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Hiking in the North Cascades

November 25, 2016 GMT

Now is the perfect time to pour over guidebooks and hiking articles to plan next year’s summer and fall outings. I suggest you look to the north. There is nothing like the feeling you get when standing on a ridge in the North Cascades with a vast sea of mountains reaching as far as the eye can see in every direction. The Heather-Maple Pass Loop with many changing faces throughout the seasons features ridge lines blanketed in wildflowers in summer, lakes ringed with golden larches in fall, and before the highway closes for the season, a dramatic place to experience early winter’s snows. It will indeed makes you gulp and give you goose bumps where you never had them before. It is simply unbelievable and difficult to find words to describe the incredible mountain view.

Heather-Maple Pass Loop

To fully experience the magic of the North Cascades, one should spend several days. We spent two nights at Klipchuck Campground in an old growth forest at the foot of the Cascades. There are several other campgrounds along Highway 20. In mid September the fall colors were beginning to make a colorful splash on the landscape. From the campground we drove into the Cascades. The towering peaks defying gravity, piercing the blue. This is a popular hike and for good reason. It was a busy trailhead even during the week.

We chose to do the loop clockwise which is contrary to the guidebook suggestions. The other way is a more gradual climb but a longer up. We chose the steeper, get the climb out of the way more quickly version of the hike. The trail switch-backs up a spine of a ridge between two glacially carved valleys. Eventually you will catch views of peaks rising above you and open areas along the ridge where you look down on a pristine Rainy Lake way below on the left and Lake Ann on the right. The trees thin out and become smaller and finally you break out onto the open. The alpine larches were beginning to change into their fall golden. You criss-cross an open hillside, with scattered sub-alpine firs, larches and mountain hemlocks. You come over a rise and stand triumphantly on Maple Pass at 6,650-foot elevation. If you enjoy vistas of alpine meadows, jagged peaks as far as you can see, and mountain lakes, you will enjoy this hike. The trail to this point is steep in places. The only clouds we saw that day were contrails streaking across the wild blue yonder. We met a young man along the trail and he exclaimed: “Wow! We don’t have this back in Ohio.” The wow factor of this hike is off the scale even if you are not from Ohio.

From Maple Pass you drop down and then up a little to Heather Pass. As the name implies, heather filled meadows abound. We stopped at the perfect overlook to gaze about in wonder and have lunch with a view. The trail drops more gradually past scenic Lake Ann and then down into the forest again. The name Maple Pass is a mystery to us, because there are no maples at any point along the trail and certainly none at the pass. We never found out about the name, but it is without question one of the premier day hikes in all the Northwest. It is a 7.2 miles loop with a 2000 foot elevation gain.

To get there: The Rainy Pass trailhead on the South side of Highway 20, is 36 miles from Winthrop. There is parking for 40 cars. A Northwest Forest Service Pass is required.

The Blue Lake Trail

The next day before heading home we did another hike which ranks high on the list of great short hikes in the Northwest: the Blue Lake Trail. It is 2.5 miles one way to one of the prettiest lakes you will ever see. At 6,254 feet, Blue Lake sits quietly a little over two trail miles from Highway 20. This hike features towering granite peaks, alpine forests, meadows brimming with wildflowers and a beautiful mountain lake. This short hike is a classic and should be on your hiking to do list. If you are driving over Highway 20 and don’t have all day, stop for this mountain gem.

As you walk, you will marvel at the Early Winters spires with their massive granite peaks. This is a popular rock climbing location that is part of the nearby Liberty Bell group. If you see any climbers they are most likely heading that direction.

From the meadow you pass over a small creek and step back into the forest. The rest of the hike passes fairly quickly as you skirt the Liberty Mountain Group. For the last half mile or so you may find keeping your eyes on the trail difficult to do as they are drawn to the sweeping views of Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain on the northwestern side of Highway 20. When you hear a gentle trickling sound, you’ll know you are close. This noise is coming from the outflow stream from Blue Lake. After you have soaked up the incredible mountain scenery, return the way you came.

To get there: From the east, drive 31.3 miles from Winthrop on Highway 20 and find the trailhead on the left a little under a mile past the Washington Pass Overlook.

If you enjoy hiking in rugged mountain country, you owe it to yourself to plan a trip into the North Cascades. The Heather-Maple Pass loop and the Blue Lake Trail are great introductions to some of the most magnificent scenery in the universe.

Happy North Cascades trails!