This is a wonderful hike, and it's the perfect time of year to do it: the mosquitoes have diminished ( a big deal in this neck of the woods) and the fall colors are just beginning to turn the vine maples brilliant red and bright orange. Colors should be at their peak in about two weeks. I'll give the downlow first, then details on today's hike.
Downlow re: trail conditions: the Forest Service did an excellent job filling in and smoothing over the potholes on the short road to the TH! Thank you! My Impreza practically purred with pleasure. Likewise, the trail was clear of all blowdowns and the brush was cut back along the whole trail. There was one short section that was growing back (berry-less salmon berry bushes) about a mile and a half from the lake, but it was still fine. No sign of nettles (they will come back at some point). The trail is 9 miles in (18 RT), but fairly mellow; there are about half a dozen steepish, rocky inclines, but they are short. Nonetheless, eat your Wheaties; the 18-mile jaunt is a good lung-expander. Oh, and bring an old pair of sneakers or water shoes, as you will need to ford the Waptus if you want to reach the lake (worth it! See attached pic of ford). The river is low right now, and only came halfway up my calf (I'm 5'2"). Use poles to avoid slipping on the river rocks.
Scenery/terrain: along with the vine maples, the terrain includes lots of pine and Doug fir, several giant erratics after about two hours/ 5 miles of hiking, gorgeous river views, and of course a large alpine lake at the finish--with views to Dutch Miller Gap and Bear Tooth mountain. Along the way are several excellent riverside campsites. At the lake are many more. The lake is wide, with a small beach area, and windy. Gorgeous views towards the Cascade Crest form the backdrop. The trail is shared with horses (er, and their riders).
Details: one of the things I love about this trail is that it's pretty quiet. We saw 10 people, all backpackers. No horses today, but usually we run into a party. As I mention above, the trail has a number of interesting, and beautiful features. The river is lined with reddish rock,while its waters are a beautiful jade green. You will have views from above, but also spend part of the day hiking directly alongside it. Here's an idea of the sections of the hike and our timing today. It worked out to consisting of three hour-and-fifteen-minute legs, for a total of roughly 3 hours and 45 minutes each way--with the usual breaks and picture-taking stops. First leg: from the TH to the first stream crossing. Gentle ups and downs over rocks surfaces and through thinnish eastern WA forest. This section passes through an old burn area (not the Jolly Mountain burn), where you can see evidence of the forest replenishing (see pic). Second leg: you'll cross another couple streambeds, which are no problem (i.e., practically dry) at this time. In the spring, they can be raging. This leg carries you to the highest points of the hike (there are several), where you will have beautiful views of the river. This is a great place to stop and have lunch, if you want a shorter hike (maybe 12 miles RT?). Third leg: my favorite. Takes you right down along the riverside. This is the section with the horse ford. Stay on the main trail--you'll see signs signalling various turn-offs. Keep straight. The horse ford area is a wide clearing with along to sit on while you switch foot gear. See pic. After the ford, it's about .4 miles to the lake.
We hit the trail today at 10:15 (driving from Edmonds, it took about 2 hours and 15 minutes) and got back to the car at 5:50 p.m. Stopped at the lake for about 25 minutes. Oh, the last vestiges of summer sun and light! Happy hiking, Everyone!