We were out of town for a few weeks at the end of September, and I thought we had missed out on our annual trek to see the larches turning colors. However, last Friday it turned out we had an entire day free for an adventure. The weather looked drippy, but not horrible, so we packed our rain gear and got an early start up the North Cascades Highway. We made a couple of brief bathroom stops, and one stop to photograph the fire damage in Newhalem.
We pulled into the trailhead around 11:30, 3 1/2 hours after we left home. I was pleasantly surprised to find the road off the highway was paved. There were 7-8 other cars already in the parking lot, and some folks were returning for their hike as we were gearing up.
We had driven through rain on the way up the highway, but I was relieved it wasn’t raining when we started our hike. However, we had only walked a minute or so before it started drizzling. The steady drizzle was with us for the entirety of our hike. Thankfully, temps were in the low 50s, so it wasn’t too miserable.
The hike to Cutthroat Lake is a steady, gentle grade upward. It starts in scruffy, uninspiring forest, but after we had walked maybe a mile, the forest started feeling more wild, more like wilderness.
Huckleberries line the trail, and they provided brilliant color on this gray day. An avalanche clearing gave us a good view over to the other side of the valley, where golden larches were interspersed with green pines and firs. Clouds hovered low over the scene.
Because it was lunch time, the kids were dragging a bit, and I kept saying, “I think we’re almost there!” I suggested they pull out snacks to munch on while they were walking. I didn’t feel like sitting in the rain and getting cold before we got to the lake. When you are close to the lake basin, the trail branches, and we found the signs confusing.
Take the left fork to continue to the lake. Encourage your kids that it’s not much farther, really! At this point, there is a log bridge over a creek, which was slippery and a little scary for some of us, but Gabe and other hikers made it over with no problems.
Annika and I chose to rock hop, and we were able to keep our feet dry doing that. I imagine earlier in the year, when there is spring snow melt, you’ll have to take the bridge. Larches start to appear here; there are a few ups and downs, and one more creek crossing before you arrive at the lake.
Cutthroat Lake is ringed by high peaks, and golden larches dot the forest down to the water’s edge.
The meadow grasses are a tawny hue. It really felt like winter is coming soon. It was still sprinkling, so I strung up a piece of plastic to some trees, and created a small shelter to sit under.
I had brought my little stove and pot to heat up some water for cocoa. The hot liquid really hit the spot, and it was so nice not to have to worry about getting wet while we rested. A few other people came and went while we ate, but otherwise it was quiet and peaceful at the lake. The kids remarked that it was beautiful, and that we should definitely come back. I wasn’t sure how the long drive and inclement weather would affect them, but I was relieved that they found it as rewarding as I did.
Our respite from the weather was wonderful, until we were getting packed back up, and one of the cords came undone from the tree. Water that had pooled on the tarp spilled directly onto Gabe. Not a nice way to get a shower. The kids were both getting chilled by this point, so we got warmer hats and gloves out for our walk back. Annika decided to put her long johns on. Of course walking helps us warm up, but sometimes we need more layers than we think we will when we start. Chemical handwarmers helped Annika get warmed up faster, too. It’s the time of year where it becomes more important for us to make sure our packs are fully stocked with gear for the cold and wet. Sometimes I feel frustrated with how much gear we carry, but then we get a day like this where we actually use almost everything we bring.
The walk back took half as long as going up, it seemed, and I was kind of sad to be leaving. It’s such a long drive, and I wanted to spend more time out in nature. But the days are short and cold at this time of year. Everyone changed into dry clothes before the drive home, and gathered food and books around us. We made it back home around 8:30 or 9:00.
If You Go:
This hike is 4 miles round trip, and 440 feet elevation gain. Drive Hwy 20 east all the way to Washington Pass. A few miles past the pass, there will be a road off to the left that is marked clearly for the Cutthroat Lake trail head. It’s about a mile up this paved road to the parking area. There is a privy there; you’ll need your NWForest Pass to park.