Monday, November 7, 2022

Fall Colors Along the North Cascades Highway

Image of Maple Pass, North Cascades
Lake Ann from below Maple Pass,
North Cascades.
Each year many people enjoy driving the North Cascades Scenic Highway in late fall to view the beautiful colors. This drive is beautiful any time of year but fall offers something a little more special.

The pinnacle of the fall colors may arguably be in the region of Rainy and Washington Pass in early October.  Here the larches turn golden and the berry plants at their feet a beautiful crimson red.  It's a sight to behold and one that keeps tourists coming back for more year after year.

For motorists out for a Sunday drive, the Washington Pass Overlook cannot be missed.  Just a short walk from the parking lot is the jaw-dropping, in your face view of Liberty Bell and its vertical north face with groves of golden larches just below its base.  If you are lucky, you can catch this monolith with a dusting of snow up top!

Silver Star Mountain and Kangaroo Ridge can also be viewed to the east, as well as Highway 20 steeply descending a swith-back below Early Winters Spires on its way down to the Methow Valley.

Image of Blue Lake and Liberty Bell
Blue Lake below Liberty Bell and 
Early Winters Spires.
For those willing to stretch their legs a bit, there are several hikes in the area that offer great rewards!  The easiest of which is Blue Lake near Washington Pass, with views of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires towering above the lake and colorful larches.  Don't be intimidated by the climbers hauling ropes and technical gear up the trail!  This is also the approach route for climbers wishing to tackle the various routes up these peaks.  But at a well-signed junction they take a hard left and begin their earnest climb to the base of these peaks, leaving you alone with your thoughts the rest of the way to the lake.  Don't forget to check out the tarn above!

More popular are trails west of Blue Lake at Washington Pass, as witnessed by the number of cars parked along the side of the road, sometimes for a mile or more on weekends.  These trails are right across from each other - Maple Pass to the south and Cutthroat Pass to the north along the PCT.

Maple Pass is by far the most popular of the two, though both are beautiful and offer incredible rewards.  It's a 6.5-mile loop trip with 1,800' elevation gain.  Or you can do a one-way in and out hike if you choose.  The culmination is the view in the first image above, as well as views deep into the North Cascades to the south.  One can also take a side trip to Wing Lake below Black Peak at a junction a saddle before the final climb to the pass.  Wing Lake is the only area that camping is legal - no camping at Maple Pass.

Image of Cutthroat Pass in Fall
Fall larches below Cutthroat Pass, with
Cutthroat Peak in the distance.
To the north is the final leg of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for thru-hikers, starting from the Mexico border and hoping to finish before the snows start.  If you encounter grizzly looking backpackers, say hi - they might have many stories to share!

This trail climbs ever so gently to the open slopes of Cutthroat Pass - 10 miles, 1,960' elevation gain.  The views begin ~ 2 miles before the pass and may slow your pace substantially!  Gold and red dominate the landscape in season.  Camp sites are located above the pass, both north and south (they are dry - bring water).  The views are fantastic, especially of Silver Star Mountain and Kangaroo Ridge.  For even better views, walk an additional mile to Granite Pass with stunning views of Tower Mountain and Golden Horn, and yes, more larches!

If it can be arranged with two vehicles, one can make this a one-way trip by descending to the east down to Cutthroat Lake and eventually the trailhead at Cutthroat Creek - 10.5 miles.

Further west is the trailhead for Easy Pass which, though beautiful, is not that easy - gaining 2,800' in just 3.5 miles (7 miles round trip). But the views are spectacular at the narrow larch-covered saddle.  For better views, wander the meadows above the ridge and views out to Mount Logan in the heart of the North Cascades.

Image of Silver Star Mountain at Sunset
Sunset on Silver Star Mountain from Cutthroat Pass.
For other options a short distance away, consider checking out Twisp Pass and Stiletto Vista.  This requires driving down to the town of Twisp and turning onto the Twisp River Road and following it to the end.  The hike to the pass is 9
miles round trip, 2,400' elevation gain.  But you will want to continue on to Stilleto Vista a short distance above for the views down to Bridge Creek and across to Logan and Goode.  Larches abound and you can visit the former lookout site.

Nearby, approached by the same road is Copper Pass.  This is another fantastic larch destination in the fall but must be earned.  The trail gains 3,100' in just 5 miles.

Image of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires
Early light on Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires from
the Washington Pass Overlook.
For other ideas, consider driving up the Chewuch River Road out of Winthrop for many more hikes into larch country.  Don't miss checking out the Thirtymile Fire Memorial!

To view these images and many more of the North Cascades, please feel free to visit my North Cascades Gallery.

As always, thanks for looking and I hope to see you on the trail!