Friday, September 30, 2016

Maple Pass Loop

High country above Maple Pass
8 miles loop, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The hike to Maple Pass in Washington State's North Cascades is not just a great autumn hike to see larches; it's one of the best and most easily accessible stretches of alpine country in the Pacific Northwest. While plenty of other trails access the high alpine, few do so with relatively little effort from a trailhead accessible by a paved mountain highway. On any clear day, the panorama of the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse and of the Washington Pass peaks make the trip up to Maple Pass easily worthwhile; but on autumn days, it is almost a crime not to hike the loop to see the brilliant reds of berry bushes in the subalpine meadows and the golden hues of that odd deciduous conifer, the alpine larch.

Looking for more larch hikes? Consider Easy PassLake Ingallsthe Enchantments, or Grasshopper Pass.

I picked a sunny day for this hike, leaving Seattle somewhat late in the morning and arriving at the trailhead a little after noon; I followed Highway 20 east from Burlington all the way until I reached the Rainy Pass Picnic Area, where I turned right and parked in the picnic area. Although I came on a weekday, the lot was approaching full when I arrived.

After signing in at the register, I hit the trail, taking the loop counterclockwise by first following the trail towards Lake Ann rather than the paved trail towards Rainy Lake and Maple Pass. The first mile of the hike was a steady climb up switchbacks through the forest. At about three-quarters of a mile in, the trail broke out into its first clearing, providing good views of Whistler Mountain along an avalanche slope lit bright red by fall foliage.

Whistler Mountain from the first clearing on the hike
At a little over a mile from the trailhead, I came to the junction where the trail for Lake Ann split from the trail continuing towards Heather and Maple Passes. I took the left fork towards Lake Ann, which followed the flat bottom of a valley about a half mile to Lake Ann, which lay at the head of a cirque. The lake was framed by two rocky peaks; the peak to the right displayed a huge slope of red bushes while the rockier peak to the left was dotted with golden larches. The high, rocky alpine world of Maple Pass lay at the saddle between the two high points visible from the lake.

Sunlight on the larches at Lake Ann
Lake Ann
After enjoying the views of the lake, I backtracked to the earlier trail junction. The right fork, which headed towards Heather Pass, began to climb steadily. At first the trail stayed largely in the forest and had a pleasant dirt tread, but part of the way through the ascent the trail broke out onto a rockier talus slope, which meant views but a less smooth trail. Lake Ann came into view a few hundred feet below the trail.

A continued steady climb brought me to Heather Pass at about 2.5 miles. A trail branched off to the right, leading to the pass itself; you won't miss much if you skip seeing the actual pass as the views accessible there can be seen from the trail itself just a little farther up. I did take a short detour to Heather Pass and caught my first glimpse of the great pyramid of Black Peak; I also had one of my first up-close encounters with the autumn larches on this hike.

Heather Pass
Beyond Heather Pass, the trail continued to climb via switchbacks, with ever-widening views across the valley of Granite Creek towards Porcupine Peak, Golden Horn, and Mount Hardy. After a period of ascent, the trail began to cut south along the mountainside from Heather Pass towards Maple Pass. This high mountain balcony was situated directly above Lake Ann, providing stunning views of the lake and its island and the many peaks of the Washington Pass area.

Lake Ann beneath Whistler Mountain and the Washington Pass peaks
The trail made a switchback through a beautifully lit larch grove and then finally came to Maple Pass itself. The pass was indicated by a large sign marking the boundary of North Cascades National Park.

Maple Pass
The next mile of hiking was one of the most superb stretches of trail in the state. The trail followed the high alpine ridgeline through the broad pass, with stunning views to both sides. Golden larches were a constant companion on the east side of the pass.

Cutthroat, Whistler, Silver Star, Liberty Bell, Early Winter Spires from Maple Pass
The view to the west and south was equally impressive. The glacier-capped peaks for which the North Cascades is perhaps best known rose in the distance. These were the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse: the mountains that spanned one of the most renowned alpine traverses in the Northwest. Glacier Peak formed the south anchor of the snowy peaks that I could see from Maple Pass; it was also the only volcano visible along the hike. Dome Peak, LeConte Mountain, and Spider Mountain formed the northern part of the glaciated skyline.

Glacier Peak, Dome Peak, and Ptarmigan Traverse from Maple Pass
Maple Pass is a misnomer. Heather Pass had plenty of heather, but there was not a single maple in sight when I was at Maple Pass. Instead, the most common type of tree here was the alpine larch. Larches are an oxymoron: they're deciduous conifers; in other words, evergreens that aren't always green. Although larches are conifers, their needles turn from green to gold each fall and they shed their needles for the winter.

Maple Pass larches
Past Maple Pass, the trail continued to follow the national park boundary and the high ridge, climbing even more and coming out to even more impressive views. The trail topped out on a ridgeline leading towards Frisco Mountain; when I came to the top of the ridge a new panorama of craggy rock emerged to the south. From this high point, I surveyed my surroundings: the ridgetop offered a nearly 360-degree view. Far to the north, I spotted the immense south wall of Jack Mountain, one of the few non-volcanic summits in Washington State that exceed 9000 feet. Equally impressive were the sharp spires of Golden Horn and Tower Mountain.

High point of the hike
From this high point, the trail began to descend, following the ridgeline separating Rainy Lake from Lake Ann. The trail descended through a high meadow via a set of dramatic switchbacks to come to a larch grove nestled high above a tarn above Rainy Lake.

Switchbacks on Maple Pass descent
Larches and tarn above Rainy Lake
As I descended to the northeast, the sun began to set to the southwest, lighting up the many larches that populated the ridge. The brilliant light of the larches contrasted strongly with the dark rock of Frisco Mountain.

Larches and Frisco Mountain
In the first part of the descent, the trail hugged the southeast side of the ridge, restricting me to views of Frisco Mountain and the upper part of the Rainy Lake basin. As the trail continued to drop, it began to occasionally visit the north side as well, bringing back views of Black Peak and Lake Ann and giving me a closer look at the many larch groves growing on mountain slopes on this side of the valley.

Corteo Peak, Black Peak, and sunlit larches above Lake Ann
Rainy Lake came into view far below on the right side of the trail; I also spotted Rainy Falls plunging hundreds of feet from the basin high above the lake down towards the dark waters of Rainy Lake itself. Early in the season, the falls are more impressive, but by autumn, the waterfall was more of just a trickle.

Rainy Lake
The trail soon began to descend much more aggressively as it reentered the forest, with a steep grade and short switchbacks. Views became increasingly sporadic; I caught a final view of Rainy Lake and of Highway 20 winding towards Washington Pass before the trail became engulfed in the trees.

Highway 20 approaching Washington Pass
About three miles after departing Maple Pass, the trail finally returned to the bottom of the valley, meeting up with the paved trail heading towards Rainy Lake. I turned left onto this trail and followed the flat, paved path back to the trailhead just before sunset. Afterwards, I drove down to Mazama and ate at the excellent Kelly's at Wesola Polana, one of the better (if not the best) dining choices in the Methow Valley.

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