Monday, October 30, 2017

Iron Bear

Mount Rainier and western larches from Teanaway Ridge
6.5 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required

Iron Bear, in the Teanaway of Washington State's Cascade Range, is an underappreciated hike with beautiful color in both the spring and fall. Each spring, profuse wildflowers fill the slopes of Teanaway Ridge, while fall brings bright yellow color to the western larches dotting the nearby valleys. Views from Iron Bear cover much of the Teanaway, with cameos by Mount Rainier and Mount Stuart, two of the more impressive peaks in Washington State. This is a fairly easily accessible summit, with few challenges on the trail itself, although hikers do share this trail with bikers for much of the year.

I hiked this trail twice within a year, first visting in June for the profuse wildflower display and then in October for the western larches. On my October visit, I hiked with two friends on a warm, sunny fall day. From Seattle, we followed I-90 east across Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum; exiting at Cle Elum, we drove through town on Highway 903 and then continued east on Highway 10 towards Ellensburg after passing an interchange with I-90. At the junction with Highway 970, we stayed to the left to head towards Blewett Pass and Wenatchee. After Highway 970 connected with US 97, we continued north until reaching Forest Service Road 9714, which was not well marked and easy to miss; we turned left onto 9714 and followed the gravel road along Iron Creek. Towards the end, the road crossed over a small creek and became rougher; we parked right before the creek crossing and walked the rest of the way to the trailhead. There was parking right after the creek crossing as well.

The trail dove into the forest, quickly crossing a stream and then heading gradually uphill, cutting through a forest of ponderosa pine and larch; at points, switchbacks helped moderate what was already a fairly gentle ascent.

Iron Bear Trail in spring
During my June visit, the trail was filled with blooming wildflowers: I spotted paintbrush, penstemon, lupine, glacier lilies, columbine, and arrowleaf balsamroot. One oddly shaped flower near the trail had grown a broad, curved stem unlike the stems of the flowers nearby; my friend and I wondered if this was simply a variant of the flower, or some unique genetic mutant.

What is this?
Glacier lilies on Iron Bear in spring
Arrowleaf balsamroot in spring
The trail soon exited the forest onto rocky slopes, where there were partial views of the Iron Creek valley. After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb uphill on the other side of the valley, on the slopes of Teanaway Ridge. At this point, we began to see the many western larches dotting the bottom and sides of the valley, most of which had turned bright golden; a few trees had progressed further, with duller yellow needles.

Western larches fill the valley of Iron Creek 
Although the ascent was continuous, the open views of the trail made the hike seem quite easy. The upper reaches of the Iron Bear Trail featured views out to Tronsen Ridge and passed by trees adorned with fluorescent lichen.

The ascent towards Teanaway Ridge
Fall is perhaps the best season for hiking this trail: this is one of the most easily accessible spots for seeing western larches for hikers from the Puget Sound area. While the alpine version of these deciduous conifers are often more highly prized, the lower elevation western larches are equivalently colorful and often have beautifully symmetric crowns. The low angle sunlight of fall often lends an almost magical glow to these trees.

Golden western larches on Teanaway Ridge
About a mile and a half into the hike, we came to a saddle on Teanaway Ridge where the Iron Bear Trail intersected the Teanaway Ridge Trail. A nice campsite with a fire ring and a log chair was situated in the saddle at the junction. We took the Teanaway Ridge Trail north towards Iron Bear Mountain, which meant taking a sharp right turn to follow the ridge to the north. Iron Bear itself was visible through the pines at the saddle.

Looking towards Iron Bear from Teanaway Ridge
Hiking above the saddle, the trail passed through an open section of ridge with views to both sides. To the east lay Tronsen Ridge and the Iron Creek valley through which we had ascended; to the west were the Bear Creek Valley and the many layers of ridges of the Teanaway. Here, the fall color of the larches were joined by the yellows of deciduous bushes.

Fall colors in the Teanaway
The trail stayed mostly in the open as it ascended Iron Bear, yielding views of a forest of larches on the west side of Teanaway Ridge. Mount Rainier was soon visible to the south; further up in the ascent, we were able to spot the Goat Rocks and the very top of Mount Adams, as well.

