Walking in an Autumnal Wonderland: Or, That Time We Almost Made it to Ingalls Lake

Walking in an Autumnal Wonderland: Or, That Time We Almost Made it to Ingalls Lake

By: Shelby October 5, 2015 10:00 am 2 comments

This hike wasn’t a failure. We didn’t make it to the lake at the end of the trail, but that’s okay. Sure, Ingalls Lake is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places that you can just up and walk to in the state, but the lake actually wasn’t my goal. What I really really wanted to see was the larches in their electric orange glory. For years now I’ve heard of the amazing fall show these trees put on for just a couple weeks each year, but we had never been out to see them for ourselves.

Ingalls Way Title Image

Another one of my objectives was just to get out of the apartment. I wanted a cathartic hike. We sadly put down my beautiful cat Zoe on Friday, after her long battle with cancer, so I wanted something to take my mind off things. I kept seeing trip reports saying the larches would be in their full fall color show this weekend, and even though I don’t normally go for super popular hikes, I felt okay checking out Ingalls Lake on a beautiful fall afternoon.

The beautiful Zoe, before her cancer

The beautiful Zoe, before her cancer

We arrived at the trailhead a little later than what we probably should have, and cars were lined up down the road for probably half a mile. We luckily snagged a spot close to the parking lot and were on the trail by noon. Though it was a cool, blustery day, we were soon stripping off layers as we huffed up the hill.



The switchbacks weren’t too bad, though. They gently meandered up a nice round hill for about a mile and a half and the views graciously of Esmerelda Peak opened up. Soon we came to the Longs Pass trail turnoff and continued along north along the ridge towards Headlight Basin.




Esmerelda Peak

Esmerelda Peak

There were so many people on the trail it was hard to find a moment of solitude. But, as almost everybody we ran into was very respectful of each other and the wilderness, it wasn’t so bad.

The trail steadily continued up the ridge, always gaining elevation but not oppressively so. It was a bright, clear day, and though the trail was exposed 90% of the time, we weren’t too exhausted by the climb. Despite all of this, we were happy to catch the first glimpse of fiery yellow larches over the ridge. We had finally made it into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and began our descent into Headlight Basin.




Rainier peeks over

Rainier peeks over

Finally crossing into the Wilderness area

Finally crossing into the Wilderness area

Here, the trail became incredibly rocky, and went from beautiful meadow stroll to scrambling over huge boulders besides fat mountain goats. It was larch galore here, and there were at least a hundred people wandering around, taking photos, and basking in the autumnal brilliance. It was truly a sight.






Shelby & Mount Stuart




Fun fact! The alpine larch, or larix lyallii, grows in the Pacific Northwest at high altitudes (6,000ft+), and, despite being a conifer, is actually a deciduous tree. That’s why the needles turn a beautiful electric orange in the fall, and then eventually drop off. They also live an extremely long time, with the oldest known one being 1917 years old.



Headlight Basin

Headlight Basin

Larch madness!

Larch madness!

It took us a while to pick our way through the basin. There were so many people wandering around, it was honestly hard sometimes to tell who was coming and going. In a moment of trail confusion, we reached a junction and weren’t sure which way to go. A man was blocking the sign and asked if we were looking for the lake. “I think it’s down there,” he said, and pointed at a trail that lead down into the basin. We said “cool, thanks” and started hiking down. It wasn’t until the trail started to climb back upwards that we wondered where the heck this lake was, and turned around and saw people climbing up the wall past where we had stood just minutes before. We had no desire to climb up there. We had actually been hiking down the alternate trail that cut directly through the basin, back up to the saddle where we first crossed into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. So that was a bummer. Our knees were starting to act up, and it was becoming painful for me to walk downhill. Faced with yet another scrambly climb up to the lake, and with the sun starting to dip lower behind the wall of mountains, we decided to skip the lake this time and head back down.




Happy goat

Happy goat



Mount Stuart

Imposing Mount Stuart



We’ll definitely come back though. The trail is totally doable with a backpack, and it would be awesome to spend a night or two in the basin and explore up to Ingalls Pass, around the lake, and beyond. But until next spring, we both need to rest our knees and see what’s going on with our patellar tendons. As for the hike down, it was long and painful, but we made it in okay time, surprisingly. I had to sort of hobble down straight-legged, but when I caught a good stride, I could hustle down the smoother parts pretty quickly.




We ended up seeing a ton of wildlife too. A grouse, chipmunks, the goats, a couple hawks, cows, deer, horses, sheep… (okay we passed a ton of farms…) and even a herd of elk as we were driving down I-90! Overall, it was a great day in the Teanaway region. I love coming over to this side of the mountains. It’s a nice change of pace from the mossy green west side.

Northwest Forest Pass required.
From Seattle, take I-90 east to exit 85. Head east on Hwy 903 and turn left on Teanaway Road. Follow the road till it becomes FR 9737, following signs for Beverly Campground and Esmerelda Basin. Follow the washboard dirt road to its end.


  • I’m so sorry to hear about your cat. <3 I had one of my most meaningful experiences in the mountains in Headlight Basin a couple of years ago, must be something about that place.

    You can come back and see the lake in summer, when you can jump in and cool off!

    • Shelby

      Thank you so much, Ingunn! It was hard to say goodbye, but I feel much better now that she isn’t suffering anymore! We had a good long life together (13 years!!).

      And we will definitely be back to see the lake! I’d like to go when it’s not crawling with people, if there ever is such a time! 🙂

Leave a reply