By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
I’ve been hiking in the mountains for decades and can count on one hand the number of trails I’ve taken that don’t end up at a lake or a river.
Beautiful scenery, fewer people and good fishing are the three things I need to make me hit the trail.
As I’ve gotten a little older and a little heavier, I’ve added a couple new requirements to my backcountry trips. I don’t want a trail that’s too long or too steep, either.
That’s what found me last weekend on the trail to Black Lake north of Winthrop.
The Washington Trails Association refers to it as “a gentle hike along a babbling creek to a pretty lake within the sprawling Pasayten Wilderness.” And, except for the babbling part, that sums things up nicely.
I love hiking in the Pasayten Wilderness. The trails aren’t hidden in brush as they sometimes are on the west side of the Cascade Range. The horse packers generally keep them clear of fallen trees. And the mountains are just breathtaking.
Also, with apologies to the trails association, the creeks don’t babble.
The Black Lake hike starts at the Lake Creek campground and closely follows the creek for a while in a stand of trees, then it leaves the waterway for a couple miles and reconnects with it not far from the lake.
The hike covers about five miles and only gains about 800 feet in elevation to the lake, which sits at about 4,000 feet. The trip gets a little steeper toward the end, but it’s mostly just a meandering walk.
While it’s an easy hike, one suitable for families and young people as well as geezers like me, it’s one best taken early in the morning before things get too hot.
Jim Haley of Edmonds, who joined me on the trip, insisted we start early to beat the heat.
We left early from the west side. But you can also camp at the trailhead the night before.
Come early was a good move because a wildfire in 2003 scorched many of the trees as you head up the creek, leaving a lot of blackened timber and very little cooling shade.
It’s interesting to see how nature responds to forest fires. Since 2003, the area has greened up considerably and there are lots of wildflowers in bloom early in the summer.
If that’s your main interest, Black Lake can be a day hike, although it’s a fairly long one. And you won’t have much time for fishing.
The best fishing in Black Lake is near the far end, which has a big inlet stream and a fairly shallow flat that produces a lot of bugs and attracts feeding fish. There are a couple horse camps at that end of the lake, but they’re not particularly good ones.
Haley and I chose to camp closer to the beginning of the lake, partly because we were tired of carrying our packs and partly because there are a couple tent sites shaded by trees that escaped the fire. There also was a rock-lined fire pit.
The site we picked is just past a little sandy beach at the beginning of the lake near the outlet creek. The beach also would make a good campsite and is a good place to fish.
Fishing wasn’t that great at Black last weekend, but I think it may have been due to the thunderstorms that swept through the area. The storms brought a fair amout of rain and also blew down a few more trees across the trail.
Black has rainbow and bull trout, and I like it because the fish spawn in the inlet, meaning the lake doesn’t require restocking with hatchery fish every few years like most high lakes. I’ve been fishing it for 20 years and have always found something to catch.
Last weekend I released a few trout as big as 15 inches or so, but not in the numbers I’m used to catching.
I was fly fishing and I mostly used a black leech. It’s generally the only fly you need in backcountry lakes because the fish there aren’t too picky and black flies are easily seen in the clear mountain water.
As I do in most high mountain lakes, I hiked in with a float tube, a pair of waders and some swim fins.
I take in all that stuff because I’ve found it makes my fishing much more effective, allowing me to get into areas of the lake that few other people can reach. I also don’t have to fight the shoreside brush with a fly rod, so casting is infinitely easier.
The weight of all that extra gear makes the hike a lot harder, which is why I’m always looking for mountain lakes that are easy to get to, but have good fishing year after year.
Three easy hikes
Here are directions to three lakes that have great fishing and scenery and are easy hikes. Two are in wilderness areas.
Black Lake north of Winthrop
Take Highway 20 (the North Cascades Highway) east to Winthrop and go north (left) on W. Chewuch Road to the junction of E. Chewuch Road. Continue 14.5 miles and turn left to Lake Creek campground. Go 2.5 miles to the trailhead. Federal forest pass required.
Hike is about five miles from 3,200 feet to 4,000 feet.
Rainy Lake at Rainy Pass
Take Highway 20 to Rainy Pass and park in the south lot. Walk a paved asphalt path for 1.8 miles to the lake. There is no elevation gain. This is a trail designed for people in wheelchairs, but don’t pass it up just because you think it’s too easy.
The lake has high cliffs and impressive waterfalls, as well as extremely good fishing. Few people actually fish there. The lake is great for a float tube.
It’s also a nice break if you’re coming or going from the east or west part of the state on Highway 20.
There’s a nice bench at the lake that makes a good picnic spot.
Slide Lake near Marblemount
This gem of a lake is just on the edge of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The hike is only about 2.5 miles and has about 300 feet in elevation gain to the lake, which sits at 3,100 feet. You’ll walk through some truly large old-growth trees.
The lake has cutthroat trout that spawn in the inlet creek at the far end. It can be fished from shore but is better with a float tube. The inlet is the best place to fish, but there are cutthroat alongside the fallen trees all around the lake.
Take Highway 530 through Darrington and continue north on the highway for several miles to Illabot Creek Road. Turn right (east) and go six miles to a left turn up the hill on Forest Service Road 16. Continue to follow the road about 14 miles to the Slide Lake trailhead. (Ignore the road’s many logging spurs. At one point the road splits in a “Y”. Stay left on Road 16.) You’ll need the pass that comes with your fishing license or a state Discover Pass.