Monday, September 28, 2015

Wanderings: Blue Lake


Larches at Blue Lake

I nervously eyed the temperature display in the truck as it quickly dropped from a near-balmy 59 to a bracing 47 degrees as we climbed up Highway 20 in a cold, steady rain. My husband and I were headed home from a brief visit to the Methow Valley, and had planned to stop for the short hike up to Blue Lake, but the weather didn't appear to be cooperating. We parked at the trailhead and sorted through our things to see if we had the appropriate gear to hike safely in this weather, and ultimately decided we should be okay. With hoods pulled tightly over our heads, we splashed across the wet parking lot and headed out on the muddy trail to make the 2.2 mile ascent to Blue Lake.

Truth be told, I was actually excited to finally have an opportunity to test out the waterproof hiking pants I received as a Christmas gift from my husband last year. Yep, it's been that long since I've hiked in the rain. Thanks, drought...

We set out onto the trail, following a few sets of rain-sodden boardwalks into a dense forest of Pacific silver fir. It was a very dark forest: the trees, needles, and trunks were all dark, the earth was damp and dark... were it not for the bursts of color provided by the autumn foliage, the early portion of this hike would have been a bit dismal. Rain dripped from the boughs overhead, splattering on my nose and cheeks. Scattered along the trail and piled in drifts around tree trunks were shredded pine cones, consumed by what appeared to be a very healthy squirrel population in this forest, although we didn't see any squirrels during the hike.


There are some busy squirrels here!

The trail gently ascended through the forest, then suddenly emerged into a wide-open meadow about a mile in. After being in the darkened forest for awhile, my eyes hungrily drank in the sudden explosion of autumn colors in the meadow. It was absolutely spectacular. The open meadow also offered us a look up at our end goal: behind a stand of trees on a ridge way overhead, we could clearly identify a flat, open space into which Blue Lake was surely nestled.


We continued onward, briefly winding through the meadow before returning to the forest to resume the gradual, steady upward climb. At this point, the rain lightened and we were getting a bit warm and sweaty from the exertion, so we paused to shed a few layers, gulp some water, and catch our breath before continuing. As we climbed, the silver fir forest began to thin, allowing us astounding views of the surrounding mountains, which were dotted with red, orange, and yellow autumn hues where they weren't swathed in trailing clouds and mist.


And then we suddenly left the dim forest behind and found ourselves in this technicolor world of fall foliage. There were red huckleberry leaves and yellow larches. This was the first time I'd seen larches in person. I was very excited about the larches.

Huckleberry plants
So colorful! Look at the larches!


At this point, we began passing other hikers who were already on their way down from the lake. Doing some quick math in my head, I realized that the number of cars parked at the trailhead (just a handful) roughly corresponded with the number of descending hiking groups we were passing. We'd probably have the lake to ourselves. Perfect. The rain still fell lightly, although I didn't notice it much anymore, too enamored as I was with the gorgeous, almost-unreal scenery that surrounded us. I felt like Alice in Wonderland or something. We crossed a stream trickling across a rocky portion of the trail, and I knew we were getting close to the lake.

We rounded a corner, and there it was at last: the gleaming water of Blue Lake resolved from the misty alpine scenery. Only a glimpse of the lake could be seen from here, so we followed the trail, crossing the lake's trickling outlet stream across a narrow log bridge. The trail around the lake was carefully roped off, with signs announcing that certain areas were closed for restoration. I imagine that this trail sees a large crowd of hikers during the summer months, and they'd really done a number on the delicate vegetation here. Obediently staying away from the roped-off areas, we made our way to the small beach at the water's edge, where I stood gaping, gasping, exclaiming over the beauty that spread out before us.

Oh, the colors!!
This had to be the most gorgeous scene I'd ever encountered, made even more lovely by the knowledge that my own two feet and determined effort had brought me here. Aquamarine lake, autumnal foliage, a light rain hissing and whispering over the surface of the water, marring it with ripples. Emerging from my awestruck trance, I dug my camera from the backpack and started snapping away. We climbed up onto a large boulder for a better view. The lake spread out before us; serene, colorful, completely wonderful, and insulated into silence by the heavy clouds that had closed in all around. I tucked my camera underneath my sweatshirt in an attempt to protect it from the persistent drizzle, and we watched tiny fish jumping out of the water, listened to rocks clattering and tumbling down the steep granite mountain at the far end of the lake, perhaps knocked loose by the mountain goats that live here.




Despite our best efforts, we hadn't managed to stay very dry in the wet weather. Our wet clothes and the cold temperatures indicated that it was time to turn around and head back. As we climbed back down the boulder, we were visited by a very bold, inquisitive gray jay alighting on a small tree just an arm's length away. He sat there, feathers all soft and fluffed up, tilting his head as he sized us up. Never in my life have I encountered a bird so curious and unafraid of my presence. He flew away across the lake, and a second bird landed on the tree to take his place. He investigated us for a moment before following his friend and swooping across the lake. Jokingly, I said okay, where's number three? No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a third gray jay landed on the tree. This time, I lifted my camera and snapped a few photos of the obliging bird, who was unperturbed by my movements and the snapping camera shutter. He flew away without being replaced by another jay, so we took this as permission to leave.

Gray Jay. He was so beautiful!

With one last glance at the most beautiful lake I'd ever seen - now thickly socked in by clouds - we turned and headed back down the trail, speeding along to return to the warm, dry truck and thick slices of leftover cake that awaited us in the cooler in the backseat. Because what else would you do after a spectacular rainy day hike to a stunning alpine lake but eat a piece of cake to celebrate?

It's a good thing we arrived when we did! The lake was socked in by the time we left.

Washington State appears to be graced by several bodies of water going by the name Blue Lake, but the one we hiked was right along Highway 20, tucked just inside the eastern boundary of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Thanks to the steady, very gradual ascent and absence of switchbacks, this is an excellent trail for people like myself who struggle with uphill hikes that have any measurable elevation gain. A relatively short hike with a huge payoff... this one is a must-do! If you can manage it, hit the trails for this hike during autumn to see the amazing colors for yourself. My photos don't come close to doing them justice.


5 comments:

  1. What a beautiful hike! Sometimes the cold, misty, damp days make for the best hikes. I love that last photo of the lake softened and blurred by the clouds.

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    1. Thank you, Laura! :)

      I agree that damp and rainy days tend to be the best for hiking, and in this case I believe the wet weather made the autumn colors even more vivid and beautiful. I love hiking in the rain and have missed it during this dry spring and summer we've had!

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  2. Hey catching this a bit late. As usual your writing is lyrical and beautifully descriptive. And you had the lake to yourselves! No small feat these days. On this past sunny Saturday as people with small kids rolled up the trail, I felt like I was at a city park in Seattle with the landscape gorgeousness amped up many notches. I love being out in the rain and mist.

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  3. Yay for fall adventure! I remember the first time I saw larch and had a similar experience of awe. There is just something about it... Also love the idea of bringing cake for a post hike snack- brilliant. :)

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    1. The larches and other fall foliage create such a magical scene. All those colors almost don't seem real! Definitely an awe-filled experience.

      I'll take any excuse to eat cake and this one seemed as good a one as any! ;) My hubby and I had cake leftover from our anniversary celebration the day before, which we brought with us. If anyone needs a good cake... Sky River Bakery in Monroe makes the world's most delicious yellow cake with raspberry filling and buttercream frosting.

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