Peak viewing of these subalpline larches (Larex lyallii) in the North Cascades is generally mid-October, perhaps after the first snow dusting adds drama to the alpine landscape. I was right on target for a hike on the Heather-Maple Pass Loop this past weekend with hiking writer/guidebook author extraordinaire Craig Romano and a group from the North Cascades Institute.
I should just stop with the prose here and post a bazillion photos. It was such an extraordinarily beautiful day/time to bear witness to the splendor that I could hardly stop taking pictures.
But I did manage to hike a good 7.2 miles up and down a few thousand feet in elevation (about 4,000 total) in the process. We started the loop going clockwise at the Rainy Pass parking lot trailhead (elevation 4,875 feet) on the south side of Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway). Our trip co-leader Sam tells us this direction is steeper but a more mellow grade going down, which sounds just fine for fussy knees.
But none of it seems that steep really. Or maybe we're just so elated from the alpine landscape we don't notice. I do remember sweating.
We start up switchbacks through forest for a mile or so until we see the first golden larches. These trees only grow at 5,000 feet up to about 8,000 feet elevation on the eastern crest of the Cascades.
|Just the beginning|
Soon we're hiking through rocky, mostly treeless slopes towards the passes above.
On a clear day, there are panoramic views along this hike of many North Cascades peaks, but today we're shrouded in mist that rises and falls. Which, I think, makes it even more lovely.
Because it's so cool and scenic up here, I've lost track of time and can't tell you how long it took to get to Maple Pass (a couple hours?). It's a party up here when we break for lunch, with at least a dozen other hikers around.
|Holiday card shot, Lake Ann in cirque below|
|Looking back the way we came.|
Sam, who was up here a few weeks ago putting up signs for the U.S. Forest Service telling people to stay off "social" (unofficial) trails, checks out how they're holding up. Reminder, DO NOT stray off the main trail in these fragile alpine areas.
|Heather Pass area|
|Don't they look like a happy family?|
|Writer/author Craig Romano on the trail.|
After we get below Lake Ann, the trail is mostly enclosed in forest, except one colorful patch of talus, where I've seen a resident marmot on hikes past.
Overall the going seemed relatively easy, what with the awesome scenery, enchanting fall colors, and fun company. Most hiking guides rate this a moderate hike.
Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!
When You Go
To hike this loop before it gets too snow covered, go soon (it's snowing as I write this above 5,000 feet in the Cascades, so....). Check the North Cascades forecast. With the snow flying today, you might already need Yaktrax for traction and hiking poles for stability when venturing there before the highway closes for the season.
Rainy Pass is about a 3-hour drive from Seattle and about 50 miles east of Marblemount on the eastern edge of North Cascades National Park. Check out the topo map of the area on the WTA website.