Cat in the Wild | Falling for the PNW at Lake Ingalls, WA

Hiking the Lake Ingalls trail in October - peak larch season!

As a kid, summer and winter vacations meant I’d be bundled along with my little brother into a rental car and driven halfway across the country by my dad, my mom good-naturedly supplying directions and snacks from the passenger seat. My dad always said there was so much to see in this beautiful country of ours that there was no point in crossing oceans to go on vacation.

I estimate that I’ve been to at least 50 national parks in the U.S., something I didn’t appreciate much when all of my friends seemed to go to Disney World or on cruise ships instead of spending eight hours at a time in a sedan, for weeks on end. By the time I was in high school, these pilgrimages to the natural wonders of America were more annoying than exciting, full of reluctant family photos and inevitable bickering that I’d remember more clearly than the magical scenery we’d see together.

And yet, we end up like our parents in the most unexpected ways. After two years of living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve finally fallen head over heels for the abundance of natural beauty that surrounds me. It’s not only the views, although those fill me with a joy unlike any other, but it’s also the meditative calm and serenity I find when I’m out there; that quieting of the constant chatter and anxious dribbling in my head from the stressors of daily life.

This is the first of many “Cat in the Wild” entries to come! I hope this series inspires you to get outside, especially if, like me, you’re intimidated or hesitant to leave the comfort of the city for the trail. I think it was really this hike, Lake Ingalls, that sparked this desire within me to get outside, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

Hiking Lake Ingalls

Larches along the Lake Ingalls trail in October

Date hiked: October 13, 2018
Location: Leavenworth
9 miles roundtrip (took us around 6 hours with many stops for food/pics)
Elevation: Gain – 2500 ft; Highest point – 6500 ft
Type of hike: In-and-out, day hike (but camping is allowed—and something I hope to do one day)
Difficulty: Pretty darn hard due to steep, rocky inclines, scrambling, and the total distance
Best seasons: Fall, specifically October for larch season! This trail gets pretty hot in the summer due to long unshaded stretches
Go for: Larches, mountain goats, alpine lake, a challenge

The trail begins with long, meandering switchbacks up the side of the mountain. We passed through a quiet forest, a picturesque stream rushing down by our left and the forest carpet turning red and gold all around us, before the landscape changed with the higher elevation to a rockier, sparsely forested zone. In this area, we saw a pika, a small rodent which was apparently the inspiration for Pikachu.

After 2.5 to 3 hours of incline—pretty steep at times—we finally reached Ingalls Pass. As we crested the ridge of the mountain, the view on the other side opened up dramatically to reveal a mountainside carpeted with yellow larches at their peak (!!!) among regular ol’ green conifers for some delightful contrast.

From here, there are two ways to get to the lake: One way travels down into the basin and back up again to climb to Lake Ingalls; the other ventures into a meadow that keeps you at a relatively high elevation for a less steep climb at the end. We took the first way to the lake, and the other way back. I recommend taking both paths so you see more of the beautiful ecosystem up there.

Larches galore in the alpine meadows beyond Ingalls Pass—I promise it's worth the climb!
Larches galore in the alpine meadows beyond Ingalls Pass—I promise it’s worth the climb!

This was my favorite part, because the trail takes you through the larches and across meandering streams that drop off the side of the mountain without warning. It feels otherworldly. I saw some campers up here and I imagine it must be an incredible overnighter (but you’d definitely have to work for it to bring all your gear up the trail).

Once we left the meadows, we climbed through more rocky terrain for another 20-ish minutes before beginning the scramble up to the lake. I was really glad I had hiking boots with good traction for this part.

Finally, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of Lake Ingalls, a deep blue lake nestled in a rocky crater. Although it’s not your typical PNW lake, with no evergreens or foliage to add that quintessential PNW touch, it’s gorgeous in its own right—mostly because you have to push your body to its physical limits to see it!

Lake Ingalls
The sweetest sight on this hike—Lake Ingalls—because it took forever to get here, lol.

We ate our lunch up here before returning via the other path towards the pass. This path took us through another meadow, where we saw a family of mountain goats, including a kid. The goats were literally within 10 feet of the trail…which I later learned was kind of scary. Oops.

Mountain goats on the Lake Ingalls trail
Mountain goats & baby frolicking about, within 10 feet of the trail!

The trip back to the parking lot took a little more than half the amount of time it took to get up to the lake, and the whole way, we couldn’t believe we had hiked that far. It’s definitely a challenging hike, but well worth it. I’m already sad that I’ll have to wait ’til next October to do this hike again and see the larches in their full glory.

Tips for hiking Lake Ingalls:

  • This is a popular hike, and for good reason, so arrive early or expect to park along the road leading up to the parking lot.
  • The drive to the trailhead is well-maintained and doable for any car.
  • You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass or an America the Beautiful Pass because this is federal land.
  • The trail is quite rocky and involves a fair bit of scrambling at the end, so wear hiking boots with good ankle support and traction. I broke in new hiking boots on this steep, 9 mile trail…which I do not recommend, but also do not regret given that I definitely would’ve injured myself wearing sneakers.
  • If you hike this in the fall (as I suggest you do, for the larches and cooler temps), bring a few layers because the temperature can shift from numbingly cold to warm as you walk in and out of shade and work up a sweat. I brought three layers: a Patagonia fleece, sweater, and long-sleeve shirt.
  • For optimal larch-viewing, mid-October is your best bet…but check the trip reports on WTA as you plan your hike!
  • Do not approach mountain goats, as they can be dangerous if they feel threatened. I obviously got very close to the goats, because they were grazing only a few feet from the trail, but didn’t realize how scary that was until I posted on my Insta story and got a ton of replies telling me that could’ve ended very badly…oops!

If you enjoy the outdoors, what experience inspired you to get outside more often? If you don’t, what holds you back?

More info on the Lake Ingalls trail >>

What I’m wearing:

Hat: designed by me, made by Myssyfarmi (more about this brand)
Sweater: secondhand vintage mohair
Leggings: Girlfriend Collective high-rise compressive leggings (review)
Hiking boots: Ahnu Montara III eVent in Chocolate Chip (these are the most fashionable hiking boots I have ever seen, and they’re lightweight and waterproof!)
Backpack: thrifted

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