An up close view of the mighty Mount Stuart, distant glances to Rainier and Adams, hills covered in wildflowers, streams cutting through grass valleys, rocky scrambles, regular mountain goat appearances, and a massive alpine lake? I suppose it should come as no surprise that it only took a few days from the time I saw a photo of Lake Ingalls until I was on my way to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to check it out for myself. If you’re reading this from the comforts of the PNW, I strongly encourage you to do the same!
Lake Ingalls Hike: Moderate+ with the Experience of Extreme
The experience offered on a day out to Lake Ingalls would be worth almost any level of effort but one of the best things about this adventure is that it’s really is not that crazy! Oh sure, you’ll be hiking for the better part of the day, climbing thousands of feet, occasionally looking right on down over a cliff, and driving plenty to start and end it all, but in the grand scheme of Washington trails, it’s really not that bad! [Warning: It should go without saying that hiking in the wilderness comes with plenty of risks and moderate does not mean you can take it lightly!]
Starting from a trailhead well out in the remote parts of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the climb to Lake Ingalls will take you alongside streams, through the forest, and up rocky slopes as you climb into the southern reaches of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It’s a stunning trip even without the lake destination and offers so many views along the way that you’ll be hard pressed not to add a couple extra hours onto the day. Heck, if you’re game for a little more pack weight, you can camp just half a mile from the lake for what I’m sure is an epic sunrise and sunset.
While just about every trail guide lists the hike as 2,500′ and 9 miles, the hike is now 2 miles longer with the road closure and with the ups and downs from the day (especially taking the lower trail), the AllTrails listing of 3,150′ seems more appropriate unless you don’t plan to come back!
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, lodging, trail facilities
Lake Ingalls may be fairly accessible from a hiking perspective but getting to it is a bit of a trek. From Seattle, it’s about 2 and a half hours up to the trailhead basically heading due east on on i-90. For much of the way this gives you access to plenty of services from gas stations to supermarkets to restaurants to take advtange of on your way towards the trail.
As you turn off the main highway and onto 970 east (then left to Teanaway Rd) towards the National Forest, all of that drops behind and you’ll however. It’s almost an hour from the trail back to the first gas station so fill up before you leave town and carry in anything you may need or want for the day — or for when you return to your car for that matter.
The good news is that the remote setting of the trail makes for fantastic pre and post hike camping options. About 30 minutes shy of the trailhead at the edge of the National Forest, you’ll run into a state campground (Discovery Pass required) while the forest it self has both paid and dispersed camping options. The closest developed sites are at the Beverly Campground which has 14 spots, 2 vault toilets and an incredible, riverside location just off the main road for $8 / night. You’ll also pass a host of semi-developed spots on the drive up with a few portable restrooms placed to help support the crowds in the main season.
These days, the Lake Ingalls trail starts about a mile lower than your navigation system likely shows (Google Map of the approximate parking area) as the last stretch of the road has been closed with a large and very serious barricade insuring that you can’t skirt around it except on foot. The new area isn’t huge but a few dozen cars can park in, just be sure not to block anyone else!
There are no facilities beyond simple vault restrooms around and no potable water. You should however be able to find firewood for sale along the drive up. A NW Forest Pass / NPS park pass / $5 day use fee is required in much of the forest.
Hiking to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Boundary
It’s a bit of a bummer to start and end the day walking the flat road (you’ll see a few rocky debris slides that explain the closure I suppose) but it’s not much elevation gain and it is easy so go with it (or route around one of the other trails for a little longer and more diverse day.) At the original trailhead, you’ll find an information board, another permit registration box and a trail marker. There’s also a couple picnic tables and a lone vault toilet though don’t expect it to be stocked and as of this post, it was about full so I would strongly encourage you to use one of the portables before heading up if possible.
Departing from the marked trailhead, the route you’ll be taking for the day intersects a number of other trails and options and while it is marked, a map is a very handy tool here (GPS even more so.)
Initially, the hike follows a nice stream up before cutting into the forest at a marked junction (stay to your right.) This takes you into the trees though they are not so dense as to block out all the sun on an afternoon return! Well built switchbacks quickly move you up the mountain through this stretch though they were very well built and don’t feel all that aggressive or even stacked (if someone is above it becomes more apparent from their voices than anything else.)
As you approach 5,400′, the trees start to thin and you run into another junction, this time with the Longs Pass Trail. Stay to your left where you’ll quickly enter the ridge walk crossing over a series of semi-exposed cliffs with narrow bands of actual trail. It can be a bit unnerving to look down in these spots but as narrow as things are, the dirt is pretty good and it’s not hard to keep moving though you will want to plan ahead for any passing with other groups that need to occur (treking poles also help for some extra stability if you’re height-adverse.)
