Icicle Canyon near Leavenworth is such a treat in September after Labor Day. Summer draws crowds of hikers, campers and climbers to this area, but in fall you’ll have a little solitude on the trail and much less of an issue snagging a campsite. Birds and other wildlife become more active in fall as they prepare for hibernation or migration. And if you hike high enough in early October you’ll see golden larches.
One of the best hikes here in autumn is Colchuck Lake. It begins at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. (For a full description of this hike and others in this region, purchase Day Hiking, Central Cascades by Craig Romano, published by Mountaineers Books.)
If you can, head to Leavenworth the night before and spend the night or camp. You’ll find several campgrounds along Icicle Creek; my favorite is the small and scenic Ida Creek Campground. Pack an extra blanket – the canyon gets chilly on September and October nights.
Start your hike early if you can, before 9am, to get you to the lake by lunchtime. This trail is just lovely. The climb (only 2000 feet) is easy and gradual, and there are many nice sights along the way of the creek tumbling over granite boulders and views of various peaks in the Stuart Range through clearings in the lodgepole and ponderosa pine.
The trail proceeds gently upward for the first mile, through semi-closed forest with an understory of huckleberry bushes that might still have some fruit clinging to them. You’ll cross a sturdy log bridge across Mountaineer Creek and the forest becomes more open.
For the next 1.5 miles or so, the trail proceeds up, still gently at first with casual switchbacks around big granite boulders, then steep in one or two places, until eventually at 2.5 miles you come to the Y in the trail. To the right is another 2.5 miles to Stuart Lake (less elevation gain), to the left is the trail to Colchuck.
The Colchuck trail crosses the east fork of Mountaineer Creek, then goes off to the right across a boulder field (the actual trail hugs the creek if you don’t like scrambling over granite boulders) and picks up elevation gain a bit from here to the azure-colored lake, another 1.5 miles.
Pack your camera – signs of autumn are everywhere on the trail to Colchuck. Huckleberry bushes and vine maple turn the understory into a red blaze. As fall continues, larches will begin to show their golden hues at the lake. And busy birds are common, from Blue Grouse to woodpeckers.
The round-trip hike will take you about seven hours, including a leisurely lunch at the lake. A Northwest Forest Pass is required for your vehicle at the trailhead.