Winter is coming, and before it does, you'll want to make the most out of hiking on the west side of the North Cascades.
Recent fabulous weather aside, the rainy season looms and snow can start accumulating as early as mid-October at the higher elevations, meaning that only a few precious weeks remain for hiker access to popular trailheads in the high country, said Rowena Watson, a visitor services assistant at the North Cascades National Park office on Highway 20 in Sedro-Woolley. Watson offered her suggestions for fall hiking in nearby areas of the North Cascades National Park and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Her favorite fall hike in the region is Yellow Aster Butte, a strenuous trek up the ridges east of Glacier. It's stunning even in cloudy weather, when leaden skies hug the luscious green alpine meadows and the bold blue tarns (small glacial lakes). It's even better on a sunny day, with a vista that encompasses the high peaks of Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan and others. Along the way, you'll clamber over debris below winter avalanche chutes and see wild blueberries with their fiery orange fall foliage and purplish fruit. Strewn in a valley near the peak is a collection of rusted mining equipment left behind by prospectors from decades ago.
“I think the most fun would be Yellow Aster Butte, that's a great one in the park,” Watson said. “Just the possibility of those great views ... the valley might be a little fogged in, but the ridge itself is spectacular.”
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But for families with small children or those who seek an alpine view without the glute-busting effort, Watson recommends the Thunder Knob Trail about 10 miles east of Newhalem or the Cascade Pass Trail off Cascade River Road outside Marblemount — both in eastern Skagit County. In addition, she said, there are several easy trails around the park's visitor center on Highway 20 in Newhalem.
“Those often can be very colorful in the fall,” Watson said.
Cascade Pass Trail is moderate day hike of 3.7 miles (one way) to reach the breathtaking 1,700-foot valley with its impressive view of Sahale Glacier. Adventurous day hikers can press on with a difficult but rewarding 2.2-mile burst to the glacier itself, Watson said.
“That's our signature hike, that's probably our most impressive hike,” with some switchbacks and a modest elevation gain. The trailhead is “open till the snow flies,” even though Cascade River Road had been scheduled for repair closure earlier this month, Watson said. “It's a spectacular vista. You get to see the big glacier and good fall color. It's as good as it gets in the park.”
Fiery foliage includes sparkling larches, huckleberry, mountain ash and vine maple, she said. Hiking blogs at the Washington Trails Association ( wta.org) note that recent travelers have seen bears and a variety of other wildlife — including golden eagles, grouse, ptarmigan, chipmunks and pika.
Thunder Knob Trail, which is great for small children, starts from the Colonial Creek Campground near milepost 130 on the north side of Highway 20. It's a 3.6-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 425 feet. Hikers will see towering mountain peaks, avalanche chutes and interesting geologic features such as alluvial fans deposited by flooding in 2003 and 2006. Although this is a longer drive to the trailhead, small children can be amused and burn off energy with stops along the way such as Cascadian Farms outside Rockport or the Newhalem visitor center.
Watson reminds fall hikers to watch the weather because conditions can change swiftly. Dress warmly and bring extra layers of clothing, she advised.
“It's going to get cold faster, especially at the higher elevations. It's striking how much cooler it is,” she said.
Parking in the North Cascades National Park ( nps.gov/noca) and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest ( fs.usda.gov/mbs) requires a seasonal Northwest Forest Pass or a $5 day-use pass, available from the Glacier Public Service Center east of Glacier on the Mount Baker Highway (360-599-2714); the North Cascades National Park office on Highway 20 in Sedro-Woolley (360-854-7200); and from the park's visitor center in Newhalem (206-386-4495). All have clean restrooms and both the Newhalem and Glacier centers have a few natural history exhibits and impressive relief maps of the North Cascades.
Hours at all three information centers are varied and seasonal, but all are now open daily for maps, trailhead directions and other questions . For additional information online, search the name of the trail you plan to hike or check the Washington Trails Association website.