The Colchuck Lake Trail, near Leavenworth, Washington, is one of the most iconic hikes in the Pacific Northwest, with its stunning turquoise waters, snow-capped peaks, and sometimes, even guest appearances from mountain goat friends. If you want to check off this incredible hike from your Washington bucket list, here’s everything you need to know about the Colchuck Lake Trail.
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About Colchuck Lake Trail
- Length: 9.0 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,283 feet
- Difficulty: Hard
- Dog-friendly? Sadly, you’ll have to leave your furbaby at home- dogs aren’t allowed on the trail.
How to get to the Colchuck Lake Trail
Almost all day-hikers access Colchuck Lake via the Stuart Lake Trail, whose trailhead is located here. To reach the trailhead, you’ll need to take Forest Service Road 7601- it’s quite bumpy and potholed in some areas, but most passenger cars should be able to make it if you drive slowly and carefully (we made it in our little Prius-C!).
The parking lot holds about 20-30 cars- given this is one of the most popular hikes in Washington AND one of two gateways to the most coveted backpacking trail in the Pacific Northwest (called the Enchantments), spots fill up here quick. My husband, Justin, and I hiked the trail on a random Wednesday and it was still pretty packed! So if you want to be sure to snag a spot, show up early (like, well before 7 AM early), especially if you’re hiking on a weekend.
If the parking lot is full, you can also park on the right hand side of the road between the Stuart Lake and Eightmile Lake trailheads.
Parking anywhere else is not allowed and you’ll likely be ticketed (the rangers here LOVE to hand out tickets).
Once you park, you’ll either need a Northwest Forest or interagency pass (like America the Beautiful) or purchase a $5 day pass at the trailhead. Be sure to remember to leave your pass conspicuously displayed on your dashboard or you’re likely to return to an unwanted surprise when you return to your car.
You’ll also need to complete a (free!) wilderness permit at the trailhead that helps the rangers make sure everyone is safe and accounted for on the trail.
When to hike Colchuck Lake
Because of Colchuck Lake’s high elevation, nestled deep in the Cascade Mountains, the trail is usually covered with snow for much of the year- the best (and most snow-free) hiking conditions are found along the trail from July to mid-October.
July through August is an excellent time to enjoy the trail when it’s snow- and ice-free. And, if you visit on a particularly warm day, it can actually feel quite lovely to take a dip in Colchuck’s icy waters.
In the last few weeks of September through early October, Colchuck transforms into one of the best larch hikes in Washington.
If you’re not familiar with larches, they’re a super unique kind of needle-bearing conifer that only grows in cold and mountains climates and are actually deciduous! Their soft needles turn a blazing golden hue every autumn, before falling off for the winter. It’s quite a spectacle- they don’t call it “larch madness” for nothing!
While you can theoretically tackle this trail year round, the gate to Forest Service Road 7601 is closed from November to May, adding about seven miles roundtrip (and a considerable amount of elevation gain) to your trek if you park at the gate.
If you decide to brave the trail in the snowy seasons, be sure to have the appropriate gear, like crampons, trekking poles, and, depending on the conditions, even snowshoes (my husband has these and I have these) at the ready, in addition to a solid understanding of the dangers and nuances of winter hiking.
What to expect along the Colchuck Lake Hike
Starting from the Stuart Lake Trailhead, you’ll start off through a beautiful and dense pine-tree forest. The first mile and a half is fairly flat and easy, with occasional peekaboo glimpses of Mountaineer Creek off to your right. After you cross over this creek on a log bridge, the trail becomes considerably steeper and rockier (good foreshadowing for the latter half of this butt-kicking hike!).
After climbing switchbacks for about 0.6 miles, you’ll reach a junction for either Stuart Lake to your right and Colchuck Lake to the left. Continue left and around 2.2 miles into the trail, you’ll reach a second log bridge (on particularly hot days, this is an awesome place to try to catch a cool breeze!), which will lead you directly to some large boulders.
This section is a bit confusing- Justin and I actually accidentally wound up wandering off trail for a while here- so make sure that, when you hit the boulders, you continue to the right as soon as the bridge ends. There’s a small cluster of boulders here that you’ll need to skip across and once you’ve navigated around those, your hike to Colchuck Lake will truly begin (hold on to your butts!).
I'd recommend downloading an offline trail map on AllTrails, so that you can follow along and not accidentally wander off the route. You'll need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline maps, but you can get a 7-day free trial here. If you're wondering whether the app is for you, we wrote a whole post on whether AllTrails Pro is worth it.
