As our sunny stretch continues, are you hearing moans of resistance to yet another day at the local wading pool? Glacier-fed waters and late-summer berries are a great way to break the routine. Pile the kids into the car, grab swimsuits and hiking boots and head for the mountains where nature’s pools await.
Mountain lakes are fed by glaciers and snowmelt, so be aware the water can be quite chilly even in summer. Lake bottoms may be sandy or rocky, jagged or smooth, so pack Crocs or water sandals to protect small feet. There’s no lifeguard on duty in the wilderness, so keep a close eye on children and understand you’re swimming at your own risk. Never allow children to venture under a waterfall, as small rocks can tumble over in the cascade and cause injury.
Read on for five of the best family-friendly lake hikes in the Cascades, refreshing for late summer and fall exploration, organized from shortest to longest in hiking distance.
Bagley Lakes Loop, Mount Baker
Distance: 2 miles round trip, 150 feet elevation gain, Northwest Forest Pass required
Kids will love: hiking on an active volcano, with lava inside and ice on top
Description: Hike around beautiful glacial tarns ringed with granite outcrops and huckleberry bushes. The trail begins by dipping down towards Lower Bagley Lake. You’ll hike a short distance before coming to a junction — keep to the left to proceed on the loop clockwise. This path takes you on the east shore of Lower Bagley Lake along a flat trail of crushed rock. At the lake’s upper end, follow alongside the alpine stream that hails from Upper Bagley Lake and enjoy the increasingly open views of a looming peak with a very flat top — the aptly named Table Mountain. Just under a mile in is a twin arch stone bridge that spans the outlet stream from Upper Bagley Lake. Cross the unusual bridge (pausing for a photo op) and instead of heading back to the trailhead from here just yet, take some time to meander along the upper lake’s north shore until you find a great spot to rest and maybe dip some feet in.
This trail is short but absolutely stunning and leaves the kids plenty of time to load up on juicy huckleberries you may encounter along the way. For older kids, a longer loop option extends the hike from Bagley Lakes up to include the half dozen or so Chain Lakes (8 miles round trip, 1,600 feet gain), making this beautiful hike twice as long and three times as difficult, but adding more stunning scenery and sparkling tarns.
Directions: From Bellingham head east on the Mount Baker Highway (SR 542) all the way to the Heather Meadows parking lot, signed for Bagley Lakes. Heather Meadows is just after the Picture Lake Trail and just before the ski area.
Mirror Lake, Snoqualmie Pass
Distance: 2.2 miles round trip, 870 elevation feet gain, Northwest Forest Pass required
Kids will love: the scenic, refreshing swimming hole
Description: The “trail” begins from a lower parking area, though you can skip the first half mile on a rough dirt road if you have all-terrain vehicle and start from the upper parking area. From here, the real trail begins. Don’t be deterred by the clearcut at the trail’s start, you’ll be in an enchanting old-growth forest soon enough. At a half-mile in, find a spur trail to Cottonwood Lake, a sweet, shallow pond you can wade in but not worth skipping the star attraction for. Continue on as the trail climbs another half mile to Mirror Lake, where placid emerald water reflects the ancient fir and hemlock that encircle it. Find a clear bank, put on your swimsuits and soak up the sunshine.
Directions: Take I-90 east over Snoqualmie Pass to exit 62. Head south on FR 54 for 1.5 miles, take a right on FR 5480, then go past Lost Lake to the trailhead.
Dorothy Lake, Highway 2
Distance: 3.5 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain, Northwest Forest Pass required
Kids will love: the many trail structures on this hike, from steps to bridges
Description: The perfect lake hike has two requirements: irresistible water for swimming and an access trail just difficult enough to work up a sweat along the way. This sparkling mountain gem in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness offers both. What it doesn’t deliver is solitude, though at two miles long, the lake’s shoreline offers plenty of room for everyone. All those boots have persuaded the Forest Service to keep the trail in tip-top shape with well-built stair-steps and boardwalk. After about a mile, the trail enters wilderness and crosses Camp Robber Creek. From the sturdy bridge here you’ll spy the creek plunging into a refreshing swimming hole below, which makes a great pit stop on sweltering days. Hike on another half mile or so to the sprawling Lake Dorothy. A spur trail to the lake’s outlet takes you to a giant log jam, the best photo op of the lake, and access for wading in. The main trail continues on a high path along the lake’s eastern shore, which is interspersed with short side trails down to established campsites, picnic spots and access points for taking a dip.
Directions: Take US Hwy 2 east past the town of Gold Bar. Just before milepost 46, look for the turnoff to Money Creek Campground and make a right onto the Old Cascade Highway. Drive 1.1 miles, then turn right onto Miller River Road (FR 6412). From here it is 9.5 miles to the road’s end and trailhead on gravel, though the road isn’t rough and the time passes quickly from the backseat when peering into the woods for a glimpse of a Sasquatch.
Hyas Lake, Teanaway
Distance: 4 miles round trip, 100 feet elevation gain, Northwest Forest Pass required
Kids will love: the shallow, sandy lake floor great for wading on hot days
Description: Washington’s famed Alpine Lakes Wilderness east of Seattle boasts a whopping 700 lakes within its glacier-carved terrain, from tiny emerald tarns rumored to be frequented by leprechauns (kids, keep your eyes peeled!) to huge turquoise pools flanked by granite boulders. Hyas Lake is one of the easiest of those lakes to reach, and a smattering of established campsites around the lakeshore make it one of the most popular first-time backpacking trips for Puget Sound families.
The trail starts flat and forested from the Deception Pass trailhead in the Upper Cle Elum River valley. Half a mile in you’ll cross a small stream and the wilderness boundary. Keep kids motivated to move on from the patches of ripe black huckleberries along the trail in August or you’ll never make it to the lake to wash off those purple-stained fingers. Under two miles in is your destination, a long, shallow lake ringed with reeds and forest and reflecting the looming peaks beyond, Cathedral Rock and Mt. Daniel. The trail continues all the way to the upper reaches of the lake, about one mile more. Follow it to reach the best picnic and lake access spots, which get better as you hike on.
Directions: Take I-90 east over Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum/Roslyn, exit 80. Proceed on Hwy 903 north for about 7.6 miles, then it becomes the Salmon La Sac Road and you’ll continue for another 10.4 miles. Near the Salmon La Sac campground, veer northeast onto FR 4330 (also called the Cle Elum Valley Road) and from here it’s about 11 miles of unpaved driving to the trailhead.
Ashland Lakes, Mountain Loop Highway
Distance: 5.5 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain, Discover Pass required
Kids will love: the opportunity to inspect beaver activity, dragonflies and tadpoles up close
Description: This is a true Cascadian rain forest, one of the wettest spots on the mountain range’s west slope, and it’s got loads of spongy moss, slimy slugs and stinky skunk cabbage to prove it. On rainy days the trail also has some very slippery boardwalk, so step with caution.
The trail skirts around three placid lakes fringed with sphagnum and peat bogs — first a wetland home to dozens of dragonflies called Beaver Plant Lake, then Upper Ashland Lake, and finally to the largest, prettiest and most remote of all, Lower Ashland Lake. Most of the trail is on boardwalk, which gives kids the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with a variety of unique features of Northwest wetlands, including beaver dams, lily pads and frogs.
Directions: From Granite Falls head east out of town on the Mountain Loop Highway for 15.2 miles. Turn right on FR 4020, and drive 2.6 miles. Turn right on FR 4021, and proceed 2 miles to the trailhead. Although this area is surrounded by Forest Service land, this trail and the lakes are state land (Washington Department of Natural Resources) and the trailhead requires a Discover Pass.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated in July 2017.