer, the alpine larch.

Looking for more larch hikes? Consider Easy PassLake Ingallsthe Enchantments, or Grasshopper Pass.

I picked a sunny day for this hike, leaving Seattle somewhat late in the morning and arriving at the trailhead a little after noon; I followed Highway 20 east from Burlington all the way until I reached the Rainy Pass Picnic Area, where I turned right and parked in the picnic area. Although I came on a weekday, the lot was approaching full when I arrived.

After signing in at the register, I hit the trail, taking the loop counterclockwise by first following the trail towards Lake Ann rather than the paved trail towards Rainy Lake and Maple Pass. The first mile of the hike was a steady climb up switchbacks through the forest. At about three-quarters of a mile in, the trail broke out into its first clearing, providing good views of Whistler Mountain along an avalanche slope lit bright red by fall foliage.

Whistler Mountain from the first clearing on the hike
At a little over a mile from the trailhead, I came to the junction where the trail for Lake Ann split from the trail continuing towards Heather and Maple Passes. I took the left fork towards Lake Ann, which followed the flat bottom of a valley about a half mile to Lake Ann, which lay at the head of a cirque. The lake was framed by two rocky peaks; the peak to the right displayed a huge slope of red bushes while the rockier peak to the left was dotted with golden larches. The high, rocky alpine world of Maple Pass lay at the saddle between the two high points visible from the lake.

Sunlight on the larches at Lake Ann
Lake Ann
After enjoying the views of the lake, I backtracked to the earlier trail junction. The right fork, which headed towards Heather Pass, began to climb steadily. At first the trail stayed largely in the forest and had a pleasant dirt tread, but part of the way through the ascent the trail broke out onto a rockier talus slope, which meant views but a less smooth trail. Lake Ann came into view a few hundred feet below the trail.

A continued steady climb brought me to Heather Pass at about 2.5 miles. A trail branched off to the right, leading to the pass itself; you won't miss much if you skip seeing the actual pass as the views accessible there can be seen from the trail itself just a little farther up. I did take a short detour to Heather Pass and caught my first glimpse of the great pyramid of Black Peak; I also had one of my first up-close encounters with the autumn larches on this hike.

Heather Pass
Beyond Heather Pass, the trail continued to climb via switchbacks, with ever-widening views across the valley of Granite Creek towards Porcupine Peak, Golden Horn, and Mount Hardy. After a period of ascent, the trail began to cut south along the mountainside from Heather Pass towards Maple Pass. This high mountain balcony was situated directly above Lake Ann, providing stunning views of the lake and its island and the many peaks of the Washington Pass area.

Lake Ann beneath Whistler Mountain and the Washington Pass peaks
The trail made a switchback through a beautifully lit larch grove and then finally came to Maple Pass itself. The pass was indicated by a large sign marking the boundary of North Cascades National Park.

Maple Pass
The next mile of hiking was one of the most superb stretches of trail in the state. The trail followed the high alpine ridgeline through the broad pass, with stunning views to both sides. Golden larches were a constant companion on the east side of the pass.

Cutthroat, Whistler, Silver Star, Liberty Bell, Early Winter Spires from Maple Pass
The view to the west and south was equally impressive. The glacier-capped peaks for which the North Cascades is perhaps best known rose in the distance. These were the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse: the mountains that spanned one of the most renowned alpine traverses in the Northwest. Glacier Peak formed the south anchor of the snowy peaks that I could see from Maple Pass; it was also the only volcano visible along the hike. Dome Peak, LeConte Mountain, and Spider Mountain formed the northern part of the glaciated skyline.

Glacier Peak, Dome Peak, and Ptarmigan Traverse from Maple Pass
Maple Pass is a misnomer. Heather Pass had plenty of heather, but there was not a single maple in sight when I was at Maple Pass. Instead, the most common type of tree here was the alpine larch. Larches are an oxymoron: they're deciduous conifers; in other words, evergreens that aren't always green. Although larches are conifers, their needles turn from green to gold each fall and they shed their needles for the winter.

