After being on my wish list for years, I finally got to do Heather-Maple Pass Loop. This hike checked all of my boxes, and despite its exploding popularity, it’s a top-three favorite hike for sure.
First off, if you want to see fall color and it’s 2018, hit this trail, NOW. The window between stunning fall color and closed roads due to snow for the hike is particularly narrow, and it will likely be fully closed in just a few days. If you are planning in advance to do this hike in future years, plan to go on a weekday. We spent the night in a cabin in the town of Concrete, arriving at the trailhead around 8:30am on a Saturday and just barely got a spot at the trailhead. By the time we were heading down the mountain, we could see cars parked a solid half-mile each way down the highway.
So as I said, if timed correctly this trail offers stunning fall color. Not just vibrant red ground cover, but the stunning golden larch. These unique trees (they only grow at certain elevations and crave cold climates, making them at home in mountainous areas), sometimes called tamaracks, are both coniferous–they have needles instead of leaves–and deciduous in that they drop these needles for winter. Once spring rolls around, green needles emerge. At their peak, the autumn needles are a blazing golden yellow. Similar to when hatch chiles hit grocery stores, there is much rumbling and excitement once word spreads that the larches are turning, and a clamoring to the trails to see their beauty in person.
With this being a loop trail, you have the option of going counter-clockwise or clockwise. Like most things discussed online, trip reports have fervent arguing over which route is best. The general consensus seems to be that clockwise is a very steep climb up, paid off with more remarkable views, while counter-clockwise is easier (and still offers gorgeous sights). We chose counter, and as we slowly navigated down the steep path to the end, we were both happy with our choice. Don’t forget to sign in at the registry!
The counter-clockwise route was one of the most even inclines I’ve ever done. It started out pretty flat in the forest before occasionally getting in the sun to cross a talus slope. The weather that day was predicted to be cold but sunny, and I saw many hikers stopping in the first mile or two to shed layers (remember when layering to be bold and start cold!). I quickly realized that I had made a grave mistake in planning on wearing my long hair down with a fleece headband but had no hair tie once I got hot. Thank goodness for the chivalrous boyfriendo letting me use his Buff as a scrunchie!
A little after a mile up, you have the option to take a spur trail to Lake Ann. WTA said it was a flat 0.6 spur round-trip and worth it, so we decided to see this small alpine lake. The trek was as described, albeit a bit muddy, but it indeed was worth it. I got my first site of larches, dotting the peaks around us. Little did I know I’d soon be up on that ridge for the hike!
Once back on the main trail, we kept climbing to Heather Pass, where many people were resting. We decided to push on closer to Maple Pass in hopes of finding a more secluded lunch spot. We winded up a larch-dotted hillside, with some astonishing Cascade peaks to our north and west, inside North Cascades National Park. Along with many other counter-clockwise folks, this was our first up-close and personal glimpse of larches. It really was something to see the golden-yellow needles, especially against blue skies.
Right around here is where you get to stare right into the bowl you were at the bottom of a few miles ago, with Lake Ann glimmering as the mountain curved around it like a horseshoe. We knew we needed this view for our break at the top. Once we got to a flatter section near the park boundary, lunch was on. The boyfriendo let me know he had a surprise for me. My heart raced, thinking of what it could be (beer? Pasta? Macarons?) before he pulled out of his pack what had to have been a very heavy Pyrex of cold chicken noodle soup. A split-second of disappointment washed over me, as had I known I could have used my Hydroflask bowl to keep it warmer, but then he pulled out a mini stove and pot to heat it! Groups of passers-by were deeply envious of our hot meal at the top, as there was some snow in places and stopping was decidedly colder compared to moving (it was far windier at the exposed top than the trail as well). My Thermarest Z-seat, one of my winter essentials, helped the break go even better with keeping a dry, warm bum.
We hit the trail again, noticing we actually had a bit more climbing to do before reaching the true summit of Maple Pass. At that time of day, parts of the trail were in the shadows enough to have more snow, making us consider putting on our microspikes. In this area especially, conditions can change rapidly, so always prepare with both summer and winter gear and pay attention to trail reports and weather predictions before hitting the trail. We both went without our spikes, but many others did not.
One last jaw-dropping vista awaits you at Maple Pass (see top picture). The colors around us and peaks exploding out of the earth were enough to distract us from the crowds at the top, but not enough for us to notice that the trail down was steep and narrow. Hence began a long slog of walking a few feet cautiously before stopping to yield to uphill hikers (trail etiquette 101!). The trail was so narrow that yielding got difficult (especially if there were dogs present), which likely would not have been as much of an issue on a weekday. This was the one part of the trail where the magic wore off a bit for us. Especially when it’s steep, the starting and stopping constantly was murder on the quads, only made better by a snowy hillside covered with larches.
If going counter-clockwise and there is snow on the trail, better put your spikes on here. Many stretches were shaded and icy, and both the boyfriendo and I ended up slipping and falling in two different sections, luckily only hurting our pride. The trail continued to steeply lurch downwards, losing in 2.5 miles what we had climbed over the first five miles. When you hit a paved trail, you are just a half-mile from the trailhead.
In the end, #LarchMadness ended up not just being a play on March Madness, but actual madness due to the crowds. Despite the hordes of cars in the lot without permits and the dozens of off-leash dogs, most hikers themselves were polite and sticking to trail etiquette. I’d love to make this fall hike an annual trip–but on weekdays only!
Distance: 7.2 miles (7.8 if adding on the spur to Lake Ann).
Elevation: 2250 feet
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass
Bathrooms: Pit toilet at trailhead