Despite having lived in Washington State and loved the outdoors my entire life, this summer marked my first time ever visiting the North Cascades region. With my trips to Diablo Lake and Maple Pass I was sufficiently hooked, but there is so much more to see.
Take, for example, the larch tree. Before this year I had never even heard of them, until a friend gushed to me that she was anxiously awaiting their brief period of fall color and was hoping that the weather would hold up for her to see them before the highway became too snow-covered and closed for the winter. She explained to me that larches are a special kind of conifer that drops their needles for the winter, but that they turn a stunning bright gold before they do. I’d never noticed them before, for a few good reasons: Most of our larches only grow above 5,900 feet and for most of the year they blend in with the pines; their period of color is quite short – lasting for only a few weeks with a short peak and a rapid dropping of needles; and these colorful weeks coincide with the first of the mountain snows, making for trickier travel. For these reasons, every year thousands of people pile into their cars and hike up into the subalpine zone, hoping to see sweeping views of yellow forests nestled into the rugged mountains. The annual “Larch March” as its called.
Now, I’m not one for hiking in crowds. I prefer my outdoors experience to include a few wild animals rather than cars full of wild children. But the North Cascades Wilderness is big enough to share, and as I learned, worth the trip regardless. So when my larch loving friend offered to get a few girls together for a weekend of camping and hiking I jumped on board without a second thought.
This weekend marked another first for me – camping in winter weather. I was a little apprehensive as the date approached – the weather forecasts in such a remote area are a little tricky for me to read, especially since we were going to be covering big changes in elevation, but it was looking more and more like we might see a dusting of snow. Being moms, all of us, of course we over-packed and would have been prepared to spend a week or more in the mountains if it came down to it! I have to say, I enjoy the solidarity of camping with fellow worriers! We did, of course see some snow – quite a lot of it in fact – and the temps never exceeded 35°F during our entire trip. But what I gained from this was confidence – I now know how my gear will hold up. I learned that I’m more comfortable hiking in base layers and a rain shell, but that I will absolutely want that down jacket for sitting by the fire. Two sleeping pads is not an indulgence, but a necessity when the ground is frozen. A thermos of warm weak decaf tea worked way better for staying hydrated because my icy water made me cold and it was hard to warm up again. Camping in inclement weather feels much less daunting now than it did before, and because of that I know I’ll seek out more opportunities to get outside in the “off-season”.
Our trip itself was fantastic. Everything I wanted it to be, and more. We started out Saturday morning with a plan to cram as much beauty into our short time frame as we possible could. First stop – Cutthroat Pass.
Our long drive into the mountains was met by unrelenting, pouring, drenching rain. I shuffled items in my backpack during the ride – camera and snacks went into plastic baggies. I was feeling grateful that I thought to bring extra dry clothes to sleep in. Suddenly, we rounded the last corner before our turnout and found ourselves in a flurry of fat wet snowflakes! We arrived at the trail head at 3:00 pm sharp (perfect timing for this beating the crowds) and looked around, amazed at the world quickly turning white before our eyes. Giddy with the unexpected winter wonderland all around us, we started up the path with smiles on our faces. This had been a very busy trail during the morning, but now all of the other hikers were heading down, many of whom had been unprepared for the change in weather and were glad to get back to their warm cars. After the first mile we found ourselves completely alone on the trail, enjoying creeks and waterfalls running through the deepening snow and misty glimpses of mountain slopes through the storm. After a few hours we were stomping through about 6 inches of fresh powder when one girl stopped and yelled, “a LARCH! Our first one”! There it was – its amber branches bowing under the weight of the snow; icicles dripping from the tips. We climbed higher and saw more and more until we were walking through a strange forest of simultaneous autumn and winter. Our more experienced leader lamented that the storm was dampening their beauty – this spot on a clear day with no snow would be awe-inducing with views for miles. But I quite liked the ambience of being socked-in in such a beautiful spot. We stopped for hot cocoa near a back-packing site, admiring the huge bonfire the campers had constructed and took in the odd glow of sunset through the misty clouds. Marmots whistled bedtime songs which echoed across the pass.
