Heather Lake

Trail Highlights:Mountain views; lake views; old-growth forest
Round-trip Distance:5.60 miles / 9.00 km
Location:Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest,
Mountain Loop Highway / South Fork Stillaguamish River Valley,
Washington North Cascades

Ancestral lands of the stuləgʷábš, or, Stillaguamish
  • From State Route 92 in Granite Falls, Washington, turn left onto the Mountain Loop Highway
  • Proceed 11.90 miles/19.20 km
  • Just past the "blue" (almost more grey or white) truss bridge (Bridge 538) over the South Fork Stillaguamish River, turn right onto the Mt. Pilchuck Access Road, as indicated by signage
  • Proceed 1.30 miles/2.10 km to the parking lot, keeping right at all forks

  • Most of the Mt. Pilchuck Access Road to the trailhead is unpaved — beware of potholes
    Required Pass:Northwest Forest Pass or equivalent for U.S. Forest Service sites
    Additional Trail Info:Washington Trails Association
    U.S. Forest Service
    Note:The page profiles the Heather Lake in Snohomish County, Washington; another lake of the same name is located in Chelan County's Central Cascades.

    Heather Lake pools at the foot of Mount Pilchuck‘s imposing peaks.
    Heather Lake Trail,

    Over its short distance, Heather Lake’s trail traverses distinct landscapes, contrasting stark, stump-filled new forest with lush, old-growth woodland before rounding a verdant alpine lake set amid rough-hewn peaks.  Deep shadows enclose the stripling forest below, but sunlight increases among the well-spaced ancient giants at higher elevation, opening entirely along much of the lakeshore where summer wildflowers proliferate.

    As it climbs, the trail becomes increasingly rugged, often worn to rocks and roots that can be treacherous to navigate, especially when wet.  Be prepared with traction gear of choice.  Given its short distance and relative ease of access, the trail is a popular destination.  Those seeking more solitude may wish to visit on a less-frequented weekday.  Aside from the occasional chatter of other hikers, no sounds of civilization mar the alpine tranquility of birdsong and tumbling rills wafting across the stony lake basin.

    For nearly the first half its length, the trail climbs through dense stands of relatively new forest. Throughout, it passes the poignantly impressive remnants of the original, ancient forest, felled by loggers in the last century. Notches still visible in the sides of the stumps remain from where springboards were inserted into the trees to provide footing for the woodcutters to accomplish their handiwork. This stump’s girth and deep, rippled furrows suggest that it was a western redcedar (Thuja plicata), a cypress species misnamed as a “cedar” because of its similarly aromatic, rot-resistant wood. Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Happily, not all giants were lost to the woodsman’s saw. At approximately 1.25 miles/2.00 km from the trailhead, the trail enters mature woodland where old-growth forest still thrives, mostly western redcedar (Thuja plicata).
    Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    While few blooms brighten the deep forest shadows about the trail, coastal brookfoam (Boykinia occidentalis) (left) is abundant, joined here and there by red elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) (center) and cut-leaved foamflowers (Tiarella trifoliata) (right). Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Worn by legion successive footfalls, the upper (and steeper) half of the trail is frequently reduced to bare rock and matted roots that can be challenging to navigate, especially when wet. (The trail in this photo clambers over the nearly adult-high rock on the left of the tree in the center.) Be prepared with traction gear of your choice. Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Heather Lake gathers beneath Mount Pilchuck‘s very eaves. Upon reaching the lakeshore, the trail diverges in either direction to encircle the lake. Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Boardwalks carry the trail over boggy areas of the lakeside. Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    The lake’s loop trail presents varying vantages of the pooled water and surrounding environs. Along the northern shore, keep watch for perfectly mirrored abstracts conjured by the lake’s looking glass. Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Above the lake, look — and listen — for waterfalls coursing down Mount Pilchuck‘s nearly vertical face from unseen snowfields far above. Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Along the lake, keep an eye out for the “Elephant Tree,” a curiously crooked mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) doubling its trunk beside the trail. Such growth patterns are actually common around the lake basin, likely the result of injuries sustained from the press of snowpack and avalanches in the harsh alpine environment.
    Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Many early-summer wildflowers brighten the lakeside, including, first column, top to bottom, slender bog orchids (Plantanthera stricta) and white rein orchids (P. dilatata); second column, western false asphodels (Triantha occidentalis), rose spiraea, or, hardhack (Spiraea douglasii), and subalpline fleabanes (Erigeron glacialis); third column, purple monkey-flowers (Erythranthe lewisii), thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), and sharptooth angelica (Angelica arguta); fourth column, sylvan goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), common cow-parsnips (Heracleum maximum syn. H. lanatum), and alpine, or, American bistorts (Bistorta bistortoides); fifth column, Columbia lilies (Lilium columbianum), subalpine spiraea (Spiraea splendens), and western bunchberries (Cornus unalaschkensis); and sixth column, queen’s cups (Clintonia uniflora), arrowleaf groundsels (Senecio triangularis), and copperbushes (Elliottia pyroliflora). Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Lichens, too, add interest along the way, including some with truly colorful forms and names like fairy barf (Icmadophila ericetorum) (upper row) and toy soldiers (Cladonia bellidiflora) (lower row). The bright globules these lichens sport are their apothecia, or, the fruiting bodies that produce their spores.
    Heather Lake Trail, Washington.
    Even when clouds descend, Mount Pilchuck‘s craggy peaks remain a commanding presence.
    Heather Lake Trail, Washington.

    © 2014-2024 Anthony Colburn. Images may not be used or reproduced in any form without express written consent.


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