I had a window of freedom for half of July and needed to find some trails relatively snow free. Studying maps, I mapped out a loop through the eastern Pasayten wilderness to Upper Cathedral Lake.
The route began at Thirty Mile trailhead and went north along the Chewuch River. I memorized the route, got all provisioned up and hoped for nice weather. About a week before the trip I visited the US Forest Service web site for the Okanogan National Forest and discovered that the first four and a half miles of trail were littered with more than 550 down trees!
I located an alternate trail. This one was 27 miles one way to Cathedral Lake, maintaining an elevation of 6,100 to 7,800 ft and promised great views. The only downside was that we would need to drive nearly an extra 3 hours, but that was much more appealing than clambering over 550 dead trees!
Our new route took us over Loup Loup Pass and through the towns of Omak, Tonasket and into the small town of Loomis. From there we headed up the Toats Coulee Road to the trailhead. The road was easy to follow, and not a challenge for our 4-wheeled friend.
I love hiking in the Pasayten. Not only are there long and wonderful ridges to hike, but there are fewer trees and immense meadows. In July and early August the meadows are carpeted in flowers. “Upholstered in herbaceous wildflowers” is what one of the guidebooks said. I have been to many places in the Cascades and seen lots of flowers. But nothing like the Pasayten. In other places there would be a meadow and clumps of flowers here and there. In the Pasayten the entire meadow, as far as you can see is completely filled with columbine, paintbrush, lupines and countless others blanketing the ground. It is really something to see an entire mountainside literally covered in the blooming colors of nature.
And the trees. Interspersed between the rocky summits and explosion of flowers are perfect clumps of trees. Each element serves to offset the other. The result is that the Pasayten is like a Zen Garden. Every stand of trees, rock outcropping, and flower display has a special feel, like it was all painstakingly handcrafted. Nothing looks out of place.
Our first night we camped in the middle of Horseshoe Basin, right on the tundra and anticipated out journey the next day. This was our first long hike of the year and we were not acclimated yet. The next day’s hike (we were on the Boundary Trail, part of the Pacific Northwest Trail) took us by Louden Lake and around Rock Mountain. We lazed at a fine looking creek and enjoyed a hot lunch, and made it as far as Teapot Dome to camp. Our campsite was another meadowy-tundra-like concoction full of flowers and bugs, LOTS of bugs.
Early the next morning we were on our way. We stayed on the Boundary Trail, which maintains its elevation, traversing along the western side of Bauerman Ridge, through Scheelite pass and again traversing along Wolframite Mountain. The weather so far was perfect, cool at night (we had a few nights with frost) and warm in the day. The entire route on this day was on south facing slopes. It was clear that the trail was normally quite dry, but as we were so early in the season there was a flourish of small almost desert like flowers all over the ground.
As we approached Tungsten Mine my friend gave me a sort of garbled hush noise and pointed up the hillside. It was a huge bear, much bigger than any I’d ever seen, I would guess 800 lbs or more. Both of us thought it sure looked like a Grizzly. She sure had the face of one, she was there maybe 20 yards off the trail in plain view. She got a good look at us and vamoosed off, up the hill.
We continued to the mine where there are all sorts of intact buildings and other man-made remains. There is an old long and low bunkhouse, which is empty now except for an old cast iron wood stove. The walls and woodwork inside are literally covered, almost every square inch with the carvings of the names of hikers who have passed through. Nearby is a newer looking A-frame structure with an old bathtub sitting out front. It looked inhabited, and we looked around outside but didn’t see the miner or anyone else.
From the mine it was a relatively short and easy hike up to Apex Pass (7800 ft). Once we came out on the west side of the pass we were astounded, shocked, surprised and generally overwhelmed with the view.
The trail guide we had raved about the beautiful tundra and didn’t make much mention of Apex Pass or Cathedral Peak, so we weren’t expecting any thing special. The view was astounding. We could see the eastside of Amphitheater Mountain, and next to it the triangular spire of Cathedral Peak. Across the valley to the southwest Remmel Mountain reared up. There was a bright blue sky, white puffy clouds and lots of green meadows (tundra?) all around.
We just stopped there in awe, I was running all over like a 6 year old, taking pictures and exclaiming loudly how awesome a place it was. After running out of cool shit to say and taking maybe 200 pictures we saddled up to tackle the final two miles or so Cathedral Pass. The closer you get to Cathedral Peak the more you stop and stare. The southeast face of the peak is remarkably steep and actually looks out of place. The eastern Pasayten is better known for its rounded peaks than its jagged summits. This entire area looked more like it belonged in the Southwest than the Northwest!
After untold numbers of stops for more picture taking, we arrived at the pass. And there was heaven! Amphitheater Mountain on the south shoulder of the pass and Cathedral on the north, to the west a sweet basin containing Upper Cathedral Lake. Amphitheater Mountain is a very long (1.5 miles) sweeping, rocky ridge. Viewed from Cathedral Pass its quite a sight, Amphitheater makes a 100 degree turn and so you can view both faces, or arms of the mountain from one spot.
We strolled down into the upper basin where there was a large snowmelt pool. The view from here of Cathedral and Amphitheater was so incredible we decided to camp right there and leave further exploring for the next day. The pool provided many reflective photo opportunities when the sun started setting.
Before starting our trip back we took a few minutes to head over to Upper Cathedral Lake. The lake was more than half covered in snow and ice, the southwestern end of the lake ripples at the sheer base of Amphitheater Mountain. There are many great camping spots and we saw several anglers trying their luck. The classic view of Cathedral Peak is taken from this SW corner of the lake. From here one can see that the entire basin is filled with larches. Coming back when they turn yellow will definitely be part of the plan for the fall!
The only single thing detracting from staying at Cathedral was the bugs. The incessant drone of mosquitoes compelled us to consider finding a new camp for the night. The day before when we were at Apex Pass we hadn’t noticed many bugs, and the view was fantastic, so we packed up and headed back there to camp. We arrived and found a place to set up the mesh tent in the shade, where we had a stupendous view. It didn’t take long before we realized that A) there were even more bugs at Apex Pass, B) even with a mesh tent in the shade we were literally cooking in the tent. Our view was beyond compare, but as the day got longer we grew hotter and grumpier from being held captive in out stupid tent. There were a few more hours before it got dark, so we quickly packed and hit the trail.
Passing through the mine again did not reveal any more grizzlies and we made it back to Scheelite Pass as darkness fell. The following day we hiked to the other side of Sunny Pass, passing through Horseshoe Basin. This time we spent some time at Louden Lake and got some great pictures of the lake and the wildflowers. We made it back to the car and headed off for our next Pasayten adventure.