Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Gothic Basin

Foggy Lake
9.5 miles round trip, 2900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Gothic Basin is a scenic alpine basin off the Mountain Loop Highway in Washington State's North Cascades. Perhaps when you first look at the stats for this hike, you expect it to be quite manageable: Pacific Northwest hikers, after all, routinely deal with far more daunting elevation gain (even popular Mount Si near Seattle packs in well over 3000 feet of uphill). Don't be fooled. Gothic Basin may be beautiful, but the trail to reach it is notoriously rocky and rough, making this a taxing and strenuous hike. The rewards are the clear waters of Foggy Lake, pleasant waterfalls, wildflowers, and views of the craggy peaks of the Mountain Loop. Is it worth it? Maybe; this hike is still quite popular, so know that you can find equally scenic hikes in the Cascades accessed by less punishing hikes with fewer crowds to boot.

I hiked to Gothic Basin on a sunny August day with two friends. We headed northwest from Seattle to Granite Falls via Everett, then followed the Mountain Loop Highway east about 30 miles past the Verlot Ranger Station to the trailhead at Barlow Pass. There was parking both alongside the road and in a gravel lot to the north of the road at the pass. After putting up a Northwest Forest Pass, we walked briefly east along the road to a gated road on the south side of the Mountain Loop Highway. This road, which was once the main vehicle route to the Monte Cristo Ghost Town, is the first section of the trail to Gothic Basin.

The first mile of the hike was a straightforward walk along the old road to Monte Cristo; this road was once the main access route to Monte Cristo and was open to traffic until 1980. At points, the road was washed out by the ever-changing course of the Sauk River, so the trail was frequently rerouted around those washouts. Partial views of the snowy Monte Cristo massif peaks kept us entertained.

At just under a mile into the hike, we came to the turnoff for Gothic Basin, which took us into the forest on a generally flat single track; at times, the trail approached the South Fork Sauk River with some nice views. About a mile after the turnoff, the trail crossed Weeden Creek and then embarked on the main uphill climb of the hike. The trail climbed steeply here, ascending about 1300 feet in 1.2 miles; while the ascent here was fairly aggressive, it was not yet out of the norm for Pacific Northwest trails, utilizing some short switchbacks as it pushed uphill. The climb finally exited the forest and burst out into the open as it crossed an avalanche gully that in summer is usually a small cascading waterfall; this came 1.2 miles after crossing Weeden Creek and 3 miles from the trailhead.

Avalanche chutes
The trail proceeded to cross a few more avalanche chutes, some of which still had low water flow in August. From here on out, the trail became substantially rougher, becoming rough with roots and rocks and requiring substantial scrambling. The next 1.2 miles of the trail from the avalanche chutes to the entrance of Gothic Basin were exhausting, constantly requiring scrambles over and up extended and uneven rocky terrain. Luckily, increasingly wide views of the upper Sauk River watershed made things better, including views north to the high summit pyramid of Mount Pugh.

Mount Pugh rises over the upper watershed of the Sauk River
After a brutal and demanding stretch of scrambling, the trail finally entered Gothic Basin. There was a brief respite from this draining ascent as the trail entered the rocky meadows of this alpine valley; tarns dotted the basin. Rocky peaks, including the geometric and aestheically pleasing Sheep Gap Mountain, ringed the basin. 

Gothic Basin
A short walk through the basin brought us to Gothic Lake, a shallow and not terribly inviting lake ringed by rocks and grass. The trail skirted the northeast side of the lake and then began to climb up a steep, rocky gully. 

Gothic Lake
Just like the last stretch of trail before the basin, the trail past Gothic Lake was a rocky scramble through rough terrain. The views improved as I ascended here, soon opening up to include Cadet Peak, one of the core peaks of the Monte Cristo Range, a collection of high, glaciated peaks south of the Mountain Loop. After about 250 feet of ascent up the gully, we arrived at gentler rocky slopes that we crossed to reach Foggy Lake, the destination of the hike.

Scrambling up a ravine to Foggy Lake
Foggy Lake is a sparkling blue lake stituated beneath Gothic and Del Campo Peaks. Much more attractive than Gothic Lake below, Foggy Lake's waters reflected the barren, rocky peaks rising above it and were clear enough that we could see the reddish rock underwater near the shoreline. A good number of other groups were gathered here, enjoying the pretty scenery and cool water on a warm summer day.

Del Campo Peak rises above Foggy Lake
The return was as gnarly as the trip in. While Gothic Basin itself- Foggy Lake particularly- was a beautiful destination, I found this to be a hike where the effort may slightly outweigh the reward, especially as the basin itself is quite popular. Although a lovely and enjoyable setting, I do not consider Gothic Basin to be a highlight of the Cascades; perhaps this hike would be best done on weekdays when hikers might get to enjoy this scenic spot with a bit more solitude as a reward for putting up with the rough scramble.

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