Simply put, one of our top hikes ever
Distance: 8.5 miles round trip (7.2 miles without side trails)
Difficulty: moderately difficult with 2,125′ elevation gain, rocky tread, and some very minor exposure topped off with a knee pounding descent
Best season: late July to early October
Maple-Heather Pass Loop off the North Cascade Highway and Galena Chain Lakes at Mt. Baker had both been high on my bucket list for years. We scheduled a long weekend in September 2014 and, despite questionable weather, made a run for the west side of the state.
On Sunday we made the loop hike around Galena Chain Lakes at Mt. Baker (read about that trip here). This was a wonderful hike that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Mt. Baker. Even if you can’t do the full loop hike, there are some spectacular shorter hikes like at Artist Point and Bagley Lakes.
We had originally planned to hike nearby Lake Ann on Monday and Maple-Heather Pass on Tuesday, but deteriorating weather conditions for Tuesday and strong encouragement from a fellow hiker on the Galena trail convinced us to skip Lake Ann this trip and bump Maple-Heather Pass up a day.
Monday morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast at the Mount Vernon Best Western. The weather looked very threatening outside. I hoped this was just Seattle area marine layer and that the weather forecast up in the mountains would hold. Heather, the friendly young woman who had checked us in the day before, checked us out. At check-in she had expressed interest in taking up hiking so we had given her our guidebook printout for the Galena Chain Lakes hike. At check-out she commented that she was super excited about the hike and she was hoping to do it on her day off that week. I’m hopeful that our encouragement helped create another avid hiker.
It took us roughly two hours to drive from Mount Vernon east along the North Cascade Highway (SR-20) to Rainy Pass. This is a beautiful drive through the heart of North Cascade National Park passing picturesque lakes and waterfalls. We pulled into the Rainy Pass Picnic Area (elevation 4,878’) and geared up for the hike. Any thoughts of the weather clearing up were gone with the skies threatening rain at any minute.
Per the recommendations of every trail guide I had read, we did the hike in the counterclockwise direction which is a gentler climb up. We’d pay for it later, but at least the climb up was relatively moderate in most spots.
Out of the picnic area we took the trail to the right toward Lake Ann (not to be confused with the Lake Ann that we had planned to hike at Mt. Baker). The first stretch of trail climbs through thick forest of fir, spruce, and hemlock. It sprinkled a bit and the mountains were moderately fogged in making for some nice mood shots.
At 1.4 miles we came to the signed junction to the left for Lake Ann—it started raining harder as we made our way 0.3 flat miles to the lake (elevation 5,300’). We made a quick stop to put our rain coats and pack covers on. It rained moderately hard while we were at the lake, leaving me scrambling to grab a few shots before covering up my camera. The weather was disappointing to say the least, but we figured we might as well do the whole loop since we were there.
We returned to the main trail and continued our climb, passing through several nice pika areas.
Shortly after returning to the main trail, the rain let up and soon we were shedding our coats. Then the sun started peeking out. As we climbed out of the forest and into the subalpine zone, views began to open up and the weather improved to mostly sunny skies. I was thrilled! By now we were enjoying views of Lake Ann below to the left while the reds and oranges of fall flamed up the hillside ahead.
As we continued to climb toward Heather Pass, we passed a group of four hikers with at least as many dogs. Later, we’d see another couple at Frisco Mountain and one more couple on the descent down toward Rainy Lake. What a difference from the hordes of people we had seen the day before at Mt. Baker!
By the time we reached Heather Pass at 2.9 miles from the TH (elevation 6,200’), the weather was great and views had really opened up. The hike was becoming everything I had hoped it would be. At the pass, we hiked a short section of the spur trail to Lewis Lake where we found more great views and another hike to add to the bucket list.
From Heather Pass we passed through beautiful areas of heather and rock as we continued to climb toward Maple Pass. Views continued to improve and the grade was quite tolerable. This stretch must certainly be wildflower heaven earlier in the season—don’t scratch this hike off the bucket list quiet yet, we shall return.
We reached Maple Pass (elevation 6,600’) at 3.6 miles from the trailhead. We had jaw dropping 360 degree views.
From there, we continued to climb for another mile before topping out on the shoulder of Frisco Mountain at 7,007’. We took a break here to savor the views and to rest our legs before the steep descent. While the entire hike is stunning, the best views were from here. We were well above timberline, had views in all directions, and fall colors were everywhere. We literally felt like we were on top of the world.
From Frisco Mountain the trail descends at a moderately rapid pace down a skinny and exposed hillside. I was slightly uncomfortable in a few stretches, but nothing too bad. We had views of Lake Ann down to the left and views of Rainy Lake to the right. Once we reached the tree line, the trail widened a bit and the descent got steeper. The last couple of miles were a real knee pounder, but oh so worth it.
Despite the poor weather start, this was one of the most stunning hikes we had ever done. The views and fall colors were stunning, and at 8.5 miles with 2,125’ elevation gain it is just strenuous enough to keep the riff raff out. We absolutely will go back and highly recommend this hike.
We ended our day at Marblemount where we had dinner at the Buffalo Run Inn and then stayed the night in one of their charming rooms in the old 1889 roadhouse. We would head home the next day after a final hike to Blue Lake.
Directions to trailhead: From Marblemount, follow the North Cascade Highway (SR-20) east 51 miles to Rainy Pass near milepost 158. Turn right into the signed picnic area. Privy available.