GRANITE FALLS, Wash. — Fall is one of the best times to hike in the northwest. As the weather cools and the fully rainy season is still kept a little bit at bay, the crowds start to thin making it a magical time to get out in the forest.
The north east side of Mt. Pilchuck is dotted with beautiful mountain lakes. Unfortunately, they are no longer a secret. Any weekend morning the trailheads for Lake 22 and Heather Lake will be full, cars spilling out onto the shoulder of the Mountain Loop Highway for literally miles in either direction. These lakes are beautiful and make for excellent hikes, but with the pandemic still in full effect we looked elsewhere for a less crowded option.
A mile or so past these busy trailheads you will find FS Road 4020.This is not a road for the faint of heart, or for low clearance vehicles. In fact, it is easily the worst forest service road we have driven on in recent memory. Loose gravel and gigantic potholes will greet you the second you pull off the highway, waiting to swallow you whole. If you are driving an SUV or a pick-up you will have no problem, if you take it very slow. I would not recommend this road and hike if your vehicle doesn’t have a high clearance. The payoff for this sometimes-harrowing drive will be an empty trail.
While not nearly as stunning as its neighbor lakes, this is still a beautiful hike, and the trade-off is a lack of crowds. The three lakes you will encounter are lined with boardwalks and campsites that may be deserted even on the busiest of weekends. When we arrived at the Ashland Lakes trail early Sunday morning in late August there were two other cars in the lot. When we finished our hike four hours later there was one.
The trail begins as a gentle walk on an abandoned logging road. The grade is easy, and the trail is smooth. After crossing a bridge, the trail begins to rise slowly. The transition from old logging road to modern trail is so gradual that you will likely not notice until you find yourself on the first of the seemingly endless series of wooden boardwalks. These boardwalks, the trademark of this trail, span the marshy forest floor keeping your feet dry and the sensitive ecology preserved. Please stay on the trail.
The first lake, Beaver Plant Lake may be the prettiest of the three. The trail drops down through a couple of camp sites to the lake’s edge, where yet another boardwalk will keep your feet dry as you enjoy the view. Once you have had your fill of this little blue gem backtrack to the fork in the trail and head towards Upper and Lower Ashland Lakes.
Even more boardwalks will greet you. The boardwalks are thin at times and occasionally make social distancing difficult, luckily you won’t see that many people on this trail and there are plenty of breaks in these elaborate wood structures where the trail widens to allow for safe passage. You should keep your face covering handy just in case.
Upper Ashland Lake is very similar to Beaver Plant Lake, the boardwalks hug the shoreline and there is a small wooden platform that makes a great break spot. There is also a pit toilet that was open and functional when we visited.
The trail descends substantially on its way to Lower Ashland Lake. This last lake has the most campsites of the three. Unfortunately, at the time of this article a good portion of the shoreline had been flooded by what appears to be a fresh beaver dam blocking the lake’s outflow. A section of the boardwalk and a couple of the campsite are inundated. Some of the trees lining the shore are gradually turning brown as they die from the flooding, the water is a deep tea brown. If you leave the trail just before the boardwalk disappears into the water, you can safely rejoin the trail after the flooded portion by walking through a large campsite. At the north end of the lake you will cross a bridge that provides a very nice view of both the lake and the new beaver dam. The remaining dry campsites provide an excellent breaking point before heading back the way you came.
About the author: Originally hailing from the Southwest Washington coast, Ben Rupp has been a Washington state resident for all but two days of his life, the first two days. His mother gave birth a week early while visiting family in Oregon. He eventually forgave her for this misstep. When he is not pushing buttons as an engineer at KING 5 News, Ben can be found snowboarding, skateboarding, traveling, digging through record stores for obscure vinyl records and going on adventures with his wife Darlene and their 65-pound husky mix Bonnie, all with a camera firmly attached to his person.
Video music is by: Jim Goodreau