Maple Pass larches
Past Maple Pass, the trail continued to follow the national park boundary and the high ridge, climbing even more and coming out to even more impressive views. The trail topped out on a ridgeline leading towards Frisco Mountain; when I came to the top of the ridge a new panorama of craggy rock emerged to the south. From this high point, I surveyed my surroundings: the ridgetop offered a nearly 360-degree view. Far to the north, I spotted the immense south wall of Jack Mountain, one of the few non-volcanic summits in Washington State that exceed 9000 feet. Equally impressive were the sharp spires of Golden Horn and Tower Mountain.

High point of the hike
From this high point, the trail began to descend, following the ridgeline separating Rainy Lake from Lake Ann. The trail descended through a high meadow via a set of dramatic switchbacks to come to a larch grove nestled high above a tarn above Rainy Lake.

Switchbacks on Maple Pass descent
Larches and tarn above Rainy Lake
As I descended to the northeast, the sun began to set to the southwest, lighting up the many larches that populated the ridge. The brilliant light of the larches contrasted strongly with the dark rock of Frisco Mountain.

Larches and Frisco Mountain
In the first part of the descent, the trail hugged the southeast side of the ridge, restricting me to views of Frisco Mountain and the upper part of the Rainy Lake basin. As the trail continued to drop, it began to occasionally visit the north side as well, bringing back views of Black Peak and Lake Ann and giving me a closer look at the many larch groves growing on mountain slopes on this side of the valley.

Corteo Peak, Black Peak, and sunlit larches above Lake Ann
Rainy Lake came into view far below on the right side of the trail; I also spotted Rainy Falls plunging hundreds of feet from the basin high above the lake down towards the dark waters of Rainy Lake itself. Early in the season, the falls are more impressive, but by autumn, the waterfall was more of just a trickle.

Rainy Lake
The trail soon began to descend much more aggressively as it reentered the forest, with a steep grade and short switchbacks. Views became increasingly sporadic; I caught a final view of Rainy Lake and of Highway 20 winding towards Washington Pass before the trail became engulfed in the trees.

Highway 20 approaching Washington Pass
About three miles after departing Maple Pass, the trail finally returned to the bottom of the valley, meeting up with the paved trail heading towards Rainy Lake. I turned left onto this trail and followed the flat, paved path back to the trailhead just before sunset. Afterwards, I drove down to Mazama and ate at the excellent Kelly's at Wesola Polana, one of the better (if not the best) dining choices in the Methow Valley.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Alta Mountain

Hibox Mountain and Lila Lake Basin from Alta Mountain
12 miles round trip, 3400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, due to roots along trail and scrambling and exposure near peak
Access: Pothole-filled unpaved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Alta Mountain is one of the better summit hikes that can be accessed within an hour and a half drive from Seattle; that said, the trail is not pleasant, so neither the hike to Alta Mountain nor the trail to just Rachel Lake are recommended to novice hikers. The 6244-foot summit of Alta Mountain is reached by a thrilling ridgeline walk with expansive views of the Central and South Cascades. Rachel Lake is a pretty but not spectacular intermediate destination; I wouldn't recommend Rachel Lake as a day hike, as the trail is both crowded and poorly constructed. If you're just looking for a day hike that isn't too far from Seattle, pick something else: Snow Lake, Lake Serene, and Annette Lake are all easier and preferable alternatives to Rachel Lake. The views of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness from atop Alta Mountain, however, make the trip worthwhile despite the unpleasantness necessary to attain the summit.

I hiked up Alta Mountain on a fall Saturday that was cloudy in Seattle but clear east of Snoqualmie Pass. I drove out from Seattle on I-90 across the pass to Exit 62, then turned left onto the road and followed it north to Kachess Lake; I turned left at an intersection signed for Rachel Lake onto a dirt road and soon after stayed right at the next fork in the dirt road to continue towards Rachel Lake. The road was heavily washboarded and full of potholes, but was navigable in a sedan at low speed. The parking lot was overflowing by the time I arrived: both upper and lower lots were full, so I had to park along the road.

