Fall Day Hike: Central Cascade’s Rachel Lake

Picture a majestic mountain lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, only 4 miles from a trailhead. Too good to be true? It’s not. But Rachel Lake isn’t a secret—it’s one of the most popular destinations in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Still, you can beat the crowds (and avoid the mosquitoes) if you hike this alpine gem in September.

After self-registering at the trailhead kiosk, begin walking up the drainage. The first three miles of the hike are fairly easy. The trail follows Box Canyon Creek uphill, and the gurgling stream provides a fitting soundtrack as you alternate between hemlock-fir forest and fern-choked meadows.

Entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness // Photo by Paul Chisholm

Just before the 3-mile mark, the trail begins to switchback up the steep slope to the lake. Here the route crosses many rocks and roots, and you’ll feel like you’re climbing a staircase. It’s a push, but several small waterfalls line the trail—nice spots to take a break or dunk your head in the water. The trail also crosses several small streams, and the smooth, algae-covered rocks in the stream bottoms can be slippery. A pair of trekking poles or a sturdy hiking stick is warranted.

Near the top of the grade, the views begin to open up. To the north you might spot the 6,547-foot summit of Hibox Mountain. In early fall abundant huckleberry, willow, and mountain ash along the trail turn brilliant shades of gold and crimson, bathing the hillside in color. Just after the 4-mile mark, you’ll reach the rocky, hemlock-rimmed shores of Rachel Lake.

A stream crossing on the trail to Rachel Lake // Photo by Paul Chisholm

On a clear day, the pristine waters sparkle beneath the stony outcrops of Rampart Ridge, which towers over the lake. The color of the water oscillates between turquoise and deep blue, depending on the light. This lake is notorious for its swarms of mosquitoes in summer, but by September the chill of autumn should have thinned their ranks considerably. If you feel the need to drop some weight, the view from the pit toilet near the lake is one of the best.

If you’re doing the trip as a day hike, Rachel Lake is a great spot to have lunch and take a swim. If you’ve got one, inflatable sleeping pads make a great float toy for lounging. For overnighters, there are several good campsites along the lakeshore, though campfires are prohibited to protect the fragile alpine vegetation. There are a few campsites along the trail a mile or so below the lake if you’d like to have a fire.

On the shores of Rachel Lake // Photo by Paul Chisholm

If you’re still feeling good, you can continue further up the trail to Rampart Ridge, which gives you a stunning 360-degree view of the central Cascades. From Rampart Ridge, two trails diverge—one goes to Lila Lake and the other goes to Rampart Lakes. Both of these worthy destinations lie approximately 1.5 miles from Rachel Lake and provide convenient back-up options for camping if the sites along Rachel Lake are taken. When you’ve had your fill, return to your car the way you came in.

Before you leave the area, be sure to make a stop in Cle Elum, Pick up some beef jerky from Owen’s Meats, then hit up Mule and Elk Brewing for a pint of Cooper Lake IPA. 

The trail to Rachel Lake passes several small waterfalls // Photo by Paul Chisholm

Getting There

Location: Central Cascades

Round-trip distance: 8.5 miles

Rating: Moderate

Getting there: From Spokane, drive west on I-90 for about 220 miles and exit on Kachess Lake Rd. Turn right and drive 5.4 miles to a fork. Take a right and drive another 3.5 miles to the trailhead parking lot on the left (Northwest Forest or Interagency Pass required). Several free dispersed campsites line the road to the trailhead—good options for car camping before or after your hike. Avoid leaving valuables in your car at the trailhead, as there have been multiple reports of car break-ins from trailheads in this vicinity. 

Hibox Mountain looms large to the north of Rachel Lake // Photo by Paul Chisholm

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