The way to Melakwa Lake is like two different trails: first a wide gentle trail through old growth forest beneath an elevated and noisy Interstate freeway. And second, a rocky steep trail that follows a waterfall and a precipitous gorge upstream to get to a pair of clear alpine lakes flanked by rocky peaks. Is it about the journey or the destination? You decide.
Start out from the trailhead on a wide trail that meanders through forest, with trees young and old. Due to its popularity, this part of the trail has been the focus of numerous trail maintenance outings, yet there are still rocks and roots to contend with; that’s just the nature of the terrain.
At a half mile, freeway noise peaks as you pass under the elevated span of eastbound Interstate 90. Then at just over 1 mile is a popular natural feature known by various names: the Denny Creek Water Slide, Slide Rock, the Slippery Slab. This is the destination for many families, for frolicking and/or picnicking on a hot summer day. If this is your destination, see our hiking guide entry for Denny Creek.
At the water slide, Denny Creek is posted as “Impassible During High Water”. In normal flows however, strategically placed rocks offer a dry crossing. The trail re-enters pleasant forest on the opposite side, marked by a sign on a large tree that reads “Main Trail”. A quarter mile from the water slide, the trail passes through an area of lush vegetation then breaks out into the open, revealing two tiers of Keekwulee Falls, the main drop falling 90 feet into a steep ravine. In the morning, the falls can be seen glinting in the sunlight.
Climb more earnestly after this point, alternating between open talus and forested shade. At 1.9 miles, hear Denny Creek echoing off the walls of its narrow gorge above Keekwulee Falls, finally drowning out freeway noise. At a couple of switchbacks, the trail offers views almost straight down for those who may want to peer down the steep walls.
At 2.25 miles, the trail levels off for 0.2 mile until it crosses gently gurgling Denny Creek on a footlog beside a huge cedar snag. The rest of the way to Hemlock Pass is steep as you alternate between talus and forest. In season, there may be few wildflowers blooming in this section. At 3.8 miles, top out at Hemlock Pass, 4600 feet. Continue the final 0.4 mile, losing 150 feet of elevation to arrive at the outlet of Melakwa Lake. A massive logjam offers one way to cross the outlet stream. Just on the other side is a popular gathering place for hikers and a signed trail to a privy. Enjoy the lake and wonder at the meaning of its name. Hint: “Melakwa” is Chinook for “mosquito”.
To get to the smaller Upper Melakwa Lake, continue 0.2 mile along the left side of the lake. Cross the stream connecting the two lakes to get to campsites on either lake, or to continue wandering, e.g. to Melakwa Pass.
On the return, remember to take the upper trail at the junction 100 feet past the logjam, to climb back up to Hemlock Pass.
The trailhead can be accessed from the Franklin Falls/Denny Creek area. Trailhead parking was closed as of September 2019, but another large parking lot approximately a quarter mile away provides plenty of room. A NW Forest Pass is required.
Might be too strenuous for children, as it gains almost 3k feet in 4.25 miles.