Saturday, October 1, 2016

Grasshopper Pass

Larches brighten the North Cascades at Grasshopper Pass
10 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; a long hike with no steep sections
Access: Rough, rocky, narrow gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The landscape near Harts Pass in Washington State's North Cascades is littered with active and abandoned mines where prospectors sought and still look for gold in the hills. The most reliable gold in this part of the Cascades, however, appears for a few weeks each autumn when the expansive larch forests near the pass assume their fall colors. While I hesitate to make such a sweeping claim as I've yet to hike extensively in the Harts Pass area, I doubt there's any better hike to see autumn larches in the Pacific Northwest than this out-and-back hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Grasshopper Pass would be a worthy destination any time of year: the entire length of the trail follows a high ridgeline with wide-open views of the North Cascades and the Pasayten Wilderness. Golden larches bring a particular magic to the landscape in late September and early October of each year, setting the mountain slopes ablaze with color. This hike is remote and quite a long drive from any metropolitan area, so much of this spectacular landscape can be enjoyed with only a fraction of crowds found along Highway 20 or in the Enchantments. The catch? Driving up the narrow, steep, and rocky Harts Pass Road to reach the trailhead.

Looking for more larch hikes? Consider Easy PassLake Ingallsthe Enchantments, or Maple Pass.

I hiked to Grasshopper Pass on an early October Saturday with rain in the forecast. I had drive out to Mazama the previous night from Seattle; that morning, I set out early from Mazama, following the Lost River Road northwest from the center of the town. The road narrowed and soon became a heavily washboarded gravel road. After entering Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and passing the Ballard campground, the road came to a junction: the road heading straight led to the River Bend campground and the road that turned sharply to the right led towards Harts Pass. I turned right for the 10-mile drive to Harts Pass, a road with a notorious reputation as one of the more dangerous roads in the state.

The road didn't end up being so bad. Yes, the road was only wide enough for one car for most of its length, but there were sufficient turnouts to allow one or the other car to pass. The most infamous stretch, a section of narrow road carved into a cliff with many blind turns, was harrowing but short and still featured enough turnouts to be safely navigated; it also came fairly early in the driving ascent. You'll want to avoid driving if you're afraid of heights and it's certainly not a road for novice mountain drivers, but there wasn't anything about this road that you wouldn't encounter driving other dirt forestry roads. I drove up in a high clearance 4WD, but there were plenty of sedans (including a Prius!) that had made their way up. Once at Harts Pass, I turned left at a junction for the Meadows Campground and followed that gravel road past the campground to its dead-end at a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail. This stretch of road was fairly rocky, which made me glad I had a high-clearance vehicle, but it should still be negotiable for most cars. There was parking for about 10 cars.

From the trailhead, I followed the wide trail next to the empty information board at the end of the lot. I almost immediately came to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, with the trail to the right leading the final thirty-some miles to Canada and the trail to the left heading towards Rainy Pass and Mexico. I took the left fork. The trail exited the forest almost immediately and entered a boulder field with views of the first larch grove of the hike straight ahead.

The early morning sunlight made the golden larch needles glow. The timing of my hike was perfect: all of the larches here were at peak color. Other vegetation contributed nice reds and greens to the vivid fall scene.

Pacific Crest Trail south of Harts Pass
The trail then passed through a second talus slope before coming upon a second larch grove. As I hiked along the boulder field, I caught nice views of the landscape surrounding Harts Pass. Devils Peak and Robinson Mountain, two peaks in the massive and remote Pasayten Wilderness, lay behind a flat ridge; closer in, I could see the Harts Pass Road up which I had driven and the flattened summit and lookout tower of Slate Peak, the highest road-accessible point in Washington State.

Devils Peak, Robinson Mountain, and autumn larches
The second larch grove was really a larch forest: hundreds of larches coated the entire north side of the ridge here. As clouds moved in and out, sunlight danced on the larch needles.

While passing through the second grove, the trail rounded the ridge and made a sharp nearly 180-degree turn to the south side of the ridge. The change in scenery was immediate: the more subdued profiles of the Pasayten peaks was replaced with the craggy peaks of the North Cascades. The first peak I noticed in this new view was Silver Star, a massive granite peak carrying a sizable glacier on its north face. Far below, Trout Creek carved out a rugged canyon. The canyon walls were barren, having been scorched by a 2003 wildfire that had also torched many of the trees along Harts Pass Road. The many summits of Gardner Mountain lay to the south of Silver Star and the sharp pinnacles of the Needles were just to its right. The 2003 fire had burned right up to the ridgeline, so the golden larches that I had seen north of the ridgeline were now replaced with burnt husks of trees.

Gardner Mountain and Silver Star rise above Trout Creek Canyon
As I began to hike west along the mountainside, a set of peaks to the southwest caught my attention as well: farther away, I could see the glacier-sculpted forms of Tower Mountain and Golden Horn, while closer in I spotted Azurite Peak. Grasshopper Pass, my destination for the day, was visible as well: it was the low saddle situated directly beneath Azurite Peak. Hiking further along, Black Peak entered the southern skyline as well, its pyramidal summit fading in and out as storm clouds moved in from the west.

