A highlight of the trail, Argonaut and Sherpa peaks illustrate the ruggedness that characterizes the Stuart Range. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
Lake Stuart lies within the Stuart Range that forms the spine of the scenic clutch of peaks and lakes known as the Enchantments. Outside of the Enchantments’ core zone, Lake Stuart nevertheless offers views of the Stuart Range’s characteristically jagged peaks with more solitude than one will find in the more popular areas. Although camping in the Enchantments Permit Area (which includes Lake Stuart) is limited and available only by lottery, day hiking is permitted with the standard Northwest Forest Pass. At nine miles/14.50 km round-trip with a relatively moderate grade, the trail to Lake Stuart is easily completed as a day hike.
The trail passes through mostly coniferous forest, ranging from moist thickets to the drier, almost scrub-like woodland typical of the east slopes of the Cascades. Evidence of past forest fires is occasionally visible along the trail’s lower portion. The varied woodland supports a broad array of small spring and summer wildflowers that reveal themselves to the watchful hiker. In autumn, the mostly deciduous under- and middlestory light the trailside with vibrant hues, while the hitherto undistinguished larches, cottonwoods, and aspens suddenly streak the higher mountainsides with gold. Tracking first Mountaineer Creek and then its unnamed tributary that flows from Lake Stuart, the trail is seldom far from the rush of tumbling waters. A side trail to Colchuck Lake branches from the main trail approximately two miles/3.20 km from the trailhead. Given Colchuck Lake’s popularity and position as a portal to the core Enchantments zone, expect to encounter other hikers periodically up to the side trail; however, solitude will prevail in the wilds beyond. Throughout, no vehicle or other human-made noise mars the wilderness tranquility.
Scrubby woodland encloses the trail throughout most of its distance to Lake Stuart. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015 and October 01, 2016.
The trail seldom strays far from Mountaineer Creek’s boisterous descent. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
Earth’s stony foundations are frequently visible through the forest’s thin soil, exposed or deposited by the ice age glaciers that raked the landscape and sculpted the dramatic peaks and valleys that exist today. Lake Stuart Trail, May 28, 2015.
In spring, leaves of the Rocky Mountain maples (Acer glabrum) in the forest’s middlestory sport vivid, velvety tips that are actually galls formed around tiny purple erineum maple mites (Eriophyes calcercis) that burrow into the leaves’ tissues to feed. The mites seldom damage the maples and rather create unusual dashes of color about the woodland. In autumn, the maples’ pale gold lights the forest shadows. Lake Stuart Trail, May 28, 2015 and October 01, 2016.
Vivid tufts of wolf moss (here, likely Letharia vulpina) dot the forest about the trail. Misnamed, wolf moss is actually a lichen formerly used as poison for wolves and foxes. Lake Stuart Trail, May 28, 2015.
In spite of its dry appearance, the forest about the trail hosts a variety of fungi in its abundant woody litter. Lake Stuart Trail, May 28 and 29, 2015.
Diminutive spring wildflowers abound along the trail from woodland to meadow, including bluebells (here, possibly, Mertensia foliosa) (top left); Pacific trilliums (Trillium ovatum) (center left); pioneer violets (Viola glabella) (center); desert parsley (Lomatium sp.) (lower left); sticky currants (Ribes viscosissimum) (lower center); and western fairy slippers (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis) (right). Lake Stuart Trail, May 28 and 29, 2015.
The Lake Stuart Trail’s spring wildflower display continues with, clockwise from top left, rockcress (Boechera sp.), Columbia lewisias (Lewisia columbiana), yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens), yellow avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum), western serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia), and penstemon (Penstemon sp.). Lake Stuart Trail, May 28 and 29, 2015.
Throughout the trailside, spring bouquets of Cascade Oregon-grape (Berberis nervosa, a.k.a. Mahonia nervosa) adorn the forest floor, which, by autumn, become distinctive clusters of berries borne among sharply spined leaves, from which it also earns the common name “grape-holly.” Lake Stuart Trail, May 28, 2015 and October 01, 2016.
Sprays of false Solomon’s seals, here, star-flowered false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum) (top) and plumed false Solomon’s seal (M. racemosum) (bottom) arch from sunny breaks in the woodland. They and their Maianthemum kin are the “false” Solomon’s seals because of their resemblance to the true Solomon’s seals, Polygonatum sp., which look nearly identical but for their flowers that dangle individually along the undersides of their stems rather than clustering at the tips. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
After crossing Mountaineer Creek at approximately 1.50 miles/2.40 km from the trailhead, the trail climbs moderately as views open to the surrounding peaks. Lake Stuart Trail, October 01, 2016.
At approximately 3.50 miles/5.60 km from the trailhead, the trail offers its first glimpse of Sherpa Peak and Mount Stuart. The trail arcs to the northwest (here, right) of Mount Stuart, where Lake Stuart nestles on its far side. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
A broad meadow approximately 4.00 miles/6.40 km from the trailhead provides an expansive view of the serrated ridge formed by Argonaut Peak, Sherpa Peak, and Mount Stuart. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
The creek-fed meadow at the foot of Mount Stuart nourishes an abundance of moisture-loving spring and summer wildflowers, including the finely furred blooms of Fendler’s waterleaf (Hydrophyllum fendleri) (top left); stickseeds (here, likely a large-flowered or manyflowered stickseed, Hackelia floribunda), robust versions of their smaller forget-me-not relatives (Myosotis sp.) (lower left); and hookedspur violets (Viola adunca) that peer from beneath the grasses (right). Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
Autumn sets the meadow ablaze, whilst larches (Larix sp.) fleck the mountainsides with gold. Lake Stuart Trail, October 01, 2016.
As if anticipating the wintry frosts to come, the forest floor’s deciduous ferns blanch in a final flourish before withering away. Lake Stuart Trail, October 01, 2016.
Leaving the meadow behind, the trail climbs a small saddle along Lake Stuart’s unnamed creek (Stuart Creek would be a logical appellation), where its thundering waterfall is heard long before seen. Curiously, many peaks and creeks in the Enchantments and elsewhere in the broader Alpine Lakes Wilderness lack names, the result of the National Park Service’s policy of leaving features unnamed that were still nameless at the time land was designated a wilderness area, in order to preserve its truly wild character. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
Mount Stuart and its retinue of peaks greet the sight upon arrival at Lake Stuart. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
Lesser, unnamed peaks join the rugged circlet about Lake Stuart. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.
From Lake Stuart’s far shore, the view reaches back down the ridge of peaks that line the trail on its final ascent to the lake. Lake Stuart Trail, May 29, 2015.