How to Hike the Colchuck Lake Trail: A Complete Trail Guide
The Colchuck Lake trail. Have you been? If not, at the risk of sounding bossy, I insist that you add this one to your Washington State bucket list. I somehow managed to trek the Andes of Peru before making the hike to Colchuck Lake despite growing up less than two hours away from the trailhead. Want to know what I learned?
I was such a dunce!
While Peru was genuinely incredible, it also gifted me the realization that there is world class hiking right here at home – and Colchuck Lake is my top pick for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness poster child. It represents every level of beauty that the area has to offer, and it’s a realistic goal for hikers of many levels.
Breaking through the trees and seeing that vivid teal water for the first time is a feast for the eyes. Then heading down to the shoreline, the view fills out even more with Dragontail Peak looming above and you get that moment every hiker hopes for, the one where time slows down and nature gives us a humbling reminder of our place in the world. You really have to go, and here is everything you need to know!
Note from Matt & Alysha: This hike is one of our favorite hikes in Washington State. If you have the chance to do it as a day hike, DO IT. But it’s even better as an overnight trip if you (or a friend) can snag permits.
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Colchuck Lake Hike Details
- Length: 8.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,280 ft.
- Season: July – October
- Trail Type: Out and Back
- Difficulty: Moderate – Hard
- Trailhead Location
- Dog Friendly: No, strictly enforced
- Pass Required: Northwest Forest Pass or a $5 day pass available at the parking lot
Where does the hike start?
- Leavenworth, WA at the Stuart Lake Trailhead
- The trailhead is about 35 minutes from downtown Leavenworth
What’s the journey like?
- Slow and gradual at first, steep for the last mile
- Switchbacks, steps, exposed roots, and rocks
- Intermittent valley views along the way
What’s the payoff?
- A jewel in the Cascades – the perfect alpine lake surrounded by jagged mountain peaks
- Resident mountain goats
- Bonus: a seriously regal toilet experience at the top
When to Hike to Colchuck Lake
FR-7601 closes from November to May (specific dates change by year depending on snow), so it’s important to monitor conditions before heading out. You’re almost guaranteed to see snow on the ground by November 1st in the fall and through the end of June in the summer. I would not recommend attempting this in May because there will still be a solid snowpack for the hike and likely the drive too.
Without a doubt, Colchuck Lake needs to be experienced in both summer and fall.
If you only see it in peak season during July or August, you’d never guess what secret the upper basin holds come October.
Surrounding the lake, lining the base of Asgard Pass, and sprinkled amongst the evergreens are deciduous conifers. What appear to be small evergreen trees to the untrained eye are actually alpine larches (usually called tamaracks by the locals).
While shades of blue and green dominate the summer, the needles of these ordinary looking trees turn a bright, golden yellow by the middle of October. It’s as if Bob Ross was painting the landscape and had the happiest of accidents by using yellow instead of green, and then totally committed to it.
The hardy larches are some of the best survivors at this altitude too, so it’s a striking color palette against the rocky background.
If you’re able to make it to Colchuck in October, I also recommend staying in Leavenworth and spending time by the river where the golden theme continues. It’s a beautiful time to be there! Not to mention Oktoberfest.
Tips and Insights
- Arrive EARLY: between 4 am and 6 am is the goal. You might find parking up to 7:30 am if you go midweek. Drive a vehicle that can handle deep potholes (note from Matt & Alysha: we made it in our minivan, you’ll just need to take it REEEEALLY slow).
- Hike July-October for more sun and no snow; or go mid-October for a stellar display of deciduous conifers (you may know them as larches or tamaracks).
- Check trail conditions regularly, especially in the early/late season. Also be aware of local fires and smoke conditions – this hike will not be fun and the view may be totally obscured depending on the wildfire situation.
- Come with sturdy boots (we like the Salomon X-Ultra series) and trekking poles to save your ankles and knees. Plan to use bug spray (or essential oils or whatever you want as long as it’s offensive to insects).
- Toilets are available at the trailhead and the lake.
- Permits via a lottery are required for camping at the lake from May 15th – October 31st. If you camp overnight, visit Stuart Lake on your way down the next day – from the Colchuck/Stuart trail junction it’s an easy, mostly flat two mile walk and totally worth visiting
Getting to the Trailhead
- Take I-5 North and merge onto WA-520 East toward Bellevue/Kirkland for about 6 miles.
- Cross the lake (there is a toll) and merge onto I-405 North for about 8 miles.
- To avoid the WA-520 toll, cross Lake Washington further south on the I-90 bridge and make your way to I-405 North from there.
