To celebrate the beginning of summer, I’m taking Pacific Northwest Seasons on the road this week and venturing east of the Cascade Crest on part of the Cascade Loop. This scenic drive includes heading east over the North Cascades Highway, angling southeast/south down the Methow Valley and Columbia River to Wenatchee, and looping back to the Puget Sound region over Stevens Pass. My goal is not to sightsee, since I’ve seen it all before, but to stop when I feel like stopping, move when I feel like moving, read when I feel like reading, and to chill on what turns out to be a somewhat chilly trip.
I start my 4-day road trip by driving north from Seattle up I-5 to Mt. Vernon, then heading east/southeast over Highway 20 to the Methow. For a dose of exercise and stunning alpine scenery beyond what I can see from the car, I decide to hike to Lake Ann just east of the Cascade Crest. Yes, June is always an iffy time to hike in higher elevations of the Cascades, but we just had a record-breaking stretch of sunny days without rain (28!) so I decide to go for it. Was it doable?
I figure it’s not the best omen when I pass through miles of downpour in the upper Skagit Valley. After a stop at the Cascadian Farms stand for a basket of sweet, organically grown Hood strawberries, which disappear quickly, I forge on past several lower elevation hikes and onward to Rainy Pass (aptly named today) at almost 5,000 feet. As I pull off the highway, I’m stopped by snow in the parking lot just past the trailhead.
“Are you just taking off or finishing your hike?” I ask three backpackers fiddling with their gear next to a parked car. “Finishing. We’ve just come off five days on the trail. Last night was cold!” says one of the guys. They’re friendly and happy, with that healthy several-days-on-the-trail burnished glow. Of course they’re happy—they’re going to have a hot shower tonight.
Despite a light rain, I throw on a hat, gloves, and shell over my fleece vest and head up the trail. At first I almost turn back when I have to hopscotch over muddy pools on the trail, but the trail dries out after the first switchback.
After about 30 minutes of hiking upward through mature subalpine forest, I emerge from the trees at a small bowl. As I’m crossing a snow-covered slope where the trail should be, I hear the distinct whistle of a marmot close by. Pheeeeeeeeeeet!! I catch a glimpse of movement on the talus slope below.
Just beyond the bowl, the trail turns narrow as it traverses a steep face. I have to step v-e-r-y carefully over the slick compacted snow on the narrow ledge above a 100-foot cliff. Not so wise to be doing this by myself on a quiet day with very few other hikers out.
After crossing more snow patches in the forest, I finally see the glacial cirque in which Lake Ann lies. At the bottom of a bowl a few hundred feet below the trail, Lake Ann is still mostly snow-covered. On the plus side, it’s too cold for mosquitoes. As I slow my pace to take photos and enjoy the rugged, rocky alpine scenery, the light rain turns to wet snowflakes. Time to head back.
Up this high, dwarf alpine fir trees grow sparsely and delicate little wildflowers crop up furtively in patches of whatever soil forms between the talus. I love this zone and the tenacity of the plants and creatures that inhabit it. I take a deep breathe and fill my lungs with the sweet fresh alpine air.
When I near the small bowl where I heard the whistle on the way up, I spot a two-toned marmot perched on a boulder beside the trail 50 yards ahead. Round and furry, it’s golden with a chocolate brown face and tail. I’m surprised at how big it looks even at this distance. With an upward flick of its tail, the marmot scrambles quickly down the rocky slope and under a rock and starts digging in the dirt with its front paws. Through my binoculars, I see it then dash farther down the slope with a mouth overflowing with roots and disappear. Perhaps for some youngsters?
Farther on and back in the forest below, I spy what I think at first is another marmot on the trail ahead. But instead of darting away at the sound of my voice, it lumbers slowly off the trail and into the brush. Although I can’t see it clearly, I think I’ve spotted a porcupine!
On the last snowfield over the trail, which thankfully is on a mild slope, I’m suddenly on my butt, sliding downhill. I go with it and tumble to a stop, then hop up and back on my way. It could have been a lot worse.
I’m back at the car in just under 2 hours from when I started, which was my goal. Overall I hiked about 3 miles and climbed about 1,000 feet. I broke a sweat, which was another goal. I’m happy. And lucky.
When You Go
The Lake Ann trailhead is just off Highway 20 at Rainy Pass, which is at milepost 157. Come August on a weekend day, this trail will be pretty busy. Sneak there on a week day if you can, but wait until late July or August for the trail and lake to clear. As the locals in the Methow Valley say, get a lot of bang for your buck and continue up to the ridge past Lake Ann to Maple Pass for spectacular views of the North Cascades. A Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. Click here to buy one online for $30.