Blue Lake – North Cascades

While my wife sat in the sun on a large granite lakeside boulder, at the outlet to Blue Lake, I circumnavigated Blue Lake in a counter clockwise direction. It was slow going at times through the boulder fields, but I got my reward with some "just right light" at the far end of the lake.

I was 3/4 of my way around the lake shore when I took this photo of the boulder field and the golden tamarack on the south shoreline of this lovely alpine cirque lake.


THE STORY: I checked the weather forecast for the North Cascades, and found two days of weather, that didn’t look like sunshine but didn’t look like rain. I wanted to squeeze a few more high country hikes in, before the snow arrives and covers the trails for another winter.

There were three quality hikes on my "want to do" list, which I had not done before. Though a long drive from our home in Eastern Washington, I thought we could work in at least one of the medium length day hikes in (Harts Pass to Grasshopper Pass on the PCT), and the one on my list that was the shortest and easiest to access (Blue Lake). I wanted to scout the road to the trailhead for the third.

I was pleased to know, that even with the "iffy" weather, my wife was wanting to do the hikes with me and was willing to spend an October night camped in the back of our pickup truck. If we camped at Harts Pass, I knew it might be a tad cool at night.

So off we went, early in the morning on 8 October 2014. We drove to the tiny town of Mazama, Washington(really a combined: gas station, cafe, store, sporting goods items outlet run by some nice people). Then the driving slowed as we headed up the winding asphalt road, traveling the Methow River valley. Interesting cabins and rock climbing parking, along the way. That road eventually turns to gravel.

Then you turn sharply up a narrow, steep, winding, with blind switchback dirt road, which leads you up the Rattlesnake Creek drainage to a high saddle in a forest fire burned area called Harts Pass. It is slow going to drive this stretch of road safely.

In late August of 2013, I had driven my RAV4 (sold with 200,000 miles on it, when we bought another four wheel drive pickup truck with canopy in August of 2014), to Harts Pass and had camped at Meadows campground (now in a burned over area). The wind was fierce when I arrived, so I pitched my inexpensive "car camping tent", up close and on the lee side of the RAV4, to get a night’s sleep.

The next morning I had a wonderful hike north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Harts Pass, past Buffalo and Windy Pass and then up around Tamarack Peak, south of Foggy Pass. A fine day hike.

Now on this October day in 2014, I wanted to hike south from Hart Pass on the PCT as far as Grasshopper Pass, if my wife and I would have time to complete the hike before dark.

My wife and I left the "south" PCT trailhead near Harts Pass at about 2:30 pm. With it getting dark around 7 pm in October, we agreed we would turn around at about two hours of hiking, wherever that might be. As it turned out that was about 3.5 miles down the trail and a full one mile short of Grasshopper Pass. But what a beautiful hike it was, even in mostly cloudy weather. The Tamarack Pine (local name for the larch, which is conifer, that sheds its needles each autumn), were in prime bright gold and yellow color. So we got our reward.

From this point on the PCT you are less than 40 miles to the Canadian Border. We wondered as we hiked, if we might meet up with a PCT through hiker, trying to finish off the "to Canada" section of trail, before the snow arrived. We did. A healthy fit (of course) young man with a larger pack than I have seen most PCT through hikers carrying. I asked him what his PCT "trail handle" was. He smiled and said "Ninja". He had backpacked from Cascades Locks (where the PCT crosses the Columbia River from Oregon to Washington). He was doing the entire PCT from Mexico to Canada in "sections".

After he completed the through Washington to Canada PCT trail, he said he had only one more 200 mile section in Northern California to complete, then he would have achieved his goal of hiking the entire trail from Mexico to Canada. Hats off to solo backpackers like Ninja. I met a similar through hiker north of Mt. Jefferson a few years ago and he too was doing the hike..solo (Little Buddha was his trail handle).

So Ninja headed north up the PCT toward Harts Pass, and we continued on south toward Grasshopper Pass. After two hours of steady hiking, my wife and I shed our day packs in a brilliant copse of larch, and ate a trail meal, hydrated, and took a brief rest. I had already determined that I likes the south section of the PCT from Harts Pass, much better than the north section, I had hiked last year.

We took it slow over the mud slides area of trail on the way back to the trailhead. We were surprised that the hike back out was very close to the same time we had hiked out on the trail (two hours). But we reached our pickup truck right before dark, and the temperature had already started dropping.