- Using the far-right lane, take exit 23 and merge onto WA-522 East for about 13 miles.
- Merge onto US-2 East for about 85 miles (this takes you up Steven’s Pass and into Leavenworth).
- Continue with the “From Leavenworth” directions below.
- At the west edge of town turn down Icicle Creek Rd for 8.4 miles.
- If you’re coming from Seattle, you will be turning right off US-2.
- From downtown Leavenworth, you will be turning left.
- There is a 76 gas station on the corner.
- The turn left onto Forest Service Road 7601 for 3.7 miles until you reach the parking lot. This is where the road turns bumpy.
Parking at the Trailhead
The first thing you should know is that the parking for this hike is SUPER competitive, especially on weekends over the summer. Here are some things to know.
- You’ll need an Annual Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day pass available at the parking lot.
- ARRIVE EARLY or risk parking a mile from the trailhead. There is space for about 20-35 cars (this varies depending on how well the early birds configure their vehicles). About half the lot is reserved for overnighters with specific permits.
- This is a heavily monitored area.
- If you park without a pass you will get a ticket.
- If you have a pass but not an overnight permit and park in an overnight spot you will get a ticket.
- Parking is allowed along the right side of the forest service road between the Stuart Lake and Eightmile trailheads.
Assuming you arrived bright and early to get a decent parking spot, make sure to hang your annual Northwest Forest Pass on your mirror or head up to the information boards to get a day pass. There are a lot of helpful tips on there for anyone who isn’t familiar with the Alpine Lakes Wilderness as well.
Please pay special attention to the “Keeping Wilderness Wild” board on your right to make sure you know how to keep yourself and your surroundings as safe and healthy as possible.
Before you head up, this is a reminder to follow the Leave No Trace principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Solid Ground
- Dispose of Waste Properly (If you brought it in, bring it out)
- Leave What You Find
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Others
- Minimize Fire Impacts – At Colchuck NO fires are allowed
The Beginning of the Hike
Once you’re on the trail, you’ll begin with an easy and gradual incline for the first mile and a half or so. It’ll likely bring back feelings of childhood where you just wandered through the woods preparing for a wonderful, unknown adventure. Enjoy the lightheartedness, and also take note of how dense and lush the forest is down here because the landscape changes pretty drastically by the time you reach Colchuck – it’s amazing what a little altitude will do!
Especially in the early season when snow is still melting, you’ll hear a good roar from Mountaineer Creek. On and off you’ll catch glimpses of it from the trail and soon you’ll be greeted with a fantastic log bridge to cross. It’s beautiful at this spot and I would recommend standing in the middle of the bridge and having a friend take photos from below for some great shots. It’s also noticeably cooler above the water, so take a moment to get refreshed if you’re already running hot – from here you’ve finished that first mile and a half, and the trail will get harder.
You’ve probably also noticed exposed roots underfoot, and from here you’ll start seeing a lot more rocks too. If you opted for hiking boots instead of sneakers, you’ll really start to feel grateful as you begin to appreciate how many tripping hazards the forest floor can produce.
Carry on for about another ¾ of a mile. Once the trail flattens out and even dips down a bit, pay attention because you’re about to reach the Colchuck/Stuart Lake trail junction and if you don’t look up you’ll go the wrong way. Go left according to the sign reading “Colchuck Lake Trail #1599”.
Shortly after the junction you’ll reach another log bridge and cross Mountaineer Creek again. This time the other side turns into a totally different terrain in the form of a large boulder field with an ominous ridgeline above. It’s really cool!
As soon as you step off the bridge go right. The route is not as obvious, but as long as you turn right and climb through the rocks, you’ll find the trail again along the creek bank. The water is really calm here, so it’s a nice place to cool down and rest up if needed.
Mentally prepare now for the toughest stretch of the hike knowing that you’re actually really close to Colchuck Lake. The switchbacks seem fine at first, but they get steeper, rockier, and seemingly infinite as you go on. Hang in there!
You’ll be able to see the mountain valley at various spots during this stretch. But there are no abandoned service roads or anything to get lost on, so for the most part it’s a good idea to stay focused on your steps and avoid tripping.
When you see signs for the toilet, you’re moments away from the lake (toilet is a strong word – it’s a designated pit with no walls – but what a view when you have to go!).
This also happens to be the area a lot of the mountain goats like to make an appearance. I just about died laughing as a friend came SPRINTING down from the toilet after a way-too-friendly goat snuck up on her doing her business.
Reaching the Lake – You Made It!