Mount Rainier rises above the Teanaway
Trees of the Teanaway
The trail switchbacked up the side of Iron Bear, alternating between forest and open slopes. There was one downed tree along this stretch of trail; otherwise, the path was clear and easy to follow. We saw a decent number of people on the trail, but in general this hike was reasonably quiet considering that the weather was so nice and the larches were at peak color.

At points, the trail was built out of cinder blocks- an odd choice that my friends and I puzzled over. Were the cinder blocks meant to prevent erosion? Perhaps this had something to do with the multi-use nature of the trail? Odder still was a pile of unused cinder blocks off to the side of the trail a short distance before the summit.

After catching our first view of Mount Stuart while hiking through forest, the trail made a final ascent with open views to the east of Tronsen Ridge and out past the wind farms to Kittitas Valley.

Tronsen Ridge
The summit of Iron Bear was slightly off the trail, accessible by an unmarked spur heading off to the left. If the trail begins to descend, you've gone too far. The summit was broad, with a number of outcrops that made for good lunch spots. The views to the west were sweeping: the Teanaway was laid out at our feet, with a few summits of the Stuart Range rising beyond. Larches were interspersed with the pine forests that covered the dry slopes of the Teanaway. Mount Stuart, the second tallest non-volcanic peak in the state, poked out from the gap between Earl and Navaho Peaks, two of the taller mountains of the Teanaway.

Mount Stuart rises above the Teanaway
Mount Rainier rose far to the south, floating above the foggy blue ridges of the Cascades. The Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers formed a great white cloak over the eastern side of the mountain, while Liberty Cap capped the steep sides of the Willis Wall. Inversion fog still filled the valley of the Yakima River. The fire lookout was visible atop Red Top, although the green and gold forested slopes of Red Top begged the question of why that peak was named Red Top.

Mount Rainier and the Teanaway larches
We had the summit to ourselves for the better part of an hour, enjoying the sunshine and the fall colors. Although it was quite windy at the summit, we found a spot where a clump of trees formed a windbreak to sit and gaze out at the Teanaway and Mount Rainier. I was loath to leave, reluctant to yield the glorious views of the high country of the Cascades to the oncoming grip of winter.

Endless layers of ridges

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blue Lake (North Cascades)

Liberty Bell and Early Winter Spires rise aboves the larches at Blue Lake
4.4 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Nestled at the foot of the impressive granite spires near Washington Pass, Blue Lake is a stunning locale for seeing the fall colors of alpine larches in Washington State's North Cascades. As this may be the easiest hike to view alpine larches from a paved road in Washington State, Blue Lake is an understandably popular hike; while many hikers frequent the lake in summer, autumn brings the biggest crowds. Hikers who prefer peace and quiet with their golden conifers and don't mind a longer hike will want to look elsewhere, whether across the road at Cutthroat Pass or off the Harts Pass Road at Grasshopper Pass.

I hiked to Blue Lake with a friend on an overcast October Saturday. Setting out from Seattle, we followed I-5 north to Burlington, then followed Highway 20 east through North Cascades National Park and across Rainy Pass until reaching the Blue Lake Trailhead on the south side of the road, about a mile downhill from Washington Pass. Snow covered the North Cascades, with a fall snowstorm having dumped a few inches across the mountains before the larch needles had finished falling. The trailhead parking lot had filled by the time we arrived in the afternoon, so we parked alongside the road downhill from the lot. Although the crowds here certainly smaller than those I've seen at Rattlesnake Ledge (which has similar length and difficulty), there were far more people on this hike than I've seen in the past on hikes this far out from Seattle.

From the trailhead, the trail headed into the forest, at first paralleling Highway 20 on its way towards Washington Pass, climbing gently. The trail cut a few wide, sweeping switchbacks on the slopes of Liberty Bell Mountain, with each turn so far removed from the last that the switchbacks were essentially imperceptible. Snow covered the trail from the start, so we immediately donned microspikes and Yaktrax. Many hikers had come without traction devices for their shoes and were struggling to make their way uphill and faced an even more slippery time coming down on the well-packed trail.

A little under a mile of hiking, the trail emerged into the open for the first time, delivering the first views of golden larches lining the high slopes of the surrounding peaks.

