Blanca Lake

[Editor’s note: This has been updated, as someone had the great idea to hike it again.]

Yes, the lake is that color. Yes, it’s as amazing in person as it is in photos, if not more so. The jade lake at the base of the Monte Cristo range is quite picturesque. This hike has some great views, including a peak at the usually-hidden Glacier Peak (if I’m not mistaken). There’s a lot of room on the lake shore to take a load off and enjoy the area. And the lake is very, very cold.

My wife and I were going to hike it last year, but we lost cell coverage before we got the full directions. And by the time we turned around and got coverage, we decided to do another hike instead.

The trail is a long way out there, thanks to the Index-Galena road still out of commission. You travel Beckler River Road until it turns to gravel and becomes NF-65. You take this forever, it seems like, until you reach a large open intersection (Jack Pass). The second road from the left is the one you want. That takes you downhill, and then you cross the North Fork Skykomish River. Just a little past this on the right is NF-63. Take this until you reach the parking lot. If you’re not there by 9am on a nice weekend, you’re not parking in the parking lot.

The Trail

The “official” distance is 7.5 miles round trip; the trailhead sign says 3.5 to the lake. It’s wrong. So very wrong. It’s at least 4 miles to the lake. And this hike is one of the more strenuous hikes I’ve been on. Do not make this your first hike. Or second. Get a few under you before this. Get to a point where you can hike a 3-mile, 1,400′ trail without stopping. And even then it’s a struggle.

The trail is, considering the environment, very developed and maintained. The problem is the environment. Steep hillsides and tons of trees. Roots are everywhere. Add to that, the first two miles are difficult. Switchbacks that are very long, so you don’t know they’re switchbacks. So as you’re trucking along, you look up and you start to see blue sky through the trees. Glorious! You’re reaching the top. It’s not much further.

Oh, but it is.

You finally reach the top of hill “A”. From here you can see a snow-capped peak off in the distance, I’m assuming it’s Glacier Peak. Returning to the trail, there are some steep root-filled sections and some rock scrambles. Take your time and make sure you’re well-balanced. Falling on this section would be bad.

Luckily, this part of the uphill section means you’re near the top. You follow a ridgeline to your left, where it opens to snowfields (if early in the year) and direct sun. You remembered to put sunscreen on, right? Well here’s where you can stop and apply it. The ridgeline is about 1/2 mile of the trail. It ends with a decent to a small lake (rather pond), Virgin Lake. Remember, this is not Blanca Lake. Wrapping around this big puddle to the right, you’ll start your descent to Blanca. Yeah, a descent. Begin your swearing now. Oh, did I mention trekking poles are a good option right now? No? Okay, then. Bust out your trekking poles.

This scramble makes up the last mile or so. A freakin’ mountain-goat approved trail. Trekking poles, as mentioned earlier, greatly help here. So does not going down to the lake, but that’s why you’re out and about, right? Take a few moments to stop and view the surrounding vistas. Through the trees you can see the amazing mountains of the Cascades.

Then remember, you still have to get to the lake. You’ll hear waterfalls as you go. And if you look at the right time, you’ll see Blanca Lake’s jade waters through the trees. Keep going. We stopped at a fallen tree where you get your first big look at the lake. From here, you can walk down the talus chute to the water. But there are better places. Back on the trail, the trail wraps to the left and curves to the right down to the shore. We had to crawl over some blown-down trees. One was pitch-laden, so that was awesome. Not.

It’s a great feeling to make the lake. We brought our hiking chairs, so we busted those out and sat in the sun for an hour, resting. I took a little nap. It was an exhausting journey. Be well rested, because you have to take that goat trail back up (at least it’s only a mile, and it goes by real quick!). Our time was 3 hours up, 2.5 hours down. Coming down we passed a lot of people coming up. My advice: If you average 45 minute miles going up on trails, go early. Take your time. It’s a long, hard hike, but the lake is a great spot to sit and relax.

Update: The second time I hiked it, the rain moved in. I was not expecting poor weather, but I forget that’s what happens here in the PNW. It’s never the same. We hiked through clouds and a light mist at times. Enough for the trees to collect water and have it drip. It made things kinda slippery. Oh, remember what I said about trekking poles? Guess who FORGOT the TREKKING POLES at home?! That’s right, this guy. Epic facepalm.

So, here’s where 2+2=Nope Nope Nope. We started to hike down to the lake from Virgin Lake. I made it about a hundred yards. I climbed down a big, wet root system that was difficult to stay on, it was too slippery. Since I knew what was coming up, I did not feel comfortable climbing down without trekking poles. I’m pretty sure I would have sprained my ankle(s), and I can’t afford that right now, with it being about three weeks until the climb up Mt. Doom, I mean, Mt. St. Helens.

After waiting around Virgin Lake for the rest of my party to come back up, we started back down, and it wasn’t that hard. Crowded, but a bit easier. The huckleberries were ripe and plentiful.


Pack: Osprey Talon 22. Shoes: Salomon Xa Pro 3D Ultra GTX (although, not enough traction coming downhill). My second time I wore my Asics Venture 4s and they were pretty much up to the task.  Trekking poles: Yes. Do not forget them. Water: 2L and I ran out about 1 mile or so from the end. Needed at least 3L for hot days. Peak Design CapturePRO camera mount with Canon 60D with 10-22mm STM lens.




Life finds a way...
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