Backpack to Headlight Basin and Lake Ingalls

Washington Esmerelda Basin Trail

Added by Gemina Garland-Lewis

You will see mountain goats galore and stunning fall colors when the larches turn. There are beautiful campsites with views of Mt. Stuart.

The hike to Lake Ingalls is arguably one of the most popular in Washington, particularly during the fall when the larches turn and become ablaze in bright yellow. A great way to experience a little more solitude in this area is to stay overnight at one of the incredible campsites in Headlight Basin, about 0.5-1 mile before you reach Lake Ingalls.

The trail starts off at the Esmeralda Basin trailhead but in just 0.4 miles will branch off to the right (follow signs for 1390 Ingalls Way). Dogs are not allowed on the trail past this point (although they are allowed on the Esmeralda Basin trail). The trail will climb through pine forest for another 1.6 miles before opening up near the junction with the Longs Pass trail. Keep straight at this junction and continue to wind your way along incredible (and frequently very narrow) contours. As you approach Ingalls Pass the trail becomes a little steeper and rockier, but the reward of crossing over the Pass and getting your first views of Mt. Stuart are well worth it. You'll often see mountain goats going about their business starting from just before Ingalls Pass.

From atop Ingalls Pass you have an expansive view of Headlight Basin, your home for the night. Here the trail breaks into an upper and lower section - the upper is slightly harder to follow and rockier, but is the most direct way to Lake Ingalls. There are a number of campsites along the upper trail but you'll find more if you head down and to the right on the lower trail. Remember to look for a designated campsite as you explore to protect the meadows and other vegetation. Ingalls Creek is nearby to restock on water, as well. Set up your tent along the way and then continue to the lake - keep in mind that there is no camping allowed within 0.5 miles of the lake.

Whichever path you choose, you have 1.5 miles from Ingalls Pass to the lake. If you take the lower trail you'll drop in elevation and then gain it again just before you reach the junction with the upper trail again - from here turn right to get to the lake. The trail gets a little more primitive here and you'll need to look for cairns to find your way around/through/over the rocks to climb up a draw and finally crest over into the lake basin.

For photographers, keep in mind that the light on Mt. Stuart is best in the late afternoon and during the sunset golden hour. At Lake Ingalls, there are spectacular reflections of Mt. Stuart in the water at sunset and Mt. Ingalls at sunrise. Waking up to watch the sun rise behind Mt. Stuart is certainly a must. Remember to bring extra layers with you to the lake as it's quite chilly in the basin. The expansive views of Headlight Basin and Mt. Stuart make for great night photography opportunities, as well!

Hike out the way you hiked in or make a loop of it and hike back on the upper/lower trail (whichever you didn't do on the way in!). On your way home, stop at the Cottage Cafe in Cle Elum for a tasty meal.

Getting there: From Seattle, take I90 East to Cle Elum and exit towards Wenatchee (SR 970). A few miles down the road you'll cross the Teanaway River and then look for Teanaway Rd. on the left - turn here. Keep driving until the pavement ends and then take the right fork (FR 9737). It's a long and bumpy ride from here to the trailhead - the road will fork a number of other times but keep on with signs for FR 9737 and Trail 1390.

Pack List

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag/pad
  • Stove/fuel
  • 10 essentials
  • Camera and tripod for night photography
  • Water and water filtration device
  • Food and snacks
  • Extra layers and wet weather gear
  • Hiking poles
  • Northwest Forest Pass
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Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Photography

Skill Level:



Summer, Autumn

Trail Type:



9 Miles

Elev. Gain:

2500 Feet




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How to Get There

about 2 months ago

Gorgeous hike

The photos do some justice here! Great shots and report, I love this spot, very moody weather patterns for sure in this area. This hike like the Enchantments really cool uncle!

about 2 months ago

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