First view of the larches
In the understory, vine maples and berry bushes provided beautiful constrasting colors with the monochromatic dark green-and-white colors of the forest. In the clearing, Frisco Peak appeared off in the distance: I had a clear view to the high ridge from which the Maple Pass Loop descends.

Frisco Peak
The trail reentered the forest and maintained a steady though still gentle climb through the forest, making another switchback up the slopes of Liberty Bell Mountain before breaking out into a series of small clearings as we saw our first trailside larches. Partial views of snowbound Whistler and Cutthroat Peaks across the valley were stunning as the summits danced with the clouds; the larches provided fiery color to what otherwise resembled a nearly black-and-white landscape. Corteo Peak made some brief cameos, although we never caught a clear view of it or any of the peaks further to the north. The granite teeth of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires rose behind us to the east.

Larches with Whistler and Cutthroat Peaks
After we passed a sign indicating that camping was not allowed within a quarter mile of Blue Lake, we followed the trail along some semi-open north-facing stretches with occasional views to the nearby peaks. Larches were now all around the trail and their falling needles formed a thin film atop the trailside snow. These final stretches of trail appeared particularly slippery to many other hikers, many of whom were having difficulty descending without traction; we observed numerous hikers slip or slide on the packed snow.

Larches along the trail
After crossing the outlet stream, we found ourselves at the shore of Blue Lake. Under overcast skies, the lake did not quite live up to its name, appearing fairly dark with just slight hints of blue; yet this made the landscape beautiful in a different, stark manner. The constrast between the muted colors of the early winter scene and the fiery larches was striking and beautifully incongruous.

Larches at the outlet of Blue Lake
Two paths branched at the lake: one led along the lakeshore, while the other led uphill. The collapsing remnants of an old shelter lay just to the side of the trail at this junction, which was interesting to briefly check out. Afterwards, we made our way to the lakeshore viewpoint, where we found that our late start had helped us avoid the worst of the midday hiking rush; only a few other hikers were there to share the views of the snow-covered cliffs on the far side of the lake and the bright larches on the lake's east shore. While we gazed out, a Steller's Jay flitted around, the iridescent blue of its feathers contrasting sharply with the snow.

Blue Lake
We chose to have lunch a little higher up, hiking along the other trail a short distance to a rock with a view of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires rising over Blue Lake. While the trail continued uphill, likely to even better views of the nearby peaks, we called it quits here due to time constraints and enjoyed the overlap of fall and winter before backtracking to the trailhead for the long drive back to Seattle.

Blue Lake, Liberty Bell, Early Winter Spires
Blue Lake

Monday, October 9, 2017

Carne Mountain

Fortress, Chiwawa, Dumbell, Bonanza, Seven Fingered Jack, and Maude from Carne Mountain
8 miles round trip, 3600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; the most difficult part is driving to the trailhead!
Access: Absolutely terrible dirt road to trailhead, high clearance and 4WD vehicle absolutely required; no recreation fee 

Carne Mountain lies in the Entiat Mountains deep in Washington State's North Cascades, with expansive summit views of many of the highest peaks of the North Cascades. In the autumn, the plentiful larches found on the mountain's upper slopes turn golden, splashing color over the an otherwise austere landscape of craggy peaks. The hike to the summit ascends through forest to a gorgeous basin of larches before a final ascent along a gentle ridge to the mountain's 7100-foot summit. The trail was filled with scenic delights and although packing in substantial elevation gain, it was a straightforward path with no major obstacles. Getting to this hike, however, was quite the challenge, requiring a trip up one of the worst roads I've seen to reach the trailhead.

Let me make a few things clear about the drive to the trailhead. The trailhead is absolutely inaccessible to vehicles without high clearance and 4WD. The last few miles of road past the Little Giant Pass Trailhead to the Phelps Creek Trailhead are absolutely horrendous, with severe rutting, large rocks, massive potholes, and sharp dropoffs. If you try to drive this road in a sedan, there is a 100% probability that you will total your car. This road was by far the worst road that I have ever driven. It's easy to interpret the name of this mountain: Car? Nay.