We discussed camping at the Meadows campground, as I had the previous August. But we made the decision to drive down to Mazama and camp at the Early Winters campground on the Methow River there. It would be much warmer at night with the loss of altitude, and we would have all the rough dirt road driving behind us, when we got up the next morning.

First though, we took a short side drive north through the fading light, so I could show my wife the route up to the Slate Peak lookout. We stopped at a pullover with a view and restroom to eat dinner in the warmth of the pickup truck cab. In the fading light I saw a small tent/bivy sack shelter set up at the edge of the pullover, close to the trail. Ninja and I met halfway across the parking lot, smiled, and shook hands.

I asked Ninja if he would like to share in some of our decadent, junk food, car camping supplies. He agreed that, that would be wonderful, so I opened up the back of the pickup truck and offered an assortment of our "travel and camp" food. A peach turnover seemed to please him the most, and a crate or two of potato chips, and some dark chocolate. We also offered him a cold diet Pepsi from our cooler, but we got so wound up in our trail talk, I’m not sure if he ever got one or not. He was a nice young man.

We left Harts Pass in the dark and drove carefully down to Mazama. At least at night, with headlights, we would know if a vehicle was coming the other way, on the narrowest sections of the road. None came the other way.

We got a campsite at Early Winters ($4.00 for the night for us old folks – senior discount), and slept through the night, though with an almost full moon, it stayed bright outside, as we crawled into our bed in the back of the truck.

Next day we were awake before dawn, so we quietly pulled out of our campsite, and headed west up over Washington Pass to the trailhead for our Blue Lake hike (a short hike of about 5 miles round trip. There were only two other vehicles at the nice trailhead so we knew it wouldn’t be a crowded trail, on this popular and well publicized hike.

We hiked to the lake in a scenic bowl, surrounded by larch, and with great views of the Early Winters Spires on one side and Cutthroat Peak off in the distance on the other side of the lake outlet.

I saw, what looked like a "route" through the boulder field on the south side of the lake, so I asked my wife if she would mind waiting for me while I tried hiking all the way around the lake. It was sunny, there was a huge boulder of granite to picnic on, and she had a good supply of her favorite chocolate (I carried the only day pack on this hike).

So with camera in hand, I worked my way all the way around Blue Lake, wishing I had better light (it was still fairly early in the morning), but thankful for some of the memory photos I was able to get.

We met an older lady hiking with her dog, when I rejoined my wife at the Blue Lake outlet. She was from …. Mazama, Washington. She knew the area well and was generous in sharing some great "future hikes" information with us. I wrote down the details.

Then my wife and I took the quick (all downhill) hike back down to our truck and headed west. We crossed Rainy Pass and when we got to Marblemount, Washington we turned to drive ten miles up the Cascade River. It was a place we had never driven, and there is some hiking in that area, that has been on my "want to do" list for too long. We did the short reconnaissance drive, then retraced our route to Marblemount and headed west to Rockport.

Next, we drove to Darrington, Washington and then over to the I-5 freeway to start our way back home (loop route – – we had come over the North Cascades Pass highway and we would return over Snoqualmie Pass). We came to some road construction, where we were first in line to be brought to a stop, by a flagman. They were repairing the road from a massive landslide. Then it hit me. We were at Oso. In March of 2014 the huge landslide had buried and killed 43 people. It made national news. The size of scale of the mudslide was difficult to comprehend, even though we were parked right at where the mudslide finally had ended.

I asked the flagman if I had time to exit our pickup and snap a few photos. He said "five minutes", so I got out and took a couple of photographs of this tragic site.

We had driven a lot of highway miles in the two days gone from home. We had taken a nice 7 mile round trip hike on the PCT from Harts Pass at the end of one day and another 5 mile round trip hike at Blue Lake at the beginning of another day. The cost for our overnight stay (pickup truck camping), along the Methow River had been just four dollars, and with a clear night sky and full moon thrown in for good measure.

We had also scouted the trailhead access for a future hike. We got back home at 9 pm on Thursday the 9th of October. We unloaded the pickup truck (but didn’t unpack all our hiking and camping gear), took a hot shower and headed for bed. A fun two days and with some great autumn color and a little much needed and appreciated hiking "exercise" thrown in.

OMT ~ 19 October 2014.

Posted by oldmantravels on 2014-10-21 14:00:56

Tagged: , Arch tree , Blue Lake , North Cascades , day hikes , alpine lakes , reflections , autumn color North Cascades , Cutthroat Mountain , North Cascades Highway 20

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