After a delightful evening spent camped on the Pacific Crest Trail beside Porcupine Creek, Jesse and I crest Cutthroat Pass in mid-morning, and instead of the mountain goats that one often encounters at the pass, we encounter Kevin Murphy, the beloved poet from Bellingham, camping among the rocks by his lonesome. Unlike the goats, he doesn’t inquire about salt.
Could this be an under-reported consequence of climate change: mountain goats being displaced from their traditional habitat and being replaced by shaggy-haired poets? Someone should look into this.
After exchanging some elegiac pleasantries with Kevin, we continue on the Pacific Crest Trail towards Granite Pass, enjoying the shifting perspectives of the Needles, an assortment of elegant spires rising to the east. Our destination is the Snowy Lakes, some six and a half miles distant from Cutthroat Pass, a place that I had not visited in 15 years. Those sweet little lakes hold an exceedingly warm spot among my mountain memories; my previous visit had been undertaken with my sons when they were enthusiastic teenagers and we had shared a few spectacular father-and-sons days together by the lakes in the shadow of Golden Horn.
We traverse the rubble-strewn slopes of aptly-named Granite Ridge, weaving our way through the sculpture gardens of fallen stone slabs, some the size of UPS trucks. The trail then drops via a series of tight, semi-radical switchbacks to Granite Pass, losing 600 feet in less than a half-mile. After the rough descent in the blazing sun, the larch shadows and blueberry buffet of the pass provide a welcome respite before continuing up the Swamp Creek Valley, with its enchanting views down to the depths of the valley and up to the summits above. The trail here has been dynamited out of the precipitous cliffs of Tower Mountain and in places, rock slides have reduced the tread to a narrow ribbon across the scree slope, compelling me to focus my attention on each footstep and to practice the art of mindful boot placement, lest I end up in Swamp Creek far below.
An unmarked side trail climbs steeply over rough terrain and through stands of delicate larch, their golden needles providing an exquisite contrast to the rough-and-tumble rockscapes of the high country. The views, already expansive, grow wider with each upward step.
Lower Snowy Lake, in its meadow basin, is tempting, but we keep climbing. The Upper Lake—located smack dab in the middle of a high, windswept pass—is where we’re headed and the sight of it, as we crest the pass, takes my breath away. The surface shimmers with reflections of Golden Horn and Tower Mountain, cradled by soft golden meadows, luminous with larches and littered with artistically scattered glacial erratics.
Seeking altitude and solitude, we climb to the top of a promontory high above the lake and make camp among the granite, blueberries, and larches with a splendid view of a chorus line of beguiling peaks. After dinner, I lean back against a comfortable rock to watch the nearly full moon rise over Tower Mountain. The evening silence is music to my ears.
In the morning, I linger over my coffee as the sunlight spreads across the mountains, banishing the early shadows. After a suitable period of contemplation, I set off to explore the general area, leaving Jesse to his book. I have always found a unique joy in wandering alone, without a specific destination or plan, and in these high and open lands, the rambling is delightful in all directions.
Following the tiny outlet stream from the upper lake to the lower one, I discover a complicated system of splashing channels flowing through sinuous grooves in the rock from pool to pool, each carpeted by luxurious green moss, reminiscent of a Zen garden. Rocky steps climb through meadows of crimson and gold, and I stop often to sit on one conveniently-placed boulder or another and consider the aesthetic possibilities of the various juxtapositions of color and texture, the brittle softness of the vegetation, and the unyielding granite. The afternoon slowly drifts by, timeless and peaceful. There is time to think and time to stop thinking…
The sun slides between unknown peaks, the lake turning a dusky rose. Golden Horn shines like the kingdom of heaven. By the time I get back to camp, the sky is crowded with stars.
Another clear, shining morning: cloudless sky, ebullient light, and moonset on Mt. Hardy. Today we’ll hike back to Cutthroat Pass, where we’ll enjoy one last night in the wilderness. The morning light is bright and clear as we head back down the trail, gliding happily through the larch gardens. It’s true what they say about the gestalt of backcountry travel: It takes a few days to settle into the experience, to begin to feel the rhythm of the un-civilized world, and to move in time with the wind in the trees, the water flowing over rocks, the syncopated bassoon sound of bird wings beating the air.
Above Granite Pass, we stop and rest on the rocks, enjoying a few moments of quiescence. After a few days in the backcountry, the silence is entirely comfortable. There is no need for the abstraction of language.
The trail grows busy with blissed-out backpackers as we approach Cutthroat Pass. The weekend has arrived, the larch are peaking, the sun is shining and the air—which has been fouled by wildfire smoke for much of the previous month—is crystal clear. I have never seen so many hikers at Cutthroat Pass. Never seen half as many.
Seeking isolation, we climb rock and scree, dropping our packs on a lonely little ledge with a commanding view out to the epic peaks that surround us: Agnes, Sinister, Dome. I wander across the mountainside in the incandescent light of early evening, watching the sun drop behind the jumble of mountains, then lean back in my Therm-A-Rest chair and watch the full moon rise. I can’t be certain, but I catch a whiff of something like winter on the wind.
Sunrise is always especially beguiling on the last morning of a backpacking trip and today is no different. I crawl out of my warm sleeping bag into the half-light of dawn; a muted blue-grey, details indistinct. As the sun peers over Snagtooth Ridge, colors emerge and the morning light gradually etches the shattered rock around our camp in sharp relief, emphasizing the contrast between the vibrant morning light and purple shadow. Moment by moment, the colors grow more saturated: gold, orange, purple and crimson spread as if by a palette knife across the slopes. The sky is robin’s-egg blue and a few wispy clouds drift above the ramparts, scuttling overhead in the chill morning wind; the first real clouds that we’ve seen in a week.
Alas, all too soon it is time to go, so we shoulder our packs and begin the journey home, winding our way down through open larch forest, finding a different variation of autumn paradise around every bend in the path. My pack feels weightless and I sail through the forest with a buoyant heart, stopping often to photograph the splendor. It’s amazing what a few days of living outside among wall-to-wall, round-the-clock beauty can do for the beleaguered soul.
I am grateful for this morning of illumination and peace, after a tumultuous summer of pandemic-fueled anxiety. I make a point of soaking up the idyllic autumnal dream-light that illuminates the landscape: golden trees, blue sky, white clouds. This lingering vision, I feel sure, will sustain me and carry me forward into the uncertain darkness of winter.
The round-trip hike from Rainy Pass to Snowy Lakes is 23 miles with an elevation gain of 2700 feet. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead.
By Kevin Murphy
Although I am not mechanically inclined
I have lately gotten into constructing clocks.
My models are crude but effective.
Instead of cut jewels and gold,
I use materials like dead leaves
pond scum and huckleberries.
My alarm clocks have no bells or buzzers, rather,
they erupt in silence,
and not at a predetermined time,
an eruption of silence is necessary.