Hiking Washington: Heather Maple Pass Loop in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Taking a break on my way down the trail. My 35L red
Thule pack and I look so teeny! (PC: D. Herscovitch)
Though I'd become familiar with Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks on previous trips to Washington, I knew little to nothing about the Cascades. And on a recent trip, my goal was to change that.

Climbing up to Thornton Lakes was the perfect way for me to start getting acquainted with the incredible landscape that is that part of the state. It was a lung buster, but easily do-able in a few hours, even with our relatively late 11am start.

After making our way to the Twisp River Suites post-Thornton Lakes, my partner in crime and I settled in to a beautiful room bigger than my first apartment in Philadelphia with a balcony overlooking the Twisp River.

I'd amassed a list of hikes to choose from over the three days we'd be in the area, and one received glowing recommendations from locals and visitors alike - the Heather - Maple Pass loopMy guidebook dubbed it one of the most exalted of the North Cascades Highway hikes, which, given the landscape, is really saying something.

Getting to the Trailhead

We heard that mid-week post-Labor Day was an ideal time to hit this incredibly popular trail. Not only does the scenery make it popular, it's also super easy to get to; the Rainy Pass trailhead is right off the North Cascades Highway. There's a giant parking lot, typically full of cars dwarfed by massive coniferous trees. and a paved trail to stunning Rainy Lake starts from the same parking lot. I can see how it could easily get crowded during the high season.

It took us less than an hour to get to the trailhead from Twisp, though thanks to a little too much indulgence at the Twisp River Suites continental breakfast, we still got a relatively late 11am start.

Climbing Up to Maple Pass

Though the majority of trip reports I'd read advised hiking counter-clockwise to avoid a ton of elevation gain right out of the gate, we opted to go clockwise. I prefer getting the steep climbing out of the way and giving my knees a break on the way down.

Sometimes, going the opposite way the guidebook says isn't all bad! Coming out of the trees on the up with Rainy Lake far, far below.
 We followed the paved trail to Rainy Lake at the southern end of the parking lot for 0.5 miles, then turned right at an intersection signed for the loop. Continuing another 0.6 miles would've taken us to Rainy Lake, which we debated doing on the way down, but ultimately decided to skip. The trail climbed steadily, switchbacking up through dense woods. With Rainy Lake in view for the majority of the climb, we decided the views we got from above were far superior to those we'd get below.

As we continued to climb, the trees thinned, eventually disappearing, giving way to long switchbacks above treeline through sweeping alpine meadows. We shared the trail with a handful of other people, and I was grateful because it made it easier to capture the sheer grandeur of the landscape in photos.

Between Maple Pass and Heather Pass with Rainy Lake out of view. See if you can spot the hiker on the trail on the left side of the photo!

Rainy Lake and another small lake above it sat to the south, and scree slopes and jagged peaks dotted with what was left of the season's snow in every other direction. Our pace slowed significantly at this point; I found I couldn't stop staring at everything around us, and I quickly found the need to halt progress completely when I wanted to look around to avoid a slip.

Continuing On to Heather Pass

Making our way around Maple Pass, we continued up toward Heather Pass. Friends told us they'd turned around before Heather Pass on an early season hike due to snow, but we found the meadows and trail around the pass completely dry. Clear skies gave us incredible views of nearby Frisco Mountain to the south, Corteo Peak and Black Peak to the west, and Whistler Mountain and the Liberty Bell group to the east.

Continuing down from Heather Pass. Still tough to believe this is a real, live place!

We stopped for lunch at the pass, and I happily pulled out my down jacket to shield myself from the wind. It had been months since I'd been really, seriously cold! As we started the descent from Heather Pass, the trail covered fragile alpine terrain with incredible view after incredible view, including a collection of distant glacier-covered peaks to the north and west.

Descending the Loop with Views of Lake Ann

Lake Ann came into view to our right, surrounded by scree slopes, stands of coniferous trees, and open meadows. I was glad for our choice to do the loop clockwise; it gave us time to take everything in. Passing Lake Ann, we took note of the landscape, carved by glaciers and landslides, and admired the little island sitting in the lake. (Next time, I'm getting an Oru Kayak and bringing it with us!)

Lake Ann and her island.
As we continued descending, nearing deep woods, we took our time in a section that took us through a rocky meadow. It seemed every time we stopped, we heard a different sound. I was becoming familiar with pika squeaks and marmot chirps, which we heard plenty of, as well as the angry chatter of squirrels when we got too close.

But on the way down, I almost tripped over a small flock of birds as they crossed the trail. We stopped in our tracks to watch them, and decided we'd most likely stumbled upon a mama sooty grouse and her babies.

We made it back down to the parking lot about five hours after we started, covering 7.2 miles with 2,100' of elevation gain.

Things to Know Before You Go

The trail is easy to follow, but I was glad to have my guidebook and map. Visit the Okanagan-Wentachee National Forest website for trail conditions. I've also found talking with folks in the area who've done the trail recently helps. The forest service website shows the trail is open mid-July, but the best months to visit are August and September.

The parking lot holds 40 vehicles, which sounds like plenty of room, but I could see how the trail would get crowded in the high season. A recreation pass is required, or simply come with $5 in cash to drop into one of the pay stations in the parking lot.

Though it might feel warm in the parking lot, pack layers. You're in the safety of the trees at the beginning of the hike regardless of the direction you choose to do it, but as soon as you're out of the trees, it gets cold! Snow flurries were reported by hikers only a week after we were there.

It was obvious to see why we got so many glowing recommendations for this hike. I mean, look at the pictures! Washington friends, and non-Washington friends, who's done it? What's your favorite type of wildlife to see on the trail? What part of this hike looks like the best part to you?