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

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