For those yearning to have the full overnight experience in the Enchantments, but are unable to get the highly sought-after permits, Lake Ingalls is an increasingly popular alternative. It’s still within the east cascades and part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, so the landscapes are decently similar. And if you want to see goats, you’re likely going to encounter more than one on this trip. Instead of passing through multiple lakes, you’ll arrive at the sole lake on the hike, which is just as magnificent on its own. However, it’s got a spectacular view of Mount Stuart that is unrivaled – it’s a gem that you really can’t see it from the Enchantments thru-hike. And if an overnight trip is too time consuming, Lake Ingalls can also be a great day hike and much less strenuous than that of the Enchantments thru-hike. But, this is a fantastic one-night backpacking adventure.
The trail begins at Lake Ingalls Trailhead, also known as Esmeralda Trailhead. There are a series of intersecting trails leading to other fun destinations, but it’s fairly easy to follow the signs towards Lake Ingalls. After we gained the steep elevation on the initial part of the trail, we were amazed by the middle section where it levels off and the views of Esmeralda Basin come in sight. Surrounding us were the Esmeralda Peaks, Long Peak, and Ingalls Peak. The traverse took us to the bottom of the short set of switchbacks to the ridge that drops into Headlight Basin.
And wow, if you haven’t been enjoying the views, you’d probably be amazed at the ridge. This is the first time on the trail to see Mount Stuart and from here on out, you’ll keep on seeing it. Just like in pictures, its massive rock face is majestic. It’s bigger than life – which makes sense being the tallest peak in the region, sitting at 9416 feet. It’s also the 10th highest peak in Washington State, and the second tallest non-volcanic peak. For those more adventurous, there are scrambling and climbing routes up Stuart.
For the overnighter, rejoice for you’ve gained all the elevation you’ll be gaining before camp. Note that you’ll still not have seen Lake Ingalls and you won’t till you’ve set up camp and walk past camp. There’s no camping within ¼ mile of Lake Ingalls, meaning, you can’t even camp in its basin. So Headlight Basin (the drop right after the ridge) is highly suggested. You can camp at either the upper or lower path. Which should you choose? The upper path has fewer open areas for campsites and more exposed to wind, whereas the lower path is more tree-covered but you’re more likely to find a free spot. We chose to camp at higher grounds for better views of Stuart and take the hit for the wind. Along the trail, closer to Lake Ingalls, there are streams that run through if you’ve ran out of water, and some campsites are a significant distance away from these streams.
During our overnight trip, it started getting windier and windier as the night moved on. The air was not cold, but the wind was ferocious and any warmth in the air was quickly blown away. I was sincerely thankful for bringing the rain fly for wind protection. Throughout the evening and night, dust blew inside the tent, passing under the rain fly and through the tent mesh. We never got rained on but there were dark, looming rain clouds in the distance. So really, not the worst weather to encounter in the summer.
In the morning, the sky was clear above us while Stuart was engulfed in clouds. It didn’t make for much sunrise pictures, so we had a lazy morning before heading up the other ridge towards Lake Ingalls. During the traverse on the upper path of Headlight Basin, we met our first goat family. It seemed like each adult goat had one baby goat. We soon noticed one particular baby goat that was bleating very loud, running back and forth between the adult goats. I’m not an animal psychologist, but it looked like the older goats were fending their space and both ignored and pushed away this lonely kid. While the other young ones happily grazed on the grass, this lone one could only cry for help. As we walked past this small flock, we could still hear the bleating in the distance. Poor goat!
We soon left this little meadow and headed through the boulder field to get to the start of the steeper climb up and out of Headlight Basin into the Lake Ingalls Basin. The path up is still considered a trail, but parts of it, I would consider to be low-class scrambling. Kinda fun! We topped out on the ridgeline and a few steps after the last steep uphill, the view of Lake Ingalls broke through. Deep blue and beautiful like I had anticipated. And although we did not start at the crack of dawn, there were still surprisingly few people at the lake. It was calm and peaceful, and everyone was enjoying the simple life and the amazing views of Stuart behind the lake.
But I was not content to simply rest at the edge of the lake. Seeing a trail on the opposite side, I was determined to explore and find my way across. I chose to go the clockwise direction, since it looked more doable. With good traction shoes, finding a path is much easier because several of the rock surfaces drop steeply into the lake without a warning. However, there’s quite a few ways to safely navigate around the rock. And if one path doesn’t work, try, try and try again. We were a bit slow going at first, and when we finally saw the trail again, we had a big huzzah. Easier going around the lake from here on out. The trail from here was much more defined, even with cairns to mark the path when it traveled through giant boulders instead of soft ground.
Fewer people scramble around the lake, so there’s a tad more solitude if you’re looking for that. The views are incredible the whole time too! Stuart is always facing the lake, so there is never a dull sight. Rounding the far side of the lake, there’s a trail that heads down the valley below and another ridge that takes you to the west ridge of Stuart – a technical climbing one, if you were wondering.
The lake trail continues to loop around, where people can be found fishing or relaxing in the sun. Determined to complete the full loop, I walked further, but then saw a couple turn around. They had passed us during the first scrambling section. I didn’t make much note of it, but assumed they didn’t want to walk all the way around. That was a wrong assumption. We proceeded to scramble up the east rock clump, but there wasn’t a simple, easy way down from the top. The whole time, we could see the trail, we were 20 feet above where we wanted to be. It could be a simple slide down, but it could also end catastrophically. So, safety first, we didn’t take our chances on free-soloing this.
At this sad realization, I accepted the reality that the “loop” around the lake was not a loop. On the map, it actually doesn’t show that the loop connects, and that’s an accurate representation. Having not better researched this hike, I anticipated a quick return to camp, but we added almost an hour from debating how to down-climb back to the trail to taking the loop in reverse. Albeit long, taking the loop back was a sure way of returning without getting lost or stuck. We learned another good lesson to learn more about going off the main trail and to allow more time for exploratory hiking.
Once we got back to the main trail, it was an easy way back to camp and back to the trailhead. It was hard to leave the beautiful views of Mt Stuart and our awesome campsite. I can’t wait to come back and climb the giant. This hike may not have been the Enchantments, but its views of the Enchantments was unrivaled. And with goats, larches, and a lake, a trip to Lake Ingalls is very nearly like a trip to the Enchantments.
For the average hiker, it isn’t possible to do a full loop around Lake Ingalls, and even the loop has a bit of scrambling involved
There are many existing campsites – use those areas rather than creating a new site