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! 

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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.


Suezy Proctor said...

Absolutely enthralled with this blog post Jill. The photography is amazing. I got excited with you as you and Dave climbed to you destination - oh, and what a sight! WOW! I love the story about the two straight through PCT Hikers...endurance and perseverance for sure!!

Thank you for the magic carpet ride!


jill said...

Suezy! Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate your feedback and glad I could take you along for the ride. I know especially you appreciate the area. xo

martha said...

Mother Nature at her splendid best. Absolutely beautiful

Anonymous said...

Larch are magic, in my childhood the local name was tamrack and it was widely admired by the locals who lived around and in it. So beautiful, great photos as they always are, Mary Lou

Lisa Osse said...

Great post, Jill. Love your pictures. Larch Madness in Junetober. :-)

jill said...

Martha, Mary Lou, and Lisa, thanks for taking the time to comment! ML, I have another friend a bit older who also calls them tamarack. Have heard the term, but I guess I grew up with larch because we were almost literally in the shadow of Larch Mountain.
Lisa, yes, Junetober!

Salish Sea Communications said...

Great pix, nice trek. Yr hiking buddy Dave shares a good story about Wine Spires and the legendary Fred Beckey. Keep climbing.

jill said...

Thanks Mike!

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