Hiking Blue Lake in North Cascades
Blue Lake trail in North Cascades is one of the best hikes in the national park. This Blue Lake hiking guide will provide you with everything you need to know to hike Blue Lake in North Cascades.
North Cascades National Park is full of natural wonders, from lush forest to hidden lakes to snow capped peaks to amazing view points. Aside from the view points and lake activities, North Cascades National Park really is a hiker’s and backpacker’s paradise.
There are so many amazing trails in North Cascades and only when you hike can you really see the appeals of this national park. There are many difficult and long hikes in North Cascades but if you want a moderate and family friendly hike that is still beautiful, then I highly recommend you hike the Blue Lake trail in North Cascades.
Blue Lake Trail requires relatively low amount of effort but the view at the end is absolutely rewarding. The trail itself is also not super crowded (North Cascades in general is not crowded), so that makes hiking to Blue Lake an even better experience.
I will provide details on how to hike to Blue Lake and everything you need to know about the Blue Lake Trail in this blog.
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How long and how hard is Blue Lake Trail?
Blue Lake Trail is a moderate and family friendly hike to a beautiful subalpine lake. The hike is mostly done in the forest with a lot of shade, making it perfect for summer. Dogs on leash are welcomed on the Blue Lake Trail, so you will see a lot of dogs on this trail (and kids).
Here are some general statistics on Blue Lake Trail in North Cascades Washington.
Hike length: 4.8-5 miles out and back (some sources say 4.8 miles, but my Apple Watch says 5 miles)
Time it takes: 2.5 – 3 hours total
Elevation Gain: 850 feet
Active Calories burned (based on Apple Watch): 550 Active Calories
Difficulty level: Moderate (family and kids can do it)
Dogs: Dogs on leash are allowed on the Blue Lake Trail
Pass Needed: Northwest Forest Day Pass ($5)
Bathroom: At the trailhead; none at the lake
Where is Blue Lake Trail? How do I reach Blue Lake?
Blue Lake Trail is located on SR-20 near North Cascades National Park in Washington State near the town of Winthrop. Many people mistakenly think that Blue Lake is in North Cascades but technically it is outside of the national park in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
It is easy to reach Blue Lake if you are in North Cascades National Park, as the Blue Lake trailhead is located on the right side of State Route 20 (N Cascades Hwy) as you drive east through the park.
You should always check State Route 20 road status before driving to Blue Lake to avoid disappointment. Here I list the best resources to check the North Cascades park status, road status and trail conditions.
There are occasional road closures during peak summer season due to wildfire and roadwork, so be sure to check before you attempt to hike Blue Lake!
Is there parking at Blue Lake Trailhead?
Blue Lake Trailhead has a small parking lot that fits about 25-30 cars total. If you are planning to hike Blue Lake on a weekday, you should aim to get to the parking lot by 8:30am or earlier. We arrived on a Friday at 9:10 and there were only 5 spots left.
However if you do come later during the day (like after 12:30pm), you may be able to get some parking spots as the early birds would have left Blue Lake by then.
If the Blue Lake trailhead parking lot is full, you can still park a little bit outside of the parking lot and along Route 20. When we were leaving, we saw about 10-15 cars parked right outside of the parking lot and along the road.
FYI: You need to have a NW Forest Pass to hike Blue Lake or pay $5 at the fee station (and deposit the cash) and leave the filled out pass on your car dash. Bring a pen and exact change with you.
When is the best time to hike Blue Lake Trail?
The best time to hike Blue Lake trail is during summer (July to September) when there is no snow on the trail and when the road (SR 20) is open.
During winter when there is snow and avalanche danger, Blue Lake trailhead is not even accessible as Route 20 North Cascades Highway has a seasonal closure that usually starts mid November. The North Cascades Highway closure usually happens between milepost 134 (Ross Dam Trailhead) and milepost 171 (Silver Star Gate). The North Cascades Highway (SR 20) usually reopens by early May.
Details of Blue Lake hike in North Cascades
The trail to Blue Lake starts right behind the Self-Service Pay Station as well as the toilet.
There is actually an envelope deposit box right at the start of the trail so you do not forget to pay $5 for the Northwest Forest Pass! The trail goes into the forest almost immediately with a moderate incline.
The first half mile of the trail has a lot of boardwalk so you can cross streams and rocky areas very easily. I lost count after 5 but there were quite a few of them.
