Like the prospectors of old, I lust after gold. I leave everything behind in the endless hunt for “all that glitters”. But my treasure is no hard, cold metal-found in tiny grains amidst the pebbles of the stream bed or sequestered deep within the bowels of the earth. Mine is the glowing yellow shine of the waning day, filtered through the translucent needles of the alpine golden larches. Mine is the golden flash of scales deep within the azure waters of the mountain lake. Mine is the glow of golden granite, splitting the sky and lining the creeks. Gold is never found with ease. In the winter the landscape is buried beneath a shroud of snow. In summer, rainbow meadows blind the eyes with color. Only in the waning months of autumn is the gold rush possible in the North Cascades.

Golden Horn
The Golden Horn

 

It was not so long ago that all the country traversed by the North Cascades Highway was deep wilderness, accessible only by many days of hiking. Only Native Americans and explorers trod the rambling paths through this treasure trove of beauty. However, it could not remain a secret forever. Plans to build a road across the North Cascades were first proposed in the late 19th century. First, it was thought that a road might run along the length of the Skagit River into Canada, but that was scrapped when that area was found to be too rugged.

Rainy Lake BasinIn 1897, a route was planned and partially built over Cascade Pass, but flooding and misuse of funds caused this plan to be scrapped as well. A third plan called for the highway to cross at Harts Pass, but it, too, was stopped before completion. Finally, three dams were constructed on the Skagit River in the 1920’s-40’s, and a road was built to the upper end of newly created Diablo Lake. Plans were laid in the 50’s for huge logging operations that would justify the continuation of the highway beyond Diablo Lake, but fortunately for all of us, this idea was not realized. It was not until 1972 that the route across Rainy Pass was officially opened as a scenic highway through the wilderness. The road opened the floodgates to the hordes of golden larch seekers, and now many motorists scan the autumn hillsides for the wealth sequestered within the high and lonely basins.

But by staying glued to the seat of your car, you will only catch glimpses of high country gold. Some of the best trails in the North Cascades are found along State Route 20, and hikers of any skill level will find plenty to do here.

Rainy Lake, Maple Pass Loop.

Perhaps the most rewarding day hike in existence, the Maple Pass Loop has it all: lakes, glaciers, hundred mile views and brilliant groves of golden Larches. At 7 miles long, the hike can be challenging, but every step brings a new and better view.

Lake Ann
Lake Ann from Maple Pass

For travelers in a hurry, Rainy Lake can be reached in 1/2 mile from the same trailhead. The trail is paved all the way and is mostly level, and the lake is truly spectacular with 850-foot Rainy Lake Falls tumbling onto the opposite shore.

Blue Lake.

Blue Lake
Blue Lake

For a moderate hike, the 2-mile trail to this stunning, opalescent green lake, guarded by massive cliffs on one side, and cloaked by golden larches on the other, will satisfy the average treasure seeker. The larches light the upper portion of the trail, and if the winds are calm, their flaxen reflection in the lake is an artist’s dream.

Cutthroat Pass. 

Cutthroat Pass
Cutthroat Pass

This is a long, but easy ascent 5 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail to a high pass with views of Silverstar Mountain and the icy peaks of North Cascades National Park and, once again, many golden larches. For experienced backpackers, a further 6 airy miles of ridge-walking bring you to Snowy Lakes: alpine jewels reflecting the luster of the forests and Golden Horn.

Harts Pass

At the end of a long, harrowing drive up an intimidating gravel road, Harts Pass is the start of many ridge-top trails all lined with groves of golden larches. The best hikes here follow the Pacific Crest trail North to Windy Pass and South to Grasshopper Pass. For easy views simply continue driving to the lookout on top of Slate Peak. This is the highest road in Washington as well as the highest existing lookout at 7440 feet (although the road may be closed just before the summit).

Lone Fir Campground.

A ten minute drive from Washington Pass, Lone Fir Campground is the closest place to camp if you want to catch the sunrise on Liberty Bell. Sites are well spaced and fairly private, and many are located near to Early Winters Creek. The short Lone Fir Loop trail (located at one end of the campground) makes for a fine after-dinner stroll.

Bridge Over
Lone Fir Loop trail-bridge over Early Winters Creek

Colonial Creek Campground.

A large and developed campground on the shores of Diablo Lake, Colonial Creek Campground is a bit far from the high country. They compensate for this by the many nearby trails through deep old-growth forest. A good trail is the Thunder Knob trail, an easy stroll less than two miles long with good views at the top.

Harts Pass Campgrounds.

Several good campgrounds are located at Harts Pass, and once you’re there, the driving is done because half a dozen wonderful trails start right from camp!

So join the Gold rush of the North Cascades. Time is short. Like a mining boom, the golden views last only a fleeting few weeks in the middle of autumn. However, if you are visiting in late spring or summer you will be greeted by golden granite and budding larches; their young shoots are such a vivid green it might be mistaken for the gold hue it will turn in fall. My bags are packed, all my mining tools gathered together: camera, tripod and warm sleeping bag. I’ll see you in the high country!

 

 

Diablo Lake
Diablo Lake

By: Andy Zahn http://illuminationsfromtheattic.blogspot.com/

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