I hiked up Carne Mountain with a friend on an early October Sunday when clouds and rain socked in the western side of the Cascades but the Entiat Mountains, in the rainshadow of the Cascades, were basking in sunlight. From Seattle, I followed Highway 522 to Monroe and then took US 2 east from Monroe across Stevens Pass to Coles Corner, where I made the left turn towards Lake Wenatchee State Park onto Highway 207. I followed Highway 207 for a few miles until crossing a bridge over the Wenatchee River; immediately afterwards, I took a right onto the Chiwawa Loop Road, following it until I came to the Chiwawa River Road. Turning left onto the Chiwawa River Road, I followed this road north into the Chiwawa River Valley. The initial section of the road was paved and made for easy driving, but after 10 miles or so the pavement ended and the road transitioned to a decent dirt road with some potholes and washboarding. The road became progressively worse as it approached the Little Giant Trailhead and finally devolved into car-eating potholes near the Alpine Meadows campground. At the road junction near Trinity, I took the right fork for the Phelps Creek Trailhead; this final stretch of road was the worst, with all sorts of car-wrecking obstacles that made me glad to be in a high-clearance vehicle. Trailhead parking was surprisingly full for a fairly remote location, although the 30 or so cars spotted here on a nice autumn day surely would have paled in comparison to the hundreds of cars at more popular larch-peeping spots like Maple Pass and Blue Lake.

From the trailhead, I followed the Phelps Creek Trail north, quickly crossing a small stream and passing through a clearing with views of snow-covered ridges across the Chiwawa River Valley. A tenth of a mile into the hike, the Carne Mountain Trail split off from the Phelps Creek Trail; I followed the narrower Carne Mountain Trail to the right, heading up the slopes of the namesake mountain. The trail wasted no time in making a steady, fairly steep switchback ascent, making its way methodically up Carne's slopes. After about two and a half miles of uphill through the forest, the trail emerged onto open slopes ablaze with reds and yellows of fall foliage.

Fall colors on the trail 
Gradual ascent with occasional switchbacks up this slope opened up views to the west of massive Buck Mountain across the valley, which was cloaked in snow from a storm the day before.

First views of Buck Mountain
As we continued ascending along the open slopes of Carne Mountain, we spotted our first larches high up on a knob to the southeast; at the second weekend of October, these larches had already turned bright golden, with just hints of green remaining.

Fall colors on Carne Mountain
As we switchbacked higher up the slope, views to the west opened progressively wider, encompassing more of Chiwawa Ridge; soon we were able to see down to Little Giant Pass and Trinity Peak.

Fall colors
A little over three miles into the hike, the trail delved back into the forest for an extended climb and then emerged into Carne Basin, which was filled with meadows and a small stream. A forest of fully golden larches filled the far end of the basin and snow covered the slopes of Carne Mountain above the basin. The color of larches was beyond stunning; I was impressed by the density of this particular grove of larches. We wandered slowly through the meadow in the basin, eating lunch here before continuing forward into the larches.

Carne Basin
I'll let the photos do the speaking: there are few things that can match the glory of larches at peak autumn color.

Larches in Carne Basin
Glittering larches
The trail wound through the larch forest, soon ascending into the snow. At one point on the trail, snow covered the ground near the trail, the remnants of western anemone seedheads littered the trailside, and golden larches rose above, a conjunction of three seasons in one place.

Trail through the larches
Views improved as the trail climbed, with Fortress and Chiwawa Mountains, two massive peaks guarding the north end of the Chiwawa River valley, appearing to the northwest. A little further uphill, Dumbell and Bonanza Peaks appeared; this is one of the rare spots in the Cascades where Bonanza Peak, the tallest non-volcanic peak in Washington State, was visible from a day hike.

Fortress and Chiwawa rise above a forest of larches
Fortress, Chiwawa, Dumbell, and Bonanza over Carne Basin larches
At the junction with the Old Gib Trail, we took the left fork, climbing on the Rock Creek Trail towards a saddle just south of the Carne Mountain summit. The trail was consistently snow-covered at this point; while it was manageable in the warmer hours during our ascent, this stretch of trail turned quite treacherous during our descent, when I momentarily slipped while going downhill in the packed snow; microspikes might have been helpful.