Dark crept into the forest and we started back down. It took us about 3 hours to hike out; our head lamps casting eerie shadows through the snowy woods. Back in the car, we drove off in search of a campsite and were lucky enough to take the last one at Lone Fir, just down the road. Also lucky was the location of this particular campground – just enough in a rain shadow that while the surrounding areas saw more snow, we stayed relatively dry, with just a light dusting off and on overnight. We piled wood on our fire and tucked into chili and cornbread, exalting the beauty of the mountains and the crisp, fresh air. If I could sleep out under the stars every weekend of the year I would.
We woke in the morning to a less than pleasant surprise – a few snacks stored in the car had been eaten, and we found droppings on the dash. Chipmunks! Those little sneakers, how had they gotten in?! A man from the next campsite came over and said they had gotten into his car too, and several other cars near us. He suspected they climbed in though the air vents and that they were running quite the crime ring around here. Lesson learned for next time, I suppose. We were so worried about keeping the food in the car because of bears we hadn’t even considered that adorable little chipmunks might pose a threat. We cleaned up as they watched from the trees, squeaking at us, and got ready for another beautiful day of hiking.
Not knowing what to expect in terms of snowfall as we drove back toward the trails, we debated our hiking options. But before we could make a decision, we had to stop and pullover. Washington Pass was lit up with morning sun, shining on the smattering of snow! The weather had cleared up and the views were absolutely incredible. We piled out of the car, open-mouthed with the beauty of it all. We wandered up a rocky gully and found the hiking register for Liberty Bell peak which was stunning, towering over us. I hope that someday I can learn the climbing and mountaineering skills to explore off-the-beaten-path places like that… but as it is I’m still pretty happy to sit at the bottom watching the pikas pop in and out of cracks between boulders and look out at the countless peaks in all different colors.
Finally we decided we had better get to the actual hike, and drove on, settling on Blue Lake. The parking lot was about as full as we expected – spilling out onto the highway. I complain about hiking in crowds like this, but honestly, once we were moving it wasn’t too bad. For the most part we were on our own, and whenever we passed other hikers it always resulted in a pleasant conversation. It’s nice that everyone out in a place like this has the same appreciation for how gorgeous it is. We’re all just sharing the experience together. My favorite part had to be when we were in between two other groups of hikers and a drone flew low over us. All 8 of us raised our hands and flipped it off at the same time! Ahh, these are my people.
But enough about that – it’s impossible to really pay any attention to other people when the views are like they are up at Blue Lake. The snow had melted off of the trees but still coated the ground and the golden foliage against the bright white made for some truly stunning scenes.
We made it to the top quickly and enjoyed some time at the lake, which was the most gorgeous shade of blue-green in the sun. It was a bit crowded, however, so we continued on to a small frozen tarn and stopped on some rocks overhanging a cliff for a lunch break. Not a single other hiker made it this far, so we spent the better part of an hour in solitude, with only the food-stealing gray jays for company. We gazed out at mountainsides covered in deep scarlet patches of berry bushes and others completely barren ochre tinged rock. The talus fields around us were completely covered with white, but the backside of Liberty Bell behind us was dry and we saw caves in the rock where boulders had fallen out. We marveled at how amazing this place looks in its seasonal transition and how beautifully different it must look under dozens of feet of snow, or in the spring when the wildflowers are returning. These mountains are the most gorgeous I have been in yet, and I can’t wait to keep returning to explore them from all different angles.
Areas visited: Cutthroat Pass via the PCT, Lone Fir Campground, Blue Lake.
Species observed: Townsend’s Chipmunk, American Pika, Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, Swainson’s Thrush, Bald Eagle, Common Raven.
If you go: Remember that the North Cascades Wilderness is truly wilderness. Though many of the trails are very popular, they are far from cell-service and civilization. Trails have dangerous spots and weather changes quickly in the mountains. All hikers should be prepared to spend the night if they have to. We saw many people hiking up Blue Lake in sneakers with few layers. On the way back down those same people found themselves sliding down on packed ice on their bottoms, one girl with a bad head injury. Even if you’re not expecting snow you should wear layers and pack traction and poles for steep icy sections.