Located halfway between Ross Lake and the town of Mazama along the North Cascades Highway (SR-20), Heather Pass and Maple Pass sit just outside the eastern boundary of North Cascades National Park.
This was our first visit to the North Cascades, and we were immediately taken by how beautiful the area was, including the drive along the northern half of the North Cascades Highway Loop. On the way to the trailhead, we paused briefly at the Diablo Lake Vista Point, which offered a stunning view of Davis Peak rising behind the blinding aquamarine reservoir. Like many other remote, alpine lakes, the striking color is the result of glacial flour – a suspension of powdery rock sediments from glacial melt. The color is typically most vibrant during the summer months, when meltwaters are at their peak.
After reading a number of reviews on the Washington Trails Association page – a truly awesome resource if you’re hiking around the state – we decided to hike the 7.5-mile loop counterclockwise. While this direction has a more gradual ascent and steeper descent (not our typical preference), a number of other trail reviewers touted this direction for better views of Black Peak and the North Cascades. While the views were indeed spectacular, we’d imagine that hiking either direction would leave you duly impressed with the alpine scenery. It’s an absolutely gorgeous trail.
Beginning from the Rainy Pass Trailhead, the trail climbs moderately through second-growth forest toward Ann Lake (hiking counterclockwise). After about 1.25 miles, a half-mile spur to the left leads to Ann Lake, a jewel-toned tarn tucked away in a glacial cirque. Wanting to hit the pass before any potential hiking traffic got too heavy, we decided to skip the short detour. Just beyond the junction, the trail gains a ridgeline, climbing above the lake as it meanders up to Heather Pass. After another mile, the trail opens onto a fantastic view of Black Peak and Lewis Lake.
As the trail turns south and continues climbing toward Maple Pass, wildflowers begin to blanket the hillsides. When we hiked in mid-July, the paintbrush, red columbine and western anemone were out in force.
This section of ridgeline also affords a dramatic look at Lake Ann. As we looked across the lake to the northeast, a distant plume of smoke caught our eyes. We later learned that lightning had sparked the Cedar Creek Fire just a couple days before we hiked. While the air quality was still quite good during our outing, it deteriorated quite a bit in the following days. Regrettably, the fire went on to burn more than 60,000 acres in and around Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
While Stephan was totally taken by the Lake Ann overlook, my favorite part of the hike was the next mile or so of trail. The ridgeline from the vista to Maple Pass skirts the edge of North Cascades National Park, and offers a dramatic look at neighboring Corteo Peak.
As we soaked in the panoramic views of the North Cascades, we stopped for lunch atop Maple Pass at an elevation of ~6,800 feet. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and I pretty much had to physically tear myself away from the awe-inspiring views so we could make the return trip.
From the highpoint of the trail, the path immediately begins switchbacking back down. We once again found ourselves in a sea of feathery anemone blooms, with a few last stunning views as we made our way back toward the forest.
With sweeping panoramas, an alpine tarn, and colorful wildflowers, it’s pretty hard to find fault with this trail. There’s a moderate amount of foot traffic, but that seems to be par for the course on most trails of this length around the Cascades. Overall, this trail was one of our favorites in Washington.
Total distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: 2,177 feet