technicolor larch dream | chiwaukum loop

14 mi . 5000 ft gain . 6530 ft high

Alpine Lakes Wilderness

To write or not to write a trip report? That is always a big question. Especially if this is now the third time I’ve been to the same area within a year. I’ll save you some reading, but the Chiwaukum range is one of the most underrated areas in Washington. Generally, the times I’ve been there, there’s a good balance of people of all ages, including those in their older ages (the people whom I’m always impressed by and aspire to be). It seems as if the younger crowd hasn’t gotten the social media memo and only few who do research and step out of the comfort zone of popular hikes venture out here. It’s sort of a magical place, a hidden gem, if you will. From the highway, it looks fairly plain and uninteresting. It takes a certain entrance fee, distance and/or elevation gain to get into the good parts. So I suppose that’s one deterrent for people. But what you harvest is astounding.

First larch forest

This is probably the shortest drive that you’ll get from Seattle to reach a trailhead for a larch hike. Less than 2 hours without traffic and at minimum hiking to Lake Ethel will get you to see some larches, though you’ll need to hike a little further to be full immersed in them. Any other place will take at least 2.5-3 hours from Seattle, so truly this is, in my opinion, the most accessible place to go.

I first visited the Scottish Lakes last fall on an overnight trip. I don’t think I was as overwhelmed by colors as I was then. The moody clouds made for some great fall weather then, but we didn’t get a chance to visit the larch benches above the lakes. I had only seen them from a distance, not to say that we found some larches to hike to, but the meadows above were something else if we could get there.

Well then spring passed by and I took a ski tour out there and finally made it to the meadows. At least I knew I could physically do this loop. But everything was covered in snow, naturally. It was a different kind of gorgeous. And it was fun skiing amongst the needle-less larches, meaning no tree wells to fall into. And basically this time, I set to do the same route, but with hopes of all the fall colors.

McCue Ridge

And the Chiwaukum delivered yet again. The trail up towards the ridge of Lake Ethel went by faster than expected. With the mountain ash all turning red with the blueberry bushes, we were entertained and soon found ourselves at the base of the almost-knife-edge ridge. Okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s a lot of grassy terrain that isn’t bad to go up if it’s dry. Poles were very helpful for me, though there’s enough vegetation and trees to hold onto as well. Near the last couple hundred feet to the grassland above, it becomes rockier terrain and careful scrambling. There is loose soil, but if you find the solid rocks, it’s solid to cross (stay left when in doubt). And if anything the promise of larches is a great motivator. Once you see your first one, the next one is only some 10-20 feet away!

Sadly the grasslands on this northernly side of Lake Ethel does not have larches. But fear not, only a short 5-10 minute walk and you’ll find yourself in a nice grove of larches with the reddest carpet and it only continues further into the next basin. So I highly highly recommend it if you can get over there. The trail system is great and takes you all the way to Lake Eileen and towards Donald and beyond with a cairn-lined path all the way. Although in our tracking stats, we traveled fast through the larches, in reality we probably stopped for pictures every minute.

As you start to head down to the ridge between Lake Donald and Lake Eileen, be very careful not to get sucked directly into Lake Eileen because it is a sheer cliff dropoff. The cairns are your friends! This was where my overnight trip last year had stopped. But I am so glad to have gone further this year to enjoy different views. We were also graced with good weather despite the potential clouds in forecast. Once we got back down to the trail, it was smooth sailing. A gentle trail run back to the car right before the rain clouds dumped in the afternoon.

To say this trip was lovely is probably an understatement. It was wildly fantastic and I wish we could have spent more time amongst the beautiful fall colors. Here’s to more larch marches!

  • The Lake Ethel Trailhead is the end of Gill Creek FS 6940 Rd in the town of Merritt. It may also be possible to start on a different road that passes the Alpine Lakes High Camp
  • The majority of the larch glades are beyond Lake Ethel. Try to go past to Lake Eileen (extra 500 feet up and down a ridge). If the length is too long for a day hike, try doing a backpacking trip to Ethel and taking a side trip over to the other lakes.

Photos shot on Canon 5D Mark IV


  • Toby

    This looks absolutely beautiful! Do you have the gpx file or tracking data? Thinking of following a similar route heading northwest around Lake Ethel but haven’t explored this area before. Thanks!

    • cherlyn

      Hi Toby! It’s quite straightforward if you follow a good topo map and avoid the cliffs. You really can just roam around the meadows between Lake Donald and Eileen. There’s good visibility of the terrain and there are cairns there to follow too! Hope that helps.

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