Chelan Summit Trail (days 3 & 4): Star Lake to Stehekin via Boulder Butte & Purple Pass
Following an eventful two days on the trail with multiple summits and millions of golden larches, our adventure in the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness continues to Lake Juanita, up Boulder Butte for sunset (day 3), and finally culminates with a brutal 1,800m descent down into Stehekin on day 4.
The scenery remains incredibly vibrant and the good weather holds all the way until the end, making for the kind of golden larch trip that you only dream about. All in all, it was a wonderful success improved by good timing, better company, and multiple camera batteries.
TRAIL STATS: Star Lake to Stehekin via Boulder Butte & Purple Pass
Distance: 23.3km (day 3) + 13.2km (day 4)
Elevation gain: 1,156m (day 3) + 96m (day 4, all downhill!)
Trail hours: 8hrs (day 3) + 4.25hrs (day 4)
Highlights: Abundant golden larches and bright red heather make for a colourful hike; sprawling views from Tuckaway and Deephole Passes; a perfect sunset from Boulder Butte overlooking the surrounding mountains (day 3); morning views from Purple Pass; a refreshing swim in Lake Chelan to conclude the trip
Campsite: Lake Juanita
Read more: Top Washington Hikes COMING SOON
After awaking multiple times in the night to the light of the full moon streaming in through the tent and swearing it was morning, I finally get up around 7am and enjoy a leisurely breakfast with the group. As usual, the Brisbine contingent is the last to leave camp, but we’re still on the trip by 830am, which is early by our standards.
The morning’s walk is mostly downhill, followed by gentle ups and downs through an entire forest of golden larches in Lower Horseshoe Basin to reach Tuckaway Pass. The sun is beating down and it doesn’t take long to overheat, but you couldn’t imagine a nicer day to be outside.
From the high point, we descend steeply into the shaded forest below, entertained by stories from Tony and Suzie of their frequent trips to Nepal and general musings about the upcoming election. Though the conversation does distract from the otherwise knee-killing descent to Fish Creek, all are pleased to sit down for a nice lunch break and give our legs a rest.
From here, we climb several kilometres steadily back uphill to Deephole Pass entirely alight in golden larches, where we sit again for a pleasant break in the sun. Not long after, Todd and Kevin, both of whom tackled a side-summit this morning, catch our relaxed party mid-snack and most of us then set off for the final slog to camp together.
The trail is comfortably undulating, and we soon catch a glimpse of the disappointingly murky Lake Juanita from above. Thankfully, the spectacular mountain view from our campsite more than makes up for the uninviting lake.
We race to pitch our tents and then set off for a final 250m climb up to nearby Boulder Butte, a high point just above Purple Pass, from which we can see panorama of peaks bathed in pinks and purples for sunset.
It takes us 25min to reach the top and the view is unbelievably spectacular, visibility improved enough for us to see layers and layers of mountains— including Black Peak, which we summited less than a week ago. We can even see a somewhat smoky Lake Chelan stretched out below us, its far north tip our final destination for the trip.
The short but steep descent back to camp all but kills me (my knees hurt so badly that I’m tempted to just roll down the mountain to the lake), but the magical scenery from the top was also entirely worth the agony.
On our last morning, we peel out of the tents dark and early (at 630am, but seriously, it’s still dark). A lightning fast pack-up sees us on top of Purple Pass less than an hour later, admiring the early morning light on the larches and enjoying a quick regroup with our hiking party before everyone begins the long slow descent at their own pace.
Far from an ideal hike out, we have to descend 1,800m all the way from the Sawtooth Mountains to Lake Chelan below, and it is truly ONLY the promise of a midday swim that gets me through the 3.5hrs of agonising downhill switchbacks.
We all agree the trail could have been worse, but it does no knees any favours this morning, and it’s with audible groans that the Brisbine family + Todd rolls into Stehekin at the surprisngly early 11am. Not only is there time for a swim (I practically run into the water), but also plenty of time to polish off an enormous burger and fries at the local store before having to board the ferry back to Fields Point up-lake.
Kevin was even kind enough to run over to the bakery and haul back an enormous bag of sweet treats for the group, the perfect way to wrap up our golden larch excursion. With all 10 of us situated on the back deck of the Lady of the Lake by 1230pm, bathed in warm afternoon sun and refreshed by a gentle wind, it’s almost overwhelming to reflect back on the previous 4 days and all the incredible moments we experienced. What a wonderful introduction to golden larch season this has been, and hopefully the first of many for me!