Difficulty: Moderate; few trail obstacles but lots of elevation gain
Access: Decent but long unpaved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required ($5 daily/$30 annual)
The turquoise waters of Blanca Lake are nestled in a cirque beneath the high peaks of Washington's Monte Cristo Range and are one of the most brilliant sights in the North Cascades. The uphill hike to the lake is consistently steep and perhaps a little tedious, but the view of the lake glimmering below snowcapped peaks is certainly worth it. The hike is in the Henry Jackson Wilderness in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, about a two hour drive out of Seattle; the hike itself is feasible for anyone in decent shape during the summer, with few obstacles save the long 3000-foot uphill climb that forms the bulk of the hike. In the winter, snow adds a magical touch to the trees and peaks but can make route-finding and travel much more difficult.
A friend and I hiked to Blanca Lake on a crisp December day, heading out of Seattle early in the morning to take as full advantage as we could of the brief sunlight hours of the Northwest winter. We took Route 522 (Lake City Way) northeast from Seattle, merged onto US Route 2 at Monroe and followed Route 2 east under the shadow of the dramatic facades of Mt. Index and Baring Peak. We turned left onto Beckler Road just after passing Skykomish, continuing on the road as it turned from pavement to gravel and into NF-65. After crossing a low pass, NF-65 brought us downhill to a junction with NF-63; we turned right at this junction and soon arrived at the Blanca Lake trailhead on our left, about 2 hours out of Seattle.
The trail gets straight to the point, almost immediately beginning the uphill switchback climb after leaving the trailhead and entering the forest. The next two miles involved an uphill ascent with over thirty switchbacks. We initially ascended through a forest filled with sizable Douglas firs. As we worked our way up the switchbacks, the vegetation became less impressive, with less massive trees. A little over halfway up the switchbacks, we encountered the first traces of snow; after ascending a few more switchbacks, snow began to cover the trail entirely, so we put on microspikes to ease the remainder of the ascent.
|Ascent through the forest|
|Trail through the snow|
|Atop the ridge|
|Virgin Lake, frozen|
After admiring the lake and its beautiful backdrop, we began to make our way back, returning to the trailhead just before the early sunset characteristic of Northwest winter days. Although we were able to hike this trail in December, I strongly encourage you only to visit Blanca Lake during the summer months (July to October) unless you are aware of the snow conditions near the lake and have the proper equipment and experience to do the hike in the winter months.