Six Years Ago in the North Cascades

Two weeks ago in Five Years Ago This Week I went back in time to revisit a gorgeous wildflower-covered meadow in Mount Rainier National Park. This week we’ll go back even further to some fall hikes in the North Cascades from six years back.

That’s right, in only two weeks time we go from wildflower hikes in mid-September to fall color hikes in late September, albeit in different years. And while the area in this week’s article is about 230 miles north and east by car from the Mount Rainier location, the elevations are about the same, in the mid-6000 foot (above 1800 m) range.

Six years ago I was still in the middle of my software gig at Getty Images, and had just returned from an amazing trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia. (You can read my adventures with squirrels and grizzly bears in Brains vs. Brawn – A Squirrel Tale and Bearly Got the Shot.) So I could only afford to spend a weekend up in the North Cascades, but what a beautiful weekend it was – well, after it stopped raining, that is!

Liberty Bell Mountain from the Blue Lake Trail, Okanogan National Forest, Washington

Liberty Bell Mountain is the prominent feature on much of the Blue Lake Trail, in the Okanogan National Forest, Washington.

For accommodations I chose to camp at the Lone Fir Campground, about 11 miles west of Mazama, WA, on SR20, or the North Cascades Highway. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the same campground where I would spend two weeks the following year rebuilding a failed bridge over the Early Winters Creek that passes nearby. I need to tell you about that adventure, but not now!

Anyway, Lone Fir makes a good base when you want to do day hikes in the area because it’s right on the highway and close to the trailheads to some spectacular hikes.

For my short weekend, which is made even shorter by the seven hour round-trip drive from my home, I decided to do two hikes. The first afternoon I chose Blue Lake, an easy but classic four-mile round-trip hike known for towering granite peaks, forests, meadows, wildflowers, and of course a beautiful lake. But at this time of year, it was fall color I was after.

On this short hike, the dominant feature is Liberty Bell Mountain. Liberty Bell is the most northern spire of the Liberty Bell Group, a group of spires which also includes Concord Tower, Lexington Tower, North Early Winters Spire, and South Early Winters Spire. This is a popular climbing location, so expect to see climbers and climbing trails branching off the main trail.

Gray Jay on the Trail, Okanogan National Forest, Washington

A Gray jay hangs out near the Blue Lake Trail hoping for a handout, in the Okanogan National Forest, Washington.

Gray jays also hang out in the area hoping for handouts from trailmix-laden hikers and climbers. Note that these guys don’t always wait to be offered a snack. If you give them half a chance they will swoop in and snatch food without waiting for permission! Either way, it’s feeding the wildlife, which is never encouraged.

I didn’t find much fall color on this hike, just a smidgen of blueberry along the lake itself, but not enough to make a compelling image. It was starting to get late, so I headed back to the trailhead, and was treated to some nice warm light on the spires as the sun set for the evening.

Last Light on Liberty Bell Mountain, Okanogan National Forest, W

The sun sets over the Blue Lake Trail, leaving only Liberty Bell Mountain and the adjacent spires illuminated, in the Okanagan National Forest, Washington.

I had dinner back at camp without incident, but during the night, the forecast rains arrived, and the rain was still coming down the next morning. This was not a surprise, but I had been hoping for the best. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but it did make cooking breakfast and breaking camp a bit of a challenge. At that time I still only had my two-seater sports car, so I didn’t have a lot of room to spread things out to dry. (I know, first world problems.) But the bigger issue was the day’s hikes. What kind of photography would I be able to do in the rain?

Fall Color Above Ann Lake, Okanogan National Forest, Washington

Colorful shrubs cover the hillside above Ann Lake, in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington.

As it turned out, the problem solved itself. The rains ended by the time I got to the trailhead for my planned hike of the day. This one was a bit more ambitious than the day before, though still not too strenuous. I was planning to do the Heather – Maple Pass Loop, a 7.2 mile (11.5 km) loop with a gain of 2000 feet (610 m). I intended to stop and do a good bit of photography along the way, though, so this would be a day-long adventure.

This hike came highly recommended, and I was really looking forward to it. In their trail description of the hike, Washington Trails Association says:

“If ever there was a hike to satisfy all a hiker’s desires, this one comes as close as any. A loop hike with many fabulous changing faces throughout the seasons, Heather-Maple Pass features ridgelines blanketed in wildflowers in summer, lakes ringed with golden larches in fall, and before the highway closes for the season, a dramatic place to experience early winter’s snows.

And Craig Romano in his guidebook has this to say about Maple Pass:

Among the many supreme North Cascades Highway hikes, the Maple Pass loop is perhaps the most exalted. More than a few hikers have been caught humming Julie Andrews tunes while sauntering on this scenic sojourn. In just 7 non-repeating miles you’ll be treated to majestic old-growth forests, a sparkling alpine lake, resplendent alpine meadows, enticing open ridges, and stunning North Cascades vistas.

— Romano, Craig. Day Hiking North Cascades: Mount Baker, Mountain Loop Highway, San Juan Islands. Mountaineers Books Kindle Edition.

Now I ask you, how can you not get excited about this hike?

Well, it didn’t disappoint. The fall colors were much more developed along this hike, just a few short miles west of the Blue Lake hike of the previous day.

Fall Color on the Maple Pass Loop, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Fall color explodes along the Maple Pass Loop trail, in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington.

This is truly one of those top-of-the-world hikes, where all along the trail you traverse ridgelines and encounter stunning views of lakes far below and mountains and valleys off in the distance. As I write this, I cannot believe I haven’t been back to this amazing place! It’s the distance that keeps me away, combined with the short hiking season (the road is closed in the winter), but I really do need to make time to get back out there.

Fall Color on the Trail, Okanogan National Forest, Washington

Fall color coats the hillside on the Maple Pass Loop Trail in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington.

So, I took my time and stopped every few feet to photograph a leaf or berry cluster or hillside. And I pretty much had the place to myself on that autumn Sunday, with just the occasional hiker or backpacker passing me.

Of course I had packed a lunch, so when I got to the vista in the image below, just above the ridgeline heading back down, I stopped for lunch. And I couldn’t help thinking that I was one of the luckiest people on the planet that day, with this gorgeous view of the North Cascades opened up in front of me to enjoy!

After lunch I kept heading back down, and having done the loop counter-clockwise, I had a fairly steep descent to negotiate, as most of the gain/loss on that side is near the end. But I made it out without incident, found my car, and started the three and a half hour trek back to Seattle, the short weekend quickly coming to a close.

So that’s the end of our trip back in time, and while I won’t likely be visiting the North Cascades Highway this fall, I do have a fall trip planned, and it promises to be just as stunning as Maple Pass. So be sure to check back!

North Cascades, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

The North Cascades are the view from the Maple Pass Loop trail, in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington.

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