I filled out a wilderness permit for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at the trailhead before beginning my hike; there is no quota or charge for permits but they're necessary for hiking in Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which is one of the most popular and heavily visited units of the National Wilderness Preservation System. I started on the trail into the forest; the trail began to climb steadily right from the trailhead as it made its way uphill along the north side of the V-shaped Box Canyon. There were no views to speak of but the trail passed through an impressive old growth forest with a number of impressive firs.

The trail flirted with the creek, following it closely at times but often maintaining a bit of a distance from the tumbling waters. About a mile from the trailhead, I hiked past a section with boardwalk and passed a last set of tiny cascades and then came to the flat, calm bottom of upper Box Canyon. Here, the trail stayed flat for the next two miles, alternating between old growth forest and overgrown clearings from which I could see the cliffs of Hibox and Lobox Peaks rising nearby. I encountered many blowdowns along the trail: in many cases it was necessary to climb over or duck under fallen trees, and in some cases a use path had been beaten out around the downed trunks. Rain from earlier in the week had also turned much of the trail into mud and had converted more than a single low-lying area of the trail into a pond. In many of the clearings, abundant vegetation almost covered the trail, which was surprising for a hike that sees so many visitors.

Despite these qualms, the first three miles of the hike were not particularly difficult to hike: the tread of the trail was typically soft dirt or mud and elevation gain was extremely reasonable or nonexistent. At the upper end of Box Canyon, after crossing a creek, the trail ended the previous niceties and embarked on a furious uphill climb to Rachel Lake that was punctured with countless roots and rocks.

The climb was punctuated by occasional nice moments: at one point, the trail happened upon a cascading stream that skipped its way down rocks to a small pool, a scene that was somehow reminded me of the way Appalachian streams tumble bubbly down the Blue Ridge.

Box Canyon Creek
Yet the majority of this climb to Rachel Lake was pretty unpleasant. The trail ascended 1200 feet in a mile, which attests to its steepness in this stretch; yet it was the trail condition rather than the steepness of the trail that made the hiking difficult. Roots and rocks were literally everywhere, so the hike was often more of a scramble. This is essentially the most difficult portion of the hike: if you don't have a burning desire to get to either Rachel Lake or Alta Mountain in particular (in other words, if you're just looking for a hike to get outdoors this weekend), you should be on some other, easier trail.

Root-filled trail up to Rachel Lake
It took me the good part of an hour to make it up the mile-long uphill to Rachel Lake. When I finally arrived at the lake, four miles from the trailhead, I found a nice spot along the northeast side of the lake to enjoy the fall colors and eat lunch.

Rachel Lake
Leaving from the lake, I followed the sign that stated "trail" and circled around the north side of the lake. The trail passed through a patch of ripe and deliciously sweet huckleberries before beginning a rocky climb up to Rampart Ridge. Halfway up the ascent, views of Rachel Lake emerged. This higher viewpoint allowed me to appreciate Rachel Lake's size: it's fairly large for a subalpine lake halfway up a ridge! The lake's waters also appeared more serene and jewel-like from above.

Rachel Lake
Less than a half mile of hiking from the lake brought me up to Rampart Ridge, where a temporary paper trail sign marked the junction of the trails towards Rampart and Lila Lakes. I took the right fork towards Lila Lake. The trail visited a few rocky viewpoints with views of Rachel Lake, Hibox Mountain, and Box Canyon before arriving at an unsigned junction with a large cairn about a quarter mile further down. Here, the main trail continued to the right towards Lila Lake; the unsigned branch to the left marked the trail to Alta Mountain. I took the left fork, which immediately broke out into a meadow and began an extremely aggressive ascent up a knoll in the ridge.

After emerging at the top of the first knoll, I found that the views had already widened: I could see both Rachel and Rampart Lakes to the south. The sharp false summit of Alta Mountain rose ahead of me and the ridgeline of Alta was decorated red with the fall colors of berry bushes. The path was well defined and actually easier to hike than the climb to Rachel Lake, as the tread was mostly dirt.

Fall colors on Alta Mountain
One of the prettiest parts of the emerging view was of the many ponds and lakes in the Lila Lake basin, with Nobox, Hibox, and Lobox rising behind the lakes.

