509 Olive Way, Suite 305, Seattle, WA 98101
Phone: 206-957-2234 • Fax: 206-447-3388
By Allison Williams
Dive in—but only if you’re sure it’s deep enough.
Image: Pelo Blanco Photo / shutterstock.com
The joke is told on hiking trails across the Northwest: “There better be a Starbucks at the top.” But with crisp mountain lakes by the hundred, what waits at the end of Washington hikes might even beat a Frappucino. These swimming holes are fed by glaciers and fresh rains, usually with a stunning backdrop.
Remember that at high elevations, these lakes can be a lot colder than they look. Remote locations are hardly the place to risk hypothermia or injury from a cliff dive. Washington Trails Association gathered tips for dunking into alpine waters, and they don’t recommend a cannonball. The organization is also our favorite resource for hiking details like trailhead location and current conditions.
Don’t want to hike first? Check out our list of swimming holes closer to the road.
As the entry basin to the Enchantments, Colchuck teems with hikers as soon as the snow melts—and often even before that. With lung-busting switchbacks and creek crossings to reach the lakeshore, a swim certainly looks appealing. But given that some of the turquoise waters just dripped off a glacier—that’s the Colchuck Glacier above—it’s a lot colder than it looks. Folks have been known to pack in floaties.
The waters of Colchuck Lake are reliably chilly.
Image: Taylor Simpson / Unsplash
Given the potholes big enough to swallow a golf cart on the dirt road to the trailhead, it’s easy to assume the on-foot route just north of Mount Rainier will be intense. But the dog-friendly trail cruises up to scenic Summit Lake with nary a rugged step, though the short spur to a scenic ridge above the lake does get steeper. A bonus swim spot, Twin Lake, sits about a third of the way up the trail, but larger Summit is worth the longer trip.
One trailhead, just outside the national park, serves several popular routes, including the Pacific Crest Trail. While the path north goes to the extremely beloved Sheep Lake and its many campsites, heading south goes a few miles through flower-filled meadows before dropping down into a cluster of lakes. Stick to the largest Dewey Lake and its several access points, and note that the window between snowmelt, bug season, and swim season is narrow this high on the hills around Mount Rainier.
The first detour on the intense hike to Serene is anything but; Bridal Veil Falls tumbles more than a thousand feet down the rocky hillside under Mount Index. Farther uphill and hugged by the same rugged landscape, Lake Serene provides one of the best backdrops for a swim. Expect company given the hike’s popularity, and stay on trail around the lake itself to stop erosion around the shore.
More of a shower person than a bath one? Stop at Bridal Veil Falls on the hike to Lake Serene.
Image: Frantzou Fleurine / unsplash
One of the most popular mountain trails close to Seattle is named for Ira Spring, who authored a number of hiking books and served as a local conservationist for decades. Mason Lake, located past a series of switchbacks on the Ira Spring Trail, offers overnight camping as well as a swim spot surrounded by evergreens.
Not many stunning wilderness treks start underneath a freeway, but one of the first landmarks in this trail is the passage under the tall bridge holding Interstate 90. Not long after, the route reaches Denny Creek, whose water-scoured, rocky base has become something of a natural waterslide. No, this isn’t a lake, but every summer hikers turn it into a wild waterpark, ideal for kids looking for shallow wading pools and short slides into a burbling creek.
With several drive-up beaches for a swim, the unusually clear Lake Crescent is a particularly welcoming corner of Olympic National Park. On the lake’s north side, the Spruce Railroad Trail reaches parts of the expanse not traced by roads, and one mile in from the eastern terminus it passes a part of the shore called the Devil’s Punchbowl. A hiker’s bridge separates the pool from the main lake, but be warned: It’s still very chilly.
When heat grips Western Washington, the Olympics just across Puget Sound can serve as a less scorching respite. Given that the route stays within the Buckhorn Wilderness, not the national park, dogs are welcome too. The longish hike means few crowds, and the pool at 5,400 feet is not so big as to stay frigid year-round.
Like Lake Crescent, this sizable body of water does have some drive-up access. For a less crowded dip, the Maple Grove backpacking spot on the eastern shore has a mellow beach and stunning views of the volcano for which the lake is named. Start at the Baker Lake Trailhead at the south end of the lake and move north, passing Anderson Point and its more abrupt shoreline before reaching Maple Grove. Thanks to well-equipped campsites, it’s a good place to stay for a midnight swim.
While the trek under Sloan Peak is a long one, it doesn’t gain much elevation over more than five miles to a mountain lake. It sits well below treeline but there are views to the jagged Cascade peaks around the lake, which hold snow year-round. Mountain Loop Highway is unpaved in the section near the trailhead, though drivable for most all cars who take it slowly. Mining settlements used to dot the area—many of the trails out here used to be mining roads—so it’s been a popular swim spot for more than a century.
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