The trail will bank right, dip down, and then BAM! The view of Colchuck opens up on your left and on a sunny day the color of the water is so saturated it looks either filtered or like it belongs in the tropic. If you’re there after mid-August, you’ll also see wild huckleberry bushes adding fiery streaks of red all over the place.
Head down the huge granite slab to set up a station for breakfast or lunch, relaxation, and swimming. I really loved that the rock face continues right into the water, so in a lot of places you can walk in for a more gradual approach to swimming.
The water is cold at all times of the year, but by the end of August it’s warm enough to feel comfortable as long as you’re swimming and not just sitting in the water at shore. And once you finally submerge and acclimate, there are plenty of ledges to jump from too!
Be sure to explore all the nooks and crannies around the area, because the view will change and different features of the landscape are highlighted.
And of course, on the opposite side of the lake you can’t miss the dreamy backdrop created by Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks (and up the left vein of Dragontail you might see hikers making the arduous journey up Asgard Pass – nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile). Yikes.
But don’t feel too bad for them because it means they get to spend time in the Enchantments!
If you scored an overnight camping permit, rather than stopping at the granite slab first it would be a good idea to find your temporary home.
Keep tracing the lake shore toward Asgard and you’ll have 2/3 of a mile to explore the scattered campsites and choose one to call your own (assuming you’re there EARLY enough). Please remember that there are no campfires allowed at this altitude.
Hiking to Colchuck Lake in the Summer vs. Fall
This hike should be taken in both the summer and fall.
If you’re there in July or August, you will never know what secret the upper basin holds come October. Surrounding Colchuck Lake, lining the base of Asgard Pass, and sprinkled amongst the evergreens are deciduous conifers. What appear to be smaller, boring fir trees to the untrained eye are actually alpine larches (usually called tamaracks by the locals).
While shades of blue and green dominate Colchuck in the summer, the needles of these average looking trees turn a bright, golden yellow by the middle of October. It’s as if Bob Ross was painting the landscape and had the happiest of accidents by using yellow instead of green, and then totally committed to it. The hardy larches are some of the only survivors at this altitude too, so when Autumn strikes, it’s nothing but rocks and gold.
This shift in scenery is dramatic and really unique in Washington. You could live in Seattle your whole life and never see anything like it without heading into the mountains.
If you make it to Colchuck in October, you’ll want to head down to the riverside in downtown Leavenworth as well. The whole river is lined with hardwoods and the golden theme continues. It’s a beautiful time to be there! Not to mention Oktoberfest, which is a great time.
Where to Stay Near Colchuck Lake
Depending on the type of experience you’re looking for, there are a lot of options for lodging. Keep in mind that downtown Leavenworth is easily accessible from the campgrounds and should be included in your plans. It only takes a day to explore this Bavarian wonderland, but it’s so much fun!
There are basically two camping options that will put you in the perfect position to get up, snag a parking spot at the trailhead, and hit the trail.
Bridge Creek: Tiny campground with just six sites available, all first-come-first-served. They also have some group sites, which you’ll need to reserve in advance.
Eightmile Campground: 8 miles out of town and located off Icicle Creek, this busy campsite is open to tent and RV camping and has a 60/40% split of reservation and first come, first serve spots. Pricing ranges $22-110.
Hotels Options Near Leavenworth
There are plenty of great places to stay in and around the Bavarian town of Leavenworth, ranging from big hotels to charming B&B’s.
Loge Riverside: Private cabins (2-person capacity) along the river with communal fire pits, grassy lawns, and an outdoor kitchen with a Traeger calling your name. Pricing varies drastically by season.
Loge Downtown: Classic hotel rooms (2–4-person capacity) with a beer garden and cafe onsite, as well as full access to the Riverside outdoor facilities. Pricing varies by season.
Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort: Located out of town on Icicle Road, this secluded resort offers rustic private rooms, gourmet dining, spa treatments, and a unique gift shop.
Abendblume: A cozy Bavarian getaway with old world charm, Abendblume has seven unique rooms and a traditional Austrian breakfast included in your stay.
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- How to Plan a Perfect North Cascades National Park Itinerary
Hello, we are planning Road Trip to USA, Mount Rainier NP, and other places in June. Is early June good time for visiting Colchuck Lake or everywhere is a lot of snow and lake is under snow? Thanks for your advice…
In general, June is still a little early for places in the Cascades (like Colchuck Lake and Mount Rainier). July and August are going to be a better bet for snow-free trails and warm days with crystal clear blue skies.
It could be clear of Snow by June, but it depends on the snowfall in that particular year (I’m currently looking out my window in Seattle at heavy snow coming down) and the weather in the spring.
Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions!