Mikaela Judd, Rachel Zupke and Brenda Ulinski

When the Mountains Call

A Growing Love-Affair with Hiking Continues with a Hike to Lake Serene

Photos by Brenda Ulinski

“Camping is one bathroom and slow room service,” my mom always said. So while I grew up hunting with my dad and building forts in the backyard, my childhood was spent with easy access to a shower and a soft bed.

It wasn’t until college that I started voluntarily taking sunrise treks through the Moraga hills in Northern California. Those early mornings alone, surrounded by uncut grass and twisting trees, brought a sense of peace to my life that I never knew my soul needed.

Mikaela Judd Hiking at Serene Lake

Over the years my nature adventures have increased — in both length and difficulty. And as I have continued to dive deeper (albeit I’m still a relative novice) into the world of backpacks and hiking boots, my yearning to be in the hills has grown with a fire I never expected.

Danner Boots are my preferred hiking option, whether I’m wearing my classic waterproof boots or my summer-weight hikers.

For the most part I head out alone, taking advantage of the small breaks my schedule provides by frequenting the trails near my home. My fur baby Zeus and I can cover roughly 4- to 5 miles in my self-imposed hour-long lunch break. And though it’s not the same as climbing through a new forest destination, the time away from my desk always fills me with a primal wholesomeness that’s forever endearing.

Hiking with dogs

But on a Saturday morning in mid-June, I threw on my boots and headed north to meet my good friend Rachel Zupke and a new friend, Brenda Ulinski. A day shy of 17-weeks pregnant, the nearly 8-mile excursion was the longest hike I’d done since being cleared to workout again. I was nervous about the 2,000-foot elevation gain, which included dozens of flights of well-worn wooden stairs.

The ladies and I agreed in advance that if I needed to bow out mid-hike, I would. But I was also secretly determined to see the tranquil waters of Serene Lake. After all, I wanted to make the most of this hike with Rachel. I was unsure when I’d be able to join her again — as who can guess how this baby will truly affect my body and my time.

Prior to the hike, Rachel sent pictures and trail descriptions. She was in the midst of training for her 24-mile through-hike of the Enchantments with Rescue Freedom. (Day hiking in the Enchantments is permitted for all visitors. However, camping requires a special, lottery-won permit. A ‘through-hike’ means visitors complete the entire 24-mile trek in just one day, without stopping to pitch a tent.) Though the mileage and elevation gain to Lake Serene was a bit less than she needed for her daily activity goals, she assured me she’d add extra weight to her pack and it would be fine.

rescue freedom mug
Rescue Freedom was founded in 2012. Its mission is to combat slavery around the world. It was developed based on a unique model that empowers individuals to use their passions to raise funds and awareness to fight slavery.

The sun rose as I drove to the Lake Serene trailhead to meet Rachel and Brenda. A scattering of warm, newly abandoned cars was the only evidence that we wouldn’t be the first on the trail. “This entire parking lot and the spill-over lot will be full by the time we get back,” Rachel told me.

“I’ve been here when the lot was so full people blocked others in,” added Brenda, who had hiked this trail several times.

“That’s why we come early, to avoid the crowds,” Rachel said. I couldn’t argue with that logic. While the trail’s popularity boded well for the lake’s beauty, I’ve never been a fan of heading to the woods only to be stuck in a city-like crowd.

Eager to get going, we grabbed our gear and headed out. The hike started as a wide, gravel path along an old logging road. When we looked closely, we could see remnants of the past on worn stumps. I had read before the hike that a section of the trail passes through private land, which the owner had intended to log in 2018. As I walked, I felt humbled and grateful that this pristine forest had been preserved. The owner had paused their project, allowing a fundraiser to raise the necessary funds to keep the area in its current state.

It didn’t take long for the path to narrow, brought in by towering salmonberry bushes and deciduous trees. As our luck would have it, the bushes were scattered with the sweet orange berries, a delicious treat as we wandered uphill.

Rachel Zupke Stacking Rocks

About a mile in, the old road turned into a dense forest and the elevation climb started to pick up its pace. Switchback trails were made up of dirt paths, large rocks, and wood stairs. The hike can take you to one of two destinations, Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls. While we weren’t destined for the falls, we were treated to glimpses and sounds of their roaring waters all the same.

At roughly the half-way mark, a second trail split to the right, taking a steep incline up to the top of the falls. We continued to the left, crossing over a few wooden footbridges, from which we saw breathtaking views of the towering rocks above. While we weren’t close enough to feel the water’s spray, the sound of it tumbling down filled the woods around us.

We continued upwards towards the lake. A heavy fog clung to the hills. As we stopped for a quick water break the two seasoned hikers mused whether or not the lake view would be clear at the top.

Lake Serene fog rolling in

As luck would have it, we were greeted by glimpses of the 3,000-foot cliffs of Mt. Index when we came into the basin. The massive rock face was reflected in the tranquil waters of Lake Serene. Following the path right along the edge of the lake we came to a large, flat rock that rested beside the water’s edge.

“During the height of summer, this rock gets so crowded you can hardly find a place to sit,” Brenda told me. But when we arrived, we had the entire thing to ourselves. And for a few moments, we also had the stunning lake view.

making coffee

While we unrolled a few pads and got the water going for a mid-morning cup of coffee, the fog had rolled back in. It came and went in spurts, so dense at moments you could hardly see the water below. But the fog didn’t keep excited hikers away. The rock’s crowd continued to grow, other hikers arriving with a smile and a nod.

Rachel brewed our coffee with an AeroPress, the elevation adding additional resistance to the press’ plunger. “It’s crazy how the physics of being up higher really affects the process,” said Rachel, a former high school science teacher.

blueberry muffin

We savored our warm cups of caffeine and a couple of banana-blueberry muffins I’d brought. We watched as the fog continued to cling to water. And then we packed up, nodded to a few of the groups nearby, and headed back down.

Sitting in the fog

The trip back down was substantially more crowded. Our three-some passed several large groups, two of which had nearly 20 people in them! By the time we reached the trailhead, both parking lots were full and spill-over cars had been left along the road. Moral of the story, when you hike to Lake Serene, get on the trail early. Plus, finishing early leaves you perfectly timed for a post-hike burger lunch at Vick’s Burger Shack. But that French fry and burger goodness is a tale for a different time.

I’m unsure when or where my next longer hike will be, but one thing is for certain — I can already hear the mountains calling

Originally published in explore:NW Fall 2019