Saturday, October 31, 2020

Ascending to Awesomeness: A Day's Hike to the Cascade Pass

Date: July 9, 2019

Place: North Cascade National Park, Washington
Coordinates: 48.477007, -121.075219
Length: 7 miles, in and out
Level: strenuous
We arrived at the North Cascades area without a detailed plan of where we would like to hike and what we would like to see. The suggestion that we'd go hiking at the Cascade Pass we got at the park's visitor center. We told them that we were good hikers and that we wanted to see great scenery and lots of wildflowers and wildlife, and they placed a pin on our map and told us to go there. 
Just getting to the cCascade Pass trailhead is a long drive, especially when coming from the town Winthorp where we had stayed in the past 2 days. 
It took us two hours to get to the trailhead. We had to first drive west through the park and then circumvent the mountains from the south and ascend a mildly sloping paved road going east. On the way we stopped for a quick refresher break during which the elder chika found a pike staring right at us from the vegetation near the small pullout. We were very pleased seeing the pika so close and posing for a photo. We were also very surprised because these shy rodents are resident of high, rocky peaks with harsh winters and scarce vegetation. In fact, we had just sat on a ranger talk the day before who informed us that pika don't live below 6000 feet. Apparently, this particular pika hasn't read the book. I'm very glad of that encounter also because although we've seen other pika up at the Pass, none was close enough for us to get a good quality photo, even with the strongest zoom. 
 When we finally arrived at the trailhead's parking lot we found it nearly full of cars. That trailhead leads to a number of backpacking routes and I expected to see many hikers on the trail. While we were getting ready I found a hitchhiker that we've picked up somewhere along our drive. 

Rain was in the forecast for that day but it hasn't started yet. The sky was cloudy and gray, adding a somber look to the mountain peaks around us. 

We started up the narrow path up the northern slope. 

Our hike up to Cascade Pass as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS

The bottom part of the trail was forested, allowing only fleeting glimpses of the majestic peaks to the south.

Nearly all the uphill part of the trail (which is almost the entire path to the pass) is in a narrow strip of steep mountainside, meaning lots and lots of switchback turns. On most switchback turns the view would open up to the east or west, revealing the magnificent black peaks offset by white snow patches.

Even while walking through the forest there were many pretty sights to see, of botanical nature mostly.
Subalpine Spiraea, Spiraea splendens 

Many of the wildflowers blooming along the trail were already familiar to me from California. I was excited to see them nonetheless, linking the large West Coast plant life north and south.
Bleeding Heart, Dicentra formosa 

 Then again, there were many others that I got to see for the first time in Washington, such as the Western Bunchberry, that is rare in California  and I've never seen it blooming there. The first time I saw it was only a few days before, on our hike up the Sauk Mountain, west of the North Cascades NP
Western Bunchberry, Cornus unalaschkensis 
The mountain slope was very steep but the trail itself was of mild to moderate slope, thanks for the numerous switchbacks. It did however, extend the trail's length to what seemed like forever. We kept going on and on upward, turning back and forth at the switchback turns. 

 By far the most common shrubs in the forest's undergrowth were the berries. Several species of berries of the Rubus genus. Most of them were at their peak bloom.
Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus 

Others were just beginning to bear fruit. I thought about how the hikers of next month or two would enjoy the berry bounty of late summer. For me it was eye candy only.
Berry, Rubus sp.

Sunnier spots in the forest had more intense bloom with more variety of species. I loved the feathery blossom of the oceanspray shrubs dangling into the narrow trail. My elder chika loved them a bit less - she was sneezing with allergic reaction to all the bloom.  
Sylvan Goatsbeard, Aruncus dioicus 

The allergies and a minor disagreement with her young sister set my elder chika in a bad mood. After some snarky word exchanges with the rest of us, she stormed off up the trail and soon dissapeared behind the next switchback corner. Pappa Quail and the young chika hurried after her but I sighted something that made me stop in my tracks: a small, green orchid. I could have easily missed it, so incospicuous it was. 
The orchid (right) is Northwestern Twayblade, Neottia banksiana. The white bloom to the left is Threeleaf foamflower, Tiarella trifoliata 

On one of the west-pointing switchbacks there was an open view to the narrow valley we came through on our we to the trailhead. It looked deep and impressive, and the mountain ranges imapassable. on a different time I would have enjoyed backpacking there. Maybe one day I will. 