Hibox Mountain and Lila Lake along the ascent to Alta
Twenty minutes of ascent brought me to the top of the 5950-foot false summit, from which I caught my first view of Alta Mountain's true summit. This false summit offered an excellent southward view of the ridge that I had just ascended and Mount Rainier in the far distance.

Alta Mountain ridge
From the false summit, I also caught my first views of Chikamin Peak, one of the most impressive mountains in the Snoqualmie Pass area.

Chikamin Peak
From the false summit onward, the trail followed the rocky, narrow ridgetop. Generally, the trail was not too difficult or exposed; exposure was at most confined to one side of the path. There were more views of lakes below in the basin of Lila Lake and impressive views of the massive cliffs that formed Alta Mountain's east face. The most harrowing part of the hike was a short bit of scrambling necessary at a point where the trail had exposure on both sides, but most hikers with scrambling experience who don't have a fear of heights will find this section quite manageable. Upon reaching the summit block, a final steep uphill push with a decent bit of rock scrambling brought me up to the summit.

Alta Mountain ridgeline scramble
I stayed at the summit for nearly an hour, sharing the rocky peak with two other late-day hikers who had come up from West Seattle. Clouds drifted in and out and the sun disappeared and reemerged, giving the landscape a notable dynamism as fall colors dulled and popped with the presence and absence of cloud shadow.

The view to the south and the west showcased the peaks of the Snoqualmie Pass region: I could spot the lookout atop Granite Mountain; the pyramid of Silver Peak, the tallest mountain in the area south of I-90; the Snoqualmie Pass ski area; Gold Creek Pond; the spire of McClellan Butte; the thread of the Pacific Crest Trail traversing the Kendall Katwalk; Chair and Kaleetan Peaks; and the sharp granite mountains of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley.

The most impressive aspect of the view was to the west and north to nearby peaks. Autumn had painted a burnt color on Mount Thomson's slopes, creating a remarkable contrast with the dark waters of Alaska Lake nestled in a high basin on the mountain's slopes. Sharp Huckleberry Mountain and jagged Chikamin punctured the northern skyline.

Alaska Lake, Mount Thomson, and Huckleberry Mountain
To the east rose the rocky summits of Box Ridge, most notably nearby Hibox Mountain; neighboring Lobox and Nobox Mountains were either blocked or seemed barely prominent from this high viewpoint. Three Queens mostly blocked the view of Mount Stuart, the state's second highest non-volcanic peak, which was actually better viewed from along the ridge just before the summit. Lila Lake and Box Canyon lay far below and in the distance, behind the forested ridges of the Teanaway, I could make out a few of the wind turbines in Kittitas Valley near Ellensburg.

Mount Stuart from Alta Mountain
The view to the south was dominated by features both near and far. The ridgeline that I had hiked in along, as well as Rampart Ridge, were prominent proximal mountains; much farther off, lenticular clouds capped both Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. Although Rainier was not close, I was surprised by the level of detail I could discern on the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers and the Willis Wall from Alta Mountain.

Mount Adams from Alta Mountain
When I was able to avert my eyes away from the view, I found the source of meeping among the summit rocks: a pika scurried about, too familiar with the panorama to be impressed by it any more.

Pika amongst the rocks
By that point it was getting late in the day, so I set a quick pace to get back to the trailhead. From along the ridgeline, I was able to spot both Rampart and Lila Lakes and noticed the absurd density of tents lining the shorelines of both lakes, even in late September. This area definitely isn't for anyone who wants a true wilderness solitude experience.

I timed my return such that I reached the trailhead just after sunset. Along the way, I ran into some day hikers still heading uphill towards Rachel Lake without flashlights or many of the Ten Essentials. You don't want to be stuck on any trail at night without some light source, but you especially don't want to be stuck on the root-filled section of trail near Rachel Lake in that situation. The summit of Alta Mountain is a beautiful destination, but know what you're getting into and if you do decide to hike here, don't assume you can show up in tennis shoes without all essential hiking gear just because the trailhead is so close to Seattle. This isn't Mount Si.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Navaho Peak

Stuart Range from Navaho Peak
13 miles round trip, 4200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Short stretch of poor gravel road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required.

