Saturday, November 28, 2020

Golden Lakes Loop in Chelan Sawtooths


Image of Upper Eagle Lake Reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Upper Eagle Lake
This last October I ventured into a new area of our mountains in Washington for the very first time - the Chelan Sawtooth.  What an amazing place in fall!

I must preface my story with the fact that I came directly from the Rainy Pass area along the North Cascades Highway, where trailhead parking lots were beyond full.  Parked cars could be seen on both sides of the highway, stretching as far as a quarter mile away - on a weekday.  It was crazy.

Image of Upper Eagle Lake reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Upper Eagle Lake
The Chelan Sawtooths offered a much different atmosphere.  This became evident as soon as I turned off Highway 97 onto a series of forest service roads that seemed to go forever.  I arrived at the Eagle Lake TH to a nearly full parking lot and disappointment set in.  Crowds were what I was hoping to avoid.

I would soon learn that most trail traffic consisted of day hikers and mountain bikes.  The only backpackers I encountered my first day was a family on their way out, that told me I would likely have the place nearly to myself.  They would not be wrong.

The approach to Upper Eagle Lake was a hot, dry one.  I would have preferred an earlier start, but dems da berries!

Image of Upper Eagle Lake reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Upper Eagle Lake
Views really opened up the last mile or so of trail and helped take my mind off the work up.  Soon I was at the junction and turned right to gain the upper lake at 7,110'.

I arrived to find some dayhikers lining the shores of the lake in the campground, enjoying the afternoon sun and the escape from suburbia.  I think I chatted with most of them - all super nice.  One by one the left and I was left alone.

I did some evening photography of the area, but it was very clear that morning would be the best light.  Still, it confirmed that the lake's backdrop was east facing and allowed me to start planning my morning.

The next morning was spectacular as expected and my photography actually started with moonlight, not sunlight!  Can you pick which image(s) above?

Image of Panorama of Cooney Lake and Fall Larches
Phone pic of Cooney Lake from a ridge high above
Soon it was time to pack up and move out.  I had a long day ahead - longer than even I realized!  I descended back to the main trail, then climbed up and over 7,590' Horsehead Pass and dropped down to Boiling Lake.  The views from the trail this entire stretch were amazing.

There was a couple camped at the lake.  We exchanged nods as I took my first break of the day.  Just a quick bight before moving on.

After descending down to a creek crossing and ascending the other side, the country soon became wide open.  Grass meadows extended far and wide with very few trees.  Views to the prominent peaks of the North Cascades were amazing!

Image of Martin Lake reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Martin Lake
Soon the trail began a to switchback steeply to gain the 8,000' saddle below the summit of Switchback Peak.  The views from the saddle were incredible, with better views back towards the North Cascades and into Canada, but also east down to Merchant Basin and out to Central Washington.  This made an excellent snack stop, and is where I encountered my first mountain biker.  We exchanged quick pleasantries and then he was on his way.  He was doing my trip in reverse, and got a late start!

The descent into Merchant Basin was quite steep, and soon I began encountering more mountain bikers.  All were super nice and always gave me the right away - stepping off the trail and hoisting their bikes above them.  I honestly felt guilty watching parties of 5 or so doing this, when I was travelling solo.  I began reversing the rule of etiquette so as not to inconvenience.

After a traverse above Merchant  Basin (the trail only descended part way into it before reaching a junction), Cooney Lake came into view in all its splendor.  The area was golden!

My descent continued down towards the lake and traversed past it on the south side.  Part of me wanted to go explore it, but I was tired and needed to get to Martin Lake, my destination for the evening.

Image of Martin Lake reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Martin Lake
I finally reached the Martin Lakes junction and found a place to sit and nibble on some food.  Soon a lady came up the trail from below, followed by her husband.  They had the same destination in mind.

They were from Spokane and we share many stories, including of the Idaho Sawtooths, where I had recently spent time and they were regulars.

Soon I excused myself, donned my pack, and headed up to find home for the evening.

I arrived at the lake to find it vacant, and dropped my pack at a lakeside site.  Soon the other couple arrived as well, and we elected to be neighbors.  We picked up the conversation where we left off.

Image of Martin Lake reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Martin Lake
That evening I traversed around the south side of the lake and found a composition I really liked with some dead snags along the shore (above).  I was fortunate to find the scene with reflective waters, as they disappeared quickly.

The winds picked up and lasted through the night.  My expectations for morning reflections disappeared.  But to my surprise, they greeted me as I poked my head out of my tent!

I enjoyed a spectacular morning with a show of pink clouds to the east that was second to none!  I watched them in fascination and envy for much of the morning, wishing I was in a location to photograph them.  But the fact is, they were the reason for the fantastic light that I did receive.

Image of Martin Lake reflection, Chelan Sawtooth
Reflection in Martin Lake
Soon the show was done and it was time to pack up and begin my descent back to the TH.  

My exit was uneventful, thought I did pass the most people of my entire trip - all heading up for the weekend.  I smiled as I realized I had timed my visit perfectly.  I also smiled to know that on one of the most popular times for fall colors near Rainy Pass in the North Cascades, I escaped the area to find solace and peace in a new area, with colors at absolute peak.  It was a fantastic trip.

Final stats for the trip were 26.1 miles, 5,640' gain.

I will say that this trip opened my eyes to many potential future trips in the area.  This is an area I would definitely like to explore more.

I hope my story helps you in planning a future trip to this area.

See you on the trail!