Lake Isabel hike

May 14, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Lake Isabel is a very pretty, moderately challenging hike following a combination of old roads and historic trails, with an elevation gain of approximately 2300 ft over about four miles (depending on your route). What makes this hike challenging is a combination of a final scramble up an almost vertical final pitch, and a trail that seems more like a firm suggestion than a real path. So many old roads, logging paths, and other trails branch off and intersect the main one that finding your way the first time seems impossible – I know I took two tries, and the internet confirms others have had the same problems. Unless you have a guide, study a topo map carefully before leaving, check your gps position regularly, and still be prepared to backtrack. My experience is as follows, in two parts:

My first attempt was a complete failure. I read one description of the trail, glanced at google maps, and off I went. I ended up carrying my bicycle from the powerline/gravel pit road up to the Clearcut Boulders, and back down a different trail back to the road (I had ridden from Monroe, like a chump). While the area was clearly beautiful, it was not how I'd wanted to spend my day. I vowed to return and find the true path, sans bike.

There are several options to park a vehicle for this hike. On Reiter Rd, keep an eye out for blocked service roads with Discover Pass signs posted – these used to provide access for hiker parking and OHV users, but since all off-road use is now limited to a few miles of prescribed trail further down the road, these small gravel inlets offer the only option for hikers to leave a vehicle. I chose the one that is 2.6 miles down Reiter Rd, which cuts down on road hiking distance.

Clearly I'm well known for my photoshop skills.

Clearly I've spent time perfecting my photoshop technique.

The other popular parking space is 2.0 mile down Reiter Rd, but adds 1.5 miles of hiking on service roads, which I prefer to avoid. From this parking spot to the beginning of what I consider the Lake Isabel trail is a mess of various options due to the proliferation of climbing boulders in the area, so pay attention here: the trail crosses a creek, goes under the powerlines, and quickly splits, with the left path leading to the Five Star Boulder, and the right path leading across a shallow creek and on up the hill.

Follow the pink/orange/blue ribbons and tags, but be aware that logging interests also mark this area, and not all paths are yours for hiking. When you reach an area where a wide path goes left and right, and a faint orange marked path leads forward, head left. You should immediately come out onto a service road. The path right leads to logging areas, and the path forward (I think) leads to the Clearcut Boulders. Follow the service road uphill. After a half-mile, the service road curves back to the right, and a less-traveled road continues straight. Continue on the straight for 1/10th of a mile to find where the hiking trail begins.  Up until this point, you've actually been in the Reiter Foothills State Forest.  Now you'll cross into the Mt. Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest.

From this point, don't follow any of the orange tagged trees or blue ribbons – they refer to logging or other access paths and won't get you where you want to go. Only follow the pink (or very occasionally yellow) ribbons. They outline a historic mining trail to start, then continue up to the east of May Creek, until you reach Lake Isabel. This trail, although reasonably well traveled and usually obvious, still intersects with multiple old roads, spends some time in dry creekbeds, and occasionally has multiple short detours and options. Follow the ribbons, and they'll lead you to the lake. There's plenty of information about the mines and those trails online, but only occasionally in connection with their overlap with the Lake Isabel trail. I've heard that there were mapped out routes for OHV's to get up to the lake, but I saw no evidence of that on the path I followed. I also surmise from reading other accounts on the web, that multiple Isabel hiking paths are extant, with varying degrees of ease and some differing views. I know from looking at satellite images that there's another waterfall to the west that I want to go back and try to find, as it looks larger and even more impressive that the eastern fall. Take your pick, map your own, but study the topography carefully. On a scale of 1 (gravel path, lots of signs) to 10 (bushwhack, specialized equipment needed, training/guide), I'd call this hike a 7 or 8. Far from the most physically difficult hike I've ever done, it was nonetheless a challenge, especially the last quarter mile or so, which runs damn near straight up.

I was photographing the falls, so I climbed about half that distance in the creek itself, shooting the falls from varying vantage points before it became too slick and vertical for me to climb safely, whereupon I retreated into the woods to find the trail and continue up.

I also factor in the lack of any permanent trail identification whatsoever, which could be intimidating to inexperienced hikers or folks from out of town. It had rained the night before, and was foggy and moist when I went, so everything was damp and slick. I'm already planning a multi-day trip with some camping at the top and time to explore the lakeside, hopefully in the sun!   


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