Friday, November 14, 2014

Hiking to Blanca Lake Before the Snow Flies

Some things are definitely worth the wait. 

Take Blanca Lake, crown jewel of the Cascades alpine lakes: Years ago I tried to hike there, but a road washout left us unable to reach the trailhead.  Then years passed, I developed chronic Achilles tendinitis, had to stop hiking for several years, worked back up to longer hikes again, and finally made my way to Blanca Lake.

We got a late start on this unseasonably mild and clear November day after driving several miles off Highway 2 and finding the road to Tonga Ridge gated closed. Thanks to my hiking buddy Jennifer for a  perfect Plan B, Blanca Lake.

After the long drive up backroads north of Skykomish and a wrong turn that led us to a makeshift shooting range, which was sort of scary,  we finally hit the trail around 11 a.m. (FYI, at the five-way intersection, take a true left.)

Essentially it's an upward grind through what seems to be mostly second-growth forest up 3 miles over 30 switchbacks, an elevation gain of 2,700 feet.  When we reach peek-a-boo views through the trees, over an hour has passed. In another 20 minutes we top out at a ridge with great views of nearby Glacier Peak.

A lot of this...

Glacier Peak

This late in the season we've missed what was likely, a few weeks ago, brilliant scarlet leaves on the thick huckleberry covering the steep slopes below. After pausing for a swig of water and snack above small Virgin Lake, we enter the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness (RIP Scoop) and plunge down somewhat rougher switchbacks for 600 feet in elevation loss feet to Blanca Lake. 

Columbia Glacier shown lower left feeds Blanca Lake

 We're not alone by any stretch.  Many are out taking advantage of this late season day in the mountains before the snow flies, and, thankfully, after the deer flies.  No bugs is a bonus for fall hiking.

First views of Blanca Lake evoke wows! and ooohhhs! Set in a basin below Monte Cristo, Kyes, and Columbia peaks, it's a postcard-perfect image of a beautiful mountain lake. For a relatively high, natural alpine lake, Blanca Lake is large and almost mirage-like.

Yes the water really is that turquoise-colored.

Of course photos don't capture what it's truly like to be somewhere, but I try with a zillion shots. The unusual opaque turquoise shade of the lake is caused by the glacial melt streaming down from the hanging Columbia Glacier across the lake.

One downside of hiking this late in the year, after the clocks have turned back to Standard Time, is much shorter days. Unfortunately we can't explore when we get to the lake because it'll likely be dark by the time we get back down. The sun is already setting around 4:30 pm.

So we backtrack after about 10 minutes, enjoying the alpine meadows above the lake and a last lingering view of Glacier Peak before dropping into the many switchbacked forest below.

Luckily we made it back down to the trailhead before it got too dark and managed without our headlamps.  I hope the numerous hikers behind us had  flashlights.

Some rate this hike strenuous and difficult; it all depends on your conditioning. I sure felt it the next day, with my quads and outside back of the knees talking to me. It's comparable to hiking Mt. Si, but perhaps a bit more. Various sources place it as about 7.5 miles with 3,300 feet in elevation gain and loss.

Regardless, it's a good workout, it's spectacular, and I'll do it again. Let me know if you do, too.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
It's about a 2-hour drive from the Seattle area to the trailhead. Reach the Blanca Lake trailhead via Beckler Road (FR 65) just past Skykomish. Take FR 65 for 15 miles all the way to the intersection of FR 63 and the private Garland Mineral Springs Road. Take a right on FR 63 and proceed about 2 miles. The trailhead is on a small spur road to the left, up another small hill. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here.

 AND this late in the season the restroom at the trailhead is closed. DO NOT leave toilet paper lying on the ground in the woods behind the vault restroom. We go by a Leave No Trace ethic here in the Northwest, so bury it or better, stick it in a plastic bag and take with!


Lesley said...

THESE ARE AMAZING PHOTOS! (yes, the all-caps is on intentionally). Thanks for sharing this. I don't hike much on the west side, but this is gorgeous.

jill said...

Hey Lesley!
Glad you enjoyed the photos, thanks for the comment. Hard to take a bad shot of this spectacularly beautiful lake.

Suezy Proctor said...

Wow! Quite a hike but the view...holy tamoly- what a gorgeous view of the lake and Glacier Peak.Too bad you could not stay to enjoy it more. Now you'll be day-dreaming about your return...yes you will!

Thanks for the great share Jill.. I love this post!

jill said...

Thanks for the always inspiring comment Suezy!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the email link. I can't hike at all anymore, and do so enjoy tracing your routes, sharing the beauty you send our way. Sylvia

Anonymous said...

Ben notes, and I agree, that you have a beautiful eye for a great photo. I love your posts kiddo.

G.G. said...

Your photos are fabulous!! Bianca Lake looks like such a gem! I'd love to go along on one of your hikes. What AMAZING colors, clouds, mountains, water, trees, trails....etc. WOW!! Gail (from Orcas.)

jill said...

Sylvia, glad I could give you a vicarious hike!

ML, thanks, flattered about the compliment on the photos. I'm getting more into it..perhaps that art history degree somehow coming out and being useful, the power of observation?

Gail! Thanks, would love to have you join some time, now if we could figure out logistics...let's try.

Anonymous said...

Is this hike possible to do the weekend after xmas? Snowshoes??

jill said...

Dear anonymous who posted on December 24, 2015. Sorry I didn't check comments until today. I would have advised against doing this hike the weekend after Christmas with all the snowfall last week and avalanche hazards. Unless others were out there before you right after the storm (when conditions weren't stable), it would also be easy to get lost. But let me know if you see this and you went! I would check the website for recommendations of good snowshoe hikes in the winter. I am not a snowshoer much myself, primarily a skier. BTW if you do much showshoeing, I hope you carry an avalanche beacon and shovel. Happy trails!