Enjoy a secluded mountain lake without a long trek
or climb. The trail to Coal Lake is more of a jaunt to
water’s edge and a starting point to explore further.
In this neck of the woods, the crowds are sparse, the
cedars are old growth, and the water is clear and swimming
The hike to the lake may be short, but the road to the
trailhead is 4.4 miles of dirt road. Forging such forest roads
will get you places, such as Independence Lake, Kelcema
Lake, Boardman Lake, and Ashland Lakes. These lakes are
accessed from various forest roads off the Mountain Loop
Highway between Granite Falls and Darrington. Before
heading out on a forest service road, check in at the Verlot
Ranger Station-Public Service Center for road conditions.
They do get washed out on occasion.
With Forest Service Road 4052 to Kelcema Lake washed
out, we changed course to Coal Lake on the suggestion of
Ranger Erica Keene. “It’s stunning up there. A gorgeous high
alpine lake,” she said. “The water is blue and swimming is
definitely ok.” She warned that the fishing isn’t great.
The fishing and solitude is exactly what brought Ken from
Bothell to the lake. “It’s my first time here,” he said. “I was
the only one all morning. I prefer where there aren’t others.”
From his float tube, he’s fly fishing for brook trout known as
“brookies. “A gorgeous fish,” said Ken.
Two trails lead to the lake and join far on the other side.
The sloped right side is covered with old growth cedars
that come down to the water’s edge. The trail bends up and
around the steep grade with the water below changing from
a deep blue to an olive green with the turning of the sun’s
reflection. It’s soft with loose dirt and decomposed wood. This
trail turns out to be more of a climb than a walking path.
On the opposite side, the tree line ends hundreds of feet
above the lake. An avalanche of large granite rock creates an
embankment from which to admire the scenery or drop in
a line. Though fewer trees, the east side sprouts wild white
and purple trillium flowers. Salmonberry plants with purple
flowers. Also, skunk cabbage and a little yellow flower called
stream violet (Viola glabella). These are tucked under and
between the rocks along the shore where the best views of the
lake are. If you can brave the cold, it’s an ideal place to swim.
Coal Lake is popular for dispersed camping. There is
no developed campground so campers find a nook somewhere
around the lake. Black embers mark the favored
Arriving late, Donald and his sizable group camped in the
parking area next to the information kiosk and bathroom.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” said Donald.
“My dad used to take us here. I love the woods more than
anywhere else.” With multiple vehicles encircled around their
makeshift camp, the group came well prepared. Children
played while parents ringed the campfire. “We love it here,”
said Kerri, snuggled warmly in a folding chair. “People drive
up here and they wave to you. In the city, they don’t do that.”
Friends Mark and Kenny are at the lake for the first
time. “We drove down from Bellingham this morning, just
venturing out.” said Mark. They were intrigued by Coal Lake
after camping nearby last September. During winter, the lake
is inaccessible without snowshoes. The pair like solitude
and maybe weren’t so crazy about the group camping in the
“It’s remote and peaceful. Not fished out, and away from
people. Limited access,” said Kenny. Each brought a kayak
and will spend the afternoon fly fishing for cutthroat trout,
hoping for an 8” to 14” catch. What they catch they don’t
keep but throw back.
“They don’t stock this lake,” said Mark. “If everyone took
home everything they caught, there wouldn’t be any fish.”
Despite Ranger Keene’s caution about the poor fishing, the
lake is visibly teaming with jumping fish. Soon the two men
set out across the quiet lake and position themselves near the
trees on the west side.
At 3,420 feet elevation, Coal Lake is among the highest
of the Mountain Loop Highway lakes, yet accessible with
a short scramble with no elevation gain. Hazards are few
and children will find it enchanting. Go slowly on the forest
road. Along one stretch there is barely enough room for
cars to pass.
Hiking is optional. It is instinctive to try to circumnavigate
the lake. Try to abandon this idea since the lake is best
enjoyed waterside. Along Mountain Loop Highway heading
east, the trailheads are packed solid with cars. At the other
extreme is Coal Lake, remote and welcoming.