Friday, December 22, 2017

Floe Lake

Floe Lake
13 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain to Floe Lake
15.5 miles round trip, 3100 feet elevation gain to Numa Pass
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous to Floe Lake; strenuous for Numa Pass day hike
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required

The cobalt waters of Floe Lake lie at the foot of an immense set of ramparts in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park known as the Rockwall. This is a location of unrivaled drama: fiery larches, towering cliffs, fracturing glaciers, and piercing blue lakes amidst a landscape scarred by massive fires a decade ago. The hike to Floe Lake is long and typically done as either an out-and-back backpacking trip or as part of a multi-night traverse of northern Kootenay National Park along the base of the Rockwall. However, strong day hikers will find Floe Lake to be a feasible day hike destination and even the sweeping views of Numa Pass are achievable to day hikers with some stamina who start early. Although the area does get a fair share of visitors, as one of the most famous spots in the Canadian Rockies, it has surprisingly avoided being overrun by tourists and day hikers; I found plenty of solitude throughout my day to and at the lake.

I hiked to Floe Lake during a weekend trip to the Canadian Rockies in which I spent a day in each of the four main parks; Floe Lake was my hike of choice for Kootenay National Park. I visited in mid-September, hoping to see the larches at peak color in the Rockies; unfortunately, I came about two weeks too early to Floe Lake and only saw a few larches that had turned for the season. I did, however, arrive late enough in the year that I spotted the aurora borealis in the dark night skies the evening before I headed out to my hike at Floe Lake.

Northern Lights
From Banff, I took Highway 1 west to Castle Junction, from which I took Highway 93 south across Vermillion Pass into Kootenary National Park and British Columbia. I followed Highway 93 south until it reached the bottom of the Vermillion River valley and pulled off at the Floe Lake Trailhead, arriving about 20 minutes before sunrise. Although there were 20 or so cars already at the lot, I appeared to be the first day hiker to arrive on a Saturday morning with excellent weather.

From the trailhead, the trail heads south through the flat valley bottom of the Vermillion River for a few hundred meters through the burnt forest. The forests of Kootenay were largely devastated by a fire in 2003 that burned nearly 40000 acres in the park; the hike itself stays almost entirely within the burn area until reaching Floe Lake.

The trail soon dropped down to the banks of the Vermillio River and crossed the river on a sturdy bridge.  The Vermillion River was a brilliant turquoise color and at the bridge, it was cutting a small canyon through the tilted sedimentary layers characteristic of the Canadian Rockies.

Vermillion River
After crossing the bridge, the trail began to head north along the river, which remained in view briefly. The trail returned to the forest but paralleled the river, which I could hear but not see. In about a kilometer, the trail came to a bridge crossing over Floe Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail began an uphill ascent along the slopes of Numa Mountain. Peering up the valley of Floe Creek, I got my first good look at the Rockwall, a vertical  spine in the Vermillion Range that defined the western boundary of Kootenay National Park. Sunrise alpenglow lit the massive cliffs of the Rockwall.

Floe Creek and the Rockwall
The trail first ascended via switchbacks along the side of the mountain facing the Vermillion River Valley, allowing nice views of the broad, mostly-burnt valley and of the peaks surrounding it. A peak that I believe was Mount Assiniboine made a brief appearance to the southeast.

The trail then made a turn into the valley of Floe Creek. For the next three miles, the trail ascended steadily as it paralleled Floe Creek far below. Unlike other hikes at a similar elevation, this stretch of trail was surprisingly open, with constant views, due to the burnt forests from the 2003 fires. It's probably a good idea to be careful for treefall in this area during times of high winds. The Rockwall was visible ahead and Isabelle Peak and Mount Ball were visible across the Vermillion River valley.

The Rockwall rises above the burnt forest
Burnt forest and Kootenay mountains
The trail corridor was well cleared for the first three miles or so of the hike, but the later portions of trail were quite brushy. As I was hiking early in the morning with no company on the trail, I knew a ran a sizable risk of running into the bear on the trail. Having neglected to buy bear spray the day before, I hoped that if I did see a bear, it wouldn't be a grizzly. My prediction soon came to pass: I found a black bear staring at me about thirty yards or so off the trail. We both gave the other a curious look; then the bear turned and disappeared into the underbrush.

