WA – North Cascades, Blue Lake and Cutthroat Pass (Sept 2021)

Larch Madness! I’d caught the fever and couldn’t get enough as I continued my search for peak conditions.

My larch march began and ended at Ingalls Pass in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (blog link). In between I spent time along Highway 20 in the North Cascades, with two trips to Maple Pass (blog link) bookending trips to Blue Lake and on the PCT from Rainy Pass to Cutthroat Pass.

Blue Lake

I needed a recovery day so had planned this easier hike. As I was completing preparations for my hike, a large van arrived with a group of at least a dozen teenagers disembarking. Oh no, so much for my peaceful day. I was motivated to stay ahead of them. I decided to explore the junction leading to the Early Winter Spires. The sign at the trailhead indicated this was a climbers route but I figured there would be a reasonably graded hiking trail I could explore while gaining a little elevation. That was not be the case and instead I turned around when the trail became cairn route and rock scramble.

The kids were taking a break at the junction when I returned to the main trail and thus was once again motivated to reach Blue Lake before the masses. I learned later this group was part of a partnership between local schools and the Outward Bound program. I heard several hikers complaining about kids hiking instead of being in school. My thought was how wonderful to expose kids to something besides sports and activities more typically found in PE departments. They were well behaved, respectful and even separated later in the day for individual projects.

I had stopped at Washington Pass earlier in the morning and captured this photo of the other side of Liberty Bell Mountain.

The Tarn Loop Trail offers this view of possibly Cutthroat Peak and/or Whistler Mountain.

I wandered around the far side of the lake for lunch. The kids were gathered on a large rock near the trail junction. This lake offers very little privacy. I wanted to swim so bad. I waited and waited for them to leave but even when they separated for their projects there was just too much exposure. I always think of that saying, “what the eyes can’t unsee.” I wasn’t ready to strip to my underwear in front of these youngsters so instead I watched the fish and the larch reflections.

Rainy Pass to Cutthroat Pass on the PCT

I was reminded that the autumn season is short here in the far north and although it’s still September, days are short. At 9am the shadows were still more prevalent than the sun.

At 11am I was still climbing and in search of sun.

I finally found sun around 11:45am as I neared the pass.

When I reached the top I found distant snowy peaks.

Looking over the pass I was tempted to continue onward to Granite Pass, but since I was already pushing my limits at a 10+ mile day, I knew it was in my best interest to say no. Besides I have bad memories from my PCT attempt at that pass (WA – PCT Section L . . . as in Lame ) so it was definitely better to save it for another year.

In the photo above where the person and horses are standing is a junction. The PCT continues straight where the trail to the right drops to Cutthroat Lake as shown in below photo. You can access the lake from another trailhead off of Highway 20. Unlike the PCT, the Cutthroat Lake trail is bike friendly and I saw several on this day.

This is looking up at Cutthroat Peak. From the Pass you can see a trail used to climb the peak or ridge. If I hadn’t used up my miles, I might have explored the ridge.

This is a view of Cutthroat Peak from my hike to Blue Lake.

On this day I enjoyed the company of a 70+ year old group of guys. One of the guys, about to celebrate his 75th birthday, was in phenomenal condition. I aspire to being more like him now and into the future!

The larch might not have been at peak but I sure enjoyed all the reds.

As I neared the trailhead I ran into some facebook friends I hadn’t met in person. They were headed to Hart’s Pass on the PCT where they found peak larch colors.

PCT grade is perfect for my knee surgery rehab.

When I began this trip it was to escape wildfires and smoke. Back in early August Joan and I had hoped to land at Rainy Pass where she could complete her remaining PCT miles. But these two fires made that impossible and in fact as I drove Highway 20 in September, the Cedar Creek Fire was still smoldering. The Gaia maps now include several layers related to fires and air quality.

I also use the weather layers on Gaia for hike and travel planning. As we rolled from summer into fall, I found myself running from precipitation rather than smoke.

Monument Creek Trail, Pasayten Wilderness

While I was waiting out storms to return to Maple Pass, I found this trail near Mazama and planned to hike to Eureka Creek from the trailhead.

The bridge across Eureka Creek is long gone, making for a treacherous crossing most of the year. As such signage at the trailhead indicated no trail maintenance beyond this creek for over 25 years. I saw a couple heading out with backpacks. I wondered if they found decent options. It’s hunting season so they may have had other plans.

Spokane Gulch Trail, Methow Valley Trails

I met up with this legendary trail angel and first woman to solo hike the PCT, Carolyn aka Ravensong (Link to article in The Trek).

This is looking down at the community of Mazama and shows just how close the Cedar Creek Fire came to wiping out the town.

Susie Stephens Trail, Methow Valley Trails

I spent time wandering trails in the communities of Winthrop and Twisp. On this day I was waiting out the storms AGAIN.

This storm dropped a little snow which added to my Larch Madness!

