On our second day in Winthrop, J, M and I headed back into the mountains for a hike. After much deliberation over the various tempting options in the guidebook, we opted for the Maple Pass Loop. I will admit that we were slightly sceptical when we read the description: surely no hike could really deserve that many superlatives? Still, it was compelling enough that we decided we had to see it for ourselves.
It started with a trail in the woods. A few miles east of the Washington Pass overlook, high enough that the air was cool at the trailhead even though the sky was a clear blue speckled with clouds. We climbed steadily through old growth trees and small alpine meadows before emerging to views of Lake Ann that made us gasp out loud. Brilliantly blue waters, a tiny island, slopes of rock and shale all around. We were high above the water but low on the side of the cirque that enclosed the lake, with the trail still climbing ahead.
When we reached Maple Pass at 6,600 feet, it was hard to imagine that views later in the hike could surpass the ones in front of us. On one side of the pass lay Lake Ann, now a very long way below. On the other were peaks with pocket glaciers, high spires, and alpine meadows sprawling down to the treeline. We had assumed we’d be heading down from here, but when I checked the guidebook it turned out we had another mile of climbing to go.
From the pass, the trail switchbacked rapidly to the ridge at the top of the cirque. Every corner opened up a new view. Every ten steps we paused to marvel and comment how it couldn’t possibly get better. Ten steps later, it did. Emerging onto the ridge, the jagged angles of Corteo Peak loomed darkly over us. Far off in the distance we could see blue peaks crowned with crevasse-riven glaciers. Frisco Peak, our destination, was still a ways off and far above us to the west. Lake Ann was just a glittering blue dot a thousand feet down.
And still we hadn’t seen anything yet. Each time we assumed we were headed for the high point of the hike, we’d crest another ridge and see the trail still stretching upwards ahead of us. Every time, the views from the latest ridge would be better than the last.
We reached a point where we not only understood the number of superlatives in the original trail description; they no longer seemed adequate. We literally ran out of adjectives and just gaped in stunned silence at the views around us.
And then, 2,500 vertical feet after leaving the trailhead, we finally reached the high point.
It was beyond stunning. When I looked up at these peaks from Washington Pass on our drive to Winthrop, I never imagined I’d be standing on top of one just two days later. To our east, the trail curved back down the ridge with the insane drop down to Lake Ann on one side and Corteo Peak towering over the trail to the other. To the west, alpine meadows fell away sharply to a hanging valley cradling a small lake.
From there it was a steep, rapid descent through the beautiful meadows to a very exposed section of trail overlooking Rainy Lake. I had thought Diablo Lake looked unreal, but Rainy Lake was a whole different level of intensity. As the trail continued its plunge back into the forest, glimpses of the lake accompanied us until the very final stretch before the trailhead.
We’ve done some incredible hikes in our time, but this one was right up there in the top three. Nothing in the guide book description was remotely exaggerated. It’s a well-kept trail, a substantial but easy climb (just under 2,500 feet total), and for a relatively short hike (13km) the variety and scale of the views are amazing. It didn’t have quite that strange alien quality of the Mount St. Helen’s hike, and for that reason I’m not totally sure it can claim the #1 spot, but for the sheer quality of the views I think it’s unparalleled. One more reason to love the North Cascades.