hunting for larches | golden lakes loop backpacking

24 miles . 5000 ft gain . 8110 high

Okanogan National Forest

2022 was an unusual weather year. A late spring snow dump meant a delayed start to summer. Flowers that normally bloom in July started to bloom in August. September was unusually dry and warm. And that’s bad news for our now annual wildfires. No relief to help extinguish the flames. Lately we’ve been having to resort to backup plans, especially when Plan A was to head to the Glacier Peak Wilderness. With the massive Bolt Creek Fire near Index closing Hwy 2 and a few smaller ones by Lake Wenatchee, we were optimistic to head up southeast GPW. But driving through the smoke, we quickly aborted our mission and drove an extra 2 hours to the already 4 hours in the car and made our way over to the smoke-free oasis of the Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness. I had visited this area the previous year, traversing between Switchback and Martin peaks. Colie had also done the exact loop, so we felt pretty good about our last minute switch.

The Golden Lakes Loop is supposedly named after how the lakes of this loop turn gold when the larches turn as well. See my other post with end of season pictures of the lakes with gold needles.

We started at the Crater Creek Trailhead which has a few first-come, first-serve campsites. We arrived quite late, so we took one of the trailer parking spots. Generally it’s frowned upon to sleep at trailheads, but we were on the campground side and way past normal arrival times. We figured we’d wouldn’t be in anyone’s way and we packed and moved our car to the normal lot.

In the morning, we woke up with the other campers, nearly all were bikers. This area is open to both mountain bikes and motorcycles, which seem enticing one day! But for the hiker, it can be annoying to step out of the way for the bikes. We decided to take the loop counter clockwise starting with the Eagle Lakes Trail and ending on Martin Creek Trail. You get the gain out of the way more quickly with an easy way out in the end.  Despite seeing many cars in the lot, the whole trail felt quite empty.

I was unconvinced we’d find any golden larches, because from the previous time, I knew you could spy some even from the parking lot. Larches tend to grow above 6000 ft in elevation and we started at nearly 5000 ft already, so it didn’t take long before we reached the same elevation as the larches. Entering the basin between Mt Bigelow and Cheops, we could start seeing a few larches spearheading the change in color. It was giving me hope! We took a detour less than a mile round trip to visit the Upper Eagle Lake. It was so pleasant, although quite windy. This is a great place to make camp and there are even wires hung up so you can hang your food out of the critters’ ways.

But we only had one night so we continued further to find a place that split the loop more evenly. We’re a group used to moving fast and on technical terrain, so once we got to Horsehead Pass, we took a very long break. It’s good to take things easy every so often. Boiling Lake was really pretty when viewed from above, contrary to other pictures I saw on the internet. This is another good camp spot with a toilet nearby.

We walked passed the lake and into the larch-less forest. Colie wanted to take us to the place she last camped, but admitted the views were not spectacular. My heart sank a little. What’s the point of backpacking if not to find a cool spot? Thankfully, after a scouting mission, we found the perfect alcove. Ideally we would have found a well established campsite, so I felt a little at odds with our decision. But if you are backcountry, using your best judgement, it can be okay to camp outside of normal campsites. We were a couple miles from any established camps and found spots that were least vegetated. We went further off trail so few people could see us and see the remains of camp (you can only restore a place so much). And I felt better that these plants were quite hardy and bounce back quick.

Anyway, I found a place to hammock while everyone lounged on our giant rock table. We stayed up late enough to watch the sunset over the smoky mountains in the distance, feeling resolute in our decision to bail on our original plan in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. A quiet and warm night for us and for once I didn’t set an alarm to watch the sunrise. We were relaxing!

Alpenglow on Fernow

Somehow I did end up waking up as the ambient light got brighter. I poked my head out of the tent and was surprised to see a glowing pink sky. Preeta was surprised by how quickly I got out of the tent and started roaming around to take pictures of Fernow in the distance. We took another lazy start and began the last main climb of the Golden Lakes Loop.

Sea of larches
The grove that “ripened” first

We bagged no peaks on this trip, I felt no desire once we resorted to a chill backpacking vibe. We were only a hundred feet or so shy of Switchback, but even on the arm of the mountain, you get all the sweeping views. But it was on Switchback did we see the best larches. Somehow these southern ones decided to turn already on both the west and east side of Switchback. Trying to maximize pictures of golden larches, I took my sweet time descending from Switchback to Cooney Lake. Once regrouping at the lake, we took off on a mission to get back to the trailhead. Breaks were few and the views dropped too. But at least I could be content with the few good little spots that we did find! I may need to come back again and tag a few more peaks around this area. 

  • Loop is best done with 2 nights, camping at Upper Eagle Lake and Cooney.
  • Crater Creek Trailhead has good campsites, but first-come, first-serve.
  • Water is plentiful along the Martin Creek Trail even late season and less so on the Eagle Lake Trail. If you look, the Summit Trail has a few stream crossings too.
  • I preferred going counter clockwise, but it doesn’t make a huge difference either way.
  • If you’re looking for some scrambles, these peaks are fairly straightforward and short. For a day trip, the Switchback-Martin loop is great.
  • If you’re only camping at Cooney, try going a bit further up to Switchback (either up the peak or stay on the trail) to be rewarded with sweeping views of the Cascades from Rainier to the North Cascades.
  • Looking for a different larch hike? Check out my larch hike guide

Photos shot on Canon 5D Mark IV

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