Trail up Carne Mountain
Both the views and the larches improved as we continued uphill towards the saddle, with the viewshed widening to the south as we climbed higher than a nearby know to the south. A line of snowcapped peaks was visible leading from Buck Mountain towards the low elevation saddle at Buck Creek Pass while the entirety of Chiwawa Ridge was visible leading to the south. Clark Mountain poked its sharp summit over the crest of Chiwawa Ridge. The larches in the basin below were fiery in color.

Larches in Carne Basin
Buck Mountain rises over Carne Basin larches
Clark Mountain and the Carne Basin larches
A few short switchbacks at the end of the ascent along the Rock Creek Trail brought us to the top of the ridge. Views of the Entiat Mountains opened to the east: massive Fifth of July Mountain towered over the almost perfectly glacier-carved valley of Gib Creek. We left the Rock Creek Trail and followed an unmarked spur trail north along the ridge towards the summit of Carne Mountain.

Fifth of July Mountain
The final fifth of a mile to the summit featured more larches and more views. Mount Maude and Seven Fingered Jack appeared for the first time to the north along the crest of the Entiat Mountains; the Stuart Range appeared amongst the clouds to the south. The ridge walk was easy and straightforward and soon placed us at the summit.

Larches along the final ascent up Carne Mountain
The 360-degree panorama from the summit included close-up looks at nine of the state's 100 tallest peaks: Clark, Buck, Glacier, Fortress, Chiwawa, Dumbell, Bonanza, Seven-Fingered Jack, and Maude were all nearby and visible. Larches decorated the upper slopes of the Entiat Mountains to the east, including on the ridges of Fifth of July Mountain across the Gib Creek valley. While the sky was cloudless over Carne, we could see a bank of clouds covering the Suiattle River Valley on the other side of Buck Creek Pass, held back by the giant peaks to the west. Glacier Peak poked its high summit above the clouds. Although we had seen a decent number of hikers on the trail, a late start meant that we had the summit to ourselves for a while.

Seven Fingered Jack, Mount Maude, and Ice Box from Carne Mountain
Chiwawa Valley
Buck Mountain and Glacier Peak
This was an incredibly scenic fall hike. Accessing this trail is quite difficult, but if you have a vehicle that can get you safely to the trailhead and can put up with fields of potholes on the drive, I highly recommended making your way out to the Entiats and hiking up Carne Mountain.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Cutthroat Pass via PCT

Autumn larches near Cutthroat Pass
10 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from Rainy Pass up to Cutthroat Pass in Washington State's North Cascades visits open alpine terrain that is spectacular at any time but particularly so when the alpine larches turn color each fall. Of the three hikes to high passes in the Rainy Pass area- Easy Pass, Maple Pass, and Cutthroat Pass- this hike is the gentlest and delivers the densest collection of larch trees. The pass itself delivers sweeping views of the North Cascades that include many of the highest peaks in Washington State. Once at Cutthroat Pass, there are a number of options for further exploration in the glorious alpine slopes to make a trip up to the pass even more memorable. It's rare to have a trail that is so friendly on both the car and the knees; it's even rarer to find a hike so spectacular that, for the moment, has avoided the overcrowding issues beginning to afflict the Maple Pass Loop on the other side of Highway 20.

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

I hiked this trail on a sunny early October day to see the larches. From Seattle, I took I-5 north to Burlington, then followed Highway 20 east across North Cascades National Park until reaching Rainy Pass, where I made a left turn to park in the Pacific Crest Trail North parking area on the east side of the road. The trailhead parking area had just one true parking spot left when I arrived, though the lot was big enough that there would've been plenty of room for additional parallel parking. This contrasted with an earlier trip to Maple Pass, when the lot was overflowing on a weekday.

From the trailhead, I followed the Pacific Crest Trail north towards Cutthroat Pass. The 2000-foot elevation gain on this hike was spread out well over the course of the 5 miles to the pass, meaning that the trail started with a gentle but steady incline as it began climbing through the forest on the southwest slopes of Cutthroat Peak. The trail generally maintained a comfortable dirt tread with only occasionally rocky spots. Occasional breaks in the trees yielded partial views of Black Peak, the high spire across the valley. A little under a mile into the hike, the trail crossed a small stream that made two pretty, cascading drops just above the crossing point.

