Last Updated on April 15, 2023 by admin
Colchuck Lake is one of Washington State’s most famous hikes. This hike had been on my bucket list for years, and we finally made time for it this summer. It takes a bit of planning to hike Colchuck Lake successfully, especially regarding timing, permits, parking, and preparation. We learned a lot from our hike, and we’re excited to share all the details with you. This post covers everything you need to know to hike Colchuck Lake. We share our personal experience hiking to Colchuck Lake, and we share photos of the trail along the way!
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About Colchuck Lake
The word Colchuck means “cold water” in the Chinook language. (A fitting name!)
Colchuck Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes along the main Enchantments trail. The emerald and turquoise water is absolutely stunning, and the backdrop of Dragontail and Colchuck peaks make for a dramatic view.
Colchuck Lake is a freshwater reservoir that receives its water supply from the melting glacier snow each year. It’s part of the Icicle Creek subbasin in Chelan County, Washington. Colchuck Lake is part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which spans the Central Cascade mountain range.
The Colchuck Lake trail is a subsection of the Enchantments Trail. The Enchantments are a region in the Central Cascades with some of the best hiking in the country. The Enchantments Trail is 23.5 miles long, so most people spend several days backpacking through the trail. In order to camp though, you need an overnight permit. Because of the trail’s popularity, only a limited number of overnight camping permits are awarded through a very competitive lottery. Some people decide to through-hike the Enchantments if they don’t receive a lottery permit, which means they hike the full 23.5 miles in a single day. We have known people that have done this, and it’s not for the lighthearted. If you plan on through-hiking the Enchantments, be sure that you have lots of hiking experience and that you have physically trained enough to handle the hike.
Important Information About Hiking to Colchuck Lake
- Trail Distance: 8.0 miles long (out and back)
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,280 feet
- Highest Elevation: 5,580 feet above sea level (For context, Stevens Pass is 4,062 feet above sea level.)
- Trail Difficulty Level: Difficult
- Parking Pass: Northwest Forest Pass
- Recent Trip Reports: https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/colchuck-lake (Scroll to bottom of the page)
- Photography: Drones are prohibited
- Dogs: Dogs, including Emotional Support Animals, are prohibited (Only service animals are allowed.)
- Overnight Camping: Only possible with an Enchantments Overnight Permit, which is received through an extremely competitive lottery
How to Reach the Colchuck Lake Trailhead
From Seattle, you can take either I-90 or Highway 2 to reach Leavenworth. If you’re driving straight from Seattle to the trailhead, it will take you approximately 3 hours.
From Leavenworth, you’ll take Highway 2 west and take a left on Icicle Road. After 8.4 miles, you’ll take a left on Eight Mile Forest Service Road 7601. You’ll travel another 3.7 miles on the unpaved road to the trailhead. It takes approximately 39 minutes to arrive to the trailhead from Leavenworth.
Once you leave Icicle Road, it’s several miles of unpaved road on Forest Service Road 7601. It’s very bumpy. It may not look like there are big potholes, but it’s surprisingly bumpy. Take it very slow. We were able to make it to the trailhead in our sedan, but it took us probably 20 minutes to drive three miles on that road. If you’re afraid of heights, there are some steep drop offs with no guardrails. The road is narrow, so be alert of other drivers around corners.
The parking lot fills up early. If the parking lot is full, there is some designated overflow parking along the road. You can only park on the right side of Road 7601 between Eightmile Lake and Stuart Lake trailheads. Parking anywhere else along the road is not allowed. The downside of parking on the road is that it will add significantly more mileage to an already long hike.
If the stress of the parking situation is making you not want to tackle this hike, you can use the Leavenworth Shuttle. (Seriously, that’s how popular this hike is, it even has a shuttle service!) The shuttle will drop you off directly at the trailhead, so you don’t have to worry about driving or parking.
The road to the trailhead is closed during the winter.
Permits Required for Hiking to Colchuck Lake
If you’re planning to park a vehicle at the Colchuck Lake trailhead, you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass. You can print a day pass for $5 for single use, or you can pay $30 for an annual pass. Just be sure to print the pass before you leave and leave it on your dashboard at the trailhead. Colchuck Lake is a very popular hike, and rangers monitor the area closely. Expect a fine if you do not bring your pass. If you don’t have a printer or if you forgot to print a pass, you can also purchase the Northwest Forest Pass at a ranger station.
When you arrive at the trailhead, complete the mandatory wilderness permit. They’re located right at the trailhead structure. (This permit is free, but helps with monitoring the trail.) The permits allow rangers to track how many people use the trail, and they’re used by Search and Rescue if there’s an emergency. It’s always good to have a record of who was on the trail if something were to occur.
Tips for Hiking to Colchuck Lake
1. Read Recent Trip Reports
Before you begin your hike, be sure to read recent trip reports from the Washington Trails Association page. (The reports are located at the bottom of the page.) You’ll be able to read about current trail conditions from people that have recently completed the trail. It’s helpful to find up-to-date information about trail conditions.
