It was once, long ago, called Wheaklon’s Lake, and even before that it was known for a man named Johnson. It is home to a variety of warm water fish, rainbow trout, and mud-loving salamanders, not to mention a bevy of Trumpeter Swans that arrives each December like seasonal clockwork. It’s favorably L-shaped, has an average depth of 12 feet, encompasses almost 33 full acres, and besides all that, is really quite pretty.
But Black Lake’s charm isn’t only on the surface; one of its very best features lies in the fabulous trail that skirts its perimeter.
If you are any kind of hiker on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, summer is pure paradise: Miles of trails can send you scampering across our coastal bluffs, wading through dune grasses, or meandering around the marshlands of Willapa Bay. Around here though, the weather turns quickly, and with the onset of heavy autumn rains, most of those idyllic pathways become downright slippery and a lot less fun. But here’s a little known fact: Rain or shine, come foul weather or fair, the Black Lake Trail will serve you delightfully well.
Established by the city of Ilwaco during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and comprised of city-owned property as well as easements from some friendly neighbors, this little-used track traces the edge of Black Lake and is just over a half-mile long, with trailheads on both sides of the water. Beginning on the east side, the 4-foot-wide gravel path picks up just behind the boat launch and makes a short incline up and into the forest. Turning sweetly, it wends and dips through a beautiful mix of maturing spruce, hemlock and alder, all of which tower over a thriving understory of huckleberry and salal, offering near-constant protection from the wind and rain. Beneath that canopy, carpets of thick moss are bounded by woodland ferns, and frogs hop merrily this way and that, dancing around their slower-moving cousins — the persimmon-colored salamanders that walk among mushrooms, keeping watch over this delicate watershed. Serene views of the lake abound, and following any of the myriad side paths made by animals and anglers usually leads to the water’s edge.
At two different places, hikers have a choice to branch off the main trail onto one of the steeper “spur” routes, adding distance and more challenge to the trek, but be prepared: These trails are more narrow and without gravel, so during the rainy season, gloriously muddy.
Though it’s common to spend time on the Black Lake Trail in solitary splendor, evidence of its thorough use is everywhere. There are the obvious signs of fishing — a handkerchief marking a favorite hole, some wayward tackle caught in the bushes; also, a makeshift rope swing hanging from a sturdy spruce. And obviously, there are all those vivid white — tree roots?
“Yes,” admits Sarah Taylor, head coach for the cross-country team at Ilwaco High, “that would be us.”
Sharing a boundary with the school, her team runs on the trail every day during practices, and, keen to avoid any accidents, marks the exposed roots with an athletic paint that helps avoid tripping. Of course, they aren’t the only ones who benefit.
“It’s wonderful to have a place to run that isn’t on the road or the track,” Taylor says, “and we think it’s incredible. We’re very grateful that the city lets us use the trail, and we try to be good citizens in return. We do our best to help keep it clean and safe.”
A sentiment that is hopefully contagious.
According to Nick Haldeman, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission for the city of Ilwaco, maintenance of the trail is currently a “mixed bag,” comprised of the efforts of Taylor’s team, the city’s public works staff, occasional help from the Naselle Youth Camp, and the parks commission itself.
“Black Lake and the trails surrounding are a very unique resource … and we need to do our best to protect (them),” he says, adding that he hopes the trails can one day be expanded to attract a larger user group. Though he believes the trails are currently underutilized by the community, Haldeman thinks that’s only because most people aren’t aware the trails exist, a fact he hopes will change.
“But at the same time,” he adds, a hiking enthusiast himself, “that’s also what makes them amazing.”