Small cascade at a stream crossing along the trail
Continuing onward, the trail came to a slightly open view of Black Peak and other summits lining the Granite Creek valley. After passing this partial clearing, the trail turned to the north, entering into the valley between Cutthroat and Porcupine Peaks.

Black Peak view from early on the trail
After an initial ascent during the first mile from the trailhead and the flat half-mile that followed, I reached the two principal creek crossings of the hike; the second of these crossings spanned Porcupine Creek. Late in the season, both of these crossings were very easy but I can imagine that Porcupine Creek could be a more difficult crossing with high water early in the season.

Autumn color near a stream crossing
After crossing Porcupine Creek, the trail continued ascending through the forest; at 2 miles, it made a short switchback and then began the long, gradual ascent towards Cutthroat Pass along the side of Porcupine Peak. At this point, I reached the snow line: an inch or two of snow had fallen in the high peaks of the North Cascades just a couple of days earlier. As I hiked, chunks of snow and snow that had refrozen into ice pellets sloughed off the branches of nearby trees. The ice pellets were falling to the ground with some force, so I almost regretted not bringing a helmet; in the end, I made it safely through the forest without getting a golf-ball sized ice pellet to the head.

Soon after beginning the ascent, the trail entered the first of a number of clearings. In each of the clearings, fiery reds and yellows of berry bushes and other understory vegetation lit up the slopes of the mountain. Larches in varying stages of color change dotted the upper slopes of Cutthroat Peak across the valley; Cutthroat Pass itself was visible at the head of the valley, coated in snow.

Pacific Crest Trail approaching Cutthroat Pass
Larches line the high slopes of Cutthroat Peak
A little over two miles after crossing Porcupine Creek (about 3.7 miles from the trailhead), the trail entered a larch forest as the base of Cutthroat Pass. The trail made another crossing over Porcupine Creek here, which was fairly meaningless in October as there was no water flowing at the time of my hike. Many of the larches in the valley had not yet reached peak fall color and instead assumed a scale of shades from lime green to bright yellow. The snow from a few days earlier provided an exceptional contrast to both the bright colors of the larches and dark rock of Cutthroat Peak.

Larches of varying shades
The deep crimson of the berry bushes also contributed to the spectacular collection of colors on the hike.

Autumn and winter colors
While this final stretch of trail is likely also the steepest of the hike, the climb from the start of the larch forest up to the pass was still fairly easy, with wide, gently-graded switchbacks guiding hikers up along the PCT to the pass.

As I ascended the switchbacks, views began to widen. Soon, I could see nearby Corteo and Porcupine Peaks rising above the scraggly larches.

Corteo and Porcupine Peaks rise above a forest of autumn larches
Continued ascent brought continuously improving views: before long, Frisco Peak and Dome Peak joined the party, with faraway Dome Peak and nearby Sinister Peak visible through Maple Pass.

Approaching Cutthroat Pass
Dome Peak and the larches
I ran into a group of three PCT thru-hikers just short of the pass; they were just a few days away from finishing the whole trek, with a good weather forecast holding for their journey along one of the most scenic stretches of this trail. I asked them whether they had any favorite spots on the trail and all three answered, unequivocally, that Washington had been the most scenic of the three states. Gazing out at the snow-and-larch-covered slopes near Cutthroat Pass, I agreed that it was difficult to think of a more beautiful landscape.

Fresh snow and autumn larches on the shoulder of Cutthroat Peak
While larches lower on the trail were not at peak color yet, the ones at the pass had more or less all turned golden, displaying the miracle of autumn color of these deciduous conifers.

The larches with Frisco, Dome, and Corteo Peaks
When I arrived at the pass, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I had arrived. While 2000 feet of elevation gain is still 2000 feet of elevation gain, this trail handled it remarkably well, maintaining a gentle grade throughout; this is a 10 mile hike, but it is on the easy side for being a 10 mile hike.

