Perennially popular Blue Lake is one of the most accessible and family-friendly trails in the North Cascades. It’s also one of the prettiest, packing granite spires, wildlife, and a larch-lined lake into just 2.4 miles of one-way hiking. This “greatest hits” hike sees a lot of boots, so prepare for a packed trail — especially during larch season.
But what are larches, exactly? Not easily categorized, subalpine larches are best described as “deciduous conifers”. Their needles turn golden-yellow in the fall before falling off. Typically at their golden peak between late September and early October, these picturesque trees are highly sought after in the fall. You’ll find larches at nearby trails along the Cascade Crest, including Maple Pass Loop.
Because Blue Lake is one of the most accessible “larch madness” trails in the area, it tends to be jam-packed for a few weeks each year. Avoid weekend visits, especially if hiking here during peak larch season.
Hiking Blue Lake Trail
Blue Lake Trail begins along a boardwalk, immediately entering the forest. You’ll contend with a bit of road noise for this first stretch as the trail gently switchbacks away from Highway 20.
At 0.9 miles, reach a clearing where mountain views begin to open up. If you’re visiting during summer, look for pink mountain heather and other wildflowers in this area. During fall, golden alpine larches mix with evergreens on the upper slopes.
The first larches begin to appear trailside at around 1.8 miles, just before the climber’s path junction. Continue straight for Blue Lake at the signed junction, watching for climbers on the Liberty Bell Mountain Group granite overhead. Mountain goats frequent this area as well. Always give wildlife plenty of room if you have an encounter.
At 2.4 miles, reach the lake’s outlet stream and cross it to access Blue Lake’s western shoreline. Just after crossing the stream, you’ll reach the remains of an old cabin and the signed Tarn Loop trail. Stay left for the lake (see below for info on the Tarn Loop).
A large, lunch-friendly rock is the popular turnaround point for Blue Lake. From here, gaze across the cirque to its talus-strewn southern slopes.
Watch for grey jays (also known as “whiskey jacks” or “camp robbers”). These bold birds will beg for food, but it’s best not to feed them. Return the way you came, or extend your hike via the Tarn Loop.
Tarn Loop Trail
To extend your hike a bit and discover better views of the Liberty Bell Group, take the Tarn Loop. This will only add 0.4 miles to your hike, but the views are worth it.
Hike clockwise to an overlook of Liberty Bell Mountain and the Early Winters Spires reflected in Blue Lake. Then loop around to the north for views across Highway 20 to Whistler Mountain and Cutthroat Peak before returning to the trailhead.