Blue Lake─Ice lingers long in this large alpine lake set in a deep rocky cirque

Blue Lake is cool to look at and downright cold to swim in!

Blue Lake is cool to look at
and downright cold to swim in!

Quick Facts

Location: Mountain Loop Highway near Darrington

Land Agency: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Roundtrip: 27.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 5,725 feet

Green Trails Maps: Sloan Peak, WA-No. 111; Glacier Peak- No. 112, Monte Cristo, WA- No. 143

Access: From Darrington, head south on the Mountain Loop Highway 16.0 miles turning left onto FR 49. Follow for 6.4 miles bearing left .1 mile to North Fork Sauk Trail. Park here and walk road to Bald Eagle Trailhead.

Note: Northwest Forest Pass required; dangerous snow fields linger late in summer; there’s a potentially tough river ford; and loop requires a 2.5 mile road walk.

Contact: Darrington Ranger District: Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest (360) 436-1155; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs

Blue Lake sits deep in the Cascades straddling the Glacier Peak and Henry M Jackson Wilderness areas. Frozen throughout most of the summer, it’s a long and rough hike to this aquatic gem. The hike described here requires 2 to 4 days and consists of an amazing loop utilizing two long ridges teeming with jaw-dropping views. Early in the season snowfields make this hike dangerous to near impossible to do. September is the perfect time to for this North Cascades classic.

Start by walking FR 49 south just over 2.0 miles to a junction. Then walk 0.4 mile right on FR 4920 coming to the Bald Eagle Trail. Cross Sloan Creek on a good bridge and proceed about 2.5 miles on an old road bed through old cuts. The trail then briskly climbs entering the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness and soon afterward reaching a junction at Curry Gap.

The Bald Eagle Trail turns left and begins a steep and rough climb up timbered slopes skirting a knoll and large avalanche chute. Catch window views west of the massive Monte Cristo block while negotiating the rough terrain. At 9.5 miles, skirt a steep north facing open slope below the summit of 5668-foot Bald Eagle Mountain. Often buried in hard-packed snow until mid-summer, without an ice axe, don’t attempt to cross it.

The way then follows along a high ridge descending slightly to a small gap before slowly climbing, rounding 5,697-foot Long John Mountain and coming to a good but maybe dry camp at 11.5 miles. The trail then rounds another knoll coming to another good camp with more reliable water at 12.5 miles. Then it’s up again climbing steeply to just beneath the summit of 5,946-foot June Mountain where excellent views can be had of emerald Pilot Ridge and Johnson Mountain and snowy Glacier Peak.

The way then comes to a junction in a small gap. Head left entering the Glacier Peak Wilderness; and descend across a barren boulder field coming to Little Blue Lake (el. 5,150 feet) in about one mile. Then start climbing again reaching a junction at 15.5 miles. Just to the right .1 mile is Blue Lake (el. 5,600 feet) tucked in a big rocky and snowy cirque. Good camps can be found among the treed knolls surrounding the lake’s outlet. Cascades crash down the surrounding steep slopes while chunks of ice float upon the lake’s reflecting surface.

Before continuing the loop, fill water bottles as Pilot Ridge is bone dry after snow melt. Then head back to the last junction and begin a long sweeping traverse up the open slopes of Johnson Mountain. Views of the lake shimmering below are wonderful. Pass a junction with a spur path to the old fire lookout site on 6,721-foot Johnson Mountain. Commanding outstanding views of Sloan Peak and Glacier Peak, it’s a mandatory side trip on a clear day.

The main trail continues along Pilot Ridge flying high through sprawling flower-filled meadows for nearly four miles. After cresting a 5,700-foot knoll the way retreats to forest dropping steeply to a saddle. Then a good little climb follows before back down and once again up to another knoll. Then it’s a rapid knee-jarring descent through old growth timber to the North Fork Sauk River. Ford the river, difficult in high water—or look for a log crossing and reach the North Fork Sauk River Trail where your vehicle waits 2.1 miles to the left.

For information on lodging and other attractions near Blue Lake, visit www.snohomish.org. For more information on this hike, consult my Backpacking Washington (Mountaineers Books 2011) guidebook.

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