The ever-elusive alpine lake

Just a few ... more ... steps.

Hiking the Lake Angeles trail from the Heart o' the Hills trailhead was, for me, kind of taking a step back in time. The last time I'd reached the lake's shores was more than a decade ago, as my uncle and his family took a group of youngsters up to the fully frozen-over alpine lake for some ice skating and a pick-up game of ice hockey.

Never mind that I'd never been ice-skating, didn't own a pair of skates and didn't fully appreciate hiking, especially through snow.

Turns out the borrowed pair of ice skates were too big and wrecked my ankles for a good week after. Furthermore, I wasn't particularly good at hockey either. But hiking three miles up into the woods to find a frozen lake and seeing the shroud of mist and cloud cover give the lake a blanket of mystery stuck in my mind. Years later, I wasn't thinking about sore ankles and long hikes, but rather I felt a strong desire to simply see the lake again. After more than 10 years, I figured it was about time.

That was my mind set when I took my family (three-quarters of it, anyway) and a family friend to Heart o' the Hills last September.

There are a couple of paths you can take to Lake Angeles, each with varying degrees of difficulty. Hikers can start a 12.5-mile loop from one of several spots: Heart o' the Hills, the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center or the Switchback trailhead. The eastern side of the loop skirts the lake while the western side leads hikers along the Heather Park Trail.

Other ways to do the trail are more adventurous: Find another hiker or hikers to start at the opposite end of one half of the loop, i.e. one set of hikers starts from atop Hurricane Ridge, the other set from Heart o' the Hills, then meet in the middle for lunch and to trade car/truck keys. Or, park one's car at either starting spot, hitch a ride to the other trailhead and do the hike (although I'm sure park officials aren't keen on this per policy).

Instead, our goal was simpler: hike the three-and-a-half miles from Heart o' the Hills to the lake, take a picture and hike back.

Almost there

Immediately this trail feels like an alpine hike. Perhaps it's the sight of looming mountain foothills, the fresh smell of cut trees or simply the chill in the air. Either way, the amalgamation of sensations was energizing - for me, anyway.

The lower part of the trail begins with a short, flat romp through thick woods, then crosses a creek and begins a semi-steep climb. I don't mind switchbacks on trails like these as long as it's pretty and not too strenuous. In contrast with Mount Muller, a trail that can get downright redundant, the lower Lake Angeles trail features enough scenery to take one's mind off the uphill pull.

Not long after the uphill start, the trail empties into a small clearing of downed trees I likened to a spilled box of pencils, only 2-ton pencils. Crossing a second bridge, the trail creeps through these overblown logs only thanks to some obvious trail "management;" 2-foot-thick slices of evergreens lay in a pile off to the trail side while our group hiked past thick, clean-cut logs the diameter of a modest dinner table. And oh, the minty smell - it was like Christmas tree shopping in September, only I wasn't going to be dragging one of these a quarter-mile and trying to wedge it in my trunk.

We stopped for a minute and counted rings on one of the fallen logs. All told, we tallied 302 rings. That made us pause and ponder eternity ... but only for a few seconds. There was a lake to find.

Along the way, we started counting these terribly abundant, underfoot beetles. I couldn't tell if they were a version of the European ground beetle (Carabus nemoralis) or simply some common black ground beetles (Pterostichus melanarius). They didn't have the coloring of the European variety but not quite the same shape as the common beetle. In any event, I made plenty of Ringo Starr jokes along the way that my wife didn't laugh at. By the end of our hike, we had counted 46 beetles and 32 puns.

How far is far?

Problem is, you never know how far away something is until you get there. Our hiking four-person crew was really two-and-two, and while the more adventurous pair (myself and my wife, Patsene) was fully expecting to find the lake no matter what, the other pair wasn't so committed.

After two-plus hours, we could hear the rush of some water but not anything that looked like a lake. At that point, for our trail buddies, the hike was over.

