LEAVENWORTH, Wash. —
After more than 4 miles and 2,200 feet of elevation gain, I was desperate to reach my destination: Colchuck Lake in Central Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Just before approaching the lake, I heard a noise off to my right. Assuming it was just another hiker, I plodded on, only to find a mellow mountain goat emerge from the woods, stare at me with curiosity, cross the trail about 10 feet ahead of me and then continue on its way.
The white goat seemed harmless, so I followed it for a few feet and came across two more, what appeared to be a mother and its kid. The three goats barely paid me any attention as they chewed leaves and I snapped photos.
The encounter was the highlight of two day hikes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the area known as the Enchantments during a weeklong vacation in Central Washington last week.
Just 10 miles from the quaint, Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness features a series of continuous rugged peaks and cliffs, surging waterfalls and picturesque lakes. It is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular locations in the Cascades.
The area is so popular with backpackers that overnight permits are required from June 15 to Oct. 15 — and most hikers must apply for those permits by March.
The hike to Colchuck Lake started from the Stuart Lake Trailhead and took me through a cool, shaded forest along pristine singletrack that followed gurgling Mountaineer Creek. The Stuart Lake Trailhead is just 10 miles southwest of Leavenworth off Icicle Road and Forest Road 7601. (Leavenworth is a little more than 300 miles north of Bend off U.S. Highway 97.)
After about 2 1/2 miles, I came to a trail junction. A right turn would take me to Stuart Lake, and a left turn would take me to Colchuck Lake, which leads to Aasgard Pass and the Enchantment Lakes, the area most backpackers seek.
I made the left turn and began the challenging rock scramble along the steep trail. I carefully crossed side creeks and used my hands to traverse challenging boulder fields.
As I continued climbing, Mount Stuart and other granite-spired Enchantment peaks came into view. Just minutes after the goat encounter, I reached Colchuck, widely renowned as one of the most scenic alpine lakes in Washington.
The rugged, snow-speckled walls of Dragontail and Colchuck peaks were reflected in the shimmering aqua-blue lake. I could hear the glacial water roaring from beneath the granite. Strings of water — from snow and ice melt — cascaded down grooves in the mountain walls.
The trail continued to the right to Aasgard Pass, which climbs 2,200 feet in less than a mile. But instead of continuing on the trail, I made my way over several boulders to the lake's edge. I soaked my feet in the cold mountain water and ate lunch, taking in the dramatic view and the warm sunshine.
On my mostly downhill run/hike back to the trailhead, I came across many more backpackers hauling a considerable amounts of gear, no doubt beginning longer trips into the Enchantments.
The Colchuck Lake hike was 8.4 miles round trip and it took me about 4 1/2 hours to hike/run the trail. (I ran mostly just the flat, nontechnical portion.)
Earlier in the week, I went on an easier hike with my 5-year-old son, Mason. The Fourth of July Creek hike — also located off Icicle Road — in its entirety is not easy at all, but the plan was to complete just 3 or 4 miles of the 12-mile round-trip hike.
The walk began through thick, green deciduous forest and soon changed to more of a pine forest as we made our way up precipitous switchbacks. We crossed the Fourth of July Creek twice in the early portions of the hike, choosing our footsteps carefully over wet rocks.
The higher we climbed, the more we could see Cashmere Mountain, directly to the south, and the Stuart Range farther to the southeast. When the switchbacks ceased and the trail turned into a steeper, more technical rock-strewn path, we made the decision to turn around and head back down to the trailhead. I estimated that Mason and I hiked about 4 miles in about three hours.
Mason did fine, not whining once on the difficult hike.
Though located in the same area, the two hikes I made last week in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness were dramatically different. Colchuck Lake featured more of a deep-woods feel, with the payoff of otherworldly mountain views at the end. The Fourth of July Creek hike was more exposed, providing views of the Icicle Creek valley and surrounding peaks nearly the entire way.
The two rather quick day hikes left plenty of time for us to pursue other outdoors activities in and around Leavenworth, including floating the Wenatchee River, mountain biking on various trails and fishing at the kids' trout pond.
It was a memorable family vacation, highlighted by a wildlife encounter only possible when we venture deep into the wilderness.