2. Check the Air Quality
If you plan on hiking during the summer, smoke from wild fires can occasionally be an issue. Look up the air quality in advance in order to make sure that the breathing conditions are safe.
3. Share Your Hiking Plans
Tell someone that you trust about your hiking plans. Let them know the name of the hike, what time you plan on arriving, and what time you plan on completing the hike. If there’s an emergency, it’s important that someone knows your whereabouts and when to expect you. It’s also helpful to download offline maps. We like to download the trail information from AllTrails in advance of our hikes.
4. Pack the 10 Essentials
As you prepare your daypack, make sure that you’ve packed the 10 Essentials. These will be important if you ever encounter a wilderness emergency. Make sure that you have enough water and food. Bring sunscreen and a first aid kit. Although a bit expensive, a Garmin will give you a satellite signal so that you can call for help if you’re ever in an emergency. Depending on when you plan to hike, you might also want to pack insect repellant. The mosquitos are especially bad in July, but we didn’t notice many when we hiked in August.
5. Arrive to the Trailhead Early
The parking lot fills up quick because it serves all of the hikers that want to go to Colchuck Lake, Stuart Lake, and hike through the Enchantments. For that reason, plan on getting there early if you plan on parking in the parking lot. This is especially important if you plan on hiking Colchuck Lake on a weekend day. We hiked Colchuck Lake on a Monday morning in August and got to the parking lot at 6:50am. At that time, there were probably a dozen spots left and a lot of cars coming up the road behind us. I’d estimate that the parking lot was full by 7:30am that day (although I can’t be certain). Although we didn’t hike on a weekend day, I read trip reports that it’s best to be there before 5am.
When we arrive to the trailhead, we also like to take a picture of the trail map. That way, we can reference it on our phones if needed.
6. Do Not Leave Valuables In Your Car
If you’re leaving a vehicle in the parking lot, be sure to remove all valuables. Unfortunately, break-ins at trailheads do occur occasionally.
7. Leave No Trace
Be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles. Leave nature exactly as you found it. Pack out everything you packed in. Do not feed the wildlife. Stay on designated trails.
8. Follow Good Hiking Etiquette
You should always yield to the hiker coming up the trail when you are headed down. (Kindly move to the side.) Do not play loud music.
9. Be Aware of the Trail Split
The trail will eventually split into paths. One route will lead to Stuart Lake, and the other route will lead to Colchuck Lake. Be aware of this split so that you know to look for it. Otherwise, you might inadvertently hike to the wrong lake!
10. Bring a Towel
If you plan on swimming at the lake, be sure to bring a towel. We always bring a microfiber towel with us. It’s lightweight and doesn’t take up much space. It also dries quickly, which is helpful. We also recommend that you pack a swimsuit and an extra pair of dry socks.
Gear Recommendations for Colchuck Lake
We recommend that you bring plenty of water. (We saw a lot of unprepared hikers that only brought a single water bottle. You’ll need a lot more than that! We personally carried three water bottles each.) Make sure you have a comfortable daypack. You’ll also want to bring your favorite sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. We like to carry an insulated water bottle so that we have at least one water bottle with ice-cold water. We also bring a water filtration straw with us just in case. We also recommend that you bring a portable charger with you. (You don’t want your cell phone battery to die before you can take pictures at the lake!)
We also recommend that you bring some toilet paper and some hand sanitizer. Bring bear spray just in case. You might also want to bring binoculars to see across the lake, a swimsuit if you plan on swimming, and a quick dry towel. (We used our quick-dry towels to sit on when we had lunch and later to dry off our feet after we soaked them in the lake.) We also used hiking poles for this hike and we were really glad we brought them. Make sure that you wear comfortable hiking shoes. Always bring a first aid kit. You’ll want to have plenty of bandages in case you get blisters.
Our Experience Hiking Colchuck Lake
Right after we got married five years ago, we completed the Stuart Lake hike (which shares part of the trail with Colchuck). Since that time, we’ve wanted to go back and hike to Colchuck Lake. We are so glad we finally hiked Colchuck Lake!
We drove to Leavenworth the night before our hike. That was super helpful, because we didn’t have to wake up as early in the morning. We stayed at the Bavarian Lodge (full review here), and we were so grateful that they packed us a to-go breakfast for our hike when we mentioned we were waking up early.
We got to the parking lot at 6:50am. There was a line for the single toilet at the trailhead, so we spent about 10 minutes waiting for the restroom. We hit the trail at 7:10am!
The first mile of the Colchuck Lake trail was fairly easy and followed a creek to a log foot bridge. Despite being a popular trail, we had a fairly secluded hike up to the lake since we got there so early in the morning. After the bridge, the switchbacks really start.
After 2.5 miles of incline, there was a junction in the trail. The right trail goes to Stuart Lake, and the left trail goes to Colchuck Lake. (Be sure to take a left here. It’s clearly marked.) There’s also a toilet at this junction if you need one.
We followed the trail to another log bridge and crossed over the creek. A boulder field was directly across from the bridge. It can be a little tricky to see where to go. Once you cross the bridge, immediately stay to the right and you’ll see the trail continue up along the creek. (Thankfully you don’t need to scramble over any of those boulders!)
