Lost Lake: Found in the Chuckanuts

How can you lose a lake? In the Chuckanut Mountains south of Bellingham you just bury the thing in a deep valley beneath a high sandstone cliff and ring it with lush Douglas-fir, hemlock, and cedar forest with a dense groundcover layer of salal, sword ferns, and low Oregon-grape. Add a muddy trail and you’ve got a perfect place to lose yourself for an afternoon.

That’s just what I did this afternoon under a sodden gray sky and chilly temperatures. Well, I didn’t actually get lost, but I did pay a visit to Lost Lake. Here’s the DNR map of the Chuckanut trail system I carried in my pack. You definitely want a map for the maze of trails up there, but it’s definitely worth it.

Chuckanut Island from Chuckanut Ridge
Chuckanut Island from Chuckanut Ridge

Lost Lake wasn’t the only attraction on my loop today. The view above is from a little peek-a-boo hole in the forest just off the Chuckanut Ridge connector that drops down to Cleator Road. I took that trail by accident, but this view made it worthwhile. That’s Lummi Island in the background.

I started my all-afternoon hike at the North Chuckanut trailhead off Chuckanut Drive just south of Fairhaven. From there I headed briskly up to the Interurban Trail and turned north. There’d been some trail work on the parking lot connector since I was there last, significantly improving a formerly muddy stretch with new gravel and new boardwalk.

From the Interurban I turned uphill on a newish unsigned connector that heads up to the end of California Street where I picked up the old logging road and continued up hill. I passed the junctions with the Hemlock Trail to Pine & Cedar Lakes, basically staying right at junctions to get to the Chuckanut Ridge Trail.

Chuckanut Ridge is a steep rock rib running roughly north-south and ending at the road-end parking lot on Cleator Road. The trail follows closely to the ridge with steep drops to the east and on clear days, nice views. The wind was brisk up there. I’d stripped to a pair of running shorts soon after getting on the trail but with the wind and temperatures hovering just under 40°F I put my t-shirt and wool sweater back on once I’d gained most of my elevation. The trail bobs up and down through the forest, pretty much hugging the ridge. Before I’d layered up, one lady runner coming the other way asked whether it was really warm enough to be shirtless in shorts. My response, “yes, when you’re doing 45 feet per minute vertical.”

I turned right down a good trail that brought me out on Cleator Road instead of following the ridge all the way, which was what I’d intended to do. So I had to hike up the road a mile or so to get to the top.

From the road end the trail drops steeply down to the Fragrance Lake road and the South Lost Lake Trail, which winds around the south end of Chuckanut. All along the route the ground was carpeted with sword ferns and sometimes low Oregon-grape. Most of the trees were either Douglas-fir or western redcedar, with large patches of red alder and bigleaf maple as well. Salmonberry stems also formed thickets in places along the trail. Although I was hiking briskly there was still time to enjoy the typical lowland forest tapestry of greens and grays.

On this return route one turns left at each major junction. There’d been a trail crew on the Lost Lake trail since I’d been on it last so there weren’t as many muddy spots as before. The crew needs to get back and finish the job because there are still lots of low wet spots as you hike the route along the west side of the lake. I didn’t take the spur down to the lake itself as it was getting late and raining lightly.

 Chuckanut sandstone cliff with Sword Ferns
Chuckanut sandstone cliff with Sword Ferns

This sandstone cliff was somewhere in the vicinity of Lost Lake. Since I hadn’t carried a tripod with me I had to find something solid to brace my camera on in the dim late afternoon light. I found a big fern-covered stump and used that. It limited my choice of vantage point more than a tripod would have, but my load was lighter. I was using my little Canon G12 and this was shot at ISO 800.

Chuckanut sandstone cliff
Chuckanut sandstone cliff

Not much farther along the trail there’s another long cliff, of which this is just a part. It’s even more impressive in person. For this one I braced my camera against a handy red alder at the side of the trail for a 1/4 second exposure, again at ISO 800.

By this time it was really getting dim and the rain had picked up a bit. I put my raincoat on and hunkered down for the rest of the hike back to the trailhead, which was still 3 or 4 miles away.

I got back to my truck at 5:15 pm, a little after official civil twilight and a good 45 minutes after sunset. The last part of the trail down from California Street to the Interurban was interesting in the near darkness as I tried to move fast but still avoid tripping over rocks and roots. I had a headlamp with me but don’t really like to hike with one. I’ve been hiking in near-darkness for nearly 50 years so why change now.

I’d set out for the four-hour hike mostly as a fitness excursion. There were a lot of other people out doing the same thing, whether hiking, mountain biking, or trail running. It’s not a trail for solitude, but the forest is definitely worth visiting. I don’t know just how long my loop was, but I’d guess somewhere between 8 and 12 miles.

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