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TR: Heather & Maple Pass

Posted by gck Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Distance: 7.2 miles
Elevation gain: 2000 feet
Trailhead directions and more on WTA.

Finally getting around the posting the trip report for the last hike of 2012, back in October. I unintentionally had a hiking season of firsts this year. First hike in the Canadian Rockies. First summit register. First real hike on the Mountain Loop Highway. And this hike was my first time in the North Cascades National Park. There is a lot of gorgeous stuff up there, and unlike national parks like Rainier and Olympic, there is no entry fee (you just need your Northwest Forest Pass). The downside is that it’s a pretty long drive. 3 hours and a lot of gas to get to this trailhead from Kirkland. Hopefully next time I go back, I’ll be able to spend the night and get a few days of exploration.

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left: MARMOT!
right: dusty fall colors

The Maple Pass trail is probably one of the most popular hikes in the area, and it’s not hard to understand why. The loop makes it so you get different views the whole time, and you get a lot of payoff for the effort. I’d rate the difficulty as moderate (noticeably easier than some of the other hikes I’ve been doing this year) and the views as outstanding. Three lakes, mountains in all directions, and at this time of year, bright fall colors and golden larches. The parking lot was full when we arrived a little before 11, but oddly enough there was still plenty of parallel parking space right next to the trailhead, so we actually got an awesome parking spot.
The drive up the North Cascades Highway is pretty nice. Tip #1: The visitors center is a great place to use a real toilet! Tip #2: Save time to stop at overlooks. We passed the Diablo Lake overlook on the way to the trailhead and stopped both ways. Further past the trailhead is the Washington Pass overlook, with a fantastic view of Liberty Bell Mountain, which I hope to stop at next year. Tip #3: Allow time for slow cars. There aren’t a lot of passing opportunities on the highway. On the way there, we got stuck behind 8 or so RVs and I got so fed up that I pulled into an overlook just so I wouldn’t be stuck right behind them.

Lake Ann

Hiking the loop counter-clockwise is the most popular direction to go. The Mountaineers' guidebook suggests this, and if you follow the signs from the parking lot, this is the direction you will go. (If you prefer to go clockwise, you should follow the sign to Rainy Lake from the trailhead, and the trail to Maple Pass splits from there) Counter-clockwise means that it’s an easy grade up to Heather Pass, and it doesn’t stay in the forest for very long. Mountain views start quickly, then there’s a trail that splits to visit Lake Ann (we didn’t take it), and not long after that, views down to Lake Ann and its Taiwan-shaped island start.

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left: a lot of mountains that I don’t know the names of
right: golden larch

I would definitely like to come back and visit this trail in August, when the days are longer – our timing had pretty harsh shadows cast on the lakes by the time we reached them, and it’s unlikely that we could have gotten an earlier start. The trail is popular through the entire summer, but it’s particularly crowded during early August because of the bright fall colors and the golden larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn bright yellow before dropping. Another fall benefit is that the ridiculously cute pikas are active, scurrying back and forth to gather plants for their burrows. Anytime we approached a boulder field, we heard them “eep”ing like crazy. Likeliness of actually seeing a pika goes down as the number of people go up (pikas are very shy), but we did manage to see one pika hiding behind a rock. Speaking of people, the crowds were pretty heavy. Fortunately, party sizes were pretty reasonable, but there was absolutely no solitude on this trail.

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left: view from Heather Pass of Lewis Lake, Black Peak, and a forest fire
right: helicopter dumping water on the fire

At Heather Pass, you get a beautiful view of mountains and a peek at Lewis Lake underneath Black Peak. The trail to Lewis and Wing Lakes branches off a little before the pass, and the whole thing is visible from the pass, including a long boulder field traverse. Pictures I’ve seen of these two lakes look absolutely gorgeous, and I hope to make it there on a future trip. However, no one was heading there on this day because a small forest fire near Lewis Lake had the trail closed. We continued walking to a sign marking the North Cascades National Park boundary (NO HUNTING!) and took a side trail to a high point for better views of Lewis Lake. Sat here and ate lunch, gazing out towards the mountains. Every once in a while, we’d see a helicopter fly past us with a bucket of water to dump on the forest fire.

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left: valley and Glacier Peak
right: fall colors, switchbacks heading towards Maple Pass

After lunch, there was more walking and more uphill to get to Maple Pass. Along the way, there were more views down at Lake Ann and across a valley to more mountains, including Glacier Peak. Visibility wasn’t great looking in that direction, probably partially due to smoke haze from the forest fires. I felt like the views on this last leg of the hike were less interesting than the first half, but it was still nice to be walking a different part of the trail. There was a partial view down to Rainy Lake, which is easily reached by a short, flat, paved trail from the parking lot -- definitely would have done this if we had more time. Finally, we passed by a woman who asked if we had a satellite telephone (no) because she had broken her leg (ouch!). We saw search and rescue come up with chainsaws and other gear as we went down, and I read afterwards that they got her out by helicopter... at midnight. The trail was very dusty from the lack of rain and steep in a few parts, and I had fallen down once or twice that day as well. Made me realize that I need to figure out how to be more coordinated before I get older, or I’ll probably end up with a broken leg, too.
Stopped by Diablo Lake on the way back, where we encountered four Corvettes parked side by side in the parking lot. Naturally, I parked right next to them, and now they have an ugly, dirty Camry in their photos. Anyway, highly recommend this hike! I was sad to see a good hiking season end, but this hike was a high note to end it.



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