Story & Photos by John D’Onofrio
From high meadows blanketed in vibrant magenta and orange to riverside groves of crimson maple, the North Cascades offer an autumnal palette to satisfy the most discerning fall color aficionado. And while the hardwood forests of New England get all the hype when it comes to fall color, our own northern mountains provide unique opportunities to enjoy the splendor and tranquility of autumn without the hordes of “leaf peepers” that lay siege to the Appalachians during the glory season.
And of course, here in the Cascades the golden stands of alpine larch are accentuated by the contrasting blue/white of glacier-covered peaks. Try to find that in Vermont!
Autumn is a special time indeed in the northern mountains. Summer, that “beautiful lie,” is poised to yield to the true nature of the boreal landscape: winter with its monochromatic visage, cloud-shadows and icy winds. There is a sweet, melancholy flavor to the last days of warm sun, the season’s delicate and transitory nature revealed in the first frosts descending on the mountains, the curtain readied to drop on the easy-going days. We feel an irresistible urge to gather up the sunny pleasures and hold them in our hearts against the long dark winter to come.
And in between, the North Cascades offer innumerable opportunities to help one transition with the season—autumn hikes that are for hard-core backpackers to casual weekend scenery hounds to first-timers visiting this exquisite and expansive neck of the woods. All can be done as easy day-hikes from the Mt. Baker Highway or the North Cascades Highway. Some make great backpacks. So grab some trail snacks, lace up your boots, and immerse yourself in the rich, tender beauty of the ephemeral season.
Getting there: Drive Highway 20 east to Rainy Pass (37 miles past Newhalem, 158 miles from I-5). Turn right into the Rainy Pass picnic area / trailhead parking lot. (Hike distance: 7 miles rt / elevation gain: 2,000 feet)
A trip to Maple Pass offers that rarity in the rugged North Cascades: a loop hike. And what a loop! The route presents scenic extravaganza after scenic extravaganza culminating in the jaw-dropping environs of the pass itself. Here on the east side of the mountains, in addition to the colorful meadow plants, the setting is enlivened by stands of larch trees.
The North Cascade range—predominantly east of the crest—is home to two species of larch, deciduous conifers whose needles turn a brilliant yellow in the autumn. The alpine larch (Larix lyallii) grows in the high country, generally above 5,000 feet. The Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) occupies the lower slopes between 2,000 and 5,500 feet. Typically mid-October is prime time for larch color, with the alpine variety turning first, followed within weeks by the western. These amazing conifers surely rival the maples of New England when it comes to autumnal glory.
From the Rainy Pass trailhead, hike the loop counter-clockwise up through the trees, passing beautiful Lake Ann (a superb rest stop) at 1.3 miles. The detour to the bucolic shores of the lake and back to the trail adds a mile to your hike, but it’s a mile well spent.
Next comes the ascent to Heather Pass up technicolor huckleberry meadows; it’s a bit of a grunt but one that offers ever-expanding views of the muscular peaks rising to the north. You’ll climb 900 feet in the mile that separates the lake from the 6,200-foot pass. Cresting it, you’ll see the expansive southern sky cluttered with glittering mountains, including distant Glacier Peak presiding over the horizon.
Continue upward over rolling meadows adorned with vibrant stands of larch toward Maple Pass at 6,600 feet. This stretch offers 360-degree views that include the impressive faces of Black, Corteo and Frisco peaks. Beyond the pass, the trail climbs over a 6,800-foot shoulder of Frisco, the high point of the official trail. However, a steep, boot-beaten path veers off to the right, climbing higher on Frisco, and the views get better and better as you ascend. The meadows below, with their golden fringe of larches, is a sight to savor.
Following the loop, the trail plunges into a glorious hanging valley. 1,700 feet below, Rainy Lake sparkles like a jewel. Your knees may shriek a little on the steep descent but the scenery will help ease the pain. A side-trip to the shores of Rainy Lake offers a great view of the majestic waterfall feeding the lake. Classic North Cascades.
Getting there: Drive the Mt. Baker Highway to Wells Creek Road (#33) near Nooksack Falls, just before mile marker 41. Turn right, cross the bridge above the falls, and bear right again. Approximately 12 miles up this bumpy road turn left at an obvious junction and then bear right at a fork to the (unmarked) trailhead. (Distance: 6-8 miles rt / elevation gain: 1,000-1,500 feet)
Cougar Divide is the trail that isn’t. The maps don’t show it. The forest service disavows its existence, funneling hikers up the nearby Skyline Divide trail. But when autumn settles over the mountains, Cougar Divide is absolutely magical—and hikeable.
From the unmarked but obvious trailhead, climb through sub-alpine trees. Progress is slow, thanks to the outrageous blueberry patches which offer grazing on an epic scale. After a short half-mile, a high point (marked by a cairn) provides a million-dollar postcard-worthy view of Mount Baker. You could turn around here and go home satisfied. But don’t.
