Monday, June 26, 2017

Twisp Pass

Goode and Frisco Mountains and Dagger Lake viewed from Twisp Pass
9.5 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, due to a rocky trail
Access: Unpaved road to trailhead has small, crossable washout; Northwest Forest Pass required

Twisp Pass is your run-of-the-mill North Cascades mountain pass- which means it's absolutely stunning. This remote pass straddling the Stehekin and Twisp watersheds offers views of the jagged peaks in both areas. The hike to the pass travels through the drier forest characteristic of the eastern slope of the Cascades and across rocky mountain slopes with patches of wildflower-littered meadows. The fact that the Twisp River Valley is a long way from anywhere means that this is a good spot to enjoy the Cascades without the crowds.

I hiked this trail on a clear June Sunday, the hottest day of the year so far. To avoid hiking in the midday heat, I drove out to the Twisp Valley the evening before and started hiking at 6 AM. It's a long drive out to the trailhead from Seattle, nearly a five hour drive regardless whether you take US 2 or Highway 20 to get to the area. I arrived via Highway 20, taking I-5 north to Burlington and then following Highway 20 east across Washington Pass to Twisp; at Twisp, I turned right (west) onto the Twisp River Road and followed it until I reached the Gilbert Trailhead, just a half mile before the end of the road at Road's End Campground. The Twisp River Road is unpaved for the last seven miles and included a spot where a creek was flowing over the road; I drove through it in a Prius so most cars should be able to handle it. The road was otherwise in decent shape besides some washboarding a few potholes.

Two trails leave from the Gilbert Trailhead: the Twisp Pass Trail heads west, while the North Lake Trail instead heads to the northeast; there's no clear marking at the trailhead which trail is which. The correct path to Twisp Pass is to follow the trail that heads to the left from the parking area. The first part of the hike was fairly flat, with minimal elevation gain as the trail traveled westward up the valley a decent way uphill from the Twisp River. The trail was badly overgrown more or less from the start. It was pretty obvious that this part of the Cascades doesn't see many visitors: the trail register indicated that there were few hikers here even on one of the nicest weekends of the year so far, the tiny Roads End campground wasn't even filled on a nice weekend, and the trails themselves are often brushy.

About half a mile from the trailhead, the trail passed just uphill of the Roads End Campground. An unmarked, brushy social trail led from the Twisp Pass Trail down to the campground; while it's theoretically possible to park at the campground and shave a mile round trip off the hike, it's not a great option as there's little additional parking space at the campground and the connector trail itself is difficult to spot at the campground.

Past the campground, the trail began a gradual uphill climb to reach a crossing of the North Fork Twisp River, 2.2 miles from the trailhead. This stretch of trail was often overgrown and mostly stayed in the forest, but at times broke out into small clearings with views of nearby Crescent Mountain, Abernathy Peak, and Hock Mountain. There was a profusion of wildflowers along the trail, most notably lupine, paintbrush, phlox, arnica, and columbine.

Trailside wildflowers
At 2.2 miles, I came to a log bridge crossing over the tumbling North Fork Twisp River. This was an unsigned trail junction: the trail to Twisp Pass crossed the bridge, while the unmarked trail for Copper Pass branched off to the right, staying on the north side of the river.

Log bridge over the North Fork Twisp
After crossing the bridge, the trail began a steady ascent as it wrapped around the eastern slopes of Lincoln Butte. As the trail made its way onto the south slopes of Lincoln Butte, peek-a-boo views of the stony butte itself emerged in clearings profuse with lupine. Starting from this point, the trail tread was fairly rocky for the rest of the hike.

Lupine and paintbrush bloom along the trail, Lincoln Butte rises behind
The trail passed by a large rock on the left of the trail that delivered nice views downvalley to Abernathy Peak and some limited views upvalley towards Hock Mountain. It's okay to miss this as there are better views ahead: the trees gradually thinned out as I followed the trail uphill as it traversed the southern slopes of Lincoln Butte and before long I arrived at a wide open view of the snowy peaks that defined the headwaters of the South Fork Twisp River. The sharp, fin-like form of Hock Mountain stood out amongst the craggy jumbles of rock and snow.

View of the South Fork Twisp River Valley
The wildflower bloom continued unabated here: phlox and penstemon decorated the rocky open slopes along the trail.

A short segment of the trail was blasted into a steep rock face, similar to the Kendall Katwalk along the PCT near Snoqualmie Pass but without the crowds of hikers often found there. Views back downvalley to Abernathy Peak were good here and improved as I hiked higher up.

Blasted trail with a view of Abernathy Peak
Soon afterward, the trail passed through what I considered to be its most spectacular stretch. Wildflowers filled a large, green hillside meadow and snowcapped peaks ringed the other side of the valley.

