Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the Map
Hidden deep in the Wenatchee National Forest, past the devastation from an old forest fire, and inside a valley of jagged peaks, is one of the most scenic vistas in Northern Washington. The hiking here is mild, the panorama is breathtaking, and the trails are barely touched. Marmots scramble among the rocks, pristine alpine lakes dot the countryside, and massive granite walls rise next to the trail. Pitch a tent on the lakeshore; hike just a few miles above camp, and the reward is a vista over the Cascades, and a panorama of Mt. Stuart’s monumental north face. Camping in Wenatchee National Forest is as much a must-do as hiking through the Enchantments.
The trailhead starts just outside of Leavenworth, and swiftly rises through the bush, opening to a vast land of barren trees, ash-colored logs, and dry grass. Looking at the hillside, one can see how widespread the forest fire was. Dead branches rise far above the hills, broken, gray trunks are cut in half for the trail to run through, and the landscape is dusty, arid, and rocky. This portion doesn’t reflect the nature of the trail, but it serves as a reminder of the incredible re-growth that is taking place.At the intersection of two lakes, the trail ascends through a series of rough switchbacks, quickly gaining elevation and entering a lush, northwestern pine forest, providing respite from the exposed hillside. In the background, the serrated Stuart Range rises above the hills. A glimpse of Mt. Stuart tantalizingly peeks out towards the north.
The trail descends down to Upper Lake Caroline, set among tree-lined hills, forests, and a marsh, with some semi-developed campsites right on the lakeside. Wenatchee National Forest is a preserve for a wide variety of animals, such as elk, deer, bear, and one of Washington’s only packs of wolves. As our group slept, we awoke to a perfect howl piercing the night from the adjacent cliff. With proper precautions, wolves and other animals do not pose any threat to people.
The Windy Pass switch starts just behind the campsite, ascending on a grassy hillside with the Stuart Range in full view, and continuing along a lush prairie where marmots whistle and scamper between the rocks. The splendor of the Windy Pass trail is early in the morning, when the sun is rising from behind the hills and the landscape shines in colorful late-summer and early fall hues.
Never rising above a moderate grade, the trail follows several hills, and climbs one last, steep uphill, before looking out onto the magnificent vista. Windy Pass looks out upon the North Cascades, with Glacier Peak and Baker rising on the horizon. Looking to the right, the snow-swept face of Mt. Stuart’s north side overshadows the terrain. As the second highest non-volcanic peak in the state, Stuart is a prized peak from a hikers and climber’s perspective. Its jagged architecture and steep lines are awe-inspiring.
The trail winds back through forest and fire zone, with the downhill making the return an easier and faster trip to the trailhead. For the post-hike celebration, head to Leavenworth, a nearby German-themed town for food and local beers.
When the crowds are through hiking the Enchantments, overtaking the Olympics, or invading the North Cascades, the Wenatchee National Forest is quiet, relatively untouched, and offers massive views with moderate trails. It’s an area that is quietly growing back from the ashes of the forest fire.