Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Simply Golden: Autumn Larches in the North Cascades

For a few brilliant weeks each October, the mountains here in the Pacific Northwest are sprinkled with gold. When we're lucky enough to have clear blue skies and a fresh dusting of snow, the combination of blue and white with golden larches is, quite simply, magical.

Last week, we drove up to Rainy Pass in the North Cascades and camped overnight at the Pacific Crest Trail-Cutthroat Pass trailhead, prime larch territory. Even though it was a weekday, we wanted an early start the next morning. 

It was frosty cold when we started up the trail through the quiet forest. The real drama wasn't revealed, except for a few openings in the forest, for the first several miles of hiking.

A couple years ago I attempted to get to Cutthroat Pass the same time of year, but we were snowed out after a couple miles. Today the weather cooperated beautifully. 

We tramped across several streams and up easy switchbacks for about 3 miles into a valley bracketed by the dramatic, craggy peaks characteristic of the North Cascades. Several hundred feet above us, we could see a smattering of golden larches.

As we drew higher up the valley towards timberline and the forest opened up, we started catching glimpses of small, stunted larches starting to turn from green to gold. Then the magic began.

As we entered the alpine larch zone (in north-central Washington, east of the Cascade Crest, between about 5,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation), it truly felt like entering an enchanted forest of unicorn trees. Okay, my whimsical imagination is running a bit rampant, but being amongst these trees, at the peak of their golden phase, feels otherworldly.

Of course I stopped every few yards to snap shots, slowing us down. But why rush through such natural splendor?

And of course as we got closer to Cutthroat Pass, the general panorama was increasingly magnificent too. We identified the heavily glaciated peak in the  distance at the center of the shot below as aptly named Glacier Peak (a potentially dangerous volcano).

There's something so bracing and clarifying about being up high in these raw, rugged mountains, especially on a brisk, breezy autumn day. It's literally a peak experience for me.

 And the views at the pass!

Silver Star Mountain
Cutthroat Lake far below.

Dave, who has climbed many of the surrounding peaks, pointed out several on the horizon, most prominent being massive Silver Star Mountain. Its Wine Spires were named by climbing legend Fred Beckey after wines that his then girlfriend Vasiliki loved (and then he named nearby Vasiliki Ridge after her).

Just after we arrived at the pass, two youngish guys in shorts arrived and sat down to enjoy the view. We learned they were on their last few days of through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after starting at the Mexican border in May.

Chili Mac was only 3 days away from finishing a 5-month trek from Mexico.
"My goal now is to never work an office job again," said through-hiker Chili Mac (his trail name), who celebrated his 36th birthday on the trail below Glacier Peak a few days earlier. I hope he achieves his goal.

On the way down we passed a lot more people coming up. I was inwardly thankful for the early morning quiet on the trail.

Overall we hiked 10 miles round trip and gained 2,000 feet in elevation. But don't be daunted by the distance; it's a relatively easy hike, not too steep with a well-maintained trail.

I'm hooked on seeing the larches at their peak each year. Our unusually dry fall, however concerning in terms of climate change, has been especially brilliant.

If you can, go see for yourself, soon.

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

The most easily accessible and popular larch hikes are becoming increasingly crowded, so think about your timing or head farther away from Seattle, like to B.C. or Idaho. We hiked to Cutthroat Pass from Rainy Pass (see a map and directions at the WTA website), although the more popular route seems to be from the Cutthroat Lake side.

Check out earlier posts about larch hikes here at Pacific Northwest Seasons, including the super popular Maple-Heather Pass Loop, Ingalls Pass, and Blue Lake.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Hiking Near Leavenworth: Solitude at Trout Lake

Here's an understatement: Leavenworth, our favorite faux-Bavarian town nestled in the north-central Cascades of Washington, is a popular destination. 

As I write this, Leavenworth's annual Oktoberfest is going on over several weekends, people are hiking the spectacular Enchantments area trails up Icicle Creek Canyon en masse (weather permitting), and the apple and pear harvest is in full swing.

For those hikers who value solitude in nature, think beyond the most well-known trails near Leavenworth. I've hiked some of these trails numerous times in the last year and haven't blogged about them because, well, most local hikers already know about them and they don't need more advertisements (I'm talking about you, Colchuck Lake, for starters).

Dramatic Colchuck Lake, NOT what this blog post is about. :)

While it's no longer possible to do the "greatest hits" hikes without a crowd on weekends, it's still possible to have a relatively quiet experience and not share the trail with many, or any, others. A few hints:

Go on a weekday if you can (although that's no guarantee anymore), go when it's raining (same), and go to a less spectacular but still invigorating hike like the trail to Trout Lake.

Last Friday morning we drove up to an empty parking area at the trailhead near the end of Icicle Creek Road. Due to an autumn chill in the air, we pulled on hats, gloves, and jackets and started up the trail into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Within a hundred yards or so, we passed the junction to Jack Creek Trail and skirted along Jack Creek, then crossed it on a sturdy bridge and headed up into the woods. 

Horseback riders also use this trail, and the tread has loosened from many passing hooves. It's soft underfoot. (On the way down, after raining for a while, this made for mud-caked boots.)