Tower, Golden Horn, Black Peak, and Azurite Peak from slopes of Tatie Peak
About two miles from the trailhead, I came to a high saddle between the unnamed peak under which I had been hiking and Tatie Peak. At 7000 feet, this was the highest point along the hike. A grove of larches started at the saddle and poured down the north slope of the mountain.

Larches at Tatie Peak saddle
Views towards the north encompassed most of the forested Ninetynine basin and included Slate Peak and the mountains of the Pasayten Wilderness. North of Slate Peak, at the foot of Tamarack Peak, I could see landscape disturbances related to the Glory Hole Mine, where prospectors one dug up the mountainside searching for gold. The ghost town of Barron lay just below that former mine site, a boomtown that came and went with the prospect of gold.

View across Ninetynine Basin to Slate Peak and Pasayten summits
The trail swung back to the south side of the ridge as it traversed the slopes of Tatie Peak. As I hiked towards the saddle between Tatie Peak and the next unnamed prominence on the ridge, I inched closer to an incredible forest of larches growing high on the headwaters of Trout Creek. Golden Horn, the Needles, Silver Star, and Tower Mountain formed an imposing backdrop.

The Needles, Tower, Golden Horn, larches
At the end of three miles, the trail came to the second saddle. The west side of the saddle featured views up the drainage of Slate Creek to Jackita Ridge and the glacier-covered massifs of Crater and Jack Mountains in North Cascades National Park. I also found the first clear view of the massive cliffs of Mount Ballard.

View up the Slate Creek drainage to Jack and Crater Mountains
Mount Ballard
Past this saddle, the trail entered the large larch forest. While larches can be found in many parts of the eastern Cascades, the sheer quantity of larches on this hike clearly distinguishes it from well-known larch marches such as Maple Pass, the Enchantments, or Lake Ingalls. Other larch marches satisfy hikers with small groves or a few individual larches; the last two miles of the hike to Grasshopper Pass deliver a mountainside full of larches and views to an entire basin of larches. Every peak surrounding the Trout Creek headwaters was dotted with larches: gold was everywhere in these mountains.

Larches
In the final two miles, the trail descended from the second saddle via two switchbacks and then passed through two distinct larch groves to come to a final stretch along a scree slope. While views were plentiful along the earlier stretches of the trail past Tatie Peak, the views near these larch groves were more confined to nearby ridges, as the trail dropped substantially in elevation from its position on Tatie Peak. The trail began ascending as it entered a long scree slope. While much of the trail is cut into steep mountain slopes, this was the only portion of the hike where the trail seemed a little more precarious: the trail was fairly narrow here as it cut across the scree. However, it's unlikely to present a problem to any hikers except those with a fear of heights.

While I crossed the scree slope, thicker clouds finally rolled in overhead and the forecasted precipitation arrived in the form of flurries. Seeing that Grasshopper Pass was nearby, I chose to press on. As I rounded a bend in the ridge, Azurite Peak appeared in front of the trail, rising above Grasshopper Pass; a few more minutes of hiking brought me to dense larch forests surrounding the pass.

Azurite Peak rises above larches at Grasshopper Pass
The views at Grasshopper Pass are actually more limited than the views early on near Tatie Peak, but the proximity to some enormous mountains more than makes up for the fact that fewer peaks are visible here. I found a spot just beyond the pass itself with a view of the enormous face and glacier of Azurite Peak. Azurite's ridgeline connected directly to the menacing cliffs of Mount Ballard. From Grasshopper Pass, I could see the switchbacks on the Pacific Crest Trail as it dropped down to forested Glacier Pass below.

Azurite Peak viewed from Grasshopper Pass
Although the weather had appeared to deteriorate earlier, the sun soon returned as I spent the good part of an hour at the pass. Bright sunlight on the larches made the golden hues of the tree shine even more than they already did.

Grasshopper Pass
I ran into numerous PCT thru-hikers along the trail. The Harts Pass area is only about two days by foot from the Canadian border, so quite a few of the hikers seemed cheerful about the upcoming conclusion to their hikes. I was particularly impressed by a mother-son duo who I ran into at Grasshopper Pass: I'm more than a little jealous that the kid I met there got to hike the PCT before age ten. Otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised with the small number of hikers I encountered: there were less than 15 other day hikers on the trail all day, which is remarkable considering I came on a weekend during peak foliage. While not abandoned, this hike definitely has low traffic by Washington standards.

I enjoyed the views and the sunlight on the larches a little longer before backtracking to the trailhead the way I came. All in all, the trail was extremely beautiful and not hard to hike, which makes for an enjoyable combination. The constant vistas of the trail are undoubtedly stunning at any time of year, but this really is a hike for the fall; I've yet to see anyplace with a larch display rivaling that seen along the PCT in the two miles north of Grasshopper Pass.

The Needles and golden larch needles at Grasshopper Pass

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