By Joanna Bastian
Larch trees blend in with other conifers most of the year, but when autumn arrives, they reveal their true colors. Deciduous needles change from dark green to brilliant yellow. The Golden Lakes Loop trails on Gold Creek are — to continue a literary theme — pure gold.
To get there, take Gold Creek Loop to Gold Creek Road. Follow the main fork of Gold Creek for about 6 miles before coming to a marked fork in the road. Turn left onto forest service road 4340-300. Arrive 4-1/2 miles later at the trailhead parking lot at the end of the road. Both the turnoff and the trailhead are marked, but there are no destination signs. Someone keeps taking the signs, including the trail register. The trailhead is primarily referred to by two different names in trail books: Eagle Lakes, and Golden Lakes Loop.
There are usually several cars parked at the trailhead, as this is a popular trail with stunning views. A meadow campground with picnic tables, grills and an outhouse is perfect for overnight camping at the trailhead, for an early start in the morning. Interconnecting trails lead to multiple high-alpine lakes, surrounded by brilliant larches, heather, bearberry, salmon berries, willows, dogwoods and aspens — all showing their stunning fall colors; truly, a hikers paradise.
Most hikers come from miles away to hike the ever-popular Golden Lakes Loop, which includes Martin Lakes, Cooney Lake and Eagle Lakes. If you have two or three days for an overnight hike, or feel like a long bike ride, this 23-mile loop is well worth the time.
For a quieter, less-traveled hike, Crater Lake is a wonderful option. Just 4-1/4 miles from the trailhead, a round-trip day hike is challenging, yet rewarding, with a steady elevation gain of 2,350 feet from the trailhead to the lake, which is located at 6,969 feet. Rugged beauty surrounds the jagged cirque of Crater Lake, where calm waters reflect the warm hues of the changing larches.
Start from the Eagle Lakes Trail, which gently climbs the Crater Creek drainage through open forest with fir and aspen. At a quarter-mile, the trail dramatically opens with views of both Crater and Martin Creek drainages as the path curves along a rocky ledge. At thr .07-mile point, an impressive bridge crosses Crater Creek and the trail enters a shady spruce grove. Here, the options begin: Martin Lakes, Cooney Lake and Eagle Lake trails are to the left, while Crater Lake Trail veers to the right. The trails are clearly marked.
Crater Lake trail is steep, but there are many rock outcroppings that provide perfect photo ops to capture long views of the Methow Valley floor, expertly framed by tree-covered slopes.
Lower Crater Lake is at the4-mile mark, in a deep basin surrounded by 8,000-foot rocky crags. Upper Crater Lake is just .03 miles further.
For a longer day hike, Martin Lakes are a 12-mile round trip, as are the Eagle Lakes. Cooney Lake is a little farther, at 7 miles in. All are within a 14-mile round trip. Happy hiking!