Larch Madness: Blue Lake

Every year, I swear I’ll be better at posting. Yet here it is, January, and I’m writing about a larch hike from October. Oops!

In all fairness, larch hikes need advance planning. By the time this would have been read, the larches would have been past prime already. So consider this a tip for next fall!

I say in every fall color post that there are “the big 4” larch hikes in Washington. Cutthroat Lake, Cutthroat Pass, Heather-Maple Loop Pass, and Blue Lake. These hikes are close in proximity to each other near Winthrop, Washington, and are not too difficult, so the crowds on a weekend in peak subalpine larch season–typically two weeks in late September to mid October–are heinous. I highly recommend using whatever means to visit these hikes on a weekday and not a weekend during larch season.

2022 saw me completing this quartet. Despite thick smoke all around, Marissa and I were determined to get in some larch hikes in Winthrop. On a Thursday morning, we woke up at the in-laws, got some Blue Star Coffee, and got one of the last parking spots at the trailhead (don’t fret if full, there’s ample space up and down Highway 20–especially on the weekend, you’ll need it). I admit, at the beginning I was pretty disappointed by this hike, wondering why it was popular–the first mile or so is just getting away from the highway, and you hear road noise the entire time. The first break from the woods, about a mile in, gets you away from the road noise and into some beautiful scenery, including some blazing yellow (and for us, some just-past prime reds).

There’s a bit of a bend here, and another stretch in trees before another not-quite hairpin. From there, the stunning larches emerge. Admittedly, for me at least, this ended up being a far better view than the lake. I was a little surprised at how some larches were prime, some past, and some still green.

But, to the lake was our goal, so we continued onward. Eventually, we hit some trickling water, and knew the lake was close. The morning light both made the water beautiful, and the lighting for our pictures entirely washed out, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

There were not nearly as many larches at the lake as I had been hoping for. There also was a couple with an off-leash dog (that was hounding me for snacks) that were loudly expressing their disappointment that with so many people present they couldn’t skinny dip (umm, maybe don’t pick one of the most popular October hikes in the state then?). Maybe hindsight has dulled my memory of the lake, but I was itching to get back to the stunning views from the trail. However, the rocks along the lake are amazing for having lunch or a snack. After we took a break, we hit the trail back, as more and more hikers were streaming in.

We had received a tip from a hiker at Goat Peak Lookout the day before to hike a little bit upward at the signed Liberty Bell climbing route trail, and we are so glad we took that advice on our way back! We weren’t sure just how far up she meant for us to go, but in just a few steps,¬† the stunning larches above us when we were on the Blue Lake trail became the larches around us, as we looked down from higher at the beautiful valley, with Cutthroat Peak across the way. The smoke wasn’t bad at all, but we were taking in extra deep breaths in preparation for the long, smoke-filled trip home. With children and pups and the real world waiting, we tore ourselves away and headed back to the trailhead. Like many hikes, I had gratitude on the way down, even if this was my least favorite of the Big 4. Still a gorgeous hike, but if you have the time and ability to do more miles or more difficult, there is better out there.


The view from hiking just a little bit on the Liberty Bell offshoot from the trail.

In summary:

Distance: 4.4 miles (according to WTA); we did some extra exploring around the Liberty Bell trail for 4.8 total miles.

Elevation: 1050 feet, according to WTA, but I only clocked 890. Very gradual and well-spread out.

Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass

Bathrooms: Pit toilets at trailhead.

Best beer bet: Like any Winthrop-area hike, you can’t go wrong with Old Schoolhouse Brewery, if heading east after your hike.

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