Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Along the North Cascades Scenic Highway: Hiking to Blue Lake

No matter what my worries du jour, a brisk hike always seems to clear things up.  Studies show that being in a natural environment helps improve everything from wound healing to depression and ADHD.

So step away from the computer, turn off your smart phone, and get outside. I guarantee you'll feel more alive and attuned to the world around you.

One of my favorite places in the Northwest for outdoor splendor is Washington’s North Cascades, a dramatic jumble of mountains up near the Canadian border. I think early fall is the best time to hop in your vehicle or on your bike and head over the North Cascades Scenic Highway (Highway 20). Summer crowds are down, and the stretch from Newhalem to Mazama (about 50 miles) is a nonstop panorama of craggy, glacier-scoured peaks laced with crimson and gold, and mountain lakes fringed with evergreen forests. I always find the trip invigorating and awe-inspiring.

On Labor Day weekend with North Cascades Institute (NCI), a group of us drive to 5,300-foot-high Washington Pass for a hike up to Blue Lake. At the pass, the granite spires of Liberty Bell tower over the highway. Behind them, Blue Lake shimmers at the base of a glacial cirque. Blue, however, hardly captures the shifting shades of aqua, turquoise, green, and sapphire of this alpine lake.

First we stop at Washington Pass lookout for expansive views down toward the Methow Valley and a bathroom break before hiking. We’ve crossed over east of the Cascade crest, where the sun shines more and rain falls less.

Alas, we have to use the old-style outhouse, despite the presence of a $1.2 million green compost toilet facility that has been closed for a few years. Word of mouth is that it won’t compost well. I vote for taking out the toilets and making the beautifully crafted timber building a latte stand/teahouse.

At only 2.2 miles from the trailhead to the lake, the trail to Blue Lake meanders 1,000 feet up a mild grade through subalpine forest. We pass through a clearing of trees downed by an avalanche, and stop in the forest along the way for a bit of environmental education. After all, three naturalists from NCI are with us.

More than halfway to the lake Katie, NCI staffer and climber, points up. “There’s the rock climbers' access route for Liberty Bell,” she says as we look at the backside of the peaks. With binoculars we spy a red-helmeted climber way up the north spire.

One of the pleasures of hiking in the mountains later in the season is the lack of pesky mosquitoes and black flies. As we arrive at Blue Lake, the air is clean and bug-free. Since it is a sunny Saturday on a holiday weekend, however, it’s not people free. But the setting is still beautiful. (Go on a week day if you can.)

As we splay across talus boulders near the lakeshore and munch lunch, tufts of white clouds drift overhead past the cirque ridge top above the lake. Cute little stripe-backed chipmunks skitter up to us and dart away. I call them the hummingbirds of the rodent family – small and constantly moving at hyper-speed. One bold little guy even scampers across Don’s legs as he naps.

Although the low-to-the-ground shrubs are starting to turn red, as of Labor Day weekend the larches haven’t yet begun to turn gold. They will quickly, though.

On the way down, views of the distant peaks are spread before us. We’re back at the trailhead within a few hours of when we started, not too tired but flush with all that mountain fresh air.

When You Go
The Blue Lake trailhead is just before the Liberty Bell spires on the right side of Highway 20 if you’re coming from the wetter, west side of the mountains. This is an easy hike for the whole family. We even saw a family with a stroller at the lake for their toddler, although the trail is dirt and sometimes a bit rocky. Dogs are allowed on the trail since it’s not in the North Cascades National Park complex. And a special thanks to our weekend organizer/leader Paul Wiemerslage, who has a great future ahead as an inspiring and enthusiastic environmental educator!


Lesley A. said...

Beautiful photos. I haven't done this one. But, very nearby, is the Maple Pass loop -- about 7-8 miles with some great vistas. Also the longer (10+ miles one-way -- a fabulous place to camp) trek along the PCT to Snowy Lakes. Both highly recommended.

LJ said...

Another great hike idea! The next weekend there is no home Husky game I would love to take this hike...I wonder how much longer the weather will be ok? I think we hiked and camped here as a kid. Those lake pictures are really beautiful

Stephanie said...

Your blog just keeps getting better and better.


jill said...

Hey Les,
Thanks for the tips. I've gone partway up Maple Pass but it was snowing - have heard it's fantastic. Let's do it sometime!

Miss LJ, yes, grab your guy and head for the mountains for a hike. Dazzle him with the beauty of our state! You probably didn't camp at Blue Lake because they don't allow camping there, although maybe they used to some years ago. There are numerous glacial cirque lakes in the Cascades that look similiar.

Stephanie, Thank you for your gracious comment!

Rich said...

Looks like you had a perfect late summer hike!

Lisa Osse said...

Nice post, Jill. You are making me homesick!

gayle said...

Hi, did I tell you I loved your latest posts?