Once there’s no more boardwalks, you will continue to follow the trail uphill in the woods. The uphill on this hike is not too terrible but they are still gradual uphills and the switchbacks are manageable. There were a couple of families that were hiking with kids (like 6 year olds) and they all were going at a pretty good pace. We also saw some older people hiking this trail, probably even faster than we were!
At around 0.9 miles into the hike, you will briefly come out of the woods into the open with a nice view of the surrounding peaks.
Since we visited in August, it was still wildflower seasons so there were some pretty wild flowers during this part of the hike (this part only lasts for about 0.1 miles).
If you hike Blue Lake Trail in the fall, the leaves will be golden, adding a pop of color to the trail.
Soon you will be back in the forest to continue up the moderate uphills (although some parts are steeper than others). There are some parts that are somewhat rocky (not rock climbing rocky, but just a lot of rocks on the ground).
At around 1.9 miles you will see a break in the tree line and also a sign for Blue Lake Trail and Liberty Bell Trail. Follow the trail on the right to Blue Lake and back into the woods we go. After a while you also will start seeing signs that says no campfire within 1/4 mile of Blue Lake. When you see those you know you are closed!
There are some steeper inclines after this part but nothing too crazy. We also had to cross a small stream before seeing another sign for “Lake View” or “Tarn Loop Tr No. 314”.
At this point you will also start to see the surrounding areas being fenced off to protect the vegetation and wild flowers, so be sure to stay on the hiking trail.
We followed the sign and went left towards the Lake and after a minute we saw Blue Lake! We stopped on a pile of large rocks for our photos but you can actually hike around the lake to avoid people and get different views of the lake.
We saw dogs swimming in the lake and a few people took out their fishing poles. If you don’t want to do any of that, you can just chill and have a snack with this beautiful lake view.
If you wanted to hike around, you could actually go back to where the last sign was and follow the trail to Tarn Loop, which will eventually lead you back to the lake but from a different angle. If you have time and energy or just simply want to avoid people, this could be a good option!
When we hiked to Blue Lake, the sky was partially cloudy. I did not realize how much clouds could do to change the color of the lake. Obviously Blue Lake looked the best when it was sunny so be sure to hike on a clear day or you may not be able to see the amazing color of the water.
What to bring to hike Blue Lake Trail?
Even though Blue Lake Trail is not a hard hike by North Cascades standards (considering the average hike in North Cascades is about 10 miles), Blue Lake Trail is by no means just a leisurely stroll. You should still try to be prepared for a 5 mile hike with some of the basic things listed here:
Water and Snack: I brought 2L of water and I think it was sufficient. If you don’t drink a lot you probably won’t even finish 2L since most of the hike is in the forest so it wasn’t super hot.
Sunscreen/ Sunglasses: if you are planning to spend a lot of time at Blue Lake, you should definitely bring sun protection since the lake area is not shaded unlike the trail.
Swim Suit: if you are planning to swim in Blue Lake, be sure to bring your bathing suit and a towel!
I don’t think you need hiking poles as the hike to Blue Lake is not very difficult, but they are always good for your knees when you come back down to the trailhead.
We had bear mace with us (we purchased from REI) but we did not see any bear or mountain goats on the Blue Lake trail. If you want to be 100% sure, you should have a bear mace with you, but this trail in general is pretty busy (busy by North Cascades standard that is). So all the noises from hikers should scare the bears away.
Where to Stay near Blue Lake?
Camping in North Cascades
Camping in North Cascades is the best option if you want to be close to all the trailheads and not have to worry about driving an hour or two in the morning (so you can sleep more!).
The closest campground to Blue Lake Trailhead would be the Colonial Creek South and/or North Campground followed by Gorge Lake Campground.
Hotels near Blue Lake Trail, Washington
If camping is not your thing (it’s not mine either), then the best town to stay at near Blue Lake Trail is Winthrop.
Winthrop is known for its American Old West design of all the buildings in town. I did not know this about Winthrop before I went there and it was super cute! I felt like I stepped back in time (or on a movie set) because of all the Old West buildings.
I recommend staying in Winthrop because it is only about an hour drive to Blue Lake Trailhead and it is a pretty big town with tons of things to eat, do and buy.
Other North Cascades Blogs
If you are planning to explore more of North Cascades or do more hikes there, be sure to check out my other North Cascades blog articles!
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