Blue Lake sits just outside the North Cascades National Park Boundary and is popular for ski touring, both around Blue Lake and as the start to other tours like Spire Gully and the Birthday Tour. The Blue Lake trailhead sits alongside Highway 20, and during the winter is only accessible by snowmobile as Highway 20 is closed seasonally, typically after Thanksgiving and re-opening in the late spring. In late fall, the Blue Lake trailhead can provide a good starting point to get up high in the alpine and access early season powder.
From the trailhead proceed southeast through the forest, eventually running into the summer trail. For early season ski tours with lower snow coverage, you may want to continue on the summer hiking trail as it loops north and then southeast along the side of the mountain. Otherwise continue heading southeast, keeping the ridge above Blue Lake on your right until you reach a bench just south of Early Winter Spires. This is a good place to descend, or Gully Spire drops down the other side of the mountain, while continuing to climb over Blue Lake Col will take you on the Birthday Tour.
Last year, the snow came to all elevations early and before I knew it, highway 20 was closed. Not wanting to miss my chance this year, I was checking the forecast and nearby telemetry on a near daily basis, hoping we would get enough snow up high to allow for some early season skiing on highway 20. Mother nature delivered a good storm over the previous weekend, and while there had been no recent snow, the temperatures had stayed cold, and thanksgiving weekend was lining up for me.
Talking with Tim, we settled on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving for a short tour to work off the excesses of the day before. We planned on Spire Gully, but as we came to the hairpin turn below Washington Pass, the bottom section of Spire Gully looked like it could use some more snow. It was still skiable, but definitely seemed like a good chance of hitting some rocks, so we decided to not bother leaving a car at the hairpin and stick to the terrain around Blue Lake.
Pulling into the Blue Lake Trailhead, we easily found space next to two other cars. We met one group descending while we were skinning up, and saw the second group climbing up to Blue Lake Col, presumably doing the birthday tour. After getting our gear ready, we hopped back into Tim's truck to warm up - neither of us were acclimated to temperatures in the teens. It wasn't a problem once we were moving, but certainly was cold while getting ready.
There was a well worn track in place, which was a combo of skinning, snowshoeing and an occasional post hole thrown in for fun. Given the early season coverage, the skin track meandered quite a bit through the dense forest, searching for the easiest way through the trees and underbrush. Reaching an open area, the skin track started following the summer hiking trail around through the forest.
Once out of the forest, we were treated to great views across the valley of Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain. Shortly thereafter, we came to a sign for the junction of Blue Lake trail and Liberty Bell Climbing Access trail, and we followed the existing skin track as it left the Blue Lake Trail to continue up the mountain.
We slowly progressed up the skin track, and ran into a group of two from Oregon who were skiing down and enjoying some nice turns in the leftover powder. The snow conditions were somewhat variable, especially near the top where we noticed some wind affected snow on certain aspects. But in general, most of the mountain there was shin deep powder to be found, and the clear skies and sun over the last four days hadn't baked anything.
Upon reaching the bench, we took a look over into Spire Gully, and were second guessing our decision a little. Spire Gully didn't look great, what we could see on the top was pretty wind hammered, but we were now thinking it may have been better than dealing with the tight trees and low snow depths down near the bottom.
We decided to stick with the plan, and after finding some wind affected snow on the skiers left side of the slope, headed back towards our skin track and started our descent. We were able to find some nice bands of consistent powder, and enjoyed some good early season skiing on the top half.
The coverage was pretty good on the upper section, and there weren't many rocks or trees to contend with. Neither of us felt comfortable really opening it up, for fear of hitting a rock underneath, but we were able to link together nice turns in the week old powder.
As we descended, we got pulled into some terrain which had some rocky slopes underfoot, and both of us hit a couple of rocks. Nothing major as I didn't blow out an edge or get a nasty core shot, but enough to skis this section cautiously.
We threaded our way through some trees and then a small gully, and then it was back on the skin track to follow the summer hiking trail and descend towards the car, which actually was a lot less worse than I was expecting - the trail was side and gentle, and it was easy to cruise down.
Near the bottom we veered off the skin track and ski through the woods, and got pulled a little too far east, and had to get on the summer trail again for a couple of hundred yards to make it to the car, passing a couple of groups out walking the trail with their dogs.
It was a great first tour of the season, especially considering it was November. We were able to find some powder, and while we had to contend with early season coverage, it wasn't too bad - no damage to ourselves or our gear, and the exit wasn't as bad as I feared.