The North Cascades are justifiably famous as a summer hiking Mecca. Emerald green meadows and carpets of wildflowers make for idyllic wandering beneath blue skies. But in autumn, the color scheme changes and the high country is ablaze with warmer hues of red and gold, orange and magenta, yellow and purple. At this time of the year, hikers can feast their eyes and nourish their souls – the sublime beauty made even sweeter by the knowledge that another hiking season is nearing its conclusion. The long winter ahead will be warmed by the lingering sensory memories of this late-season infusion of color.
Our first hike leads to Yellow Aster Butte, a supreme autumn beauty spot accessed from the Twin Lakes Road off the Mount Baker Highway. This 7.5 mile round-trip hike leads to the 6150-foot
top of the famous Butte where panoramic views are plentiful, including the in-your-face grandeur of the Border Peaks, the legendary Pickets, Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. Nearby Tomyhoi Peak tempts adventurous spirits to continue past the Butte to climb its technicolor slopes, an extremely worthwhile – if somewhat rigorous – endeavor. Campsites are found in the basin of sparkling tarns at the base of the Butte for those wishing to savor sunsets and sunrises.
The hike to the Butte crest gains about 2500 feet and elicits some obligatory sweat on the climb up through the forest. But once tree line is achieved, it’s smooth sailing through meadows adorned with dazzling fall color.
On the east side of the mountains, the Maple Pass Loop offers remarkable bang for the buck. The 7-mile loop climbs the walls of a glacial cirque, rising above picturesque Lake Ann to reach Heather Pass where hikers can gaze out to distant Lewis Lake beneath the epic visage of Black Peak. From here, the trail ascends to Maple Pass where the views are even better. Once the ridgeline is achieved, the trail follows the slender ridge to a shoulder of Frisco Mountain and the high point of the loop at 6650 feet.
After soaking in the breathtaking vistas, continue on the loop, dropping steeply on switchbacks before re-entering the forest and returning to the trailhead. The elevation gain for the entire loop is only 2000 feet and the trail is brilliantly engineered to convey pilgrims upward with a minimum of huffing and panting.
The colors along the route are astonishing and reach a crescendo at the ridge where golden larches sparkle in the sun against a backdrop that includes Liberty Bell, Early Winter Spires, Silver Star Mountain, Corteo Peak, Cutthroat Peak, Golden Horn and the aforementioned Black Peak. On a clear day, Glacier Peak and Dome Peak rise above a veritable sea of peaks to the south.
The Maple Pass Loop starts – and ends – at Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway and it’s a popular hike so expect to have a lot of company.