Our Hiking Time: 4h 40m
Total Ascent: 3400ft (2700ft in; 700ft out)
Highest Point: 4700ft
Total Distance: 7.5 miles
Location: N 47° 56.0760, W 121° 20.5920
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
The bright blue skies of a September weekend were enough to push us to tackle an alpine lake that’s been on our list for years: Blanca Lake. The hike is known for the vivid colors of the lakewater and a relentless series of switchbacks gaining nearly 3000ft in three miles. We expected a challenge and Blanca Lake delivered.
Nestled in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness at the bottom of a cirque formed by Kyes, Monte Cristo, and Columbia Peaks, Lake Blanca is something of a hidden treasure. At least it was at some point. Today the Blanca Lake Trail #1052 is very popular, drawing dozens of hikers down miles of gravel forest roads every weekend.
The trail beings pleasantly enough, gliding quickly through forests of hemlock and sword fern. Within a few tenths of a mile you enter the Wild Sky Wilderness and the trail quickly steepens, signaling the beginning of the three mile ascent. Surprisingly, the trail is well-maintained here, largely free of the jutting rocks and roots more typical of trails in the area. As you climb, the water-loving ferns slowly recede and are replaced with heartier huckleberry, eventually yielding to lush meadows at the top.
While the lower trail is completely tree-covered, the meadows offer your legs some respite and some of the first views of the hike. On a good day, you’ll see Glacier Peak looming in the near distance through the occasional break in the treeline. Once you push through the meadows to the top of the saddle and some of the best vistas, the trail begins a fairly steep descent down to the lakeshore. The route drops about 600ft, quickly passing Virgin Lake and a host of decent campsites following a much rougher and narrower trail. The expected jumble of rocks and roots are in full attendance, making the path a little more slippery and precarious. Luckily, the Washington Trail Association was already on the scene doing some trail work to make the hike more navigable.
The trail spills you out at the top of the cirque, the vibrant green-blue waters of Blanca Lake standing out in sharp contrast to the sheer granite walls surrounding the lake. The snowfield in the distance is Columbia Glacier, which fuels the lake with run-off and glacial silt, helping to give the lake its distinctive color. While most folks end the hike here, we suggest you continue down the trail to the lakeshore and Blanca’s outlet, Troublesome Creek. Supposedly the trail continues around the lake to the Glacier, though it requires fording Troublesome Creek. Starting from the creek and running clockwise, the ridgeline climbs up Columbia Peak, then to Monte Cristo Peak just to the right of the glacier before running into the imposing crags of Kyes Peak. Claim some space and take it all in. Or, if you’re thirsty for adventure and you feel very confident in your rock climbing skills, you can clamber down the rocks along Troublesome Creek to Blanca Lake Falls, a reportedly enormous series of waterfalls, some dropping hundreds of feet to the rocks below.
We recommend this hike for most hikers, though some will find the elevation gain a little too taxing. Of course, as we mentioned, Lake Blanca attracts quite a few hikers, and you can expect quite a bit of company when you make the trek. However, this isn’t a hike to do early in the season to avoid the crowds, as the lake needs to thaw in order to reveal its trademark colors. This is definitely a destination for those hikers looking for something a little different – Lake Blanca is not your typical alpine lake.
To get there, take Highway 2 out past Skykomish to milepost 50. Take a left onto FR 65, also known as the Beckler River Road. Continue for almost seven miles to a junction and pavement end. From here continue north for just under six miles to a 5-way intersection known as Jack Pass. Take the second left and continue two-and-a-half miles to FR 63. Turn right and drive two miles to the trailhead. -Nathan
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