At the pass, views opened up to the south and east. A wide valley was spread out below, with the ridge between Cutthroat and Hinkhouse Peaks defining its perimeter. The high slopes of the valley were lined with golden larches and shallow Cutthroat Lake was visible at the bottom of the valley. Behind Hinkhouse Peak rose the stark ridges of the high peaks surrounding Washington Pass: Silver Star, Kangaroo Ridge, Copper Point, Liberty Bell, Early Winters Spire. To the east, down the valley of Early Winters Creek I spotted the form of the fire lookout atop the double-humped summit of Goat Peak, near Mazama.

View down to Cutthroat Lake from Cutthroat Pass
Silver Star Mountain
From the pass, I followed a social trail up to the top of a small knoll just south of the pass, on the ridge leading towards Cutthroat Peak. Although the elevation gain on the ascent up this hill was minimal- less than a hundred feet- the improvement in views was substantial. Notably, the tops of Black Peak, Goode Mountain, and Mesahchie Peak appeared above the ridges of nearby Corteo and Porcupine Peaks; these are all giants of the North Cascades and among the hundred tallest mountains in Washington State.

Dome Peak, Goode Mountain, and Black Peak from the knoll above Cutthroat Pass
The knoll also provided a good view of Cutthroat Peak and its subsidiary summit, Molar Tooth. Larches at peak color reached high onto the slopes of Molar Tooth and the upper slopes of Cutthroat Peak itself was lined with golden color, too.

Larches on the shoulder of Molar Tooth
As I still had some daylight to spare, I decided to extend my hike from Cutthroat Pass by following the PCT a mile farther north towards Granite Pass. This added two miles round trip to the ten-mile round trip hike to Cutthroat Pass; there was minimal additional elevation gain, as the PCT was mostly flat in that mile. If you have the time to hike this one-mile stretch of the PCT, you should do so: it is surely ranks amongst the more scenic one-mile stretches of the whole 2,650-mile trail. After departing Cutthroat Pass, the trail stayed high, cutting across the slopes of the unnamed peak north of the pass. The trail passed above gorgeous groves of glittering larches and through rouge patches of huckleberry bushes with nonstop views of Cutthroat Peak, Liberty Bell, Kangaroo Ridge, and Silver Star.

Fall colors along the PCT between Cutthroat and Granite Passes
After the trail rounded a south ridge, the sharp pinnacles of the Needles entered the viewshed. The trail traversed precariously beneath rocky cliffs on the ridge, passing through a rare section of this hike that didn't have a smooth trail tread. As I heard rockfall multiple times on this hike, I nervously rushed through this section to avoid being smashed by a boulder.

The larch forests continued on this side of the ridge, filling the upper slopes of the mountain just below the trail and also adorning the high basins on Hinkhouse Peak across the valley. Most of the trees were at or approaching peak color. While I still can't get over the sheer quantity of larches near Harts Pass and on the Grasshopper Pass hike, the larches along the PCT between Cutthroat and Granite Pass were the most that I have seen anywhere else in the state, substantially more than the smattering of larches that I saw along the Maple Pass Trail and at Easy Pass.

Larch forest near Granite Pass
I did not follow the PCT all the way to Granite Pass, instead aiming for the small knob directly south of the pass. The PCT wrapped around the south side of the knob, so once I was directly downhill on the PCT from the saddle just west of the knob, I picked up a social trail and followed it first up to the saddle and then up to the top of the knob. Being atop this knob- and thus being atop the ridge- opened up incredible views to the north. Below me, larches covered the broad saddle of Granite Pass. Above Granite Pass rose the sky-shattering spire of Tower Mountain; behind Tower, I spotted the more muted pinnacle of Golden Horn. Mount Hardy also cut a dramatic profile when viewed from this angle. I easily spotted the path of the PCT, which was hewn onto the mid-slopes of Tower Mountain after it dropped down from Granite Pass. In the far distance, I made out the profiles of some sharp mountains that I believe must have been Colonial Peak and the Pickets.

The Tower and Golden Horn rise above Granite Pass
I always gush with superlatives whenever I return from a larch hike in the North Cascades and this time is no different. I'll probably eventually temper down the grand claims about this hike in later edits, but as you can tell, I found the scenery along this hike to be very moving. This is already a hike with excellent scenery; come on a clear day when the larches are golden and you'll experience something extraordinary.