Fall is one of my favorite seasons for getting outside and especially in October, the North Cascades put on the best fall show in the state! Huckleberries turn orange, blueberries turn red, and the spectacular alpine larch turns a dazzling electric gold/green.
If you do head to the North Cascades during fall, don’t forget your extra layers and gear. The weather changes rapidly in the mountains this time of year. I can’t count the number of times I’ve set off under sunny skies in my shorts and tank and then found myself only hours later in freezing, cloudy, and even snowy conditions. I sure was glad I packed extras.
Here are four of my favorite fall destinations!
Heather-Maple Pass Loop
Mileage: 7.6 miles
High Point: 6,650′
My Time: 3:45
Dog Friendly: Yes! Just so long as you don’t cross into the Park Boundary, this whole loop is dog friendly.
The Heather-Maple Pass loop has exploded in use over the last few years and not surprisingly so. It’s a relatively low-effort trail that provides grand views of some of the North Cascades finest colors. If you go, know this is a highly trafficked area and please, please practice leave no trace principles. Also know the Ranger District is strictly enforcing camping restrictions: Absolutely no camping is being permitted within 1/4 mile around Lake Ann or Rainy Lake or along the Heather/Maple Pass Loop Trail. (36 CFR 261.58(e) $50.00 fine). We are strictly enforcing this.
You can hike the loop either direction and many argue which way is best. Hiking clockwise means you get the big climb out of the way and then have a gradual descent but I think counter-clockwise gives you more awe-inspiring views of the North Cascades, including Black Peak. My personal recommendation is for the counter-clockwise route.
Once you climb up out of the forest you’ll traverse across gullies filled with red, orange, and yellow and the hillsides are painted with golden larches. Lake Ann provides a gorgeous backdrop, as do the prominent views of Corteo Peak and Frisco Mountain. The landscape is so surreal it’s almost like a painting! As is usual with the North Cascades, once at the top of Maple Pass, you feel like you’re standing on top of the world!
Mileage: 10.5 miles
High Point: 7,150′
My Time: 2:48
Dog Friendly: yes
To get to Grasshopper Pass, you’ll drive from Mazama up the Lost River Road until the pavement ends roughly 7 miles later. From there, you’re on Forest Road 54 another 13 miles to the Meadows Campground, just below Hart’s Pass. The narrow road was built back in 1893 and is considered the most treacherous road in Washington State, but don’t worry! Sections of the road are narrow and exposed but plenty safe so long as you take your time and keep your speed in check. Look out for cars coming the opposite direction as there are a few tricky places with not much room to pass, but hey, it’s a good excuse for an adventure, right!?
From Meadows Campground, you can hop on the PCT to Grasshopper Pass (7,150′). Without a lot of elevation gain, it makes a great easy trail run! You’ll be treated to beautiful displays of golden alpine larches and the towering presence of Mt. Ballard and Azurite Peak. You can even climb Tatie Peak, right off the trail as a bonus! Water is infrequent here, so make sure to bring plenty. And consider a side trip up to Hart’s Pass as well when you’re done.
Grasshopper Pass tends to be a quieter destination and when I hiked this trail on a sunny fall Sunday last year, I only encountered maybe a half dozen other people and a handful of PCT thru-hikers.
Mileage: 4.8 miles
High Point: 6,440′
My Time: 2:00
Dog Friendly: yes
If you’re looking for a shorter hike, Blue Lake, just west of Washington Pass on Highway 20, is a great stopover on your way to or from the Methow Valley. It can be a busy area, but people are coming and going frequently so even if the lot is full, you’re likely to find a spot without too much waiting.
The trail starts on boardwalks through forest and then eventually climbs upward until it opens up to beautiful views of Liberty Bell and Cutthroat Peak on the opposite side of Highway 20. Once you reach the lake, be respectful of the meadows and any closures around the lake for restoration, but explore all around and on both sides! There are plenty of places to wander to find your own little slice of peaceful quiet to enjoy the golden larches and their lake reflections.
Hidden Lake Lookout
Mileage: 8.5 miles
High Point: 6,900′
My Time: 4:30
Dog Friendly: yes, so long as you don’t enter the National Park boundary below the lookout.
Hidden Lake Lookout might be one of my favorite destinations in the state and for good reason. There really isn’t anywhere else besides Sahale where you can feel like you’re standing on top of the North Cascades!
To reach the trailhead, you’ll drive 10 miles up the Cascade River Road outside Marblemount, which is a well maintained gravel road. Look for the junction to Forest Road 1540 and then you’ll likely need a high-clearance vehicle. The road can be deeply rutted and rocky. The parking area is small and this place has also exploded in popularity over the last few years, so park smartly and leave plenty of room for others to exit. Definitely consider a week-day visit!
The trail starts in thick forest for about a mile before opening up. As you switchback upwards into a rocky alpine environment you’ll find it hard not to stop every few feet because suddenly behind you are some big mountain glaciers! Mt Baker, Shuksan and Eldorado are spectacular!
Around 3-3.5 miles in, you’ll get your first look at Hidden Lake Lookout perched precariously on top of a near vertical spire. If you want dramatic, this is it!
As you start up this rocky gully, snow can linger late in the season and the path isn’t always obvious. If you get below the lookout spire and can’t find the trail, look hard for cairns and follow a slanted rock straight up to a saddle below and to the left of the lookout spire. You’ll eventually spy some cairns tied with colorful orange ribbon. Once you crest the saddle, the views of Hidden Lake and the Cascades are immense! A trail continues on up the backside of the mountain straight below the lookout with a final short but easy rock scramble to the top.
Dogs are allowed on the trail all the way to the lookout, but not on the trail to Hidden Lake as that’s inside North Cascades Park boundaries, so please respect the rules. Keep in mind as well that the reaching the lookout requires a rocky scramble over boulders, so make sure your pup is capable or can be carried.
Stand on top of the world at the Hidden Lake Lookout and take in the amazing views of the big ones: Sahale, Boston, Forbidden, Torment, Johannesburg, Eldorado, Booker, Baker, Shuksan. It’s unbelievable! And the lookout itself is quite the architectural feat. It’s available first-come/first-serve for overnight stays with a donation strongly suggested as the lookout is entirely volunteer maintained. The meadows and environment are fragile here, so camp only in established spots and practice leave no trace principles so everyone can enjoy this gorgeous place for years to come!
Happy fall hiking everyone! And drop me a comment to share your favorite places for fall adventuring!