|Autumn larches near Cutthroat Pass|
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required
The hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from Rainy Pass up to Cutthroat Pass in Washington State's North Cascades visits open alpine terrain that is spectacular at any time but particularly so when the alpine larches turn color each fall. Of the three hikes to high passes in the Rainy Pass area- Easy Pass, Maple Pass, and Cutthroat Pass- this hike is the gentlest and delivers the densest collection of larch trees. The pass itself delivers sweeping views of the North Cascades that include many of the highest peaks in Washington State. Once at Cutthroat Pass, there are a number of options for further exploration in the glorious alpine slopes to make a trip up to the pass even more memorable. It's rare to have a trail that is so friendly on both the car and the knees; it's even rarer to find a hike so spectacular that, for the moment, has avoided the overcrowding issues beginning to afflict the Maple Pass Loop on the other side of Highway 20.
Looking for more larch hikes? Consider Easy Pass, Lake Ingalls, the Enchantments, or Grasshopper Pass.
I hiked this trail on a sunny early October day to see the larches. From Seattle, I took I-5 north to Burlington, then followed Highway 20 east across North Cascades National Park until reaching Rainy Pass, where I made a left turn to park in the Pacific Crest Trail North parking area on the east side of the road. The trailhead parking area had just one true parking spot left when I arrived, though the lot was big enough that there would've been plenty of room for additional parallel parking. This contrasted with an earlier trip to Maple Pass, when the lot was overflowing on a weekday.
From the trailhead, I followed the Pacific Crest Trail north towards Cutthroat Pass. The 2000-foot elevation gain on this hike was spread out well over the course of the 5 miles to the pass, meaning that the trail started with a gentle but steady incline as it began climbing through the forest on the southwest slopes of Cutthroat Peak. The trail generally maintained a comfortable dirt tread with only occasionally rocky spots. Occasional breaks in the trees yielded partial views of Black Peak, the high spire across the valley. A little under a mile into the hike, the trail crossed a small stream that made two pretty, cascading drops just above the crossing point.
|Small cascade at a stream crossing along the trail|
|Black Peak view from early on the trail|
|Autumn color near a stream crossing|
Soon after beginning the ascent, the trail entered the first of a number of clearings. In each of the clearings, fiery reds and yellows of berry bushes and other understory vegetation lit up the slopes of the mountain. Larches in varying stages of color change dotted the upper slopes of Cutthroat Peak across the valley; Cutthroat Pass itself was visible at the head of the valley, coated in snow.
|Pacific Crest Trail approaching Cutthroat Pass|
|Larches line the high slopes of Cutthroat Peak|
|Larches of varying shades|
|Autumn and winter colors|
As I ascended the switchbacks, views began to widen. Soon, I could see nearby Corteo and Porcupine Peaks rising above the scraggly larches.
|Corteo and Porcupine Peaks rise above a forest of autumn larches|
|Approaching Cutthroat Pass|
|Dome Peak and the larches|
|Fresh snow and autumn larches on the shoulder of Cutthroat Peak|
|The larches with Frisco, Dome, and Corteo Peaks|
At the pass, views opened up to the south and east. A wide valley was spread out below, with the ridge between Cutthroat and Hinkhouse Peaks defining its perimeter. The high slopes of the valley were lined with golden larches and shallow Cutthroat Lake was visible at the bottom of the valley. Behind Hinkhouse Peak rose the stark ridges of the high peaks surrounding Washington Pass: Silver Star, Kangaroo Ridge, Copper Point, Liberty Bell, Early Winters Spire. To the east, down the valley of Early Winters Creek I spotted the form of the fire lookout atop the double-humped summit of Goat Peak, near Mazama.
|View down to Cutthroat Lake from Cutthroat Pass|
|Silver Star Mountain|
|Dome Peak, Goode Mountain, and Black Peak from the knoll above Cutthroat Pass|
|Larches on the shoulder of Molar Tooth|
|Fall colors along the PCT between Cutthroat and Granite Passes|
The larch forests continued on this side of the ridge, filling the upper slopes of the mountain just below the trail and also adorning the high basins on Hinkhouse Peak across the valley. Most of the trees were at or approaching peak color. While I still can't get over the sheer quantity of larches near Harts Pass and on the Grasshopper Pass hike, the larches along the PCT between Cutthroat and Granite Pass were the most that I have seen anywhere else in the state, substantially more than the smattering of larches that I saw along the Maple Pass Trail and at Easy Pass.
|Larch forest near Granite Pass|
|The Tower and Golden Horn rise above Granite Pass|