Hello, bear!
I was happy to not see any other bears for the rest of the hike and surprised still that I had so little company in a relatively well-known hiking spot on such a beautiful day. I shook off the surprise of seeing the bear and continued along the trail, which soon began to approach the base of the Rockwall, where Floe Creek cascaded down steep slopes from the lake, high above. The trail had been relatively easy up to this point, with relatively gentle uphills, but after crossing a stream, the trail kicked into higher gear and began barreling uphill.

At the base of the Rockwall
At the start of the uphill, the trail crossed a fresh avalanche path, a fifty-meter wide swath of mountain slope strewn with debris. Shockingly, I found a large body of well-packed snow buried beneath this debris: this snow must have been left over the avalanche and thus meant that it had lasted from spring until late September.

Avalanche debris
Past the avalanche path, the trail committed to the climb, embarking on a steady series of switchbacks. The switchbacks danced between living and burnt forest: I had reached the outer extent of the 2003 fire. In a little over a mile, the trail climbed about 1200 feet to reach the elevation of Floe Lake. As the trail leveled out, the grim face of the Rockwall appeared before me and just barely golden alpine larches dotted the side of the trail: I had reached the basin of Floe Lake.

Just-golden larches at Floe Lake
I hiked Floe Lake in September with the intention of seeing the larches at the lake in golden color, but I soon realized that I was a bit too early for the best color. While a handful of larches had turned, for the most part, the deciduous conifers near Floe Lake were still green.

Larches near Floe Lake
Once at the lake basin, the trail stayed in the forest for another quarter mile, staying in the trees to the north of the lake. Finally, when the trail arrived at the Floe Lake Campground, I found a spur trail that led me down to a picnic area by the lakeshore.

Floe Lake has been described as one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies. While I hesitate to back up such a claim- the Canadian Rockies have a wealth of beautiful places- I was very impressed by both the lake's beauty and the imposing cliffs of the Rockwall. The fierce towers of stone rose on the other shore of the lake like the walls of an impenetrable fortress. Having missed the brief window of the day when light strikes the wall, I gazed up at the detailed lines of compressed sediment of the Rockwall darkened by a gloomy midday shadow.

Floe Lake
The color of the lake was an almost otherworldly blue in direct sunlight. The intense saturation of color of the lake made the scenery appear almost unnatural. The lake's color results from rock flour resultant from erosion by the glaciers across the lake. The remnants of a few glaciers sat at the base of the Rockwall, grinding the vertical walls into fine particulate matter. Compared with historical photographs, it was astonishing how much the glaciers had shrunk. Floe Lake's name is derived from the ice floes that used to fill the lake from glacial calving; as the glaciers have shrunk, they've ceased to produce floes, ending the unique phenomenon for which the lake was named.

Floe Lake
Leaving the lakeshore, I continued a little further along the trail and came to the warden cabin at Floe Lake. The cabin is staffed occasionally by park rangers and offers a good view down to the lake from its front porch.

Floe Lake Warden Cabin
Past the warden cabin, the trail made a turn to the north and left the lake, heading towards Numa Pass. Many day hikers will find Floe Lake itself to be a sufficient destination, but strong hikers can reap even greater rewards by continuining on to Numa Pass.

The trail climbed in fits, alternating between short steep ascents and flat strolls through open meadows. Larches were everywhere but most unfortunately were still in summer color. I found many great views of the Rockwall at the frequent clearings along the trail.

Numa Pass Trail
The trail soon began ascending in earnest, switchbacking through a forest of larch trees. As I gained elevation, I noticed increasingly more larches that had started to assume their autumn colors.

Larches on the trail to Numa Pass
As the trail finally emerged from the forest, I had an immense view of the Rockwall to the south. Floe Lake was visible at the foot of the massive ramparts of the Rockwall, which then tapered off to its southern end. The northern continuation of the Rockwall could be in nearby Mount Foster.

Floe Lake and the Rockwall from the trail to Numa Pass
The muddy trail cut through open alpine meadows to reach the pass; the last quarter mile of the trail was fairly flat, consisting mainly of a northward turn towards the pass.

Numa Pass
Whereas earlier sections of the hike had stuck to forested or meadow-covered areas, Numa Pass was a barren, rocky place. I could see along the length of the Rockwall, which stretched in either direction from the pass; to the north, a grove of larches lay high in the valley of Numa Creek. Far off, the unmistakable forms of the Ten Peaks rose near Moraine Lake. The Rockwall Trail continued through the pass, descending towards Numa Creek and the heading off for the eventual meadowlands at Wolverine and Tumbling Passes.