The switchbacks start off pretty gently but almost immediately, become steeper and rockier around each corner. And while your thighs may be a-burning, the views along the trail also become more and more spectacular as you climb higher, with glimpses of the neighboring valley and the craggy ridgeline of Dragontail Peak.
The final push to the top is BRUTAL (you can do it!)- but, before you know it, you’ll be dropped onto a granite rockface overlooking the azure waters of Colchuck Lake and beyond, Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks, towering 3,000 feet above.
From here, you can follow the trail south along the western edge of the lake, leading you through groves of pine and larch trees and offering you spectacular views of the Colchuck Glacier ahead.
Can I camp at Colchuck Lake?
The good news? There’s some REALLY epic campsites right along the lakeshore, assuring you’ll basically have the best room with a view on the planet.
The bad news? You are required to have a permit to camp here from May through October, which is considered part of the core Enchantment Lakes zone. Snagging a backpacking permit to the Enchantments is notoriously challenging- less than 4% of applicants each year win one of the elusive permits (as a three time Enchantments permit loser, I’m not, like, bitter or anything at that stupid lottery system).
Tips for the Colchuck Lake Hike
Pack the essentials.
While you’re hiking here, there’s a few things you absolutely cannot forget to pack:
- Sunscreen: Between the high elevation of this hike and the fact that you’re going to be cooking under the sun for at least six hours, sunscreen is kind of a no brainer. I swear by this brand (and,with over 17,000 5-star reviews on Amazon, it can’t be wrong, right?).
- Bugspray: Listen, y’all, one of my favorite things about moving to Washington from the Midwest is how much less buggy it is… except for this trail. During July through early September, expect mosquitoes– like, swarms that could carry you away kind of mosquitoes- especially around Colchuck Lake itself. So wear long sleeves and long pants and bring lots of bug spray– you’re gonna need it!
- Water: With over 2,200 feet of elevation gain, you’re going to want to stay hydrated on the trail. Justin and I both have giant Nalgene bottles that hold a ton of water and take them with us everywhere, from our international trips to, of course, up to Colchuck Lake!
Leave no trace.
We’re so lucky to have such incredible natural beauty here in Washington, so let’s treat it with the respect it deserves. Leave Colchuck Lake (and everywhere else you go!) better than you found it by practicing the leave no trace principles.
Wear hiking boots.
This trail is full of roots and rocky terrain just waiting for you to stub your toe on or to fall over. Get ahead of those stabby rocks and come prepared with some real hiking boots (like these for men and these for women), which provide protection to your toes, better support for your ankles, and more traction for any slippery surfaces you need to hike on.
Where to stay near Colchuck Lake
If you’re hiking the Colchuck Lake trail, you should consider staying overnight near Leavenworth before (… and probably after) your hike. Not only because the trailhead’s a bit far out from most places in Washington (2 hours and 40 minutes away from Seattle and 3 hours and 45 minutes from Spokane) and you should start the trail SUPER early, but also, because Leavenworth is just straight up freakin’ adorable!
If you’ve never visited Leavenworth (which is just half an hour from the Colchuck Lake trailhead) before, it’s a charming Bavarian-themed town (like, even the Starbucks and gas stations look straight out of the Sound of Music), nestled in the stunning alpine scenery of the Cascades.
So if post-hike carb loading on some really good beer and an enormous soft pretzel sound like your idea of good time, consider staying at one of the awesome hotels in Leavenworth, like:
- Bavarian Lodge: With a rustic beer pub, spectacular mountain views, and two hot tubs to soak your aching muscles, this is an excellent choice to make your homebase in Leavenworth.
- Obertal Inn: With a large variety of rooms, ranging from a single king bed to a full-blown townhouse, this charming inn is perfect for those traveling in larger groups. With perks in different rooms, like a wood burning fireplace or jacuzzi, and a free breakfast buffet for all guests, what’s not to love?
- Hotel Pension Anna: This hotel takes the whole Bavarian-theme very seriously- from its balconies overlooking the town’s church steeples and its ornate wooden furniture, this is the best spot in town to feel like you’ve totally been transported to Germany- without ever having to leave Washington state.
I hope you have a blast hiking Colchuck Lake- I know I can’t wait to make a return trip this summer! Do you have any questions about the trail? Sound off in the comments below!