Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

The Little Italy area is a great place to watch rock climbers — or to give it a try! Photos by Molly White

Icicle Creek: a scenic fall family adventure near Leavenworth

Fight the fall blahs with a fun and scenic family excursion.

This past September my kids and I went swimming in Lake Washington. It was a blustery day, but the water was still warm from the long hot days of summer. We talked about how the weather was changing, and how the days were getting shorter. The kids were enthusiastic and fully ready to embrace autumn in all of its wet, mucky darkness. In contrast, I found myself secretly mourning and resisting the loss of warmth, sunshine and daylight.

Channeling my moodiness into something positive, I decided to take a weekend camping trip under the canopy of bright autumn leaves. In early October we headed for Icicle Creek Gorge, near Leavenworth. Even if we couldn’t escape the impending cold, we could at least head for drier land.

We camped at Eightmile Campground, located on the banks of Icicle Creek, about 8 miles from Leavenworth’s town center. We could not have arrived at a more scenic time of year. If any place in the Pacific Northwest was going to make me feel positive about the changing seasons, it was this place. The mountainsides were a fiery, golden splendor. The leaves had changed color but retained their lushness. The air was cold, but the sun was shining, and Icicle Creek was rushing down the canyon in all its glory.

Rock Climbing at Little Italy

We arrived to our campsite Friday evening after dark. We set up camp in a hurry so that we could snuggle into our sleeping bags before the temperature dropped further. The sun was shining the next morning, promising a warm day. Dressed in layers, backpacks full of climbing gear, snacks and water, we drove a short distance further up the canyon to the trailhead for a popular climbing crag called Little Italy.

A ready-made tree fort at Eightmile Campground.

It was cool, dry and sunny: perfect climbing weather. We set up ropes on a few of the easy routes and the kids had fun trying them. Once we had all had our fill of climbing, we packed up the gear and hiked back down for a late lunch along the river. We then drove back to the campsite and spent the rest of the day letting the kids explore the campground, meeting some of the other kids staying there.

Icicle Creek Gorge hike

On Sunday we had breakfast and then broke down our camp. The plan for the day was to hike the 4-plus mile Icicle Creek Gorge Nature Loop, several miles further up the canyon, and then drive back to Seattle in the afternoon.

Icicle Creek

This family makes sure to read all information signs before and during a trail hike.

This hike has many special features that make it appealing to families with young children. The trail is flat and smooth for its entire length, providing ample opportunity to let children run ahead. Nature-loving families will enjoy the educational signs located along the trail, which point out some of the special habitats, symbiotic relationships and native species encountered along the trail. The river is another major highlight, offering views of turbulent whitewater as well as calm spots for hopping across river rocks.

We took a few minutes at the start of the hike to study the information at the kiosk. There is a useful trail map as well as descriptions of the habitats, plants and animals of Icicle Creek Gorge. I snapped a photo of the leaf-identification sign to reference during the hike. Our kids love playing “mini-naturalist,” sharing their knowledge with other hikers we meet along the way. Nature identification tasks also provide a handy distraction when legs start to get weary!

We decided to turn left at the junction, meaning clockwise around the loop. Going this direction, one of the first features we came to was a beautiful, rustic bridge crossing Icicle Creek at a dramatic waterfall. Here we found a sign describing the special animals and plants adapted to these high-spray areas. After passing over this bridge we trudged on in our usual manner (sprinting forward, running backward, detouring for stick discoveries, falling, etc.) until we reached a low bank, where a few inches of water covered a broad riverbed. This area is full of stepping stones and small willow trees. The kids had a magical time playing within this wild orchard, building an imaginary world in which we grown-ups were not allowed to enter.

After passing through many more distinct habitats and scenic viewpoints, we came to a wide road and bridge that lead into Rock Island Campground. We stopped again here to play near the water and let the kids have a snack. The final stretch of trail lead through a dense, moist conifer forest. The parking lot came into view just as I was starting to feel desperate about how slow we must be going. My kids often go slower on mellow terrain because it encourages so much play and exploration. The hiking on this trail does not feel difficult, and there is no inherent punishment for backtracking, so children may expend energy going in many different directions.

This is all to say that if our distracted bunch can make it, so can you. This hike is wonderfully accessible, and it offers an experience of diverse habitats within an exceptionally pristine canyon.

Icecle Creek area: good to know

Camping near Leavenworth in the off-season: The bookable sites at Eightmile Campground fill up quickly for the entire May-October season. However, 40% of its sites are maintained as first-come first-served. If you can arrive in the morning, first-come first-served sites are a great option.

While the Eightmile Campground closes down for the off-season, there are other campgrounds in the area that stay open year-round:

The campground at Lake Wenatchee State Park is another wonderful place near Leavenworth that we stayed recently, and it is open year-round. If you go snow-camping in the winter, you will enjoy heated restrooms, warming shelters and hot showers. There are non-motorized winter playgrounds at nearby Nason Ridge and Chiwawa Sno-Parks, which include 30 miles of groomed cross-country trails, a groomed sled hill and 10 miles of marked snowshoe trails. If you don’t mind a longer drive, another option is to spend the day on the steeper slopes of Stevens Pass Ski Resort.

Icicle Creek

The Icicle Creek Gorge Nature Loop is great for families.

Preparing for the Nature Loop hike: If you are planning to hike the loop with young children, plan to bring lunch and snacks, and start in the morning. There are so many spots to stop along the way that the hike can take several hours. Expect no cellphone reception once you get to the trailhead and for the duration of the hike. Ideally, print or download the map before leaving home. If nothing else, take a picture of the map at the trailhead. Plan for a solid meal and play session once you are halfway around the loop. At the beginning of the hike, use the map to find this spot. Let the kids hold onto the map during the hike, and then be sure to ask them frequently: “Are we there yet?”

Icicle Creek: getting there

Getting to the hike: Entering Leavenworth on Highway 2 from the West, turn South onto Icicle Road at the 76 gas station. The parking lot for the trailhead is clearly marked just over 15 miles up this road. Expect bumpy gravel road conditions for the final 3 miles of the drive. The parking lot has 23 spaces and a vault toilet. Parking requires a Northwest Forest Pass, which can be purchased at the trailhead kiosk for $5 by cash or check. Roads leading to this trailhead are subject to seasonal closure, so if you are braving the hike in the winter, check with the Forest Service before heading out.

Here’s the Washington Trails Association page with more details on the Nature Loop hike.

Another climbing spot to explore: There is another quality climbing spot just a quarter-mile walk from the Eightmile campsites, along the trail that runs parallel to the river.

This little crag is known as Eight-Mile Rock. If there are no groups climbing here, it can be a nice place for kids to explore the beautiful granite rock faces that makes this region popular for climbing. If there are climbers, it provides an opportunity to safely watch some classic crack climbing. There is plenty of flat terrain surrounding the crag, so you and the kids can watch at a safe distance (rock fall and steep terrain pose significant risks to children and onlookers at many climbing crags).

More travel and outdoor fun in Seattle’s Child:

Cape Disappointment: Year-round escape with lighthouses

Olympic National Park: Guide to a fall family getaway

About the Author

Molly White

Molly White is a biologist and writer. She grew up in Washington, Alaska and Scotland. She currently lives in Seattle, where she and her three young children enjoy spending an uncivilized amount of time outdoors. On their adventures through the wild landscapes and waterways of the Pacific Northwest, they learn together about all the important things.