One Foot in Front of the Other
Claiming that you go hiking at a new spot every weekend is a proud exaggeration in the Pacific Northwest, but once the sun-dappled jaunts of August give way to the permacloud slogs of late fall and winter, it can be hard to rally to get out there — especially when it’s rainy, and even more so when pandemic-induced brain fog and anxiety make sleeping in an essential weekend activity.
If this describes you, I have the solution: Beaver Lake, which starts just off Mountain Loop Highway near Darrington, before the road gets at all rugged. No all-wheel drive? Your 15-year-old sedan can handle this. It’s also the best hike I’ve found so far for rain-averse late risers who want some quality outside time before the inevitable descent of the Sunday scaries.
The drive from Seattle alone will cut them off at the pass, as it brings you through Darrington’s tidy green farmland and bright fall colors. It’s a little slice of Washington that looks like it was flown in from Wisconsin and dropped, somehow, at the foot of the North Cascades. (Farther north, the Skagit always makes me feel like I’ve apparated to Vermont. The hikes off I-90 may get all the attention, but don’t discount the charms adjacent to Everett and Mount Vernon.)
After a little less than two hours, follow the sign to Beaver Lake’s unassuming trailhead. Here you’ll find easy parking and an operational, unlocked vault toilet (weirdly, this is kind of a big deal given that many trailhead facilities throughout the state are currently closed due to COVID-19 suppression measures).
A tidy gravel-packed trail takes you from the parking lot onto the forested route to Beaver Lake. (The trail forks a little at this point; as is generally a good practice, go in the direction that is NOT actively blocked by a felled tree.)
Formerly a railroad track, the path is wide and flat, although overgrown in places, and sidles up to the Sauk River. As you walk, you’ll hear the current rushing past and catch glimpses through the trees of hillside fall color (if it’s sunny) or mist-shrouded evergreens (if it’s not).
Alas, it is unlikely you’ll see the lake’s namesake rodents and their pond lodges, but you will find bright moss dangling like lacy jewelry from the trees, which are plentiful and provide cover from the elements. (I also was blessed with a frog sighting!) With remarkable layers of moss, misty air and a rushing river, the trail to Beaver Lake is similar in ambience and approachability to some of the easier trails in the Hoh Rainforest, without the lengthy journey to the Olympic Peninsula. And like those trails, it’s a nice raincoat hike — enjoyable but not effortless and quiet but not isolated. It’s one of those pleasant hikes perfect for introducing out-of-town visitors (back when we had those) to the wonders of the Pacific Northwest.
The biggest hurdle you’re likely to face here is mud, which makes a few sections of the hike into an exercise in ankle stabilization — as a dedicated running-shoe hiker, I’ll admit I slid around a bit; actual hiking boots wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Don’t be dissuaded by a little mud. Since I wrote about the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv — aka outdoor life — I’ve been committed to hiking in the rain, and the trail to Beaver Lake, accessible even in winter, is the perfect candidate for this.
On a recent Sunday, when a friend and I accepted the possibility of rain and made our way lakeward under the trees, we were rewarded with relative solitude on the trail. We ran into only a handful of other hikers, all of us dutifully masked or bandanna-clad.
And the mist lifted as we walked, the mercurial Northwest sun winking into the pillowy clouds, blue sky cracking through. Even if it hadn’t, the hike, with its generous sheltering trees, would have been comfortable.
So comfortable, in fact, that the end came sooner than we expected it to, as the trail tapped out in the middle of the now-damaged bridge over Beaver Lake, where a sign reading “Beaver Lake View Platform Trail End” dissuades hikers with creative plans to continue and states the obvious for those of us disinclined to scramble over shattered wooden slats above murky water.
Instead, we looked out at the serene, plant-tufted lake, so different from the torrential Sauk River that had rushed along beside us on the way in, and turned back after a moment. When you’re committed to hiking even in the rain, turnaround time is less a goodbye than a see-you-later.
Distance: The Washington Trails Association clocks it at 4.2 miles round-trip, but the actual distance is likely less than that, since the final section of the trail is currently inaccessible (see: downed bridge). Elevation gain is a hefty 100 feet.
Good for: Day hikers who like sleeping in — the distance and elevation make this a relatively quick day trip from Seattle.
Parking situation: Easy. There’s a decent-size lot at the trailhead, plus a vault toilet that’s clean and currently open. There are also plenty of more popular hikes off Mountain Loop Highway, so you’ll find less competition for parking at Beaver Lake. Go when it’s rainy, or when nearby spots like Lake 22 are too crowded.
Terrain: Generally level thanks to its past as a railroad route, but hiking boots or trail running shoes are advised for a few muddy sections and one or two spots where you’ll need to maneuver over trees.