View along the Rockwall from Numa Pass
After briefly enjoying the views at the intensely windy pass, I decided to go a little farther for some better views and climb up the knoll just east of the pass. The views from atop this summit were much better than those from the pass and required just one last extra bit of effort (about an additional 500 feet of elevation gain). There was no trail, so I made my way up the loose pile of sedimentary rocks to the top of the ridge. Views improved steadily as I climbed until becoming absolutely stunning once I was atop the mound. The pyramidal form of Numa Peak rose nearby to the east; fresh snow coated Stanley Peak and other Kootenay summits across the valley of the Vermillion River. Mount Assiniboine, the Matterhorn of the Rockies, was buried amongst the clouds to the southeast.

Numa Peak
Far off, I could clearly make out the forms of the Wenkchemna Peaks near Moraine Lake, with snowy Mount Temple poking just above the other peaks. Hungabee and Biddle Peaks, near Lake O'Hara, were also visible. The upper reaches of nearby slopes had patches of larches in the early stages of color change, making for a particularly beautiful scene.

Hungabee, the Ten Peaks, Temple, and larches
The Rockwall defined the western skyline. An impenetrable line of cliff-faced mountains stretched to the north and south, one of the most awesome sights of the Canadian Rockies. Foster Peak rose directly across Numa Pass, while Tumbling Peak lay to the north. Floe Lake appeared to be just a pond at the foot of the Rockwall from this angle. I spotted many glacial remnants along the length of the Rockwall; it was disheartening to think that these last bits of glaciers were likely to disappear within decades.

View along the Rockwall from the knoll on the shoulder of Numa Peak
This is a spectacular hike and probably the easiest way to see Kootenay's famed Rockwall in a day. Fit hikers will find this trail to be manageable in one long summer day. With more time in the future, I'd love to return to Kootenay and hike the full length of the Rockwall and see the alpine meadows of Wolverine Pass; having seen the beauty of Floe Lake, it's hard to resist returning.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Clatsop Loop

View of Tillamook Rock Light from the top of the trail
3 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, Ecola State Park entrance fee required ($5 as of 2017)

The short Clatsop Loop in Oregon's Ecola State Park, just outside Cannon Beach, delivers outstanding views of the Northwest coastline and travels through terrain once visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The best views of the hike come early in the loop, but the end of the hike also delivers a satisfying view of Tillamook Rock Light, a lonely and windswept lighthouse battered constantly by the Pacific.

I hiked this loop with my mother and sister during our trip to Oregon for the solar eclipse. The day after the eclipse, we drove out to the seashore, spending the morning at Cannon Beach before coming to Ecola State Park for the hike. To reach the trailhead from Portland, we took US 26 west from Beaverton through Tillamook State Forest and the Coast Range until reaching US 101; we then followed US 101 south for 4 miles to the turnoff for Cannon Beach, where we exited the highway. Shortly after coming off the highway, we made a right turn onto 5th St, following signs for Ecola State Park; we then followed 5th St as it narrowed, winding through the forest until it reached the Ecola State Park entrance. We made a brief stop at the Ecola State Park day use area with its iconic view of the Cannon Beach coast before driving to the end of the road at Indian Beach.

Cannon Beach viewed from Ecola State Park
The trail started at the beautiful, sandy Indian Beach, a popular waterfront access point near the wild seastacks of Ecola Point and Tillamook Head. The trailhead was at the north end of the parking lot; a sign at the trailhead detailed the loop and recommended hiking the trail counterclockwise, but we chose to tackle the loop clockwise to enjoy the views of the ocean first.

Indian Beach
The wide gravel trail headed north from the trailhead, quickly coming to a split between the Lighthouse Trail and the wider gravel road; we took the right fork for the coastal trail, which crossed a bridge over a creek and then immediately narrowed and began climbing. The trail quickly came to a series of viewpoints above Indian Beach, allowing us to look down the coast to the seastacks around Ecola Point and giving us an overhead view of the surf as it came onto Indian Beach. We also caught a closer look of columnar basalt cliffs and seastacks: even amateur geologists can easily recognize these as the result of volcanic activity. What is fascinating, though, is that there are no nearby volcanoes: these flood basalts actually flowed to Tillamook Head all the way from Eastern Washington, forming along with the Columbia Plateau flood basalts in massive eruptions over 10 million years ago.

Columnar basalt at Indian Beach
As a number of interpretive plaques on the trail point out, the Lewis and Clark expedition came to Tillamook Head and the area around Ecola State Park during their stay at Fort Clatsop, just to the north. They found the rotting corpse of a whale not too far from the current trail.

