Cutthroat Pass & Snowy Lakes

"Augtober" - that's what I'm calling it. The warmth of August combined with the peaking larch trees of October. After fantastic fall leaf color the previous week at Mt. David, Gary and I were out to enjoy a larch backpacking trip. It's a long drive to Rainy Pass in the North Cascades so we met in South Everett at a park & ride at 5:30 am. We were past Darrington before sunrise but it was hard to tell as it was lightly raining with thick low clouds. As we drove east it began to clear and was sunny at the trailhead. The forecast was for partly sunny on Saturday and mostly cloudy with a chance of rain on Sunday. We hoped to have a little sun the first day to light up the larch trees.

Reports showed that larch trees were turning golden earlier than usual. We hoped to be at least close to the peak though it was just past the end of September. The route is on the Pacific Crest Trail and it is known for it's gentle elevation gain. There were already 7 or 8 cars in the 4800' lot as we started off at 8:30 am. It was a little chilly but not like early October. I just had on a very light long sleeve shirt.

The trail climbs easily in forest before breaking out into the open near a slabby waterfall. From here Cutthroat Pass comes into view. The next 2 /1/2 miles winds through mostly meadows and stands of larch trees. Larch are visible all over from the waterfall spot. There was no sun on the larch trees but we could see that most of them were golden. The Crest Trail makes long gentle switchbacks as it climbs to Cutthroat Pass. We saw one official campsite with two tents. Our camping plans were up in the air. If larch were not yet turned we thought about dropping to Cutthroat Lake in search of golden needles. We also considered camping near the pass and spending the day wandering the larch if they were near peak. We also considered heading on to Snowy Lakes and camping there.

Gary had been to Snowy Lakes twice but I had never been on any of the trail. His last visit was 14 years ago and both trips were during summer. He had not seen the larch there when they were golden. We met two backpackers who had camped below Snowy Lakes and they informed us the larch were excellent all along the way. We soon reached the 6800' pass to find thousands of golden larch on the other side. The morning sun was shining on them and really lit them up. Much photography ensued.

We met two runners at the pass who were running from up and over past Cutthroat Lake and down to Rainy Pass. We took one hour to hike the first 2 1/2 miles to the waterfall and two hours to hike the next 2 1/2 miles to the pass. Way too many larch trees slowed us down a lot. It was still only 11:30 thanks to our early start from town. After lunch and a short debate we chose to continue on to Snowy Lakes. The trail is now completely out in the open. Views to many high peaks and down to acres of larch trees.

The mostly cloudy sky never materialized. It was clear and just kept getting warmer. Golden larch means mid October and that means sub freezing mornings, cool afternoons, and often snow on the ground. This year it meant summer heat and not a cloud in the sky. Like I said "Augtober". It was plenty warm in short sleeves. We moved at a glacial pace as the golden larch were terrific. The sheer number of golden larch trees exceeded anything I have seen before. The route is mostly flat as it contours below the ridge. We rounded a bend into western Washington and began a series of switchbacks down to Granite Pass.

Granite Pass is at about 6300'. Looking ahead we could see the trail as it continued to the valley of Snowy Lakes and then to Methow Pass. High above are Tower Mountain, Golden Horn, and Mt. Hardy. The pass is forested with many larch trees. The next two miles to the Snowy Lakes junction has no larch. The trail was blasted in many places from large rock slabs. There are also three of four avalanche gullies. The trail here is a little narrow with some huge drop offs.

Although it was down right hot now we sped up covering the two miles in 42 minutes. It was around 2:15 at the junction. An unsigned trail climbs 500' to the first Snowy Lake. We chose to camp lower and day hike up to the lakes. We found a nice site, hung our food, and filled a water bag. Now we were free to head on. We planned to hike to the lakes then follow the ridge up and down to Methow Pass then take the PCT back to camp. The larch trees just got better as we ascended. Below the lower lake we ran into Joanna, Josh, and Michael, just coming down from Golden Horn.

We had heard a call of "rock!" earlier with the sound of falling rocks. At the lower lake we found the folks involved. Nikolai and a friend had just returned from climbing Tower Mountain. No shortage of acquaintances. We continued the short way to the upper lake. There were only a few parties camped there. Not the hoards I feared. We could now see the other side of Methow Pass and the valley below was filled with golden larch trees. The low afternoon sun set them afire. What a place!

We realized that following the ridge would not get us the best larch views and would take more time than we had figured. Instead we just climbed up the first part of the ridge. We had great views of peaks and countless larch trees. The vast majority of larch we saw this day were very near the peak. A few still green and a few dropping needles. Most were just perfect. As the sun set the lower lake was cast in shade. We were at an angle where the dark sunless lake had trees reflected in it. When backpackers arrived their reflection shone in the dark lake. A very neat optical occurrence. It was 6:00 pm when we headed down.

We arrived at camp in time to cook dinner before dark. Though the sky was clear and the sun down it was slow to cool. We remained outside looking at the dark sky and myriads of stars until 9:00 pm. I doubt it dropped below 45 degrees in the tent overnight. We were up at 6:30 am and on the trail just after 8:00 am. It was partly clear though clouds were moving in. The hike back was easy as we had only about 1000' of cumulative gain. The 9.6 miles went by fast. We passed two PCT through hikers who said they were only two days away from finishing.

The clouds left most of the larch colors muted, though we did have a few sun breaks that lit them up again. Below Cutthroat Pass we began to see hikers. Half a dozen groups were coming up. We also stopped to see a large family of grouse on both sides and the middle of the trail. We managed a few good photos. Once the larch were done we sped up making very good time the last 2 1/2 miles, reaching the car at 12:30 pm. The lot was now nearly full. In about 2:40 we were back at Gary's car.

This was a very strange larch hike. Not a lot of people, extremely warm temperatures, no snow, no rain, no wind, and more golden larch than I have seen in one place. Like I said, "it was Augtober". An excellent weekend to be up in the mountains. For the two days we hiked about 21 miles with 4000' of gain.

Black Peak
Falls Shadow
Zoomed Cutthroat Pass
Peak Above
Colorful Leaves
Evergreens & Larch
Larch & Blue Sky
Forest Below Pass
Ridge Above
Ridge Behind
Glaciers On Peak
Larch & Meadows
Green, Yellow, & Gold
Peaks & Gold
Red Leaves & Larch
A Good Weekend Choice
Improving Views
Meandering Trail
Lunch Spot At Pass
Mountains & Larch
Individual Larch
Cutthroat Lake
70 Degrees & Larch?
Wall Of Larch
Larch & Moraine
Fall Colors In Meadow
Distant Backdrop
Yellow, Red, & White
Barren Slope
Knoll Above Pass
Gold Against Blue Sky
Gnarled Old Tree
Distant Needles
Bright Red Leaves
Trail From Pass
Mt. Hardy
Tower & Golden Horn
Dropping To Granite Pass
More Red Leaves
Tower Mountain Summit
The Larch Family
Click on thumbnails to get larger pictures.

Photo Page 2

Trips - 2010