The larches are coming, the larches are coming! The stunning larch trees are starting to turn (or have already), so now is the time to hit the road! What are you waiting for?
As mentioned previously, larch hikes are a magical hiking destination for many in Washington (and BC, too!). The “Big 4” larch hikes along Highway 20–Cutthroat Pass, Cutthroat Lake, Blue Lake, and Heather-Maple Loop Pass–are all utter bedlam on weekends, and even if there wasn’t a global pandemic, I would STRONGLY urge burning a vacation day for these and going midweek if at all possible, for your own sanity. We had a plan for last Thursday that worked out splendidly, but took some effort.
We had two cars available, so our ‘trail guide’ (the boyfriendo’s very knowledgeable stepdad Mark) suggested a thru-hike of Cutthroat Pass via the PCT to Cutthroat Lake, instead of an out-and-back of Cutthroat Pass. We drove to the Cutthroat Lake trailhead, left one car there, and then all clamored into one car where our gracious driver dropped us off at the Cutthroat Pass (also known as Rainy Pass) trailhead, directly across the road from Heather-Maple Loop Pass‘s trailhead. I was absolutely flabbergasted to see a near-empty lot at 8am on a Thursday. By 1pm Sunday, these two parking lots have overflow cars spilling down Highway 20 for probable a mile and a half!
You are on the Pacific Crest Trail as soon as you get moving from Rainy Pass. We saw no thru-hikers, but in non-global pandemic years you might catch a glimpse of some haggard thru-hikers finishing up this final section of the 2600-mile trail in the fall. We actually saw hardly anyone at all on the trail, which even with somewhat smoky skies felt like an alternate universe. The weather was mild, there were no bugs, and no other people. Whatever I did to deserve it, I’ll keep doing!
There are a few minor creek crossings in the first two miles, enough to perhaps be an issue if there had been recent rain. After the final crossing of the signed Porcupine Creek, it was all dry boots and smiles. While the trek to Cutthroat Pass gains 2000 feet, it is very evenly spread over five miles, so we barely broke a sweat. Even before we spied our first larches, fall yellows and reds were in abundance all around us. You leave the tree cover not long after Porcupine Creek, and the views only get more breathtaking from here.
Yes, the larches were maybe a few days before prime, but they were everywhere! I felt like I was back in Saguaro National Park, only larches were innumerable instead of cacti. I became pretty gleeful, even as we were climbing upward. I just kept gesticulating wildly “WILL YOU LOOK AT THIS?!” We also noticed that the many huckleberry bushes around us had yet to be picked clean yet, so that made a treat as well. While I am sure year-round Cutthroat Pass has earned its place on the ‘100 Classic Hikes in Washington’ list, to see it with larches aflame and sweet, ripe berries is astounding. While Heather-Maple Loop Pass has beautiful mountain and lake views throughout, Cutthroat Pass takes the larch crown in my book.
We made our way to the top, eager for our non-bar lunches. While homemade pizza and cookies on a crappy hike would have still been good, up top a larch-studded pass with expansive views, no bugs, and no crowds, I had myself pretty much thinking I was in heaven, even with the smoke.
We started to see more people coming up the trail, so we tore ourselves away from our warm, flat rock we’d had lunch on. You can camp at several places before and after the pass, besides the pass itself for an overnight. If just doing an out-and back dayhike for Cutthroat Pass, turn around now. Otherwise you can continue northward on the PCT or head downward towards Cutthroat Lake. The larches were still everywhere around us, in varying shades of green, yellow, and gold, with red huckleberry cover and white granite popping out in contrast.
The miles flew by as we headed downward. There were more switchbacks on this route, but once we hit the tree cover again it wasn’t long before we rounded the last switchback, reached a crossing with Cutthroat Creek, and hit a junction. While left takes you back to your car, it is mere feet if you turn right to get to Cutthroat Lake, so our answer was obvious.
Being at a lower elevation, Cutthroat Lake was nowhere near prime for larches, but I can only imagine what a sight it’d be once it turns! We had a few more snacks and admired the rock formations above the bowl.
You can turn around from here, or loop a bit around the lake. It is actually a horseshoe trail, so we found that alternate route to get back to the car after exploring a bit more. The trail to Cutthroat Lake is fairly flat, especially compared to the route from the pass, so enjoy it! Cutthroat Lake can be done on its own as a great easy trek to see larches if with children or dealing with physical limitations. Note there is no camping within 1/2 mile of the lake, so I would not recommend the lake for overnights.
As we left the lake, the fact that we’d done over 9 miles at that point was abundantly clear to my body, even if it had been an easy hike. I wasn’t quite limping, but my dogs were barking! Despite that, I was enamored still with the desert-y views around me. It was abundantly clear contrasting our first trailhead and terrain with our ending trailhead and terrain that we had clearly traversed from Western Washington to Eastern Washington, which made doing the thru-hike that much more special.
I’d highly encourage the thru-hike if at all possible, but either hike on its own is worth the trip. Keep in mind as these are hikes in a mountain pass the weather can turn on a dime in fall, so layers and microspikes are not a bad idea to have on hand.
Distance: Cutthroat Pass via the PCT is 10.0 round-trip according to WTA; Cutthroat Lake is 3.8 RT. For a thru-hike that includes the two, I tracked 10.8 miles on my Runkeeper.
Elevation: 2000 easy, gradual feet if doing Cutthroat Pass. For only Cutthroat Lake, the gain is just 400 feet.
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass
Bathrooms: Pit toilets at trailheads for both Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake.
Food Storage if Backpacking: Safe storage recommended.
Fires: Admittedly I am unsure if they are allowed at the Pass.