View of Indian Beach along the Lighthouse Trail
Indian Beach
This leg of the Clatsop Loop is also part of the Oregon Coast Trail, a 425-mile long distance trail covering the length of the Oregon Coast.

Past the initial viewpoints of Indian Beach, the trail continued ascending through the forest with fewer viewpoints. One of the intermediate overlooks delivered a stunning view over the ocean from a precarious, cliff-top perch. After this viewpoint, the trail delved deeper into the woods, climbing via switchbacks up the slopes of Tillamook Head.

Pacific Ocean
After the ascent topped out, the trail circled around the east side of the high point of Tillamook Head. The return leg of the Clatsop Loop- the fire road- was visible below as the trail began a gradual descent to the junction with that return trail. At the junction, I took the left fork and followed the trail a few steps further to Hikers Camp, the site of a number of small wooden structures in the forest that serves as an overnight shelter for hikers on the Oregon Coast Trail. Rather than head back from here, we chose to continue to the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Viewpoint. This trail descended slightly through the forest until reaching a small, fenced overlook with a view out to the ocean.

The view at the end of the trail was not very wide, as trees blocked the views along the coast to either side. However, looking out, we could see the lone silhouette of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse against the fog on the sea. The setting of the lighthouse was beyond desolate. The structure- nicknamed Terrible Tilly for the punishing weather conditions it endured- stood atop a large barren rock. A staircase cut into the rock led down to the base of the island, where hundreds of sea lions were beached. At the time of its construction, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was the most expensive lighthouse built on the West Coast. Constant battering from the elements led to frequent damage; although the lighthouse helped many ships naviagate down the treacherous Oregon Coast, it was retired in 1957 due in part to high operational costs.

Terrible Tilly
Returning to Hikers Camp, we followed the gravel road back to the trailhead. The descent was steady as it dropped about 800 feet in slightly over a mile through the forest; we soon found ourselves back at the Indian Beach trailhead. We ended our day by driving down to Tillamook for cheese-tasting.

This hike is an easy way to see a spectacular stretch of more wild coast. It's got something for most people- history, gorgeous views, a beach. I've done scant hiking on the Oregon Coast outside of this loop so it's difficult to make comparisons, but it's difficult for me to imagine this hike being anything outside of one of the better short hikes along the coast.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Iron Bear

Mount Rainier and western larches from Teanaway Ridge
6.5 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required

Iron Bear, in the Teanaway of Washington State's Cascade Range, is an underappreciated hike with beautiful color in both the spring and fall. Each spring, profuse wildflowers fill the slopes of Teanaway Ridge, while fall brings bright yellow color to the western larches dotting the nearby valleys. Views from Iron Bear cover much of the Teanaway, with cameos by Mount Rainier and Mount Stuart, two of the more impressive peaks in Washington State. This is a fairly easily accessible summit, with few challenges on the trail itself, although hikers do share this trail with bikers for much of the year.

I hiked this trail twice within a year, first visting in June for the profuse wildflower display and then in October for the western larches. On my October visit, I hiked with two friends on a warm, sunny fall day. From Seattle, we followed I-90 east across Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum; exiting at Cle Elum, we drove through town on Highway 903 and then continued east on Highway 10 towards Ellensburg after passing an interchange with I-90. At the junction with Highway 970, we stayed to the left to head towards Blewett Pass and Wenatchee. After Highway 970 connected with US 97, we continued north until reaching Forest Service Road 9714, which was not well marked and easy to miss; we turned left onto 9714 and followed the gravel road along Iron Creek. Towards the end, the road crossed over a small creek and became rougher; we parked right before the creek crossing and walked the rest of the way to the trailhead. There was parking right after the creek crossing as well.

The trail dove into the forest, quickly crossing a stream and then heading gradually uphill, cutting through a forest of ponderosa pine and larch; at points, switchbacks helped moderate what was already a fairly gentle ascent.

Iron Bear Trail in spring
During my June visit, the trail was filled with blooming wildflowers: I spotted paintbrush, penstemon, lupine, glacier lilies, columbine, and arrowleaf balsamroot. One oddly shaped flower near the trail had grown a broad, curved stem unlike the stems of the flowers nearby; my friend and I wondered if this was simply a variant of the flower, or some unique genetic mutant.