A couple miles on, I was startled by a whoosh of wings from flushing out a ruffed grouse. Dave pointed to depressions in the soft dirt along the trail and told me they were giving themselves a dust bath. Then I noticed several similar depressions along the trail and saw another grouse ahead.

Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus)

After about 3 miles of hiking upward on long switchbacks through lovely forest, we passed another junction (always keep left going up!) and reached a few openings in the forest caused by big rockslides.

Then following a long traverse, the trail turned and continued up a small valley (the Trout Creek drainage) on a fairly level trail with minor ups and downs. By this point the views had really opened up.

Looking back towards Icicle Ridge, incoming rain.
For a couple more miles, we rambled up the drainage, passing through a few forested stretches and enjoying the brilliant golden larches and cottonwoods below.

As we entered a particularly lush patch of forest, the insistent rush of a mountain stream nearby drew us close to Trout Creek, flowing down valley from Trout Lake above. Unlike much of the forest east of the Cascade crest, a thick and damp underbrush carpets the forest here.

At a nearby junction that's also an old campsite, another signed trail diverges across the stream up towards Windy Pass, although the "bridge" across the stream is just a big log. We continued up the main trail through the woods another 1/2 mile to Trout Lake.

Approaching the lake, we entered a swath of forest that had recently burned in what was clearly an intense fire.

"There are spots that are still smoldering!" exclaimed Dave.

Indeed, when I stopped to look around carefully, I noticed at least half a dozen spots where smoke was wafting upwards from the ground or downed trees. It was eerie and unsettling.

Recently charred forest.
With low-lying clouds limiting visibility, combined with the smoking ground, we decide to not stick around very long. I made my way through brush and over some burned logs to a clearing by the shoreline to snap some shots (see photo at top of post too).

Despite the recent fire, I still think it was lovely.

Scorched shoreline marsh, thankfully green forest beyond.
Later I did a search and read that many of the trails up the Icicle had been closed for the last month due to the lightning-ignited Jack Creek fire, which didn't do much initially but flared up in September. Coincidentally, some of the trails just reopened within the last week.

So we retraced our steps back down as the low clouds overhead let loose with a steady rain. I didn't mind because it was helping diminish the remaining fire hot spots and, honestly, I enjoy a walk in the rain.

When we got back to the trailhead later afternoon, there was just one other car. They must have taken the Jack Creek Trail because we didn't see them. We didn't see anyone else but chipmunks and ruffed grouse, which I consider a stellar day hiking.

According to the WTA website, we walked 11.5 miles round trip to the lake and back, with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet up to 4,800 feet. It probably snowed at the lake that evening after we hiked, and by late November (Skadi, snow goddess willing) all the trails up Icicle Creek Canyon will be snow-covered.

Larix lyallii (Alpine Larch) on the left.
After Hike Eats
By the time we got back to Leavenworth, wet and a bit tired, we didn't feel like making dinner. So we went to a most unlikely but actually quite excellent place in town: The Wok About Grill, which is definitely a contrast to the bratwurst and brews beerhall tents set up around town right now.  

With a huge "salad" bar of fresh veggies, meats, tofu, noodles, and sauces to choose from, you select items in a bowl and then hand them to the chefs, who will quickly stir-fry them up into a healthy meal.

So get on out there if you can, soon. The larch needles are ramping up to their annual gold glow, the vine maples are still crimson, and it's the prettiest time of year to be out on the trail IMO.

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
You might be wondering why I'm telling you about this hike at all when I clearly treasure quiet trails. I'm realistic; I know this blog isn't going viral in a big way. So if you've stumbled your way here, I consider you a kindred spirit.

To get to the trailhead, take Icicle Creek Road (Forest Road 76) outside Leavenworth for 16.3 miles (the last 4 miles aren't paved) to Rock Island Campground. Turn left, cross Icicle Creek, and after 0.2 mile turn left onto Forest Road Spur 615 (signed "Jack/Trout Trailhead"). In 0.2 mile bear right to trailhead parking (elev. 2850 ft). You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park there or risk a fine.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Autumn's Glow in the Pacific Northwest

I don't know if it's the recent plethora of gorgeous fall color shots on social media, but we seem to be having an extraordinary year for fall color here in the Pacific Northwest. 

While in the lowlands there are brilliant gold bigleaf maple and various ornamental Japanese maples, the real stars are the native vine maples, huckleberry shrubs, mountain ash, and golden larches at higher elevations in the mountains. And they've been putting on a great show.

The last two weekends I've hiked at elevations between about 3,800 feet and 5,600 feet around Snoqualmie Pass southeast of Seattle and been treated to some spectacular displays. It has been ahhhhsome. 

Vine maple (Acer circinatum)
October is my favorite month, in large part because of the festive feeling of so much color, as if the trees and shrubs were dressing up for a party. Let it glow!

I've not done much post-processing to amp up the colors, which is the game these days. But really, you just have to be out there yourself.

These shots are from a few different hikes recently. Maybe you'll think I'm being sour grapes, but I'm going to leave you to search for hikes on the WTA website for Washington and for Oregon rather than calling them out here. I want you to get out, too, but some hikes are so overused now that I'm going to give it a rest for a bit.

Have you gotten out and seen some awesome fall color too?

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.