A Stoned Hiker’s Handbook to Blanca Lake
This week feels like summer but don’t be fooled by this Pacific Northwest fake out. As the weekend rolls in it looks like there’s a chance of rain and snow in the Central Cascades. Don’t worry friends, April showers bring May flowers and we’re knocking on May’s door. If you’ve got some PTO or a mental health day to use we suggest packing up your essentials and a Walden Cannabis joint or two and heading up to Blanca Lake in the Central Cascades. The waters of this lake are a color only nature could produce and we literally gasped out loud when we rounded the corner and caught our first glimpse of the milky turquoise waters.
- Blanca Lake Trail
- Snohomish County
- Central Cascades / Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Area
- Elevation – 4600 ft.
- Elevation Gain – ~3300 ft.
- Route Type: Out & Back
- Hiking Distance from Trailhead – 7.5 miles
- Northwest Forest Pass
- Dogs – Yes (on leash)
Seriously follow these directions and don’t trust any others … we got lost and almost bailed on the hike altogether. Some apps and sites don’t have updated driving instructions and relying on Google Maps isn’t possible due to terrible cell service on US-2. You want to head East on Highway 2 (US-2) toward Wenatchee. Once you pass the little town of Index you’ll want to continue to head East for roughly 13 miles (15 minutes or so). Once you pass the shell station in Skykomish (Sky Gas) you’ll continue for another mile and take a left onto Beckler River Road. It comes quickly so keep your eyes peeled.
If you’re coming from the East, you’ll want to head East on US-2 toward Everett. From Leavenworth, Beckler Road is just shy of 50 miles. If you come to Sky Gas in Skykomish you’ve gone about one mile too far.
Once you’ve turned onto Beckler River Road, drive about 13 miles on USFD 6517. It will feel like forever on the dusty, bumpy road but it’s well worth it. If you want to be safe you should reset your odometer. After 13 miles you’ll take a left on USFD 65, continue for two miles and then take a left on USFD 62. The parking lot fills up fast on weekends so give yourself plenty of time to arrive early and nab a spot (there are only about 20 reserved spots in the lot). This hike is heavily trafficked so arriving early is your best bet for having a peaceful and less populated ascent. There are vault toilets at the trailhead and that’s about it so leave no trace and pack plenty of water.
There is really only one way to get to Blanca Lake and at times it feels like straight up. You’ll gain 3300 feet of elevation total and ascend 3000 feet in a mere three miles. This hike is difficult without a doubt. You’ll begin your ascent nestled within massive trees with little understory. You’ll hit switchbacks almost immediately (there are over 30 of them). We took plenty of breaks on the way up and so did many of the other hikers on the trail.
Once you’ve climbed for a few miles you’ll reach a ridgeline where you can get a glimpse of Glacier Peak on a clear day. Between mid-August and mid-September the ridgeline is flush with huckleberry bushes and you’ll be tempted to start snacking. While huckleberries are easily identifiable please be sure you know what you’re eating before plucking berries off bushes. From here you’ll continue to hike for another 4.5 miles but by this point you’ll have gained most of the elevation. As you continue toward Blanca Lake you’ll run into a sub-alpine flower meadow with overnight tent sites where you can find another toilet and plenty of spots to park your legs, set down your pack and partake in a sesh.
As you continue you’ll run into Virgin Lake which is stagnant and quite boggy toward the end of summer. From there you’ll actually descend 500 feet in half of a mile to reach Blanca Lake. It can be quite slippery especially in the wetter months so be prepared with the proper footwear.
Most people wait until May or June to hike Blanca Lake but if you go now you’ll be sure to avoid the heavier crowds that come with warmer weather. In April you will undoubtedly experience snow so pack accordingly and read reviews before you head out. If you feel at all uncomfortable about your snow hiking knowledge please save this hike for June or later. Upon reading reviews I discovered that some people experienced a closed roadway. This is because they are trying to access the trailhead via Index. This road has been closed for some time and you must use Beckler River Road.
In mid-Summer you’ll need the ten hiking essentials! As an alpine hike you’ll be exposed to thinner air and UV rays. Sunscreen and ample water are a must. For a more extensive essential list for winter hikes check out this site.
- Navigation (map, altimeter, compass, GPS device, or something similar + batteries)
- Headlamp + batteries
- Sun Protection (sunglasses, hat, SPF)
- First-Aid kit
- Fire (lighter, waterproof matches, tinder)
- Shelter (a lightweight bivvy is as small as a soda can and weighs < 3.5 oz.)
- Extra food
- Extra water or ability to purify
- Extra clothes
What to Expect
From the huckleberries, fantastic views and 30 odd switchbacks you can expect a lot of hidden gems and surprises from this hike. There are backcountry campsites (open grassy areas) near Virgin Lake that are first come first served. If I were to plan on overnighting I’d probably try to leave on a Friday and take a half-day from work or head up during the week.
Virgin Lake is stagnant and algae-filled but in the summer months amphibians call it home. This lake is near the camp sites so if you overnight you may be lulled to sleep by more than a few frog friends. When the lake is calm you’ll see beautiful reflections on the lake of the surrounding beauty and it’s definitely photo worthy. Right before you reach Virgin Lake the trail opens up into an alpine meadow that is bursting with lupine which can be seen in all of their glory from May throughout the summer months.
Blanca Lake is home to pikas and marmots. These tiny little critters with large round ears are adorable and make the cutest noises. The first time we heard them calling out they gave us a bit of a scare until we realized what was making the racket.
Blanca Lake is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It’s milky turquoise-green hue is a result of glacial till or glacial flour as it is often referred to. Erosion from slow moving ice glaciers deposits flour-like sediment into the lake resulting in the lake’s rare color. From the lake’s shore you can see twin falls that are created from the melting of the Columbia Glacier. North of the lake the peaks of Monte Cristo, Columbia and Keyes reign supreme.
We packed a lunch, blankets and a Jet Boil for making coffee. The caffeine was much needed after the strenuous hike to the lake. Pack water shoes or strappy sandals for taking a dip. The floor of the lake is covered in twigs and logs and you’ll be thankful for some added foot protection if you feel like wading in the water.
After leaving the shores of the lake you’ll begin your ascent back up to Virgin Lake. You’ll gain about 500 feet of elevation in half of a mile so your heart rate will be on the rise as well. Our group brought trekking poles which were helpful in traversing the rocky incline and our knees thanked us. The descent is tough on the joints but going down was much easier than going up.
If you call the westside of Washington home there are a few restaurants worth stopping in at for a bite on the way home. Same can be said if you’re headed east. Zeke’s Drive In offers a super unhealthy grilled cheese sandwich on Texas toast that is delicious. If you’re looking for a healthier option you can always pop into The Sultan Bakery for a homemade sandwich or salad. If you’re headed east Leavenworth has plenty of dining options and the Bavarian Village is a super fun little stop for window shopping or nabbing some extreme hot sauce.