Situated in some of the most pristine wilderness of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is Esmeralda Basin. Esmeralda Basin, known for striking displays of wildflowers contrasted against the rugged Esmeralda Peaks, is a loop trail that can be completed as a day hike or overnight.
Included in this blog post is an overview of the trail, if the trail should be included as a classic hike of Washington, and options for post hike activities!
Hike Completed on July 30th, 2022
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Esmeralda Basin Trailhead
Esmeralda Basin is located on the ancestral lands of the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Wenatchi, Yakima and Confederate Tribes of Colville Tribes. We are grateful for the stewards of this land past and present. We are honored to be and recognize that we are guests on this land.
Getting to Esmeralda Basin Trailhead
Esmeralda Basin is located 2.5 hours east of Seattle, WA. The trailhead is off of the same service road of an extremely popular trail for viewing larches and Lake Ingalls.
While most of the drive is easy driving along paved roads, the last ten miles of the drive on Forest Service Road 9737 is unpaved. The road has been in great condition without major potholes. The parking lot of the trailhead for Esmeralda Basin has plenty of parking and a privy for people to use the restroom before hitting the trail. Since a National Forest Pass is required for this trail, be sure to leave the pass in your windshield! You can purchase a National Forest Pass here.
Hiking Esmeralda Basin
Esmeralda Basin is a loop trail that passes by some of the most scenic vantage points in the area.
Begin the loop trail by heading North East on the Esmeralda Trail. The trail runs parallel to the North Fork Teanaway River and Road. Walking along the river, glimpses of the Esmeralda Peaks tower above the valley. These peaks will be central to the entire hike as the loop leads hikers around the mountain.
Just 0.3 miles from the trailhead, hikers will reach a junction that meets up with “100 Classic Hike of Washington” Lake Ingalls. Take the trail to the left to remain on the Esmeralda Basin Trail.
During the larch season, the trailhead to Lake Ingalls can be backed up with cars even before dawn. If you’re open to extending your hike to Lake Ingalls, which is already 9.0 miles, parking at Esmeralda Basin provides better views than walking past a line of cars.
Past the Lake Ingalls Trailhead is a small valley of creek crossings, blooming flowers, and a soft wetland. Don’t take this area for granted, because it will be the last flat area of the trail for a significant amount of time. A series of switchbacks provides increasingly impressive views of the peaks with each change in direction.
These switchbacks will lead to Fortune Pass which has arguably the best views on the entire trail. After hiking for nearly two hours, the trek up to Fortune Pass is the first time I saw another set of hikers on the trail. Fortunes Peak is completely exposed. Wearing sun protection is imperative on this trail to mitigate the direct impact of the sun. While hiking this trail, I wore my favorite sun shirt from REI.
Read this next: Ten Essentials of Hiking
I reached Fortune Pass at around 1 PM which was a perfect time to find some shade and eat lunch. It was a spectacular 360 view of the surrounding area. I also used this time to have a small photoshoot of my Fremont Summer Pale Ale because at the time they were having a summit beer photo contest…I didn’t win.
The trail after Fortune Pass opens into an expansive valley. Be sure to stay to the left because the Country Line Trail heads off to Lake Ann. While Lake Ann is a BREATHTAKING trail, that is not on today’s trail agenda!
The hike down the far side of Fortune Pass is rough. In high heat and on a steep, rocky trail, this section feels like the most brutal section of the entire trail. But before long, the trail descends down back into forest and shade is welcomed with open arms.
Unfortunately, the section of trail that connects Fortune Pass to Gallagher Head Lake is a 4×4 road. While this is great for off-road vehicle recreators, as a hiker a little moody from the sun, that continuous flow of traffic was bothersome. There were dirt bikes that cut corners a little too close for comfort and lines of off-road groups that slowly worked their way through this section of trail.
Gallagher Head Lake offers the first sites available for overnight camping along this trail. This also marks the halfway point for the trail. This was another great resting point. This is also an area where I did hear people shooting targets in the distance. In National Forests this is allowed unless there is a current restriction. It is imperative as a hiker to be aware of the regulations in the area and stick to the maintained trail.
Hiking from Gallagher Head Lake down to De Roux Creek is where the wildflowers of Washington truly shine. The pockets of grass in between the forest were filled with wildflowers. This is what I would consider to be the start of the final push to complete the trail.
At ten miles into the trail, a series of steep heavily wooded switchbacks lead hikers back into the valley. These switchbacks seemed to add up in miles headed back down into the valley. Before long, I was back next to De Roux Creek taking a quick break with a little under two miles left to go.
There was a bridge crossing here pointing towards the last home stretch. After 12.0 miles of continuous hiking, the view of the car was a glorious site.
Should Esmeralda Basin be a Classic Hike of Washington?
Should Esmeralda Basin be a 100 Classic Hike of Washington? This is an especially important question because Esmeralda Basin is flagged as a legacy hike. A legacy hike is a hike that was included in the first edition of “100 Classic Hikes of Washington” by Harvey Manning and Ira Springs. Only 50 of the original classic hikes remain in the 3rd Edition that I am using for this series.
When reflecting on the entirety of this hike, I would not consider this hike to be a 100 Classic Hike of Washington. Here is why…
After Fortune Pass the views are lacking. If the pinnacle of the hike, Fortune Pass, was the end, I think there could be an argument for Esmeralda Basin maintaining its Classic Hike AND Legacy Hike status.
However, the 4×4 shared road which was ultimately 2.0 miles of the trail removed a lot of the luster from the trail. While sharing the road with vehicles is ultimately not a deal breaker for me on an average hike, this is a Classic Hike! This is a legacy hike!
Check out one of my FAVORITE Classic Hikes Here: Steamboat Rock
I also found Gallagher Lake to be lacking. With the Alpine Lakes Wilderness so close to the area which contains one of the most coveted backpacking trips in the state, The Enchantments, it did little for me other than provide a place to rest and catch a second wind.
What does this mean if I believe a hike should NOT be a 100 Classic Hike of Washington?
Well, I propose an alternative. In this case, I definitely believe that Fortune Pass should be considered a classic hike. The views are epic and tantalizing. An easy “fix” is to remove Esmeralda Basin and add Fortune Pass.
Straying away from the hike entirely, an alternative suggestion would be to include Eightmile Lake. Eightmile Lake is a fabulous moderate hike in the area that offers spectacular views as hikers walk through a valley between mountain rangers leading to a beautiful lake.
What to do after your hike:
After completing this hike, rest is a must! But some great hikes in the area include Lake Ingalls, Eightmile Lake, and Navaho Peak.
Lake Ingalls is a spectacular lake that is connected to the the Esmeralda Basin Trail. It is an 8.5 mile out and back with 3,000 ft gain.
Tucked in a valley this stunning lake is a great 7.4 mile out and back with 1,500 ft of gain. I love eightmile lake trail so much because it is not as busy as some of the other popular trails nearby.
Navaho Peak is a challenging but exheedingly rewarding out & back hike in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Sometimes completed as a backpacking route, this 13.0 mile 4,150 ft gain trail will take your breathe away!
Any beer after hiking a trail this long is refreshing, but Dru Bru is one of my FAVORITES. There are two locations on my way home to Seattle and I am hard pressed not to stop at both of them.