Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Northwest Fall Hiking: Golden Larches on the Maple Pass Loop


For a few magical weeks each autumn before the snow falls too thick and deep in the Cascades, Northwest hikers stalk the golden glow of larches. The rewards of this gold rush are a riches of startling beauty.

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
From here on it only gets more and more spectacular. We skirt along a steep ridge with views down to Lake Ann and Rainy Lake on either side, and pass through alpine meadows laced with scarlet and gold.



 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.
Then we continue down to Heather Pass, which is also dusted in snow, and beyond.  We pass many more hikers coming from the other direction now, including a young couple wearing nothing but shorts and thin tops, without packs (not smart). In contrast, I'm in four layers, with fleece, Gore-tex, hat, and gloves.




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
As we descend below snow level and get closer to Lake Ann, the fall colors are even more stunning again, with the golden larches blending with colorful shrubs like huckleberry and Sitka mountain ash.





Don't they look like a happy family?
Writer/author Craig Romano on the trail.
Although Craig Romano is one of the most loquacious men I've ever met, I can't come up with a good quote from him. But as we hike together, his conversation is always entertaining, sincere, and informative. (Go hear him speak at one of his upcoming events if you can.)

 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.
 









7 comments:

Karen lindsey said...

Jill, you have some amazing pictures! Wow, what a fantastic place to be hiking during the Fall season. I want to go!

the beastmaster said...

Great Pics! Is it possible to access Maple pass this weekend (Nov 9-10)?

jill said...

Hey beastmaster, I read a trip report on the WTA website from 11/2 hike there, they said a couple feet of snow up there and weren't able to continue past Heather Meadows. But warming trend might make things better this weekend. And the views are spectacular at Heather Meadows. Go for it and then tell me how it was!

Laura said...

What a great post! you have me completely sold on Maple Pass! Andy and I will definitely have to get out there this fall. It was so wonderful getting to hike with you!

jill said...

Hey Laura, thanks! Really enjoyed hiking with you and Andy as well! Happy trails and maybe we can do it again sometime.

Suezy Proctor said...

Jill...this is one of my most favorite posts ever. I can't imagine why I didn't post a comment here, but perhaps I did on FB? The larch looms high as one of the top ten images that anchors me to the PNW. In all that green, the flamboyant and provocative larch steals the show, and takes my breath away.

jill said...

Hey Suezy, thanks for your comment, as always - so appreciated! Yes, this was an especially beautiful day/hike. Good memories. Had some friends who did it last weekend and larches just starting to turn. A little early for the real show.