Lake Ethel is a beautiful lake in the Chiwaukum Mountains of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, just east of the Stevens Pass. Lake Ethel is one of the ‘Scottish Lakes’, which includes nearby Lake Donald, Loch Eileen and Lake Julius. The lakes were given names by Albert Hale Sylvester, who was a topographer for USGS working throughout the Washington Cascades around 1900. Lake Ethel was named by him after the wife of Forest Service ranger Frank Lenzie. The other lakes in the area have also been named after female family and friends of Sylvester.
The entire Scottish Lakes area is great for solitude. Due to its location east of the Stevens Pass, the forest is not as lush, and the Chiwaukum mountains are not as rough as nearby areas, such as the Enchantments. This keeps the crowds away, which results in a great backcountry experience. Another advantage of the area is that some of the Chiwaukum peaks are accessible for normal hikers, who only have to bring enough stamina. From Lake Ethel there are numerous options to extend your trip for backpacking or long day hikes. Lake Ethel trail is the entry-point into the beautiful Scottish Lake area, unless you use the services of the Scottish Lakes High Camp (see Extending Your Trip below).
The trail starts from the Gill Creek Road, named after the Gill Creek that has Lake Ethel as its source. The Gill Creek Road crosses the railroad in a spot where trains are regularly waiting for other trains from the opposite direction to come down from Stevens Pass, so expect that you might have to wait for a bit for the train to depart.
From the trailhead at 2400 feet, waste no time in ascending through the steep forest with many switchbacks for about 1.2 mile until 3800 feet. In spite of the gain, the way is very well-graded. Now and then, the forest opens up for nice views of the Nason Ridge on the other side of the valley. A couple of switchbacks are close to the Gill Creek, which has a nice volume of water early summer. From this point there is no water source close to the trail until Lake Ethel.
At 3800 feet, the trail enters a big clear-cut area (this area is private land that is logged). While it is odd to see every single tree eradicated in this area, it does have some benefits. The trail climbs over the next 1.5 mile to 5000 feet and you enjoy expansive views of Mount Mastiff, Nason Ridge and eventually Glacier Peak. Early in summer, the wildflowers are beautiful in this open terrain. This section is also good for seeing wildlife like grouse and deer. While climbing through the clear-cut area you will cross four logging roads. The clear-cut is fairly exposed to wind coming through Stevens Pass, so it can be chilly if windy.
After re-entering the forest, the trail climbs over 1 mile to 5700 feet, and then descends 200 feet into the valley where Gill Creek and Lake Ethel lie. At the bottom of the descent, join an extremely brushy abandoned trail that starts from one of the logging roads. On the road back, pay close attention and be sure to take the same route back. Shortly after the intersection, you enter the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, followed by an intersection with the Upper Roaring Creek Trail to the right. Continue straight for about 0.2 mile to Lake Ethel. There are nice camping places available close to the lake, which is surrounded by beautiful steep rocks and waterfalls originating from snowfields higher up, cascading down into the lake.
Extending your Trip: From Lake Ethel, you can continue your trip on the Upper Roaring Creek trail to Lake Julius. With a high point of 6050 feet, this beautiful trail has a more alpine feel, featuring expansive views of peaks towards the north and east, including Glacier Peak, Clark Mountain, and the Chiwawa Mountains.
From Lake Ethel to Lake Julius is 2.7 miles one-way. From Lake Julius you can continue to Loch Eileen, just 0.5 miles one-way, or the bootpath to Lake Donald, which is more steep, another 0.5 miles one-way. Bagging all of these completes the collection of Scottish Lakes. Beyond Lake Donald are the High Meadows, a beautiful high alpine area with extensive wildflowers, beautiful tarns, and snow late into summer.
From the High Meadows, experienced hikers can also climb the North Chiwaukum (Point 7132), the more difficult Middle Chiwaukum (Point 7423), and Point 6935 on McCue Ridge. About 2.5 miles from Lake Julius is Alpine Lakes High Camp, a remote retreat where you can rent cabins to enjoy this area for a longer period of time, including winter.