What is this?
Glacier lilies on Iron Bear in spring
Arrowleaf balsamroot in spring
The trail soon exited the forest onto rocky slopes, where there were partial views of the Iron Creek valley. After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb uphill on the other side of the valley, on the slopes of Teanaway Ridge. At this point, we began to see the many western larches dotting the bottom and sides of the valley, most of which had turned bright golden; a few trees had progressed further, with duller yellow needles.

Western larches fill the valley of Iron Creek 
Although the ascent was continuous, the open views of the trail made the hike seem quite easy. The upper reaches of the Iron Bear Trail featured views out to Tronsen Ridge and passed by trees adorned with fluorescent lichen.

The ascent towards Teanaway Ridge
Fall is perhaps the best season for hiking this trail: this is one of the most easily accessible spots for seeing western larches for hikers from the Puget Sound area. While the alpine version of these deciduous conifers are often more highly prized, the lower elevation western larches are equivalently colorful and often have beautifully symmetric crowns. The low angle sunlight of fall often lends an almost magical glow to these trees.

Golden western larches on Teanaway Ridge
About a mile and a half into the hike, we came to a saddle on Teanaway Ridge where the Iron Bear Trail intersected the Teanaway Ridge Trail. A nice campsite with a fire ring and a log chair was situated in the saddle at the junction. We took the Teanaway Ridge Trail north towards Iron Bear Mountain, which meant taking a sharp right turn to follow the ridge to the north. Iron Bear itself was visible through the pines at the saddle.

Looking towards Iron Bear from Teanaway Ridge
Hiking above the saddle, the trail passed through an open section of ridge with views to both sides. To the east lay Tronsen Ridge and the Iron Creek valley through which we had ascended; to the west were the Bear Creek Valley and the many layers of ridges of the Teanaway. Here, the fall color of the larches were joined by the yellows of deciduous bushes.

Fall colors in the Teanaway
The trail stayed mostly in the open as it ascended Iron Bear, yielding views of a forest of larches on the west side of Teanaway Ridge. Mount Rainier was soon visible to the south; further up in the ascent, we were able to spot the Goat Rocks and the very top of Mount Adams, as well.

Mount Rainier rises above the Teanaway
Trees of the Teanaway
The trail switchbacked up the side of Iron Bear, alternating between forest and open slopes. There was one downed tree along this stretch of trail; otherwise, the path was clear and easy to follow. We saw a decent number of people on the trail, but in general this hike was reasonably quiet considering that the weather was so nice and the larches were at peak color.

At points, the trail was built out of cinder blocks- an odd choice that my friends and I puzzled over. Were the cinder blocks meant to prevent erosion? Perhaps this had something to do with the multi-use nature of the trail? Odder still was a pile of unused cinder blocks off to the side of the trail a short distance before the summit.

After catching our first view of Mount Stuart while hiking through forest, the trail made a final ascent with open views to the east of Tronsen Ridge and out past the wind farms to Kittitas Valley.

Tronsen Ridge
The summit of Iron Bear was slightly off the trail, accessible by an unmarked spur heading off to the left. If the trail begins to descend, you've gone too far. The summit was broad, with a number of outcrops that made for good lunch spots. The views to the west were sweeping: the Teanaway was laid out at our feet, with a few summits of the Stuart Range rising beyond. Larches were interspersed with the pine forests that covered the dry slopes of the Teanaway. Mount Stuart, the second tallest non-volcanic peak in the state, poked out from the gap between Earl and Navaho Peaks, two of the taller mountains of the Teanaway.

Mount Stuart rises above the Teanaway
Mount Rainier rose far to the south, floating above the foggy blue ridges of the Cascades. The Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers formed a great white cloak over the eastern side of the mountain, while Liberty Cap capped the steep sides of the Willis Wall. Inversion fog still filled the valley of the Yakima River. The fire lookout was visible atop Red Top, although the green and gold forested slopes of Red Top begged the question of why that peak was named Red Top.

Mount Rainier and the Teanaway larches
We had the summit to ourselves for the better part of an hour, enjoying the sunshine and the fall colors. Although it was quite windy at the summit, we found a spot where a clump of trees formed a windbreak to sit and gaze out at the Teanaway and Mount Rainier. I was loath to leave, reluctant to yield the glorious views of the high country of the Cascades to the oncoming grip of winter.

