Monday, October 3, 2016

Easy Pass

Larches at Easy Pass
7 miles round trip, 2900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

One of the words that make up the name "Easy Pass" is incorrect and it's not "Pass." Easy Pass is a fairly challenging but highly rewarding hike in Washington State's North Cascades that visits a high mountain saddle with views of glaciated peaks, a secluded alpine basin, and a chance to see golden larches in the fall. Although the trail starts in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, it offers access to North Cascades National Park at the pass. Hikers who don't mind tackling a rocky trail with a heavy amount of elevation gain can peer into the remote and unspoiled Fisher Creek Basin, which is ringed by craggy peaks, and Mount Logan, one of the tallest peaks in North Cascades National Park.

Looking for more larch hikes? Consider Lake Ingalls, the Enchantments, Grasshopper Pass, or Maple Pass.

I've hiked this trail twice: on my first visit, low clouds prevented me from appreciating any of the views at the pass but gave me more time to appreciate the many wildflowers from columbine to heather to paintbrush that bloom along the way to Easy Pass in early August. My second visit was on an early October day to see fall colors and perhaps catch the larches at the pass at their peak golden color. Hiking on a day when the forecast called for mostly cloudy skies, I hoped that I wouldn't again get socked in by the clouds once I reached the pass. I accessed this hike from Mazama, which is east of the trailhead on Highway 20; hikers coming from Seattle can reach the trailhead by following I-5 north to Burlington and then taking Highway 20 east from Burlington through North Cascades National Park to the trailhead, which comes after Highway 20 has exited the park proper. There was a small parking lot for about 10 cars; there were plenty of spots left when I arrived early on a Sunday morning. By the time I returned, a few cars were parallel parked on the edge of the lot but it seemed hikers who intended to come here had all found parking; the foot traffic on this trail is much less compared to the nearby Maple Pass Loop.

I set out from the trailhead down a flat path through the forest and quickly reached a well-built log bridge over Granite Creek. Granite Creek is the main drainage for the valley north of Rainy Pass; the bridge across the creek is one of the nicer bridges that I've seen that have a bridge span built out of a single log.

Log bridge over Granite Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail immediately began ascending through a spruce and hemlock forest filled with mossy lichens hanging from trees. The initial ascent was not too steep but the trail picked up the uphill pace through a series of switchbacks after a handful of short boardwalks. The trail was built with a comfortable dirt tread, making the ascent fast and generally pleasant. Easy Pass Creek tumbled downhill to the left of the trail; although the trail never approached the creek closely enough to observe its waters, I was often accompanied by the sounds of cascades on the creek.

When I started paying attention to life at the ground level, I realized that mushrooms were sprouting up all along the trail. While I was unable to identify any, having almost zero knowledge of wild mushrooms, I admired the seemingly diverse set of shapes and colors of the fungi that I spotted.

Mushrooms in the forest
After ascending via some switchbacks, the trail crossed a small stream and then began to flatten out. About a mile and a half from the trailhead, the trail crossed Easy Pass Creek. A number of small logs had been set across the creek at the crossing, which was not very deep or fast but would've been a little bit difficult to rockhop without the logs in place.

The trail tread changed from dirt to rocks after the Easy Pass Creek crossing. In two spots right after the crossing, small streams had repossessed the trail as a streambed. At this point, the vegetation also changed: the forest ended and was replaced with an overgrown meadow. Upon seeing a thick layer of frost coating all the vegetation at this clearing, I realized that it must have been quite cold at upper elevations in the Cascades the previous night.

Morning frost along the trail to Easy Pass
Soon, views opened up ahead of the trail to two rocky peaks, with Easy Pass lying at the saddle in between. Both rocky prominences were a part of Ragged Ridge. Mount Hardy rose across the valley, separated from my position by Highway 20. A few minutes of hiking beyond the creek crossing, the trail emerged onto a talus slope at the base of the southern peak bounding Easy Pass. The sheer walls of Ragged Ridge were extremely impressive, rising almost vertically from the top of the talus slope. During my hike, I witnessed a microwave-sized boulder tumble a thousand feet down this wall; so try not to spend too much time directly beneath the many cliffs on this hike.

