Hiking Washington: Windy Pass via the Pacific Crest Trail and an Off-Trail Summit of Tamarack Peak

Picking my way along the PCT. (PC: D. Herscovitch)
When you've got four days to hike in one of Washington's most incredible landscapes, narrowing down options seem impossible. But who better to ask for help than locals, especially locals who work in an outdoor store?

Our first two days covered two moderately challenging, popular, yet somehow uncrowded hikes to Thornton Lakes and Heather-Maple Pass. We dropped in to the Mazama Store on our way back from Heather-Maple Pass to grab provisions, and paid a visit to Goat's Beard Mountain Supplies.

I shared options I'd come up with, but the staff member on duty told us Windy Pass via Hart's Pass was one of the main destinations in the area. Beyond Hart's Pass, travel on the relatively flat hike would give us expansive views in all directions, a chance to hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the option for off-trail travel to the top of 7,321' Tamarack Peak. It sounded perfect.

Getting to the Trailhead

Spoiler alert: the drive to the trailhead was terrifying. Our route to what promised to be an easily accessible and relatively flat, yet stunning portion of the PCT, began in Twisp. We drove north on the North Cascades Highway, turned on to Lost River Road, and continued on past the tiny town of Mazama. Eventually, the surface of Lost River Road, now NF-5400, changed from pavement to dirt, from dirt to dirt and gravel and then things got interesting.

The road got steep and narrow, giant boulders and potholes threatened our trusty rental car's suspension, and sizable drop-offs and cliffs made my stomach drop. More than once, I considered what we'd do if we ran into oncoming traffic. Many of the sizable dropoffs came around curves where the road didn't allow room for cars to pass each other. Luckily, we had the road to ourselves.

Finally at the trailhead in one piece! My blood pressure spiked, for sure, but it was worth it.

Near the trailhead, we came to a fork and turned left on NF-500 to visit  Meadows Campground and take a look around before we started hiking. Backtracking on NF-500, we turned back on NF-5400 and headed for the trailhead, which simply dropped us right on top of the PCT.

Hiking to Windy Pass

The PCT covers over 2,600 miles of incredible country in the western, winding all the up to Canada from Mexico. I'd read Wild years ago and was in the middle of I Promise Not to Suffer, which made standing on the PCT feel pretty special. It's one of those footpaths that felt almost magical as soon as I stepped on to it, thinking about the others who'd been there before.

In Washington, the trail covers hundreds of miles of beautiful high country in the Cascades before reaching its terminus in British Columbia. The day trip from Hart's Pass to Windy Pass gives hikers non-stop views of spectacular scenery, assuming the weather is good, because it starts high and stays high. That means there's often snow to contend with, but on our early September adventure, it was completely clear.

Mellow trail, stunning views, beautiful flowers, does hiking get any better than this? (PC: D. Herscovitch)
From the parking lot, the trail climbs so slightly it's hardly noticeable up to the day hike's high point at 6,900'. The views truly are non-stop with Mount Ballard (8,301') and Azurite Peak (8,420') to the southwest and countless peaks in the Pasayten Wilderness to the east. The trail is easy to follow, but narrow at points, and I found myself wanting to stop as I looked around for fear of tripping an tumbling down a giant scree slope.

With Slate Peak (7,440') behind us, we covered 3.5 miles of trail to Windy Pass. Between the views to the west and glimpses we got of the peaks to the east, and grassy knolls dotted with what was left of the season's wildflowers, it was tough to keep my eyes on the trail at all. The trail winds past Buffalo Pass, sticks to the western slope of the ridge, then gently climbs to Windy Pass. At this point, hikers get an incredible look at the Pasayten Wilderness, the largest roadless area in Washington.

Look closely and see if you can spot the yurt in the trees. Not a bad place to overnight!

I could see taking beginner hikers on this stretch of trail, as it's relatively flat and there's little work required for an exponentially high reward, but they'd be spoiled for life. For us, it was a chance to give our knees a reprieve for a day without sacrificing exploration and trail miles.

Climbing Tamarack Peak (7,290' )

You can easily make Windy Pass a perfect turnaround point, but we opted to head to the top of Tamarack Peak before turning back. It's an additional 1/4 mile one way, depending on which route you choose, but it required off-trail travel - something I hadn't done much of since leaving Alaska in 2007. And I was a little intimidated.

When you're traveling off trail, route choice is incredibly important, and often, things look a lot different up close than they do from far away. We opted to travel up the mountain's southeast ridge to save time, and because it looked the most mellow from where we could see. (Trip reports I'd read also had hikers continuing along the PCT toward Foggy Pass and ascending from the Southwest ridge.)

Partway up Tamarack Peak, looking down at the PCT far below with the southwest ridge straight ahead. (PC: D. Herscovitch)
Overall, it was a straightforward, short off-trail ascent. We picked our way up without incident, covering steep meadows and loose rock, but never both at the same time. The views from the top were stunning, and in addition to peaks and hills for miles, we also saw rain clouds moving in. We dropped right down from the summit toward Indiana Basin, found the PCT again, and made our way back toward Hart's Pass and the car. Take a look at our entire route here.

Things to Know Before You Go

Who knows what this is? (For real, answer
in the comments if you do, I can't figure it out!)
Do this hike. Just do it. Especially if you enjoy spectacular views without elevation gain.

Just kidding, there's more! Grab a copy of this book and take a look before you go, though this hike, including the Tamarack Peak ascent, is super straightforward. Between my guidebook and wta.org, we got plenty of information to plan the trip. Tent camping is available at Harts Pass and Meadows Campgrounds for $8 per night, plus, $5 per additional vehicle, but no reservations are accepted.

Be prepared for a harrowing drive up the road, and down, especially if the weather is iffy. The road was dry and we didn't run into a single car on the way up or down, but we got lucky. Having a 4WD high clearance vehicle is definitely recommended.

If you're planning a hike in the area, including this hike, bring layers and be prepared for changing weather. It was 20ºF cooler up at the pass than it was in Mazama, and the temperature dropped into the low 40's when the rain clouds rolled in.

Do you prefer hikes with a lot of up and down, hikes that are flat, or a little bit of both? Have you been on any portion of the PCT, or done this hike? We'd love to hear from you!