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Fall Backpacking at Lake Stuart

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This post was originally written in 2016, updated August 2020

Fall Backpacking is my favorite…beautiful colors, amazing dark skies, less crowds and no bugs! As long you have the gear to stay warm and pay attention to the weather forecast it’s the best backpacking there is. Lake Stuart is also a good backpacking destination during the summer if you want to avoid the cold.

Lake Stuart also makes for an excellent day hike, so if you aren’t a backpacker or don’t get a permit you can make it a day trip.

At 9 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain it’s a challenge, especially with a full pack but it’s totally worth it. The climbing never gets unreasonably steep either. You’ll need a permit to stay overnight from the Enchantments lottery permit system in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Lake Stuart has much more solitude than other parts of the Enchantments.

If you’re looking for another beautiful fall backpacking trip without having to deal with a permit system, check out Lake Ingalls which has similar scenery and similar mileage and elevation gain.

Lake Stuart is on the homeland of the Wenatchi people.

Parking Pass: Northwest Forest Pass (Enchantments Lake Stuart permit required for an overnight stay)

Dog Friendly: No. Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in the Enchantments permit area.

Is Fall Backpacking at Lake Stuart right for me?

If you want to backpack here, you’ll need to navigate the Enchantments permit system (apply in February).

If you’re up for that and enjoy backpacking and have a warm sleeping bag (expect temperatures into the teens at night) then this is a great trip. Lake Stuart is surrounded by golden larches in the fall and many other fall colors line the trail as you hike up to the lake.

Lake Stuart has areas to camp right next to the lake so it’s easy to get water.

When is the best time to hike to Lake Stuart?

I love this as a fall backpacking trip or day hike. The larches are generally golden from late September through mid October. It is possible to have snow here at that time of year so pay attention to the forecast and make sure to have lots of warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

You can do this hike snow free starting in mid to late July until whenever the snow starts falling in the fall (sometime in October or possibly late September).

Lake Stuart is not nearly as busy as nearby Colchuck Lake. Since this trail shares a trailhead with very popular Colchuck Lake, expect the trailhead and parking to be very busy as well as the first two miles of the trail which are shared with Colchuck.

Where is it?

As mentioned above, the Lake Stuart trailhead is shared with the Colchuck Lake trailhead which makes it very busy with parking a challenge. Make sure to pay attention to the parking and no parking signs so you don’t get ticketed or towed.

The trailhead is near the town of Leavenworth and is accessed on a gravel forest service road.

From Leavenworth, head out Icicle Creek road on the west side of town. In 6.5 miles, turn left on forest service road 7600. Almost immediately, go right at a fork, now on forest service road 7601. In 3.5 miles, the road dead ends at the trailhead.

Trail Description

Start off on the trail that goes to both Lake Stuart and Colchuck Lake. You’ll start on the joint trail and in about a mile and a half, cross a log bridge over Mountaineer Creek. At this point you will start the steepest part of the hike, climbing through the forest and past boulders for just under a mile. Fall colors will start to show up in this area.

Just over two miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach a trail junction in a flat section of the trail. You will go RIGHT at this junction to head for Lake Stuart. Most of the other traffic will head left here towards Colchuck Lake and the Core Enchantments but you are going right.

Red, yellow and orange bushes and trees in fall along the open and rocky section of the Lake Stuart trail
Fall colors surround you along the Lake Stuart Trail

Now the trail is mostly flat. You’ll go up the valley an additional two miles, some flat and some with more gentle climbing. Take it slow and make time to soak up the gorgeous views of surrounding peaks in this part of the trail.

Bushes in the foreground in a meadow surrounded by evergreen trees and high mountains with snow. A group of hikers are going through the meadow
Backpackers in the final mile of the Lake Stuart trail taking in the view

A bit over 4 miles from the trailhead you will arrive and beautiful Lake Stuart! If you’re backpacking, there are several campsites to your right as you walk along the lake. Display your permit on the outside of your tent. You’ll get a tie and a plastic cover for your permit that is easy to attach to the tent. Fires are not allowed here.

Three tents are set up in the open space between a group of evergreen trees near Lake Stuart. The tents are white, yellow and orange and have their rain flys open
Several lovely campsites surround Lake Stuart tucked into the trees

Make sure to watch the evening light on the golden larches across the lake from you! You can also see several glaciers clinging to the side of Mt Stuart across the lake from you.

A glacier clings to the side of a high mountain whose top is lost in the clouds. In the foreground are golden larches and evergreen trees.
Glaciers hug the highest peaks around Lake Stuart

This is a wonderful place to relax and read or chat with your hiking buddies.

If you’re lucky enough to have two nights there, you’ll have a whole day to explore or relax by the lake.

Whenever you’re ready to leave (or when your permit expires), head back to the trailhead the way you came.

Lake Stuart surrounded by grasses, evergreen trees, golden larches and high distant mountains
Gorgeous Lake Stuart on an overcast October day

Breweries and Bakeries near Lake Stuart

The bustling town of Leavenworth has lots of options for finding food and drink after your hike and the town gets very crowded on weekends!

If bakeries are your thing, check out the Bavarian Bakery. More of a beer fan? Don’t miss Icicle Brewing Company. I also recommend the Munchen Haus for every imaginable kind of sausage and mustard. There is also a beer garden with German and Icicle Brewing on tap.

Electric Vehicle Charging

There is fast charging available in Leavenworth (at City Hall for CHAdeMO and at the Icicle Village Resort for Tesla). Make sure that you can make it to Leavenworth from wherever you are traveling from. I use Plugshare for mapping road trips in my Nissan Leaf!

An alpine lake reflects the mountains around it. Text reads: Lake Stuart hike in the Alpine Lakes wilderness
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Jennie Flaming
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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