Thursday, October 20, 2016

North Cascades Autumn Getaway: Hiking on the Cusp of Winter

While many stocked up on food and batteries and stuck close to home last weekend amidst predictions of a dangerous windstorm, I headed to the North Cascades in north-central Washington with a couple friends to hike and enjoy autumn's bounty. 

Our overnight destination was the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center (ELC) on Diablo Lake, where each October the North Cascades Institute hosts a sumptuous Harvest Dinner featuring mostly Skagit Valley fare. The ELC serves as a perfect launch point for many wonderful hikes in the North Cascades.

Day 1: Pacific Crest Trail, Rainy Pass toward Cutthroat Pass
With winds not predicted to extend as far east as the Cascade Crest, we left Seattle in a lull between storms Saturday morning. Our initial goal was to catch the end of the golden larch display, but the third weekend in October is pushing it for high country hiking.

Indeed, when we arrived at Rainy Pass (elevation 4,800 feet), the empty parking area at the Pacific Crest Trail North access was snowy-slushy and empty. Just a few days earlier (before the weather hit), someone reported seeing dozens of people on the way down from Cutthroat Pass.

As we hiked into the thick evergreen forest, the rain gradually turned to snow as we gained elevation. I was glad for hiking poles when crossing a few engorged streams.

Although we told ourselves we'd just hike an hour and then turn around (time constraints), it was too beautiful to stop so soon in the winter wonderland.  Fat snowflakes were quickly covering everything in a fresh coat of fluffy white. An hour turned into an hour and a half, and then some.

Ultimately we had to turn back before passing above timberline. We caught a few glimpses of golden larches high up the mountain, but they were mostly snow-covered like everything else.

Two things about this hike stood out: We hiked almost three hours alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, a rare treat anymore on popular trails in the region. And we had the pleasure and wonder of seeing a pine marten in a tree top about 25 feet off the trail. (Thanks to Nanette for spotting it.) This elusive little carnivore is a member of the weasel family but much cuter. Unfortunately I didn't get a good shot.

Soon the North Cascades Highway will close for the season, and the popular trails around Rainy and Washington passes will not be accessible by car until next spring.

Evening at the ELC
By late afternoon we arrived at the ELC, one of my absolute favorite getaway destinations, not only for the beautiful setting, wonderful food, and good people there, but for the excellent environment-focused speakers and workshops. I've blogged about the ELC several times before.

The evening's focus was disappearing glaciers. Dr. Jon Riedel of North Cascades National Park spoke about monitoring the receding Cascade glaciers, and John Scurlock showed us his stunning aerial shots of glaciers along the West Coast.

As usual, I slept deeply and well in the mountain darkness and quiet.

Day 2: Sourdough Creek Trail
With a break in the weather, Sunday morning we walked the beautiful Sourdough Creek Trail behind the ELC about 1.75 miles up to an exuberant waterfall. This gentle trail winds gradually upward through lush mossy forest thick with evergreens and maples.

"I don't think we could be here at a better time," said Nanette as we passed what at times seemed like curtains of gold leaves spiked with crimson. Indeed, I've been there many times and don't think I'd ever seen the fall color so brilliant.


Near the top of the trail, we skirted an old moss-covered rockfall before scrambling the final stretch up stone steps to waterfall views. (Tip: you need to walk out into the creek and look back upstream to see the big waterfall.)


So we straddled the seasons over the weekend, with winter and fall side by side. That's one of the things I love about my Pacific Northwest:  the proximity of widely diverse landscapes and conditions.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.  

When You Go  
If you're thinking of heading to the high country around Washington and Rainy Pass up the North Cascades Highway, check the pass conditions and weather. Current forecasts for the Rainy Pass area show snow off and on into the middle of next week. Winter has definitely arrived up there, so hiking might be done for the season. 

Lower around the ELC, though, things are still fall gorgeous. In fact, the last weekend in October 2016 is a stewardship weekend, with a deep discount on lodging and great meals in exchange for some help with projects such as planting and pulling invasive weeds.


MaryAnn Wagner said...

Jill, you are right about this year's fall colors being remarkable. Just back from New England and have to say that our Northwest fall is far more colorful than the Eastcoast right now.

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Auntie C said...

Loved these photos, and your comment about the PNW variety--of all kinds. I'd love to go to the ELC with you sometime! That's one of our most memorable trips..
Walking better, but no able to walk trails summer..
Looks as if we'll be in the new place by 11/1...come on up.....
love ya

Jill said...

Hey Mab! How cool you got to experience New England in the fall, color or not!

Carol! Glad you are walking better! Yes, hope to come soon. xoxoxox