Just north of Cle Elum off of I-90, Lake Ingalls in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a 2.5-hour road trip from Seattle, which makes it a popular destination for both day hikes as well as overnight backpacking stays.
The hike starts at the Esmerelda trailhead, which is where you’ll sign in and pick up a permit. The trail takes off uphill for four miles, but it’s not super steep. Besides, it’s not bad when you can stop and eat huckleberries off the bushes at every switchback. After about a mile and a half you get out of the trees and out into the open with good views all around. If it is a nice clear day, when you get high enough you will be able to see the shiny snowcaps of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams off in the distance.
At Ingalls Pass, you have a choice go to Headlight Basin or down to Headlight Creek, which is where overnight camping for backpackers is allowed (you can’t camp at Lake Ingalls). We chose to go to Headlight Basin, but there there are good spots to pitch a backpacking tent in either place — and depending how many people are in there on the day you go, you might not have a choice. Because Lake Ingalls is such a great place that’s close to Seattle hikers and backpackers, it can get packed on the weekend. If you are going on a weekend, get to the trailhead early in the morning to find a parking spot. Either way, I’ve found it best to do this hike during the middle of the week.
Mountain Goats Abound
If you go, there’s a great chance that you’ll spot wild mountain goats, even mothers with babies. Some of the trail signs warn you to stay 50 feet away from the mountain goats, but depending on the goats, that may not be possible. On our most recent trip, the goats followed us around, and when we moved camp away from them, they just followed us up to our new camp. In late July, they were the opposite of shy.
If you have to pee out on the rocks, don’t be surprised to hear a mountain goat run up to you before you’re even finished — they crave the salt and minerals. (Of course, these are still wild animals, so don’t do anything stupid like trying to pet them or making fast or aggressive moves. Stay calm and you’ll be fine.)
If you hike up to Lake Ingalls, it’s an easy day hike from Headlight Basin — about a mile. Part of it is over good trail while part of it will require scrambling over boulders. Just follow the cairns to make it to Lake Ingalls, where Mount Stuart will loom huge and rocky in front of you. Lake Ingalls sits in a bowl on the side of the mountain, and if the sky is blue, you’re in a for a real treat. Don’t forget to pack a good rugged camera.
Of course, when it’s time to leave, the hike out is all down hill.
Mount Adams on left, Mount Rainier on right.
Mount Rainier on hike up to Lake Ingalls.
Meadow on hike to Lake Ingalls.
Mountain goat at Lake Ingalls.
Mountain goats near Lake Ingalls in Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Lake Ingalls mountain goats check out the humans near Mount Stuart.
Mountain goats at Lake Ingalls get up close and personal, just happy to hang out.
Mountain goats take over base camp.
Rugged Lake Ingalls.
If you catch a blue sky, you’ll be amazed by a super blue Lake Ingalls.
Rock, water, and sky at Lake Ingalls.
Wow. So much blue at Lake Ingalls in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington state.
Mt. Stuart reflection in Lake Ingalls.
Mt. Stuart looms large over Ingalls Lake (even more amazing in person).
Forest fire smoke billows in the distance.
Forest fire smoke near Lake Ingalls.
Photo Credits: Tracy Ackerman, Mandy Maxcer, Michael Orr