Endless layers of ridges

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blue Lake (North Cascades)

Liberty Bell and Early Winter Spires rise aboves the larches at Blue Lake
4.4 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Nestled at the foot of the impressive granite spires near Washington Pass, Blue Lake is a stunning locale for seeing the fall colors of alpine larches in Washington State's North Cascades. As this may be the easiest hike to view alpine larches from a paved road in Washington State, Blue Lake is an understandably popular hike; while many hikers frequent the lake in summer, autumn brings the biggest crowds. Hikers who prefer peace and quiet with their golden conifers and don't mind a longer hike will want to look elsewhere, whether across the road at Cutthroat Pass or off the Harts Pass Road at Grasshopper Pass.

I hiked to Blue Lake with a friend on an overcast October Saturday. Setting out from Seattle, we followed I-5 north to Burlington, then followed Highway 20 east through North Cascades National Park and across Rainy Pass until reaching the Blue Lake Trailhead on the south side of the road, about a mile downhill from Washington Pass. Snow covered the North Cascades, with a fall snowstorm having dumped a few inches across the mountains before the larch needles had finished falling. The trailhead parking lot had filled by the time we arrived in the afternoon, so we parked alongside the road downhill from the lot. Although the crowds here certainly smaller than those I've seen at Rattlesnake Ledge (which has similar length and difficulty), there were far more people on this hike than I've seen in the past on hikes this far out from Seattle.

From the trailhead, the trail headed into the forest, at first paralleling Highway 20 on its way towards Washington Pass, climbing gently. The trail cut a few wide, sweeping switchbacks on the slopes of Liberty Bell Mountain, with each turn so far removed from the last that the switchbacks were essentially imperceptible. Snow covered the trail from the start, so we immediately donned microspikes and Yaktrax. Many hikers had come without traction devices for their shoes and were struggling to make their way uphill and faced an even more slippery time coming down on the well-packed trail.

A little under a mile of hiking, the trail emerged into the open for the first time, delivering the first views of golden larches lining the high slopes of the surrounding peaks.

First view of the larches
In the understory, vine maples and berry bushes provided beautiful constrasting colors with the monochromatic dark green-and-white colors of the forest. In the clearing, Frisco Peak appeared off in the distance: I had a clear view to the high ridge from which the Maple Pass Loop descends.

Frisco Peak
The trail reentered the forest and maintained a steady though still gentle climb through the forest, making another switchback up the slopes of Liberty Bell Mountain before breaking out into a series of small clearings as we saw our first trailside larches. Partial views of snowbound Whistler and Cutthroat Peaks across the valley were stunning as the summits danced with the clouds; the larches provided fiery color to what otherwise resembled a nearly black-and-white landscape. Corteo Peak made some brief cameos, although we never caught a clear view of it or any of the peaks further to the north. The granite teeth of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires rose behind us to the east.

Larches with Whistler and Cutthroat Peaks
After we passed a sign indicating that camping was not allowed within a quarter mile of Blue Lake, we followed the trail along some semi-open north-facing stretches with occasional views to the nearby peaks. Larches were now all around the trail and their falling needles formed a thin film atop the trailside snow. These final stretches of trail appeared particularly slippery to many other hikers, many of whom were having difficulty descending without traction; we observed numerous hikers slip or slide on the packed snow.

Larches along the trail
After crossing the outlet stream, we found ourselves at the shore of Blue Lake. Under overcast skies, the lake did not quite live up to its name, appearing fairly dark with just slight hints of blue; yet this made the landscape beautiful in a different, stark manner. The constrast between the muted colors of the early winter scene and the fiery larches was striking and beautifully incongruous.

Larches at the outlet of Blue Lake
Two paths branched at the lake: one led along the lakeshore, while the other led uphill. The collapsing remnants of an old shelter lay just to the side of the trail at this junction, which was interesting to briefly check out. Afterwards, we made our way to the lakeshore viewpoint, where we found that our late start had helped us avoid the worst of the midday hiking rush; only a few other hikers were there to share the views of the snow-covered cliffs on the far side of the lake and the bright larches on the lake's east shore. While we gazed out, a Steller's Jay flitted around, the iridescent blue of its feathers contrasting sharply with the snow.

Blue Lake
We chose to have lunch a little higher up, hiking along the other trail a short distance to a rock with a view of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires rising over Blue Lake. While the trail continued uphill, likely to even better views of the nearby peaks, we called it quits here due to time constraints and enjoyed the overlap of fall and winter before backtracking to the trailhead for the long drive back to Seattle.

Blue Lake, Liberty Bell, Early Winter Spires
Blue Lake