Today, Linda set up a lounge chair by the Skagit River and read to her heart's content, while I headed out to do the Maple Pass Loop Trail on the eastern boundary of North Cascades National Park.
Technically, this fantastic trail with incredible mountain views is in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, but we made it part of our visit to North Cascades.
I estimated it would take me about four hours to do the 7-mile loop - I was wrong due to a couple of side trips and stopping to take 175 pictures. It took me five hours, but this is one of the most scenic trails I've ever hiked, and it was worth every step of the challenging 2,000-foot elevation gain.
From the parking lot there is a trail sign for Rainy Lake, Lake Ann, and Maple Pass. You can access the Maple Pass Trail from either direction, but most people do it counter-clockwise by starting off following the Lake Ann Trail.
Going counter-clockwise, it's a gentler climb, you can see Lake Ann from above a good deal of the time, and the views are outstanding. The downside is the hike down is much steeper and can be really hard on the knees.
Going clockwise, it's a much steeper hike up to the highest point on the trail, and you may exhaust yourself before you get to the really good views.
I went counter-clockwise since I had hiking poles and was okay with the steep descent. Plus, that was the direction recommended by others that had done it before.
The first half mile through the forest was much like our hike on the Blue Lake Trail a couple of days ago, but it was a bit steeper. Then it opened up exposing the magnificent fall colors.
The trail went back into the woods where I met a couple that had just seen a bear a few minutes earlier. Once again, I just missed it.
I took a photo of the trail behind me from where they were.
Now, because this trail is in the National Forest rather than the National Park, dogs are allowed. And there must have been at least 100 on the trail. Even folks with dogs said they saw a bear. Sheesh.
Eventually, the trail forked with the Lake Ann Trail veering off down to the left (sources say 1.25 miles in, but I didn't verify this).
I decided to take the short spur to the lake. In hindsight, it was an unnecessary half-mile or so detour. But I got a good look at the lake and surrounding colors at eye level.
I could also see the Maple Loop Trail going up beside the lake, and I was then wishing I hadn't done this little side trip as I had to backtrack and then climb to where I would have a great view from above.
After just a few minutes at the lake, I returned to the loop trail and started across the rock slide in the above photo.
That was the roughest section of trail on the feet, but it wasn't too long.
More colors along the way.
And here is a view of Lake Ann from above - little did I know it would get much better.
Soon, I came to Heather Pass (sources say 2 miles in). The overall loop trail is often referred to as the Heather Pass - Maple Pass Loop.
Across from that sign is a short side trail ....
to a great viewpoint and lunch spot.
I took a little break and had that view all to myself before heading back to the main trail among the spectacular foliage.
The hike up to Heather Pass and back, makes a great 4-mile out-and-back trek, especially if you include the little side trail. I talked to some folks that were doing that.
The colors were just unbelievable, and I was wishing I could just beam Linda up to see them.
A couple of little switchbacks later was this view with a small, emerald lake tucked in below the mountains.
Moving on up and around, here was a higher view of Lake Ann.
I'm not sure how many times I just stopped and said "WOW!!", but it was a lot.
From there, the terrain changed and the trail became a little steeper climbing up to the saddle.
I arrived at the National Park boundary and more outstanding views. I thought that was the highest point on the trail, but I quickly learned I had to scale two more ridges to get to the high point.
Again, I talked to more people that were hiking to the boundary sign and returning rather than completing the loop. That saved them the last two steep climbs and the knee-jarring descent. There were certainly fewer people on that upper section of the loop.
As I continued along the trail, I got my first look at the distant, snow-covered peaks.
After the short but steep trudge up to the top of the next ridge, I paused to take in the panoramic view. I took these photos panning from left to right with the last photo showing the climb up to the high point of the trail.
Looking down on parts of the trail I had just come up.
Moving on, I took this shot of the hikers behind me that were preparing to follow me up to the last ridge.
Another National Park boundary sign at the high point of the loop.
It took me three hours and twenty minutes to get to that spot after a couple side trips, a snack break, and stopping every few feet to take in the beauty and snap a few pictures.
Fortunately, two thirds of the loop was complete by then, AND I didn't have to go up over those rocks in the background. The trail is on the left in the photo above and descends from there.
Oh, and this is the fantastic view down over the switchbacks.
After a ten-minute break and talking to some guys who took my photo, I started down as more clouds were moving in.
More brilliant colors that I couldn't see from above.
This was my last look at Lake Ann and beyond to the west.
After the switchbacks, the trail leveled off a little in this gorgeous area.
Soon, I got my first look at Rainy Lake, and then the trail got much steeper all the way to the bottom.
It was a bit daunting to know I needed to get all the way down to Rainy Lake and the highway in time to reach the Jeep and drive back to the campground to make it within the timeframe I told Linda I'd be back.
There never was a full view of Rainy Lake, but here's another obstructed look at the lovely blue water.
After that, I pretty much put the camera away and concentrated on my footing until I got to the paved path leading to Rainy Lake (right) and to the parking lot (left). By then, I was ready to be finished, so I went left.
I was on the paved path a little longer than I hoped. I resisted the urge to take advantage of the two benches I passed, and finally made it to the Jeep. The descent took an hour and a half, so I was on the trail five hours ... and still made it back to the campground with a few minutes to spare in my designated range of return times.
What an absolutely fantastic hike!! It has forest, lakes, mountains, and the stunning fall colors. Plus, it was enough of a challenge to provide a nice sense of accomplishment (and relief) when it was done.
If you are capable, I absolutely recommend the Maple Pass Loop (or even just an out-and-back on the first half of it) if you are anywhere near the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest or North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. Again, WOW!