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.

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