A hike to the popular Icicle Ridge viewpoint exposes the quirky brilliance of Leavenworth. To the south, the Stuart Range with its alpine lakes and sculpted peaks plow skyward; to the north, the Cascades continue their voluminous march toward Canada. And to the east, the Bavarian-themed town some 5,000 miles from Europe offers a smorgasbord of outdoor activities that take full advantage of extensive rivers and trails.
With enough camping and accommodations to handle thousands of people on a busy weekend, Leavenworth draws visitors across all seasons—but especially in summer, when purple lupine torches glow on staggered hillsides in the lingering golden hour.
At the end of May I hiked the moderate switchbacks of Icicle Ridge with two friends who had driven over for the day from Spokane with their infant daughter and two dogs in tow. By the time we arrived at the trailhead at midday, a line of parked cars half a mile long threaded down from the sanctioned parking area.
The Spokane friends had to get back on the road before baby meltdown, which left us a window of only a few hours for the hike. I couldn’t think of another close option, and rather than spend precious time surfing the spotty internet for a plan B, we joined the ranks of hikers scampering up and down the singletrack like ants in pursuit of competing pheromone trails.
Icicle Ridge requires a sustained uphill effort, but a dappled canopy of shade protects hikers from the noontime sun. Physical distancing was easy to manage at first, but soon the hillside steepened, the trail narrowed, and it became impossible to give other parties the recommended 6 feet. A handful of hikers wore masks, and some stepped aside to yield to uphill traffic, as per standard trail etiquette, but most people trundled quickly downward without caution. We stepped off the trail as best we could dozens of times. Constantly negotiating the steady stream of people made it challenging to chat and spend time.
Icicle Ridge wasn’t even the most transited trail that weekend at the end of May. At the Stuart Lake trailhead, which has become a pedestrian superhighway to Colchuck Lake and the rest of the Enchantments, hundreds of cars were parked illegally on both sides of Eightmile Road—despite “no parking” signs and obvious obstruction of the road.
Chris Bentley with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF), the land agency responsible for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, says this illegal parking creates a dangerous situation for other motorists and makes it impossible for emergency services to get through. OWNF staff has taken to Facebook, begging visitors to respect signage and follow the rules.
Bentley understands why so many people flock to the Stuart Lake trailhead. “That is such a high use and beloved area of the forest. We realize it’s a favorite for the Seattle metro area for weekends. People all over the world come to backpack in Alpine Lakes Wilderness.”
But many hikers don’t realize that the parking lot was built to accommodate the appropriate capacity of the trail system. When visitors choose to park in unsanctioned spots, and too many people are on the trail, “there’s going to be erosion, trash, human waste, and sanitation issues,” says Bentley. To make matters worse, overuse in one area degrades the whole system, since money designated for ongoing maintenance has to be used instead to restore prematurely damaged trails.
Bentley says that overcrowding in a wilderness area is an even bigger issue because “part of its underlying purpose is to experience nature without human impacts.”
In extreme cases, overcrowding can threaten access to these trails. “If we look at a recreation area and realize we don’t have the capacity to consistently be out there all day every day to monitor and make sure people follow rules, there are instances where we have had to close,” say Bentley. This may be especially true in the age of COVID-19, when overcrowding means physical distancing can’t be observed.
Fortunately, there are groups in the region doing everything they can to keep trailheads open. Nonprofit organizations have formed to mobilize the local community to act in direct partnership with stakeholders like the OWNF. Jake Leonard is the general manager of the Riverfront Rock Gym in Wenatchee and a board member with the Leavenworth Mountain Association (LMA), which has taken on projects like installing additional toilets in the Icicle corridor and improving ad-hoc climbers’ trails around Leavenworth.
“The [Icicle] Canyon is trashed at the end of the season,” says Leonard, so LMA hosts an annual Icicle Canyon Cleanup at the end of each season where local volunteers pick up thousands of pounds of trash, including beer bottles, fast food containers, and dirty diapers.
“It’s scary the amount of impact we all have. If you’re not from the area…you might not see the impact over the whole season,” says Leonard. He encourages out-of-town visitors to “be more active stewards.” He recommends that everyone pick up trash whenever they see it. “We all leave garbage unintentionally,” he says. “Pick it up so no one else has to see it,” even if it’s not yours.
Leonard suggests exploring other parts of the forest. “There is a lot more to see in the Wenatchee Ranger District…There’s plenty of space, but the problem is that [one] area gets loved to death while other trailheads are empty or with just a few cars.”
Chris Bentley encourages getting involved in groups like the LMA, which “can make a serious impact.” Comprised of more than 4 million acres, “the forest can use all the hands it can get. It’s a huge endeavor to keep it functional, beautiful, and biodiverse.”
The hard reality is that, on many weekends, the answer to overcrowding at places like Stuart Lake or Icicle Ridge is no longer to get there early. The answer is to go somewhere else. “Find your next favorite hike,” Bentley recommends. “There are hundreds of beautiful hikes in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest that are within striking distance. They are absolutely worth the hike and worth the time.”
Summer Hess is the managing editor of Out There Outdoors. She’s taken up the challenge to find her next favorite Leavenworth hike, which is currently Blackjack Ridge Trail to the summit of Blackjack Mountain.