Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Little Giant Pass

Little Giant Pass
9 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, river ford necessary
Access: Bumpy gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Buried deep within the Washington State's North Cascades, Little Giant Pass is a spectacular spot even in a range known for its spectacle. Glaciated giants rise nearby: Clark Mountain, Buck Mountain, and Glacier Peak add drama with their icy crowns, but the serene, grassy valley of the meandering Napeequa River below makes this spot truly magical. Known as the Shangri-La of the Cascades, this hidden valley indeed looks like a mountain paradise and makes Little Giant Pass one of the state's most worthwhile and underappreciated hiking destinations. Reaching Little Giant Pass can be a challenge though: the Chiwawa River Road is long and rough, fording the Chiwawa River itself can be cold and dangerous at high flow, and 4000 feet of elevation gain to reach the pass is no joke. You should make it out here- but be prepared to work for the views. This hike is best suited for late summer and early fall when the ford over the Chiwawa River can be done safely.

I hiked Little Giant Pass on a September day with a borderline weather forecast that called for rain on the west slopes of the Cascades. I figured that Little Giant Pass might have nicer weather as it lies on the east slope of the range and drove out on US Highway 2 from the Puget Sound area across Stevens Pass to Coles Corner. At Coles Corner, I made a 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, which was a small pull-off on the left side of the road 18 miles down the Chiwawa River Road.

From the trailhead, the trail dropped immediately to the banks of the Chiwawa River. Here, it was necessary to ford the Chiwawa River, which in September was cold and knee-deep. This is the most significant obstacle on the hike: when snowmelt is heavy early in the summer, the water level may be high and fording the river may be difficult, dangerous, or impossible. Late summer and fall are most likely to provide safer river fording conditions. It is your responsibility to assess the conditions of this river ford and ensure that you can cross safely.

Fording the Chiwawa River at the trailhead
After crossing the Chiwawa River, the first half mile of trail was a very gentle ascent as I crossed the floor of the Chiwawa River valley. The Chiwawa River marked the boundary of Glacier Peak Wilderness, one of the most expansive wild regions in Washington State that encompasses the North Cascades between US Highway 2 and Washington Highway 20.

Soon the trail arrived at the foot of the mountain. From here, the trail embarked on a very steep ascent with constant switchbacks through the forest. In the next mile, the trail climbed 1200 feet before rounding a small saddle and leveling off at the 1.5 mile mark of the hike.

The following 2/3 mile respite was the only break in the otherwise relentless ascent; the trail contoured the mountainside through the forest with minimal ascent for a stretch, then made a steep, 200-foot descent down to Little Giant Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail resumed a steep ascent. Soon, the trail exited the forest into brushy slopes that provided the first views of the hike to the forested ridges across the Chiwawa River Valley.

First views emerging from the forest
After another brief stretch in the forest, the trail emerged onto a large rocky outcrop and began to ascend aggressively along its stone spine. The ascent then returned to a sparser forest until the trail finally broke out into the open for good after just over a mile and 1600 feet of ascent from the creek crossing. This stretch of trail was brutally steep and partially helps explain why the hike's incredible rewards hasn't attracted more hikers.

As I emerged into an open alpine bowl, the North Cascades high country exploded in fall colors around me. Huckleberry bushes had turned bright red and were heavy with ripe, sweet berries. The rocky ramparts of Little Giant Pass rose above.

Fall colors approaching Little Giant Pass
The last mile of the hike was extremely scenic: the long, strenuous ascent finally paid off. There was still 800 feet of elevation gain left, but as the trail made one long switchback on this final stretch of uphill, there were open and beautiful views of the North Cascades. Views across the Chiwawa River valley were excellent: fresh snow coated the summits of Ice Box, Chilly, and Fifth of July Mountains. Carne Mountain, home of an excellent fall hike for seeing alpine larches, was directly across the valley.

Icebox Peak and Carne Mountain across the Chiwawa River Valley
As I turned around the last switchback of the ascent, the surrounding subalpine scenery was spectacular: craggy peaks lined the ridge to the south and the high country around Little Giant Pass was all open meadows full of fall color.

Views to the south on the approach to Little Giant Pass
Soon the trail arrived at Little Giant Pass, a high saddle between the Chiwawa and Napeequa River valleys. The best views were not from the trail at the pass but rather along the social paths that ran to the north and south from the pass. From either of these paths, views opened up to the Napeequa Valley below and to the west. The meandering river flowed through meadows at the bottom of the valley; glacier-capped Mount Clark rose across the valley and the Dakobed Range defined the head of the valley. Clouds partially obscured Glacier Peak, which peeked out from behind the Dakobed Range. This was an extraordinarily beautiful scene; the Napeequa Valley lived up to its reputation of being the Shangri-La of the Cascades.

Napeequa Valley below Little Giant Valley
The sharp spires and pyramids of Clark Mountain were a highlight of this view: this beautiful glacier-capped peak is deep within the North Cascades and thus is rarely spotted from day hikes. Little Giant Pass and nearby Carne Mountain are some of the few day hikes that allow for close up viewing of the peak. A heavily crevassed glacier covered its upper slopes: Clark Mountain marks the southern end of the most heavily glaciated portion of the Dakobed Range, one of the icier parts of the Cascades: the Dakobed Range ends at Glacier Peak, which Native peoples of the Northwest know as Dakobed.

Clark Mountain
The Napeequa River's meadow-lined valley is a rarity in the Cascades, where most river valleys are instead heavily forested. The river meanders through the valley, passing groves of trees that are starting to settle the meadows and oxbow ponds left from the river's historic path. The Little Giant Trail continued from Little Giant Pass and descended into this valley, but I would have to settle with viewing this placid valley from above today.

Napeequa River
A stony mountain spine ran south from Clark Mountain on the other side of the Napeequa River Valley, one of many parallel ridges bounding streams and rivers that fed the Wenatchee River.

Views across the Napeequa River watershed
To the northeast, Mount Maude and Seven Fingered Jack- two 9000-foot giants, among the highest non-volcanic peaks in the state- were visible, dusted with fresh snow. Buck Mountain, another prominent peak above the Chiwawa River drainage, was visible to the north.

Seven Fingered Jack and Mount Maude
Buck Mountain
I had these extraordinary views to myself: although I passed a handful of other people on the trail, I was alone at the pass with the grand peaks of the North Cascades and Napeequa Valley. When fording conditions are safe on the Chiwawa River and if you're up for the strenuous ascent necessary to reach Little Giant Pass, I recommend this hike highly for hikers looking to escape the crowds and appreciate these striking views.

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