ADVENTURE DATE(S): September 23-28, 2021

RESOURCES:

LINKS:

WA – PCT Section K . . . as in Killer Klimbs

Dates Hiked:  August 13-18, 2016
Direction: Southbound
Section K: Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass
-Miles: 127
-Elevation: Gain 31,013′ (254 feet/mile), Loss 31,815′ (269 feet/mile)

This section is said to have more elevation gain per mile than any other on the PCT. As one who struggles on climbs, why would I subject myself to such misery? Why the views of course! Anyone who reads this blog knows I LOVE killer landscapes. 

When I’m hiking south on the PCT (aka SOBO, southbound) it always takes me a bit to get oriented as most PCT resources are written for hiking north (aka NOBO, northbound).  Reverse arithmetic, reverse maps, reverse descriptions . . .

While working my way upwards toward views, I was happy to enjoy the wildflowers. 

Bridges were a theme in this section, some showing their age a bit more than others. Hiker gymnastics required!

In many cases the log bridges were in better shape than the more formal structures.

Other times . . . well you just gotta get your feet wet. 

Best sign? (no I don’t condone trail graffiti but you gotta admit it’s pretty funny) 

Speaking of signs, I’d been looking forward to hiking in the North Cascades National Park, so was excited to spend a few miles on those trails. 

While in the park, camping is by permit in established areas which also include a privy. The toilet signs are cute. But in this case, I think the privy was in need of replacement. I wonder if a bear tried to use it? I also want to know about the tradition of the crescent moon as the window on outhouses?

Stehekin is such a little treasure. Arriving at the road crossing, the North Cascades NP bus whisks you to town after first stopping at the famous bakery. I highly recommend the quiche. The general store provided a nice variety, including cold beer. The restaurant had homemade ice cream and yummy meals. There is nearby free camping, plus showers and laundry available, as well as lodging opportunities. Hikers can send packages to the post office or to the Lodge or Ranch if they are staying in those locations. It was hot during our visit, so cooling off in Lake Chelan was another convenient benefit. The ferry or float plane is an option for others to meet you or to escape the trail should the need arise.

One of the other places I’d been excited to experience was Glacier Peak Wilderness. Yippee, I can check that off my list. 

My first view was not of peaks however, it was a glimpse of this black bear.

And then . . . finally what I came to see. 

Experiencing the steep country gave me a who new respect for the North Cascades and for anyone who dares walk these trails under snow-blanketed slopes. 

Now this is my kind of hiking. Ahhhh, the reward of climbing, ridge walking and views. 

I learned quickly, I didn’t like the areas of trail with a lot of berry bush overgrowth as many times the trail had eroded on the downside. I lost concentration at one point and stepped on the edge and quickly found myself hanging off the trail. Thankfully my friend performed a quick rescue by using her poles to pull me back to safety. Yikes! 

Thank you for saving my hide! 

The ferocious biting flies weren’t nice this trip and made much needed breaks less enticing.  Anyone know about these white berries? They tend to be on the same bush as the red berries. Albino? 

This vine intrigued me. Anyone know what it’s called? 

My friend wasn’t feeling well so we turned around before Cloud Pass and didn’t complete the section. I enjoy seeing things from different perspectives, so experiencing the same on another day and time was all good. And as a bonus, I was able to take photos in better light and choose the best one for this post. Besides, I knew I’d be returning to hike this section in a few weeks with Joan and I’d get the opportunity to see it yet from another perspective.

One more experience I can add to my memory books was concluding our trip in style, cruising Lake Chelan. 

Related Links:

WA – PCT Section L . . . as in Lame

Dates Hiked:  September 13-14, 2016
Direction: Northbound
Section J: Rainy Pass to Canada
-Miles: 70
-Elevation: Gain 13,844′ (198 feet/mile), Loss 14,787′ (211 feet/mile)

At the Rainy Pass Trailhead we were distracted by trail magic in the form of a HOT breakfast and a gathering of hikers. THANK you Brian!!!

I was thrilled to be hiking under blue skies again and with a few days of similar weather forecast, we were heading for the border.

The reds of autumn were breathtaking.

First on-trail bear scat we’d seen. 

I’d seen so many photos of Cutthroat Pass, I was looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes. 

Notice the trail as it traverses along the hill, just below the crest. 

And then there was Granite Pass. 

The combo of the red bushes with the yellow larch in a few more weeks will be even more stunning, but alas we are a bit early. 

Sadly this was to be the end of the road for me. After hiking down to Granite Pass, I had to make the tough decision to turn around. It was 8 miles back to Rainy Pass and paved Highway 20. Many thanks to Joan for helping me make the right choice, to hiker Bobble who gifted me the ace bandage, and to the many others who provided water, ibuprofen and words of encouragement. 