The lofty summit of Navaho Peak is a stunning location to observe the sunny side of the Cascades. On a clear day, this perch high in the Teanaway offers close-up views of the peaks of the Enchantments, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Kittitas Valley, and Mount Rainier. The price for this panorama of Washington mountains is a long approach along Stafford Creek to Navaho Pass coupled with a steep and punishing final climb to the summit. It's certainly not for all hikers, but those accustomed to long and steep hikes will be rewarded with a tumbling creek, scattered wildflowers, meadows, and a chance to glimpse the glistening granite of the Stuart Range.

I hiked this trail with two friends on a beautifully clear and not-too-hot Sunday in June, at the end of numerous days of rain. We made the two hour drive out from Seattle via I-90, leaving the interstate at Exit 84 for Route 903. We followed 903 through Cle Elum; the road turned into Route 10 after leaving town. About three miles past the town, we stayed to the left to head onto Route 970 in the direction of Wenatchee. Another four miles on, we turned left onto Teanaway Road and followed the paved but narrow road along the Teanaway River, with good views of both the Teanaway and Stuart Ranges appearing before us. The paved road changed to a good gravel when the road entered Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest; we followed the gravel road for a little over a mile past a bridge over Stafford Creek to the junction with NF-9737. Here, we took the right fork and followed a bumpy, pothole-filled dirt road to the trailhead, staying straight when we reached the junction for Standup Creek. The Stafford Creek Trailhead was reasonably well marked; parking there required a Northwest Forest Pass.

The trail began on the east side of Stafford Creek and headed off into the open woods parallel to the lively stream. We found some beautiful blooming tiger lilies along the trail.

Tiger lilies along Stafford Creek
The trail climbed steadily but never very aggressively for the first two miles or so, staying just uphill of Stafford Creek for much of the way.

Stafford Creek tumbling through the forest
The trail maintained a constant but never particularly steep climb up to the four mile mark on the hike, passing alternately through forest and partially open meadows with views of the rocky peaks of Teanaway that bounded the Stafford Creek basin. At the junction with the trail to Standup Creek, we stayed to the right. The trail embarked on a set of switchbacks, climbing high above the basin below in the forest. Further down, the trail came out onto a large meadow, one of the most lush spots on the hike; the trail circled around the meadow, delivering pretty views of Earl Peak and other ridges of the Teanaway. This appeared to be a popular camping spot: a few backpackers had set up along the edges of the meadow.

Meadow high up in Stafford Creek valley
Past the meadow, the trail continued uphill, soon passing Stafford Creek near its headwaters. At the stream crossing, we spotted some beautiful blooming shooting stars.

Shooting stars near Stafford Creek headwaters
Soon after the stream crossing, the trail entered a remarkable barren moonscape, following a rocky ridge uphill with open views in all directions. The ridge was surprisingly devoid of life: as we were still well below the treeline, it wasn't clear why there were neither trees nor meadows on this part of the mountain.

Barren mountainscape near the pass
At the end of the barren ridge, the trail entered a grassy slope with blooming paintbrush and then made a final switchback before coming to Navaho Pass. Reaching the pass was an extraordinary visual experience: as we came to the saddle, the craggy, snowy peaks of the Stuart Range emerged, forming a wall north of us across the valley of Ingalls Creek. A sign at the pass indicated that we stood on the boundary of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, one of the most heavily used and celebrated wilderness areas in the entire National Wilderness Preservation System. A stand of alpine larches lay north of the pass, sporting new spring foliage.

Stuart Range from Navaho Pass
Trail at Navaho Pass
From Navaho Pass, we began following County Line Trail east (to the right). The trail was clearly defined but steep; a few hundred meters past the pass, the summit trail split off from the County Line Trail at an unsigned junction. We took the left fork at every possible junction to ensure that we stayed close to the ridge and thus stayed on the route to visit the summit.

As we hiked up, we noticed a double rainbow arching across the sky, stretching through a set of high cirrus clouds.