Trail to Twisp Pass
A little under four miles into the hike, the trail returned to the forest for the final ascent to Twisp Pass. As the trail went deeper into the valley between Lincoln Butte and Twisp Mountain, the views across the Twisp River Valley narrowed; soon only Crescent Mountain and South Creek Butte were visible at the occasional clearings. While glacier lilies had already wilted lower down on the trail, they were still in full bloom here, flaunting their showy yellow petals.

Glacier lilies
About a third of a mile short of the pass, I came to the first patch of snow on the trail. As the trail continued through the forest, it soon became completely snow-covered. At this point in the year, there wasn't yet a clear bootpath leading through the snow- since this trail sees little traffic- but the path towards the pass was not too difficult to discern. However, the snow conditions weren't great- although the snow was solid enough in the morning, I postholed multiple times during my descent midday. The most critical section of the snow-covered trail is catching a switchback at which the trail turns and heads due north for the pass; this section was completely snowcovered and a little nonobvious, so be on the lookout.

The final section of trail was mostly melted out and had turned more or less into a stream for snowmelt coming off of the pass. Meadows carpeted with glacier lilies soon welcomed me to the alpine parklands near the pass. A wooden sign marking the boundary of North Cascades National Park and the Stephen Mather Wilderness welcomed me to the pass. The pass itself was forested, with no real views to the north or west, though Stiletto Peak's sharp form peeked through the trees at points. The trail continued through the snow into the park, dropping towards Dagger Lake, but my destination for the day was the pass.

Although the pass itself was forested, there were a few viewpoints nearby that offered some extraordinary views into North Cascades National Park; it's a shame if anyone comes this far and then misses seeing them. Two social trails break off to the northeast from the pass: the more defined path followed the southern side of the ridge leading towards Lincoln Butte, while the less defined path branched to the left and followed the tree-lined top of the ridge to a small rocky viewpoint at a brief break in the trees. This spot had an incredible view down the Bridge Creek Valley to the icy peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse on the other side of the Stehekin watershed. Spider Mountain, Mount Formidable, and Hurry Up Peak, all peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse and clear on the other side of the national park, were visible as a wall in the distance. To the right of those peaks was the great spire of 9,200-foot Goode Mountain, the tallest peak in North Cascades National Park and one of the tallest nonvolcanic peaks in all the Cascades. Frisco Mountain and Corteo Peak- the summits that define the landscape of the Maple Pass Loop- poked above a nearby forested ridge. Below this wall of peaks, the McAlester Creek Basin nestled the reflective, dark waters of Dagger Lake.

View into North Cascades National Park from Twisp Pass
To the northwest, Stiletto Peak pierced the North Cascades skyline, its tower-like ridges rising so dramatically that I could've mistook the scene for a Bierstadt painting. Some snowy ridges were visible behind the saddle between Stiletto and Lincoln Butte that I think are ridges in the Copper Pass area, which likely forms the backside of the peaks visible from Washington Pass Overlook on Highway 20.

Stiletto Peak from Twisp Pass
I arrived at the pass at 9 in the morning and had the entire area to myself, on a weekend when a friend who hiked at Lake Serene reported hundreds of other hikers. After eating an early lunch, I decided to explore further, this time taking the more established social trail. This path passed through many patches of blooming glacier liles and delivered sweeping views of the peaks ringing the South Fork Twisp valley. After topping out on a small knoll, the path descended through the snow to a small, partially-frozen pond at the base of Lincoln Butte. Crossing a snowbridge over the headwaters of the East Fork McAlester Creek, I lost the trail that continued past the pond to Stiletto Lake; instead, I scrambled up to a nearby outcrop with a 180-degree view of Crescent Mountain, South Creek Butte, Twisp Mountain, and the peaks in the park, where I could see both the unnamed pond and Dagger Lake in the valley below. I spotted the first marmot that I've seen this year munching in a meadow of glacier lilies nearby.

Crescent Mountain and South Creek Butte rise above a pond near Twisp Pass
Budget at least an hour or two to explore the environs near the pass if you come: don't turn around once you've reached the forested saddle with the North Cascades National Park sign. I've read that outcrops south of the pass on Twisp Mountain provide good views as well, but snow conditions south of the pass made travel annoying enough that I stuck with the views from the north side. As the day grew progressively hotter, I decided to return to the trailhead before turning into sun-dried Chuhern. I ran into about twelve to fifteen other hikers coming up the trail on my way down, still a small enough amount for me to declare that this hike is well off the beaten path, by Washington standards. It was 91 degrees by the time I returned to the car at 1:30 PM and it was 101 degrees a little later in the day when I drove through Wenatchee on my way back to Seattle.

A side note: the Gilbert Trailhead is just a few hundred yards away from a few structures that remain in the ghost town of Gilbert. This was once a mining community, though I'm unsure what was mined in the Twisp Valley and the internet has so far been unhelpful (elsewhere, copper and gold mines are quite common in Okanogan County).

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I am thinking of going here as a backpack with my two kids and husband. I know you said two little camp sites are melted out, any chance you could give a few details on what the backpacking sites look like? Thanks