It was quite another adventure making our way back to my car near Snoqualmie Pass. THANK YOU Steve (and Molly) for giving us a ride down the hill and through the crazy maze at Boeing, to all the bus drivers and fellow passengers who helped us find our way through five bus transfers, and finally to Taryn who retrieved us from the final bus stop and reunited us with my car. Joan wrote a detailed post about how we survived this 12-hour ordeal through the Kindness of Strangers.

Due to my leg pain and extremely slow hiking pace, I took few photos. These photos are courtesy of Joan. 

For more details of our adventure, and more photos of ME, please check out Joan (aka Hemlock) blog posts:

 

 

Still smiling despite my misadventure.

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WA – PCT Section K . . . as in Kaleidoscope (of weather)

Dates Hiked:  September 4-13, 2016
Direction: Northbound
Section K: Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass
-Miles: 127
-Elevation: Gain 31,815′ (269 feet/mile), Loss 31,013′ (254 feet/mile)

What a great way to start our day. Thank you Anish for sharing our first few miles of Section K. It was so much fun chatting and getting to experience YOUR favorite section of the PCT with YOU!

Another new wilderness for me . . .

I’m not really sure what happened, but it appears I didn’t take any additional photos on our first day of this section. I can’t imagine it had anything to do with our Anish distraction 🙂  According to my notes this was one of the best berry picking areas, so in honor of that, here’s a visual of the way we spent many miles hiking. Swoop, swipe, eat, repeat . . .

Morning dawned a day of fog and clouds, but NO rain! 

This section had a LOT of BIG house sized rocks. 

I absolutely LOVE the visual impact of a meandering trail. Where am I going? Where did I come from? 

Ut oh, those sure look like rain clouds. Not easy to forget you’re in Washington with active sky reminders.

Definitely a bucket list destination for this cherry picker. I could only hope for clear skies . . . 

As suspected, those clouds indeed held rain and around midnight I awoke to the first drops. Although a clear day was a fantasy not be be realized, I preferred the fog to drizzle and downpours. 

This 7:30am tease of blue sky gave me optimism. 

The swirling mist gave me more optimism of clear views in the coming hours. 

The 7:45am view cemented my belief in this bluebird day.

At 8am the sun spotlighted this view, one of the highlights of this section. 

By 8:30am, we were left to imagine what we were missing, and my optimism quickly waned. 

Without views, I could still appreciate the wildflower displays. 

After bushwhacking through berry bushes and playing in the downfall jungle gym, I’m always appreciative of a well manicured trail. 

This mountain was HUGE but we only got this one glimpse before it disappeared again. Who are you? Glacier Peak by chance?

The moodiness of this creek suited the day. 

Can you imagine witnessing the collapse of this mountain? Notice the bridge at the bottom left of the photo.

Earlier in the season, this would be a quite treacherous crossing. 

This was a HUGE active nest next to the trail. I’d say it was 6″x12″. Wasp nest? Hornets?

Oh glacier how I want to see you. 

Both Joan and I are feeling a bit grumpy about the weather. Being wet and chilled takes the fun out of backpacking. Thankfully, we’d both successfully kept our sleep systems dry despite the back-to-back days of wet dank conditions (tips will follow in a future post). 

Guess swimming is out today. 

In these conditions, the reds really pop.

A tiny bit of sun, makes me and my feet happy. 

We came upon two thru-hiker gals working to put out a smoldering campfire they’d come across. We gave them all our water since our next water source was nearby. THANK YOU!!! It was ironic that this incident was directly below a sign indicating a fire-related trail closure. 

BLUE skies and the yellow orb really do exist! 

FROST! The price for bluebird skies is colder temperatures. I’ll take cold over wet any day. 

I’ve always called these glacial cirques, but when Joan used the term amphitheater, I thought how much more perfect. This area is home to the marmots and pikas, two of my favorite furry creatures. 

The natural resupply for this section is Stehekin. This was my third time in Stehekin over the past month (more details to follow). Just like Skykomish, I can’t say enough positives. I truly loved this area, especially the Ranch where Joan and I spent a night in this cute little bungalow. 

We met lots of hikers and other visitors. One thru-hiker who really stood out was No Skip who thinks my new trail name should be HighLighter, since I’m a self-declared cherry picker and all. It fits me, but it’s so hard to change after all these years. I’m considering it though. What do you think? His blog post about Joan and I is worth a read. We also had time to chat with two gals we’d been leapfrogging with on trail, Alexandria and Christina. We both regretted not getting their contact info (please contact us if you are reading this). Meals are served family style at the Ranch and we had the best visit with Doug and Mary-Ann, a couple from Bellingham who we’d both like to connect with again in the future (hope you got my email).

As we said goodbye to Section K, we were greeted by Brian, a trail angel and hubby of a thru hiker. He was providing early morning trail magic. THANK YOU Brian!

For more details of our adventure, and more photos of ME, please check out Joan (aka Hemlock) blog posts:

 

 

 

 

Related Links:

Photo credit: Joan