Clouds and rainbows above Earl Peak
Mountain views also expanded as we ascended. First Mount Adams and then Mount Rainier appeared to the south, massive Cascade volcanoes that dominated their surroundings. The sharp peak of Mount Stuart, one of the tallest non-volcanic peaks in the state, emerged at the western end of the Enchantments as we ascended from the pass.

Twisted pine and Mount Stuart
The final stretch of trail that pushed to the summit was extraordinarily steep at points, ascending 1000 feet in about half a mile. At many points, the trail ascended without switchbacks through slopes of loose rock; although not particularly dangerous, the trail was nonetheless a little unpleasant. We paused often, out of breath as we ascended towards the 7223-foot high summit.

After passing a few patches of snow on the highest slopes of Navaho, the trail finally brought us to the summit, a fairly compact area with room for just a few groups to sit. The summit panorama was everything I could have expected from a high peak view: the sweeping vista encompassed everything from the arid Columbia Basin, Ellensburg in the Kittitas Valley, the Goat Rocks and Mount Adams, the clouds building on Mount Rainier, the jumble of craggy peaks near Mount Daniel and Hinman, the closer-in summits of Ingalls Peak and Mount Stuart, and the granite spine of the peaks lining the Enchantment Basin.

Mount Adams and Goat Rocks
View towards the desert
We took a long rest on the summit before retracing our steps for the long return to the trailhead. As we hiked at the height of summer, just a few days before solstice, we had sun and quite late that night, which was extremely fortunate: as we approached Snoqualmie Pass on our way back into Seattle, we discovered that our car had a flat tire. A good Samaritan allowed us to borrow a wrench after we pulled into a gas station at the pass, allowing us to change out the flat for a spare tire and make it back to Seattle along a slow collection of back roads.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Stuart Lake

Stuart Lake
9 miles round trip, 1800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Very bumpy gravel road to trailhead, doable for most sedans; Northwest Forest Pass required

The clear waters of Stuart Lake boast a spectacular subalpine setting, with glacier-clad granite peaks, including Mount Stuart, one of Washington State's tallest summits, rising from the lakeshore. However, Stuart often seems like the overlooked sibling in the lakes of the Stuart Range: nearby Colchuck Lake and the fairy-like landscape of the Enchantment receive substantially (and deservedly!) more attention. This hike is one of the easiest ways to see one of the lakes in the Enchantment Region; it's an achievable day hike for most people and a slightly easier alternative to Colchuck Lake. However, for hikers who haven't made a trip out to the Stuart Range before, I'd recommend Colchuck Lake over Stuart: while Stuart has plenty of charms, it's still hard to beat seeing Dragontail Peak rising above Colchuck's gem-like waters. If you plan to backpack to Stuart Lake, you'll have to enter the lottery for getting one of the Enchantments Permits for camping at the lake.

I hiked to Stuart Lake on a late summer day in September that felt much more like the start of autumn. The weather forecast had called for rain throughout the Cascades, but I woke that Sunday to partly cloudy weather, so I decided to head out to the eastern Cascades to see if I could find clearer skies. I followed US 2 east to Leavenworth via Stevens Pass. Upon arriving in Leavenworth, I immediately turned onto Icicle Road and followed it into Icicle Gorge to Eightmile Road. The last four miles of the drive were on the heavily washboarded Eightmile Road, which led steeply uphill past the Eightmile Lake Trailhead to the Stuart Lake Trailhead. Although the road was bumpy, it was not too difficult for me to drive up in a sedan. On a September weekend with a forecast of poor weather, I found the parking lot overflowing, mostly with hikers heading to Colchuck Lake and the Enchantments; I had to park two hundred meters down the road from the trailhead.

I filled out an Alpine Lakes Wilderness day use permit at the trailhead kiosk before heading out onto the trail. The beginning of the hike was fairly nondescript: the trail ascended at a moderate grade through a second growth forest with fall-foliage bushes coating the forest floor. After a sustained but not-very-steep climb, the trail came within earshot of Mountaineer Creek and then flattened out and followed the south bank of the creek. About a mile and a half from the trailhead, I reached a junction with an arrow pointing to "Log Bridge" on the left and "Horse Ford" on the right. I followed the left fork and soon came to the sturdily built hikers' bridge over Mountaineer Creek.