At the end of the talus slope, the trail reached the base of a steep slope separating the upper and lower basins of Easy Pass Creek's valley. A sustained uphill climb through a set of switchbacks brought me up to the upper basin. Along the way, the fall colors became increasingly impressive: berry bushes had turned crimson and mountain ash had turned shades of orange and yellow, putting on an impressive display.

Fall colors beneath Ragged Ridge
In August, these same slopes had put on a very different display of color: the verdant summer vegetation was littered with the colors of blooming columbine, fireweed, and other subalpine wildflowers.

Columbine along the trail in August
I soon noticed that the berry bushes had more to offer than just their deep red color: the huckleberries along this trail were ripe! Many of the bushes were loaded with berries. I stopped for a wild berry snack break, a welcome and delicious respite from the climb.

Ripe huckleberries along the trail
Huckleberry bushes filled the upper basin. From this vantage point, I could finally see forward to the pass, which lay at the top of a talus slope at the saddle between the two summits on Ragged Ridge. The bottom of the basin was littered with huge rocks scattered amongst the bushes, a reminder that even these mountains do not last forever. I spotted scurrying and heard the meeps of pikas that lived in the huge talus slopes.

Meadow in the basin before the final ascent to the pass
The trail began to climb in earnest again soon afterwards, embarking on a set of frequent and sharp switchbacks through a hillside entirely full of red berry bushes. As I climbed continuously upward, more and more peaks began to appear to the east. Mount Hardy was joined by Porcupine Peak and the distinct shape of Golden Horn. Golden Horn's equally impressive sibling, Tower Mountain, never appeared during the hike as it is situated directly behind Mount Hardy from the Easy Pass angle.

Golden Horn and Hardy with fall color on the trail
The final ascent to the pass involved very many switchbacks. The trail climbed to the base of the cliffs of Ragged Ridge, then hugged the foot of the cliffs and entered the talus slope just below the pass. The final few switchbacks ascended through loose scree; as the trail was narrow, quite steep, and consisted of loose rocks, this was probably the most difficult portion of the hike.

Switchback on the approach to the pass
Luckily, those switchbacks marked the end of the hike and my arrival at Easy Pass. After finally reaching the heather meadows and the larch grove at the pass, I continued following the trail onward past the North Cascades National Park boundary marker to an incredible ledge overlooking the pristine Fisher Creek Basin. The views were stupendous: Fisher Peak and Mount Arriva towered over the basin and Black Peak rose menacingly further to the south.

Fisher Creek Basin with Fisher Peak and Black Peak rising behind
Although the larches were still green and the views of nearby peaks were covered by clouds in my August visit, I found many blooming wildflowers at the pass at the height of summer. The tiny pink bells of heather covered the pass while patches of western anemone and paintbrush dotted the heather meadows.

Western anemone (pasqueflower) and heather along the trail in August
Looking to the west towards the outlet of Fisher Creek Basin, I saw the massive form of Mount Logan, one of the few peaks in Washington State that breaks 9000 feet. Two glaciers poured down its slopes: this is one of the few trails from which to catch a fairly close-up view of a major peak and glacier in the North Cascades.

Mount Logan
I soaked in the views before heading back to the pass itself to admire the stand of golden larches. The larches coated the pass itself and spread onto the meadow-filled shoulder of Ragged Ridge south of the pass. Whenever the sun came out, it set the larch needles ablaze with color, which was a truly spectacular scene.

To see more of these odd deciduous conifers, I wandered around the larches on a social trail leading southeast from the pass. This path climbed uphill for a bit to even more golden larches and a clearer view of the impressive sharp summit of Mesahchie Peak, the high point of Ragged Ridge, and of Klawatti Peak far away. The large Klawatti Glacier seemed to cling precariously to the mountain wall between the arete of Klawatti Peak and the fin of Austera Peak; it's actually one of the larger glaciers in both Washington State and the contiguous United States.

Mesahchie Peak viewed from above Easy Pass
Klawatti Peak and Austera Peak viewed from above Easy Pass
After sufficiently enjoying the views near the pass, I worked my way back down to the trailhead, stopping often to enjoy the trail's October huckleberry harvest.

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