One Foot in Front of the Other

Lake swimming is among the greatest of Seattle summer pastimes, as few cities can boast of a swimming hole as majestic as Lake Washington. It’s the backyard pool for an entire metropolis.

There’s just one problem, at least for the stretch of lake I frequent from Madison Beach to Seward Park: Getting there requires going downhill, which means I rarely work up a sweat — on a warm summer day, suddenly splashing around doesn’t seem as enticing. And on the flip side, grinding up Madrona Drive on my bike or climbing the steep trails in Leschi Park makes me crave a cold shower as soon as I get home.

So much for a blissful cooldown.

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Enter the alpine lake, which helpfully reverses that topographical equation: You go uphill to reach the water. Huffing and puffing your way to a craggy basin makes you want nothing more than to strip down to your skivvies and jump in. Even if you can tolerate the snow-fed water for only a few brief moments, there’s an undeniably soothing magic to the theater of rock and trees cradling the alpine lakes of the Cascades. Lake Washington may hit the spot for a daily dip, but the stillness of an alpine lake far from the din of water skis, wakeboards and pleasure craft is a restorative tonic.

Hundreds of these gems are sprinkled throughout the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which straddles the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests just east of Seattle in the central Cascades. But if you’ve been following the recent news from our public lands, 2022 presents a tough summer for alpine lake aficionados: Two of the region’s most popular destinations — Snow and Annette lakes — are both closed for much-needed trail work until October.

Meanwhile, the trailheads for other low-hanging fruit, like Mason, Talapus and Olallie lakes, are reached via forest roads that are subject to intermittent closures as they also undergo long-overdue maintenance.

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Necessity is the mother of invention, which prompted me to seek a new but nearby alpine lake on a recent Sunday: Rachel Lake.

A rugged hike to Rachel Lake

Round-trip distance: 8 miles

The trailhead to Rachel Lake is 70 miles from Seattle via Interstate 90. Take Exit 62, then head north on Kachess Lake Road. The 9-mile road is paved until it reaches Kachess Campground, but the unpaved section is well-graded and should be manageable for any vehicle. You’ll pass a number of camping sites along Box Canyon Creek before reaching the trailhead, where two lots can hold about 60 cars.

Rachel Lake is a decidedly intermediate-plus 8-mile round-trip hike. The rocks and roots from nearly the first step up to the wilderness boundary foreshadow more grueling trail to come.

Once you pass the telltale wooden sign from the Wenatchee National Forest noting that you’ve entered the wilderness, the trail mellows out with generous old-growth shade as you follow tributaries of Box Canyon Creek and negotiate a few downed trees that, as of last month, hadn’t yet been cleared by trail crews. At the 1.5-mile mark, there’s a bird’s-eye view down into the canyon’s swirling falls, where crystal-clear waters cascade over mossy rocks. For the adventurous, a downed tree conveniently straddles the creek, allowing access to the boulders on the far side from the trail.

After a brief spell or two in open meadows — in late July, no berries were on hand, alas — it’s back into the trees, where the hard part soon begins once you cross Canyon Creek at the 2.75-mile mark.

Most of this hike’s 1,600 vertical feet of gain are packed into the final mile-plus. That vertical doesn’t come easy, as roots and rocks make this trail a veritable ankle twister.

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Partway up, you’ll break out onto a bench with a lovely view across the valley and up to Hibox Mountain. But from here until Rachel Lake, pay attention to your GPS and keep your eyes peeled for logs indicating “wrong way.” My hiking partner and I lost the official trail several times and ended up on social trails, some of which involved brief scrambling sections.

If you find yourself using your hands to scamper up open rock, then you’re off the official trail. The hike is tough, but it’s not that tough.

On a Sunday morning, we crossed paths with easily a dozen backpackers beating a hasty retreat down from the lake. Why so soon? Mosquito hell, we were warned. Clouds of flesh-eating mozzies hovered at the lake.

I changed into my swimming attire as quickly as I could and dived in for a much-needed cold shock to the system. For a few minutes, as I dried off, my sweaty shirt seemed to distract the bugs. But they weren’t fooled for long, and I ended up eating a mobile lunch, wolfing down my sandwich as I picked my way back out of the lake basin.

Be careful reversing course, as the steep uphill makes for tricky downhill footing — trekking poles are very much advised — but once the trail flattens out in the valley, the old-growth shade does wonders.

Still, as the day heated up, we decided it was time for cooldown Round 2. There are several swimming holes in Box Canyon Creek along the road on your way out with nary a buzzing mosquito to be heard. And that water is nearly as cold as Rachel Lake, even if you can’t immerse yourself for a swim in a shallow river.

But when we headed out around 1 p.m. and saw that the Lake Kachess Day Use area was already full for the day, we knew we’d made the right call. Whether an alpine lake above or the river that drains it below — or, ideally, both — it’s all the same refreshing cold water on a hot summer day.