The Pacific Northwest is a place of vivid contrasts. High, jagged snow-capped mountains and smooth volcanic cones. Dry, parched flat deserts in the east, a rain-soaked west coast, cold winters, scorching hot summers. And that’s just to mention a few.
As we discovered camping last week, it’s possible to experience these contrasts on the same July day. We crawled out of our tent at Winthrop at 7.30am, as the sun moved beyond our protective tarp and blasted the canvas with its mid-summer heat. By 10am it was 95F, and with little shade, we decided to escape to the mountains to cool down.
A quick trip to Winthrop to gather some hiking information, and we were on the road to the North Cascades National Park, with the Maple Pass hike as a destination. As we drove up the road and the Early Winter Spires (see photo album) came in to view, it was no surprise to see snow banks clinging to the spectacular mountain vistas. It was still in the mid-80sF when we arrived at the parking for the hike, but under the shade of the of the forest canopy, it was remarkably pleasant indeed.
The walk climbed steadily through dense, moss encrusted trees, crossing huge, wide avalanche chutes blooming with wild flowers and the occasional snow bank that persisted in the cool, dark of the forest. After an hour or so, we emerged on to an open, rock-strewn slope high above Lake Ann. The views were spectacular, but with little shade on this side of the lake, it was darn hot.
We sheltered behind an isolated tree to have lunch and try to figure out where the trail went. There was no snow where we were, on the sunny side of the lake. But we knew the trail circled high above Lake Ann, and on the other side of the valley the trail was nowhere to be seen, hidden below the extensive snowpack that still had to melt from winter.
We decided to push on, up some switchbacks to Heather Pass, a high saddle with superb views of Black Mountain. It was here that an 8 foot snow bank blocked the trail. I was pondering scrambling up it, but then noticed a distinct lack of footprints in the snow – a sure sign we’d reached the end of Maple pass until the snow melts. This was confirmed by a passing pair of hikers.
So with little choice, we retraced our steps to the car. vowing to return one day when the trail was no longer impassable. I guess that’s about 3 weeks in late August, before summer slips quietly away and the blanket of winter snows return. The hiking season isn’t too long in these parts!