RAINY PASS — Fall moved into the neighborhood earlier than usual here in the heart of the North Cascades.

Having basked in record-high temperatures for most of the summer, the Heather-Maple Pass loop trail on the last day of August was getting the first dose of a harbinger of things to come.

Cloudy skies and dry conditions at the start gave way to a gentle rain as we made our way up through the forest toward Lake Ann, the crown jewel of this 7.2-mile trail. By the time we left the lake behind, switchbacking our way to Heather Pass, the rain had turned to snow flurries.

Those first meals on the trail were mighty skimpy, but backpacking feeds the soul for a lifetime

We received a whistle’s welcome from a marmot, which had just scrambled out from under boulders to get a glimpse of the intruders, only to retreat again. He apparently wanted no part of us or the white stuff.

Soon, the snow flurries subsided, and the clouds parted just enough to let the sun peek through. The stunning beauty here could no longer be concealed. We got a glimpse of why this wildly popular fall hike is considered a Pacific Northwest classic.

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APPROACHING MAPLE PASS, the loop trail follows a narrow ridgeline that more resembles a highway to the sky. Below are the glistening waters of Lake Ann. Standing at the trail’s highest point — 6,960 feet — in every direction lies a sea of endless peaks. Black Peak towers above to the west, and Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain to the northeast. Looking southwest into North Cascades National Park, Frisco Mountain and Corteo Peak frame a lush valley that stretches as far as the eye can see.

(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

It’s no wonder the Heather-Maple Pass loop trail has made a top-10 list of best hikes in the nation, according to Rosemary Seifried, recreation program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District. She says the trail’s popularity has exploded in recent years, even before the pandemic saw an uptick in hiking activity.

“Well, for one, it gets a lot of press,” says Seifried, chiding the reporter asking the question. “It’s been written up as one of the best.”

I can vouch that word has gotten out. We met two young women from Wisconsin who made the trip to do this very hike. We also shared the trail with two young men — one from New York, the other from Boston — who were on the last leg of an eight-day, binge-hiking spree. They’d already hiked “The Enchantments” — the popular trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area near Leavenworth — and the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. The early fall weather on this last one on their bucket list didn’t seem to faze them.

Subalpine larches along the trail at Maple Ridge near Heather Pass. (Natalie Kuehler / National Forest Foundation)

As popular as the Heather-Maple Pass loop trail is in the summer, peak season is considered September and October, when the region is bathed in fall colors.

That’s when hikers go for the gold — as in golden larches, a deciduous conifer whose foliage turns golden in autumn — not to mention in search of foliage painted in red and orange. Colder nights also have killed most of the biting bugs by fall and, in most years, the North Cascades by then is free of smoke from summer wildfires.

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“The colors, the bugs have died down, it’s a loop trail and easy access off Highway 20. There’s definite reasons why it’s been popular for so long,” says Seifried. “Relative to other hikes, it’s also not that long, and it’s a fairly moderate hike for the North Cascades. It varies for everybody, but most people like to see hikes that combine high passes with lakes. When you’re up there, it’s like you’re right on the divide (of the Cascades), looking at peaks on the west side and the east side.”

The edge of North Cascades National Park is evident from the ridge between Heather Pass and Maple Pass. (Rick Lund)

Seifried says the loop trail in peak season can attract upward of 1,000 hikers a day. On the busiest days, ranger district officials have seen an overflow of parked vehicles spill from the parking area at the trailhead to the shoulders of Highway 20. The line of vehicles has stretched up to a half-mile in each direction.

That adds more than 1 mile of hiking to the loop trail. More significantly, the number of hikers adds pressure on the already-fragile meadows.

“The heather communities up on the ridges are pretty fragile,” Seifried says. “People sometimes struggle to find places for viewpoints, or to have lunch or take a break. It’s important to stay on the trail.”

Restoration projects are ongoing along the trail. Hundreds of plants have been flown in in recent years to restore and replant in sensitive areas. Those restoration areas are roped off along the trail to deter hikers from walking there.

