Dispatch from the North Cascades: The larches are here and so is the entire city of Seattle. Berry season is out and red huckleberry bushes are in. It's 80 degrees, and I wish I’d worn shorts on Oct. 1.
My friends and I braved Maple Pass Loop on a Saturday in October to determine whether or not hiking 7 miles and 2,000 feet in elevation and dealing with crowds of Seattleites is worth it to see the rare larch trees. My quick review: absolutely worth the hype if you do it right.
Red huckleberry bushes cover a hillside of Ann Lake as seen from Maple Pass Loop. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
- Try to go on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday to avoid the madness.
- If coming on the weekend, arrive before 8 a.m. to avoid adding a mile to your hike while trudging the car-filled shoulder of Highway 20 and being one of an ant trail of hikers traversing the loop.
- Take the counter-clockwise route of the loop, as aptly recommended by the Washington Trails Association. Most people opt for the more gradual climb in the first 4 miles and a steeper decline in the last 3. You'll also stay with the flow of traffic and not have to squeeze past many other hikers on the very narrow trail.
A large golden larch tree juts from a cliffside on Maple Pass Loop. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Now, what is the hype of the golden larch? The subalpine larch (Larix lyallii) is “the most cold-loving tree in the northern hemisphere,” according to North Cascades National Park. The hardy conifer turns from green to gold, like deciduous trees, every September before it sheds its needles to survive powerful winds and cold temperatures in the winter. Larches are also just really pretty.
In recent years, hikes like Maple Pass Loop have drawn hundreds, if not thousands, of hikers to traverse mountains among the golden trees. Last fall, I remember seeing an explosion of posts from travel influencers on Instagram, which I can only assume heightened the popularity of the beautiful trails. (I mean, it's what got me out there this fall.)
We arrived at around 8 a.m. and parked on Highway 20 just across from the already-full Rainy Pass picnic area, where the trail starts. In the first few miles, we leap-frogged with a few other groups of early risers, and it didn’t take long until we were struck by our first view of Ann Lake and the golden larches circling it. Some shined golden, while many still held on to their green needles. Each switchback up brought new beautiful views and took us into the shade of the golden larch trees.
Chris Babcock and Nicole Johnson hike Maple Pass Loop among larch trees turning from green to gold. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Beyond the beauty of the larches, the trail comes with panoramas of the North Cascades' jutting granite peaks and vibrant red huckleberry bushes covering the hillsides of Ann Lake as the trail winds along the upper ridge. The mix of the reds and oranges and yellows were some of the best fall colors I've seen in my few falls in Washington state.
Just over 3 miles in, hikers reach the ridge, which on a clear day lends views of Glacier Peak. We made a great picnic spot and devoured hunks of cheese and a loaf of Avenue Bread's rosemary sea salt sourdough while enjoying the views, the sun and 70-degree weather.
We continued on and reached the pinnacle of the hike at around 11:30 a.m. At this point, the crowds became more apparent. We found ourselves stuck behind slower-moving groups and squeezing to the edges of the trail to allow winded uphill hikers by. I, a “friendly” hiker, grew tired of saying hello to all the other people on the trail.
Dozens of cars line the sides of Highway 20 outside of the Rainy Pass picnic area where the Maple Pass Loop hike begins. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
We made it to the trailhead at around 1:30 p.m. and headed to our car, shocked by the dozens of cars covering the shoulders of Highway 20 in both directions.
Larch lurkers can find the famous trees at Cutthroat Lake, Cutthroat Pass, Easy Pass and Blue Lake off Highway 20 and elsewhere in the Cascades, according to the Washington Trails Association. The golden needles will likely stick around for a few weeks into October and be accessible until snowfall.
Dozens of larches line Maple Pass Loop. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
If You Go
Distance from Bellingham: 2 hours, 30 minutes and 118 miles.
Trail type: Loop
Distance: 7.2 miles
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Peak elevation: 6,650 feet
Parking pass: Northwest Forest Pass
Best time: Summer and fall
Things to be aware of: It will be crowded. It could be smoky or snowy. Anything goes in October.
Recreation type: Day hiking, backpacking (to Ann Lake)