The ridges soon fade away as you enter the Ingall pass and climb through a few rocky bands towards the Alpine Lakes Wilderness above. To your SW is a great view of a series of rocky mountains now with Rainier sitting behind them and Adams / the Goat Rocks even further back as well. Several more meandering switchbacks under a light layer of trees lead to the the wilderness boundary through what is to be the most exposed, arid and dry part of the trail for the day though even here you’re likely to find a stream or two, at least in the earlier seasons.
Hiking Up To the Lake Ingalls Shores
Arriving at the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (as noted by the giant sign to that effect), you’ll find a great view and a great, semi-shaded spot to take a serious break before making the second half of the climb (second half in features more than distance / duration.) Looking across the valley ahead, a small series of trees can be spotted from just below the lake to give you a general guide of where you’re headed.
Here the trail forks with a high route to your left and a low route that’s a little less obvious to your right. The low route (right) has the advantage of more camping spots (see below), several nice streams and avoids a fair bit of the rocky terrain which is especially helpful in early season when there’s a lot of snow coverings. The downside of this route is the several hundred feet you’ll lose in elevation along the way and then have to make up for. Both routes re-connect just below the lake and both have great views so if you have the energy, why not make a semi-loop throughout the day?
The high trail (left) cuts across the rocky ridges at a more level path though it to has some drops and rise along the way. Snow can easily cover some or all of the way and when it does, be extra careful for melting out points less you punch through and twist an ankle.
You’ll also find some great views along this route including a small creek that drops right on over a large hill with Mt. Stuart framed up almost perfectly in front of it. The upper trail is more frequented by day hikers but comes with such a view!
Whichever trail you take, make your way down and through (right trail) or across and over (left trail) until you meet back up at the junction post shown in the photo above. From here to the lake is just a few tenths of a mile but the most interesting hiking of the day. Call it the crux to top out an already epic climb!
Over the last stretch of the hike, you’ll leave the mostly obvious trail for a less defined push up the rocks to reach the lake. There is certainly a common route but with the view often blocked above and a lot of activity, it can be hard to know exactly what path to follow. A large assortment of carins plus foot steps in the dirt do a nice job of providing a good direction but do plan on some basic route finding rather than blindly trusting what’s above or you may end up scrambling over something you can totally walk around (of course that could be fun too.)
As you wind through a last set of rocks, you’ll pop out of the boulders and into clear view of the lake and the many cliffs around it all at once. A few gentle boulders stand above the lake where the trail tops out and provide a great break spot to grab lunch, snap a few photos and take it all in.
Depending on the conditions which range from completely snow covered in winter to an accessible shore in late summer, you can decide just how much to explore around the lake and which way to get there. Be sure to look around the rocks to the left side of the lake for climbers out venturing higher up!
Finally, be mindful of any trash to avoid polluting the lake or impacting the wildlife: anything you brought with you needs to come back out, please!
FAQ: What sort of permit is required?
Each group entering the wilderness zone needs to fill out a permit for their trip (just one per group.) These are self issued at the trailhead and are free without quotas at this time. You will also want to stop by the ranger station (well before heading to the trail) for any last minute condition updates. Remember to pay your $5 or put your applicable pass out before you leave for the trail (National Forests are federal and not a Discovery Pass area!)
FAQ: What hiking gear do I need?
While I’ve thought of this hike as moderate plus, that just refers to the physical effort. To reach Lake Ingalls, you’ll be out in the wilderness for the day and as such, a full hiking pack really is required to stay comfortable & safe.
- 3-4+ liters of water per person (a filter will save you lots of weight)
- Snacks + lunch for a full day out
- Extra layers for the changing climate as you ascend
- A good headlamp in case you take longer than expected
- Trekking poles for stability through the ridges
- A good first aid kit to self treat anything that comes up
- Map / GPS for route finding as the trail can blend together
- Bug spray for use by the water and in the trees
- Sunblock for the very exposed ridge hike
- A tripod for your camera and extra batteries / charger
- Extra supplies and gas for when you return to the car
- Everything else in the 10 essentials list
FAQ: Where can I camp on the mountain?
According to the information signs at the trailhead, camping is prohibited within half a mile of the lake. Many designated and generally marked sites have been established however, look for several of them on the lower trail with great views of Stuart and a few on the upper trail with a nice stream setting.
In both cases pay special attention to what you leave around camp — there are plenty of rodents and goats in the area and even on a day hike it’s clear that camps are regularly “raided.”
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Main Trail
- Official Rating: Moderate Plus
- Start point: Lower Trailhead (Google Map)
- Distance: 11 miles plus lake exploring
- Duration: 5-6 hours
- Climb: 2,500 altitude change, >3,000+ elevation gain
- Facilities: Vault restroom at the old trailhead (for now)
- Water: No treated water (but lots of streams)
- Crowds: Light in off season, heavy on summer weekends
- Cost: $5 Day Use or NW Forest Pass / NPS Park Pass
- Permits: Self registration required at the trailhead (free)