Thursday, October 5, 2017

Cutthroat Pass via PCT

Autumn larches near Cutthroat Pass
10 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
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 PassLake Ingallsthe 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
Continuing onward, the trail came to a slightly open view of Black Peak and other summits lining the Granite Creek valley. After passing this partial clearing, the trail turned to the north, entering into the valley between Cutthroat and Porcupine Peaks.

Black Peak view from early on the trail
After an initial ascent during the first mile from the trailhead and the flat half-mile that followed, I reached the two principal creek crossings of the hike; the second of these crossings spanned Porcupine Creek. Late in the season, both of these crossings were very easy but I can imagine that Porcupine Creek could be a more difficult crossing with high water early in the season.

Autumn color near a stream crossing
After crossing Porcupine Creek, the trail continued ascending through the forest; at 2 miles, it made a short switchback and then began the long, gradual ascent towards Cutthroat Pass along the side of Porcupine Peak. At this point, I reached the snow line: an inch or two of snow had fallen in the high peaks of the North Cascades just a couple of days earlier. As I hiked, chunks of snow and snow that had refrozen into ice pellets sloughed off the branches of nearby trees. The ice pellets were falling to the ground with some force, so I almost regretted not bringing a helmet; in the end, I made it safely through the forest without getting a golf-ball sized ice pellet to the head.

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
A little over two miles after crossing Porcupine Creek (about 3.7 miles from the trailhead), the trail entered a larch forest as the base of Cutthroat Pass. The trail made another crossing over Porcupine Creek here, which was fairly meaningless in October as there was no water flowing at the time of my hike. Many of the larches in the valley had not yet reached peak fall color and instead assumed a scale of shades from lime green to bright yellow. The snow from a few days earlier provided an exceptional contrast to both the bright colors of the larches and dark rock of Cutthroat Peak.

Larches of varying shades
The deep crimson of the berry bushes also contributed to the spectacular collection of colors on the hike.

Autumn and winter colors
While this final stretch of trail is likely also the steepest of the hike, the climb from the start of the larch forest up to the pass was still fairly easy, with wide, gently-graded switchbacks guiding hikers up along the PCT to the pass.

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
Continued ascent brought continuously improving views: before long, Frisco Peak and Dome Peak joined the party, with faraway Dome Peak and nearby Sinister Peak visible through Maple Pass.

Approaching Cutthroat Pass
Dome Peak and the larches
I ran into a group of three PCT thru-hikers just short of the pass; they were just a few days away from finishing the whole trek, with a good weather forecast holding for their journey along one of the most scenic stretches of this trail. I asked them whether they had any favorite spots on the trail and all three answered, unequivocally, that Washington had been the most scenic of the three states. Gazing out at the snow-and-larch-covered slopes near Cutthroat Pass, I agreed that it was difficult to think of a more beautiful landscape.

Fresh snow and autumn larches on the shoulder of Cutthroat Peak
While larches lower on the trail were not at peak color yet, the ones at the pass had more or less all turned golden, displaying the miracle of autumn color of these deciduous conifers.

The larches with Frisco, Dome, and Corteo Peaks
When I arrived at the pass, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I had arrived. While 2000 feet of elevation gain is still 2000 feet of elevation gain, this trail handled it remarkably well, maintaining a gentle grade throughout; this is a 10 mile hike, but it is on the easy side for being a 10 mile hike.

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
From the pass, I followed a social trail up to the top of a small knoll just south of the pass, on the ridge leading towards Cutthroat Peak. Although the elevation gain on the ascent up this hill was minimal- less than a hundred feet- the improvement in views was substantial. Notably, the tops of Black Peak, Goode Mountain, and Mesahchie Peak appeared above the ridges of nearby Corteo and Porcupine Peaks; these are all giants of the North Cascades and among the hundred tallest mountains in Washington State.

Dome Peak, Goode Mountain, and Black Peak from the knoll above Cutthroat Pass
The knoll also provided a good view of Cutthroat Peak and its subsidiary summit, Molar Tooth. Larches at peak color reached high onto the slopes of Molar Tooth and the upper slopes of Cutthroat Peak itself was lined with golden color, too.

Larches on the shoulder of Molar Tooth
As I still had some daylight to spare, I decided to extend my hike from Cutthroat Pass by following the PCT a mile farther north towards Granite Pass. This added two miles round trip to the ten-mile round trip hike to Cutthroat Pass; there was minimal additional elevation gain, as the PCT was mostly flat in that mile. If you have the time to hike this one-mile stretch of the PCT, you should do so: it is surely ranks amongst the more scenic one-mile stretches of the whole 2,650-mile trail. After departing Cutthroat Pass, the trail stayed high, cutting across the slopes of the unnamed peak north of the pass. The trail passed above gorgeous groves of glittering larches and through rouge patches of huckleberry bushes with nonstop views of Cutthroat Peak, Liberty Bell, Kangaroo Ridge, and Silver Star.

Fall colors along the PCT between Cutthroat and Granite Passes
After the trail rounded a south ridge, the sharp pinnacles of the Needles entered the viewshed. The trail traversed precariously beneath rocky cliffs on the ridge, passing through a rare section of this hike that didn't have a smooth trail tread. As I heard rockfall multiple times on this hike, I nervously rushed through this section to avoid being smashed by a boulder.

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
I did not follow the PCT all the way to Granite Pass, instead aiming for the small knob directly south of the pass. The PCT wrapped around the south side of the knob, so once I was directly downhill on the PCT from the saddle just west of the knob, I picked up a social trail and followed it first up to the saddle and then up to the top of the knob. Being atop this knob- and thus being atop the ridge- opened up incredible views to the north. Below me, larches covered the broad saddle of Granite Pass. Above Granite Pass rose the sky-shattering spire of Tower Mountain; behind Tower, I spotted the more muted pinnacle of Golden Horn. Mount Hardy also cut a dramatic profile when viewed from this angle. I easily spotted the path of the PCT, which was hewn onto the mid-slopes of Tower Mountain after it dropped down from Granite Pass. In the far distance, I made out the profiles of some sharp mountains that I believe must have been Colonial Peak and the Pickets.

The Tower and Golden Horn rise above Granite Pass
I always gush with superlatives whenever I return from a larch hike in the North Cascades and this time is no different. I'll probably eventually temper down the grand claims about this hike in later edits, but as you can tell, I found the scenery along this hike to be very moving. This is already a hike with excellent scenery; come on a clear day when the larches are golden and you'll experience something extraordinary.

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