Continuing on, the route is a little rough—there are downed trees to scramble over and a few short steep pitches, but the sense of wildness compensates for such minor travails. Before you know it, you’re out of the trees and surrounded by brilliant alpine parkland. On a sunny day the meadow scene is one of unfettered autumn grandeur, the colors reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Arles period.
To the west Skyline Divide is obvious, beautiful and crowded with ant-like hikers—a contrast to your solitary Cougar Divide experience. Go as far as you like—Cougar works equally well as a quick in-and-out day hike or as an overnighter. If you have the time and inclination, continue to where the divide meets the high drama of Chowder Ridge and ascend the ridge as far as you feel comfortable. Eventually you’ll find yourself in ice-axe terrain, but long before that will you be dazzled by splendor.
Picture Lake/Bagley Lakes/Artist Point
Getting there: Drive the Mt. Baker Highway east toward the upper lodge of the Mt. Baker Ski Area. The road becomes one-way as it reaches Picture Lake; parking is on the left. For Bagley Lakes continue up the switchbacks to the parking lot at the upper lodge. The trailhead is at the southwest corner of the lot. Artist Point is two miles ahead at the end of the road.
No list of autumn superlatives would be complete without the inclusion of the alpine “Disneyland” found at the end of the Mt. Baker Highway. The meadows are rainbow-hued, the blueberries succulent, and the peaks extravagant. And best of all, these trails are suitable for anyone with an hour to spare and an eye for beauty.
Park beside lovely Picture Lake and stroll around this diminutive gem, enjoying the classic reflection of Mount Shuksan, framed by a fiery autumn shoreline. (Distance: .5 miles rt / elevation gain: negligible)
Or drive a little further to the upper ski area parking lot and pay a visit to the Bagley Lakes, strung like a string of pearls amongst the blossoming heather and blueberries. (Distance: 1-3 miles rt / elevation gain: 150 feet)
Or continue to the end of the road at Artist Point, 4,700 feet, perhaps the most beautiful place your car will ever go. Trails radiate out from the parking lot along Kulshan Ridge through picture-perfect meadows and beside tiny tarns reflecting Shuksan and Baker. Mountain Ash, with their day-glow orange leaves and crimson berries, blend sublimely with the magenta and purple of the heather and blueberry gardens. Walk to Huntoon Point, the high point of the ridge and one of planet Earth’s best picnic spots. Stick around until sunset and watch Shuksan’s icy face illuminated by the alpenglow. Breathe deeply and count your blessings to be in the presence of such world-class beauty. (Distance: 1-3 miles rt / elevation gain: 1-500 feet)
Getting there: Drive Highway 20 east over Washington Pass. Approximately 1.5 miles past the Early Winters campground turn left to Mazama. Turn left at the stop (this becomes Harts Pass Road #54) for 20 miles to Harts Pass. The road is unpaved, narrow and steep but usually suitable for passenger cars. From Harts Pass turn right on Slate Peak Roadd #600 for 1.5 miles (Windy Pass trailhead) or 2 miles (Slate Peak Lookout). For the Grasshopper Pass option, turn left at Harts Pass toward the Meadows campground, and then right in 1.5 miles. The road ends in a half mile at the trailhead parking lot.
Harts Pass is a revelation. The highest automobile-accessible destination in the state, Harts Pass provides almost effortless access to the spectacular meadows and larch country of the eastern side of the Cascade Range.
Good: Slate Peak is an easy stroll from the parking lot across luxurious golden slopes. The lookout cabin atop served as a DEW (Distant Early Warning) Radar Station back in the timorous 50s. (Distance: .5 mile rt / elevation gain: 300 feet)
Better: Head out the trail toward Windy Pass, which begins at a switchback about 1.5 miles up the Slate Peak Road. The trail meanders through meadows and larches, a relaxing autumn idyll with constant, ever-changing views. Go as far as the spirit moves you; it’s beautiful from the get-go. (Distance: 6-8 miles rt / elevation gain: 1,500 feet)
Better yet: Drive a little further to the Grasshopper Pass trailhead and mosey out the larch-speckled ridge for views of ragged peaks including Mount Ballard and Azurite Peak. There’s a campsite beside a tiny creek in a little basin about four miles in, and if you’re so inclined you can add a banquet of stars to your evening meal. Coyotes might serenade you, if you’ve been good. Late at night, when the harvest moon illuminates the valleys, you can say goodbye to summer, prepare yourself for winter—and dream sweet dreams about distant spring. (Distance: 8-11 miles rt / elevation gain: 1,500 – 2,000 feet)
Autumn Leaves: True Colors
The science works like this: In summer photosynthesis constantly replenishes chlorophyll, which converts sunlight to food for the plants. Chlorophyll is green in color and hence our forests and meadows are uniformly green. In response to diminishing sunlight as the days grow shorter, chlorophyll production ceases as plants prepare themselves for the dormant season to come, revealing the carotenoids (orange and yellow) and anthocyanin pigments (reds and purples) that were there all the time but masked by the green.