After the boulder field, we continued up many switchbacks. We crossed over one section that had some running water.
When you see the sign for the toilet at the top, you are about to see the lake!
When we caught our first glimpse of Colchuck Lake, we stopped in our tracks. The color of the water was an almost impossible emerald hue. With Dragontail and Colchuck peaks guarding over the lake, it made for quite the impressive backdrop!
It was amazing to see the clouds move so quickly above us. It was like we were in a time lapse and the weather was speeding past us. The weather conditions changed very quickly, and each time the sun came out again, the water color oscillated between bright turquoise and a deep emerald. It was very cool to see.
We ate some snacks and had fun exploring the lakeside.
When it was time to head back down, there were quite a lot more people heading up the trail. We really do recommend an early start!
We recorded 10 miles out and back for this hike, even though the WTA page says it’s 8 miles. We didn’t walk that much around the lake, so be prepared to hike a little longer than you may have thought!
We had a late lunch at the 59er Diner to treat ourselves after a day full of good exercise.
Hotels Near Colchuck Lake
When we hiked to Colchuck Lake, we stayed at the Bavarian Lodge. Our room was clean and comfortable, and we were centrally located in downtown Leavenworth. It was very easy for us to walk to dinner at Munchen Haus and dessert at Whistlepunk Ice Cream Co. (You gotta carboload before a hike, right?) You can read all about our stay at the Bavarian Lodge.
We’ve also stayed at the Posthotel, which is an adults-only hotel in Leavenworth. We recommend staying there at least once if you can! It would be really great to stay there after your hike to Colchuck Lake. The hotel has a Pool and Wellness center that has reflexology pools (perfect for sore feet!), saunas, steam rooms, experience showers, plunge pools, hot tubs, and a large indoor/outdoor pool. It’s the perfect place to recover! We wrote an entire article about our stay at the Posthotel.
We also recommend staying at the Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort, which is located along the way to the trailhead off of Icicle Road. The Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort is one of the closest hotels to Colchuck Lake, so if you’re planning for an early start, it’s a good place to stay. We have stayed there before and it’s a much more secluded resort experience with more of an emphasis on nature. You can find a full article about our stay at the Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort.
If you’d like to read about more hotel options in Leavenworth, we wrote a post about our 6 favorite hotels here.
Frequently Asked Questions About Colchuck Lake
Can you swim in Colchuck Lake?
During the summer, you can definitely swim in the lake. We brought our swimsuits to swim, but it ended up being chillier than we anticipated. Instead, we soaked our feet after a long hike. We did hear one person jump in! Be sure to bring dry clothes and a towel so that you can quickly regain your body heat 🙂
What type of wildlife will you see at Colchuck Lake?
We saw a couple of deer and plenty of chipmunks during our hike to Colchuck Lake. The chipmunks were actually pretty aggressive when we were trying to have our lunch. Several of them would come up right next to us. We eventually had to stand and keep moving because the chipmunks wouldn’t let us eat our lunch in peace. (Also a good reminder never to feed the wildlife!) If you’re lucky, you might see a mountain goat or two on your hike!
When we were leaving the hike, a fellow hiker told us that they spotted a black bear near the trailhead. We never saw it, but it’s always good to be prepared. Generally it’s a good idea to talk loudly so as not to spook a bear. We had bear spray with us just in case.
Is the Colchuck Lake trail kid-friendly?
We didn’t see a lot of kids on the Colchuck Lake trail. We left our own toddler home with my parents so we could complete this hike more easily. We saw a couple of kids that were maybe 10 years old. We did see a couple of babies, but we think they were probably going to Stuart Lake (which is a bit easier). Because the trail is very long and we were out hiking for six hours, we don’t think most kids would do well on this hike. I personally wouldn’t attempt this hike with a child unless they had significant prior hiking experience.
When is the best time to visit Colchuck Lake?
The best time to visit Colchuck Lake is during the summer, when there is no snow on the trail. We completed the trail in August and felt like that was a good time to go. I imagine September would be also nice, as the weather is generally still nice, but there may be less people.
How long does it take to hike Colchuck Lake?
It took us about six hours to hike to Colchuck Lake and back. We left the trailhead at 7:10am and arrived back to our car at 1:15pm. We kept a pretty good pace during the hike, and we only stopped briefly for water breaks along the way up. Once we arrived at the lake, we spent about 30 minutes having lunch and exploring some of the side trails down to the water’s edge.
Are there toilets at Colchuck Lake?
There’s a pit toilet at the Colchuck Lake trailhead, another pit toilet at the junction with Stuart Lake, and finally another pit toilet at the lake itself. Bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
Summary: Hiking to Colchuck Lake
Colchuck Lake was one of our favorite hikes! It definitely deserves all the hype it receives. We firmly believe that Colchuck Lake is one of the best hikes in Washington State. We hope that this post was helpful in planning your hike to Colchuck Lake!
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- Full Review of the Restaurant Wildflour
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- Full Review of the Bavarian Lodge
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