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checking ’em off | switchback + martin peaks

19.5 mi . 5000 ft gain . 8375 ft high

This is definitely a photo essay. I’m a bit all written out in terms of trip reports, 3 larch hikes that I’m not even going to put up here (though maybe they’ll resurface in a round up someday). But this loop-di-loop deserves a space all on its own even if there are already plenty of other trip reports for Switchback and Martin Peaks. This one is special because it’s the tail end of the larch madness season.

Cooney Lake

Some might lose their interest in larches if it’s not at full peak golden. But I like to find the beauty in it all. Mid October, larches will have started to lose their golden needles but then the trails and forests floor become this golden carpet that’s so fun to walk through! It’s a different type of wonderland and even the trees themselves have some remaining gold. To be honest, I find that full golden-only landscapes are a tad overwhelming, so I love this variation. And of course the earlier scenes when they’re a little green amongst the red blueberry bushes.

In the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, larches are lined up against granite for some pretty magnificent views and atop any of those peaks, you’ll see larches for miles and ridges away like at Courtney Peak. Switchback and Martin are a bit more southerly and technically not part of the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, but they might as well be. This area is east of Lake Chelan, fairly dry and right next to the Methow Valley. Nearly any hike here that gets you to 6000 ft elevation will take you to larches. The fun thing too about these two peaks is that they’re part of the top 100 highest peaks in Washington list (also known as the Bulger list). So why not check two off as I go enjoy some larches?

For more off-the-beaten path larch hikes, check out a larch guide | 20+ crowd-free washington hikes

Top of Switchback Peak
Mt Logan (and Goode to the left)

The trail was surprisingly mellow and I think probably easier Bulger to get to than Courtney since the elevation gain is quite mellow and terrain is fairly similar. It’s graded well so that people can mountain bike and motorbike through. It was a little nerve-wracking at times to get off trail to let them pass but it was pretty decent otherwise. We went clockwise, though it seems like lots of other people went counter-clockwise, maybe to tag Bigelow as well. From the trail, you pass Cooney Lake and then it’s only a couple hundred feet from the pass to the summit of Switchback. At that point it’s off trail.

Staying on the ridge, it looks far to Martin Peak but it goes by pretty fast when you’re enjoying the scenery all around. You can see all the way up to Oval/Courtney/Star area and even some glaciated peaks out west. We had some difficulty determining them from this angle though. I think the best we could make out was Logan and Bonanza. There’s several options to get down from Martin but we opted to follow the ridge east before dropping down to the tarn above Martin Lakes. It had gotten a little snowy and at freezing temps so the path down was a bit more than trivial, making sure we didn’t slip on the icy rocks.

At the tarn, we probably had the most fun because skipping rocks on a frozen lake made some pretty interesting sounds. Give it a try next time! More frolicking through the golden carpet and we landed ourselves back on trail with 7 miles left to the car. No bikers anymore, just a gentle hike down. I definitely will be back to explore the other areas around here!

Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness

Notes
  • Started at Crater Creek Trailhead, which has plenty of campsites available, first come first served
  • Took the loop clockwise and went up Switchback, stayed on ridge to Martin, and then back down to Martin Lakes. This is part of the Sawtooth Slam (without Bigelow) and terrain is entirely class 2.
  • Leave No Trace: be careful when off trail and where you step. Heather is extremely fragile!
  • Tip: If you’re driving from west of the mountains (ie Seattle), and if doing this as a day trip, take Highway 20 back and stop through Winthrop and one of the North Cascades hikes before heading home. For more larch ideas see: a larch guide

Photos shot on Canon 5D Mark IV

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