Log bridge over Mountaineer Creek
The bridge offered the clearest views of the creek along the entire hike.

Mountaineer Creek
After crossing the bridge, I walked up to a small, rocky clearing where the hiker trail and the horse trail rejoined. On the return journey, it's easy to miss the sharp turnoff for the hikers' bridge and instead continue down to the horse ford, where there's no assisted crossing, as the trail going straight leads to the horse ford while the trail to the bridge bends sharply to the right. To make sure you take the right path, keep your eyes peeled for the sign indicating "Trail" and the bridge once Mountaineer Creek comes into earshot on your way down.

Past the bridge, the trail began the most sustained ascent of the hike, switchbacking somewhat steeply uphill through fairly rocky terrain. The trail remained in the forest through this ascent, with just occasional views backwards to Icicle Ridge. Higher up along the climb, Dragontail Peak and Colchuck Peak entered my field of view, playing peek-a-boo through the forest.

The trail leveled out just shy of two and a half miles. Soon after finishing the ascent, I came to the junction between the trails to Colchuck Lake and Stuart Lake. The Colchuck Lake trail branched off to the left; I stayed straight to continue towards Stuart Lake. The stretch of trail just after the junction was extremely flat; Mountaineer Creek was more or less placid as it flowed to the left of the trail here. Soon afterwards, I came to my first view of Mount Stuart on the trail; this was the only view in which I was able to see the Sherpa and Ice Cliff Glaciers below Stuart's north face.

Mount Stuart
After a fairly flat mile of hiking past the junction with the trail to Colchuck Lake, the trail came to a grove of aspens and a large meadow. The aspens were just beginning to display their fall foliage and were decorated a grab bag of green and gold leaves.

Fall aspens and Sherpa Peak
The meadow came just beyond the aspen grove. This was one of the most beautiful spots on the hike: the meadow was golden with autumn color and the craggy, massive summits of Argonaut Peak, Sherpa Peak, and Mount Stuart rose to the south. These peaks of the Stuart Range are among the tallest in Washington State: after Bonanza Peak, Mount Stuart is the tallest nonvolcanic peak in the state. Argonaut and Sherpa both also break 8000 feet, bringing the Stuart Range to heights unmatched south of the North Cascades outside of Rainier and Adams. Argonaut, an otherwise rarely seen peak, was particularly beautiful from this meadow viewpoint.

Argonaut Peak, Sherpa Peak, and Mount Stuart rise above a trailside meadow
Past the meadow, the trail reentered the forest for a short flat section before beginning the hike's final climb. In the last mile, the trail climbed moderately through a set of switchbacks along the outlet stream from Stuart Lake. Finally, four and a half miles from the trailhead, the trail flattened out again and arrived in the basin of Stuart Lake.

I found a particularly pretty viewpoint of the lake at the first campsite on the left side of the trail. From here, I could see Mount Stuart and its northwestern ridges rising above the forest-lined lake. The Stuart Glacier, its blue ice and crevasses visible late in the season, filled a small basin at the foot of Mount Stuart's severe northern headwall.

Stuart Lake
After eating lunch at the first viewpoint of the lake, I followed the trail further, occasionally following spur trails down to the lakeshore to enjoy the views of the grassy lake backed by various Stuart Range peaks. At various points, Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks were visible to the east.

Dragontail Peak above Stuart Lake
Larches lined the higher mountain slopes surrounding the lake, although there were no larches along the trail itself or at the lake. In mid-September, the larches were beginning to show just the slightest hint of yellow, but most still retained their summer green. The aspens near the lake, however, had exploded with color, with a grove of gold tinged with patches of red and orange rising along the north shore of the lake.

Fall color in the aspens above Stuart Lake
To gain a better view of the lake and its surroundings, I scrambled up a talus slope at the northern end of the lake. From a higher vantage point, I could better tell the shape of the lake and had a clearer view of the Stuart Glacier.

Stuart Lake from talus slope
I took a nap in the pleasant afternoon sun on one of the larger boulders in the talus field before making my way back down to the trail and returning to the trailhead.