But it might be right around the bend, I protested. Sorry, they said. We're going back.

Normally I'd keep right on going but these were young hikers and neither my wife nor I could in good conscience keep going farther up the trail.

So we saved the lake for another day.

Try, try again

This August, Patsene and I decided to retry the hike, only this time from the top down and minus the unadventurous companions.

Instead of going all the way to the ridge's visitor center, we jumped onto the loop at the Switchback Trail. This trailhead is about a couple of miles short of the lodge on the right side of Hurricane Ridge Road, the trailhead parking lot capable of hosting a dozen vehicles or so.

The Switchback Trail didn't get its name by accident. For a half-mile, the crisscrossing path winds up and up the steep trail and, thanks to only a sparse, burn-marked scattering of evergreens lining the trail, gives great views of the winding Hurricane Ridge Road.

It's a great jump-start for hiking if one wants to sweat a bunch and get one's heart rate up. We had to stop a dozen times before the trail merged with the Klahhane Ridge Trail.

We also had to stop plenty for hikers to pass us up; we'd picked the free-entrance-into-national-parks weekend for this hike and plenty of folks were taking advantage. I stopped counting at 30 about an hour into the adventure.

For the next mile, the Klahhane Ridge Trail leads hikers onto another series of switchbacks, albeit a slightly less uphill set, like a Stairmaster going from "hard" to "moderate." Large-leaved lupine, bluebells, alpine asters highlight thick flora here as do (most eye-catching) a number of harsh paintbrush flowers that varied from peach to ruddy red.

On a picturesque, blue-sky day, the views from the Klahhane Ridge Trail are awe-inspiring. On this mid-August day, with clouds rolling over the ridge to and fro, it was downright spooky. We couldn't see much more than 30 yards ahead of us, and as the trail skirts rock ledges and a crag, not knowing how steep the drop is to one side or the other lends a bit of mystery to Klahhane.

This added some fun and suspense, I admit, but I was worried we'd not get the bird's eye view of Lake Angeles I was hoping for.

Planet Klahhane

Particularly with the misty feel, Klahhane Ridge felt a little like walking on the moon, or what I imagine that's like. A few sub-alpine firs dotted the landscape or desperately hugged a rock outcropping here and there, but mostly we walked amid piles of broken shale and dirt, wondering what was on the either side of the slopes.

After the Klahhane joins the Lake Angeles Trail/Heather Park Trail loop, it's another couple of steep miles down toward Lake Angeles. Knowing this, Patsene and I stopped and reassessed the hike. After about 150 minutes of hiking, we plopped ourselves on the side of the trail and snacked. We'd seen some small animal droppings but few creatures to speak of save a random bird or chipmunk. I'd heard plenty about mountain goats in the region but with so many people on the trail, we figured they'd be in seclusion. Our only furry friends during the hike wound up being a few grouse and an adult doe I nearly walked into on the Switchback Trail a half-mile from the trailhead during our descent.

After a half-hour break, the skies started to clear and the trail finally started to head downhill for a change. Soon the trail turns sharply north and, emphatically, there it was: Lake Angeles in all its splendor.

Splendor in the mist

Or, as much of its splendor as we got through a passing cloudy mist. Gorgeous. We could see the aqua blues and greens of the lake speckled with massive logs that looked like toothpicks from where we stood. An island dotted the water and it looked as if an eye were peeking back at us.

Exhausted after nearly three hours of uphill hiking, we looked at the steep downhill trail ahead. I figured we'd be on the trail another two hours minimum just to get to the lake and back, the second half of it a long, quad-burning trek back up this root-laden trail up Klahhane Ridge's slopes. I looked at the dwindling sun and prospects for rain.

In the end, we ditched the chance to see the lake up close. I figure we have time to see the lake in the not-too-distant future, when weather and energy and hiking partners permit.

Hopefully, it won't take another 10 years to start that journey.

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