Sunday, May 24, 2020

Cutthroat Lake

Cutthroat Lake
4 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

This is a short hike to a pretty lake in Washington State's North Cascades. In the fall, Cutthroat Lake is a good place to see alpine larches display their golden foliage. This is a decent hike in a beautiful part of the state, but it's not outstanding compared to the quality of scenery on other hikes nearby. I wouldn't make the trip this far out from Seattle for Cutthroat Lake alone, but it's a good hike if you're passing by along Highway 20 or if you want to tack on a hike if you've already come this far out for one of the other short nearby hikes like Blue Lake or Rainy Lake.

I did this hike at the start of a road trip to the Kettle Range and the Selkirks, stopping by Cutthroat Lake as I crossed the North Cascades on Highway 20. From Seattle, I took I-5 north to Arlington, then followed Highway 530 east through Darrington and then north to its junction with Highway 20. I followed Highway 20 east through North Cascades National Park and over Washington Pass, turning off for Cutthroat Lake on the left as Highway 20 descended towards Mazama. I followed the trailhead access road a mile up to its dead end at the Cutthroat Lake Trailhead. A fresh coat of snow had just fallen on the Cascades, making Silver Star look particularly impressive as I drove over Washington Pass.

Silver Star with fresh snow
Leaving from the parking area, the trail crossed Cutthroat Creek on a well-built bridge and then began a brief uphill climb, making one switchback. It then leveled out a bit as it headed up the valley along the north side of the creek, ascending at a steady and gentle grade. A couple of breaks in the forest here provided good views of the surrounding mountains, including Hinkhouse Peak to the left and Cutthroat Peak at the head of the valley. There were no larches along this initial stretch of trail but I could see alpine larches on the higher slopes of the mountains around me.

Larches and fresh snow on Hinkhouse Peak
Cutthroat Peak
As I was doing this hike in late October, I crossed the snow line as I made my way forward and gently uphill on this hike. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, I reached a junction: the main trail continued heading forward towards Cutthroat Pass, a beautiful alpine destination with views of the North Cascades, while the spur trail for Cutthroat Lake broke off to the left. I took the spur for Cutthroat Lake, which quickly dropped down to Cutthroat Creek. A log bridge crossed the creek here but was now coated in snow; I donned my microspikes to cross the bridge and complete the rest of the hike.

Crossing Cutthroat Creek
After crossing Cutthroat Creek, the trail climbed over a small hill and finally entered a forest mixed with alpine larch. The great wall of Cutthroat Peak's north face rose ahead.

Forest approaching Cutthroat Lake
The lake had a marshy margin, so the trail did not approach the lakeshore closely. Nonetheless, the view at the end of the lake was quite peaceful: the golden color of alpine larches dotted the lakeshore and mighty Cutthroat Peak rose above.

Larches on the shore of Cutthroat Lake
I followed a social path heading counterclockwise around the lake and rockhopped across the outlet to reach the west shore. From here, there were nice views of Hinkhouse Peak's rocky pinnacles rising above the lake, cradling a forest of alpine larch in a cirque high on its slopes. A brief flash of sunlight illuminated the peak on this otherwise cloudy day.

Cutthroat Lake
I turned around and returned to the trailhead from here, making my way further down Highway 20 to Omak for the night. Overall, this was a nice and pleasant hike with beautiful mountains and larches, although it's quite similar to other nearby lake hikes (Blue LakeLake Ann, or Rainy Lake) and is a bit farther of a drive from Seattle.

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