THERE HAS ALWAYS been a debate about whether to hike the loop trail clockwise or counterclockwise. By turning left at the trailhead on the clockwise route, you get 1,700 feet of elevation gain out of the way early. A counterclockwise route — the more popular option — is a more gradual ascent to climb all of the 2,100-foot elevation gain.

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We chose the path more traveled. It’s a quick 1.25 miles through the forest to the turnoff to Lake Ann, which sits in a talus bowl. Look up from the lake and see where you’re headed — Maple Pass. The half-mile path to the lake is worth it. It will add to your round-trip total, bringing it to 8.2 miles.

Lake Ann sits in a talus bowl, cradled between steep, rocky slopes on three sides. (Rick Lund)

At Heather Pass, a well-used but not maintained trail veers off to Black Peak, and Wing and Lewis lakes, where there are overnight camping options. Continuing on the loop, the section of trail between Heather Pass and Maple Pass is absolutely stunning. This is a good spot to take a lunch break, take selfies and soak in this rooftop view of the Cascades.

Looking southwest from the ridgeline between Heather Pass and Maple to Corteo Peak and Last Chance Pass in North Cascades National Park. (Rick Lund)

After a steep climb over Maple Pass, it’s down a set of switchbacks, but on to more breathtaking views, including Rainy Lake on your right. The last 2.5 miles — which drops 1,700 feet — is best navigated with trekking poles. Figure on about five hours of hiking time, depending on how many breaks you take.

EVEN THOUGH IT’S October, the hiking season isn’t over. Here are five other hikes to consider before the snow flies:

Easy Pass
Leery about overcrowded trails at Heather and Maple Pass loop? Try nearby Easy Pass, just 5 miles west of the Rainy Pass trailhead.

(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

Do it on a lark — or in this case, a larch. A festival of fall colors awaits you.

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The well-signed turnoff on Highway 20 leads you to the start of Easy Pass. Don’t be fooled by the name, however. It’s not necessarily easy. The trip to the top requires an elevation gain of nearly 2,900 feet. But like anything in backpacking, spectacular views are not given easily. They’re earned.

The 3.7-mile trip to the top offers stunning views of Fisher Peak, Mount Arriva and glacier-heavy Mount Logan. The larches in October should be ablaze in gold.

The trail crosses silty Granite Creek on a large log bridge fairly early, then takes you up and down through rolling forest. Cross Easy Pass Creek, and leave the forest behind. Most of the rest of the climb is exposed, including the crossing of a boulder field and switchbacking up a steep talus slope.

A final push up rock steps, and you’ve arrived. Take a load off, have lunch and take in the views. It’s much easier on the way down.

Railroad Grade and Park Butte
All aboard for Railroad Grade. This train’s heading up the southern slope of Mount Baker.

(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

Riding the crest of a moraine created by the receding Easton Glacier, Railroad Grade is aptly named. The trail follows a steady, uniform pitch up the mountain — like a railroad grade.

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Hikers make their way down Railroad Grade. (Rick Lund)

The first leg of the trip — about 2 miles — will take you through beautiful Schriebers Meadow, on a steel bridge over Rocky Creek, up steepening switchbacks and onto heather- and blueberry-bush-laden Upper Morovitz Meadow.

The Railroad Grade trail sits on the west crest of a moraine created by the receding Easton Glacier. (Rick Lund)

It’s here where you get your first full-on view of Mount Baker and all its 10,781-foot-high glory. At the 2.4-mile mark is the Park Butte and Railroad Grade junction. Take a right, head up the stone stairway, and huff and puff up Railroad Grade. The end of the glacial moraine is at mile 3, but the trail continues for another half-mile before deteriorating.

The Park Butte lookout delivers stunning views of Mount Baker. (Rick Lund)

On the way back, if you have time, take the sign at Morovitz Meadow for Park Butte. It’s about a 1,000-foot climb to the historic fire-lookout tower, but well worth the effort. The panoramic views from the tower are breathtaking. To paraphrase Cousin Eddie in the movie “Christmas Vacation”: “It’s a butte, Clark!”

Baker, looking like a giant scoop of ice cream, is in your face, its glaciers glistening in the sun. Looking due west from the “back deck,” you see the red-tinted Twin Sisters Mountains and the Nooksack River Valley.

Hikers make their way up Railroad Grade on the southern slopes of Mount Baker. (Rick Lund)

Rachel Lake and Rampart Lakes
If you’re looking for a hike along the I-90 corridor, this one in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Cle Elum offers great lake and mountain views.

(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

The 3.5-mile trail to Rachel Lake isn’t easy. After cruising the early portion of the trail along Cross Canyon Creek, a good chunk of the 1,600-feet elevation gain comes as you get closer to the lake, and at times it seems you’re high-stepping on tree roots.

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Looking down on one of the Rampart Lakes in the beautiful Alpine Lakes Wilderness. (Rick Lund)

If you’re game, however, the best part of this hike lies beyond Rachel Lake. Rampart Lakes is a collection of pothole-like lakes nestled among boulders and rocky cliffs. They are spectacular, and fun to explore. Rampart Lakes will test your day-trip time frame. It’s 11 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of 2,200 feet.

Scenic Lila Lake and Alta Mountain are also nearby and worth your time, but perhaps better served as overnight destinations.

Spider Meadow
Few meadows in the Cascades rival broad and majestic Spider Meadow, nestled at the end of a rugged cul-de-sac in the Entiat mountain range north of Leavenworth.

(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

It’s only 4.5 miles to reach this alpine playground, with an elevation gain of just 1,400 feet. Along the way, you’ll boulder-hop Box and Chipmunk creeks, and then finally hop from rock to rock and tightrope a log over Leroy Creek, the largest tributary of Phelps Creek. It’s best to bring your trekking poles.

Eventually, you’ll emerge from the forest and step onto this vast meadow, which is split by meandering Phelps Creek and ringed by Red, Chiwawa and Dumbell mountains.

You can continue through the meadow to higher elevations ahead — such as Phelps Basin and Spider Gap — or linger in the meadow to your heart’s content, turn around and head back to the Phelps Creek trailhead.

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Looking into the Lyman Lake basin from Spider Gap. (Rick Lund)

Cascade Pass
You don’t necessarily have to be in peak condition to get spectacular views of peaks such as Eldorado, Johannesburg, Magic, Mixup and McGregor. Cascade Pass is a reachable alpine environment for even the novice hiker.

(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

Even before you hit the trail, the view of Johannesburg Mountain towering 4,000 feet above the circular parking lot is impressive in its own right. The first 2.7 miles of the trail consists of more than 30 switchbacks through the forest. Once you emerge from the trees, it’s an additional mile to the summit, for a total elevation gain of less than 1,800 feet.

Take a seat on the stone bench at the summit, have lunch and peer down into the lush Pelton Basin below. Wildlife can be plentiful. There’s a good chance you’ll see a bear — as we did from this vantage point — mountain goats, marmots and pikas.

Looking into the Pelton Basin from Cascade Pass. (Rick Lund)

The trail straight ahead goes to Stehekin. For an extended day hike, take a left turn, up steeper Sahale Arm trail through subalpine meadows, where even more dramatic vistas await. Peer down into Doubtful Lake along the way. The trail ends at the base of the Sahale Glacier.

At deadline for this story, the Cascade River Road from Marblemount on Highway 20 leading to the trailhead was closed at milepost 16 due to the Pincer Creek fire. Forest Service officials expect to reopen that road after a “season-ending weather event” — usually at least a couple of inches of rain — which often occurs the last two weeks of September or the first week of October. For road updates, hikers can call the Mount Baker Ranger Station at 360-856-5700 or the North Cascades Park wilderness office at 360-854-7245.