On we went, up the seemly endless switchbacking trail. Once again I found myself at the rear, stopping by every flowering pant along the way. 
Solomon Seal,

A little higher up the trail I see violets. Not the yellow violets I'm used to from California but real violet violets. 
Viola sp.

The trail seems to go on endlessly. Back and forth, back and forth, the switchbacks go, and we gain elevation rapidly. The clouds seem to condense around us, but don't burst yet. It feels somewhat similar to our hike u the Sauk Mountain, but with less fog and with many more trees. 

We get almost level with the lower of the glaciers on the slope across the valley from us. It's hard to tell whether a larch white spot is an actual glacier or merely a seasonal snow patch. Glimpses of shiny blue reveal some of these glacier identity. 
Triple Glacier 

Glacier view we certainly didn't have at the Sauk Mountain hike. This gave our hike a much more alpine feel to it, although these mountains don't rise over 8000-9000 feet. 

Thin, silvery lines stretched vertically along the mountain slope. These were the narrow snowmelt streams trickling from the snow patches and glaciers, cutting through the dark rock and feeding the intense greenery that covered the lower part of the slopes. 

I couldn't spend to much time musing over the wonderful view because the elder chika had already disappeared around the next switchback corner. I took a quick photo of the heather bush below me and chased after her. 
Pink Mountain Heath, Phyllodoce empetriformis  

I figure that the best way to maintain a quick pace on a hike is to bring a grumpy teen along. It worked perfectly that day. 
The elder chika running ahead

Grumpy as she was however, the elder chika did not neglect her primary passion - birds. She did stop when sighting any feathered being and got some nice shots too. 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Almost without noticing the swichbacks become fewer and longer to the east. The trail levels more and the trees open up to reveal more craggy areas and more view. The soil between the rocks is much soggier and the wildflowers are different too. 
White Marsh Marigold, Caltha leptosepala 

I see another species of violets, even more purple than the previous one I've seen. This one too is unfamiliar to me, but is very very pretty.  
Violet, Viola sp. 

The trail side is much less forested here. Instead, the trail side vegetation comprised of shrubs such as the mountain heather, and the mountain blueberry. 

Once again I am amazed at how green everything is. It is so rare to see such greenery in California! 

Little squirrels and chipmunks dart into cover when we approach, but Pappa Quail managed to get some nice shots of one bold chipmunk that stayed put while we walked past it. 

Finally - a yellow violet! Still unfamiliar to me though. 
Violet, Viola sp. 

And a plant that looks very much like the California cornily. It is of the same genus, but a different species though. We were too early t see it bloom. 
Green False Hellebore, Vertrum viride 

At last we arrived a place high enough and with no trees blooming the view. Looking westward - the deep valley below looking very impressive. I feel a pang in my heart for this is our only day here. 

The trail now leads steadily to the east. It seems that we're done with the switchbacks. Thankfully, we're not done with the pretty wildflowers.
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa

On the ranger talk we sat on the day before we learned that there are over 300 glaciers within North Cascades National Park's boundaries. I see them now on the mountains all around us but they are too far for my camera wide lens. When I finally catch up to my elder chika she's in a slightly more agreeable mood and I convince her to take a high zoom shot of one of the glaciers, where the shiny blue packed glacial snow is glistening below the white seasonal snow.  

When I see the phlox I know that's we're officially in the alpine zone now. These are high elevation wildflowers. 
Spreading Phlox, Phlox diffusa 

Purple is the dominant color here, and I love it. Cushions of phlox and penstemon decorate the slope between and over the broken rocks, contrasting with the intense green of their foliage. 
Small-leafed Penstemon, Penstemon procerus

There is a lot of water flowing over the ground. Snow melt, all of it. It's too much for the soil to absorb, and the trail is very wet and muddy.  My shows are water proof but I can no longer see their color. When I look down at my feet, all I see is mud. When I look up and ahead however, I see a gorgeous mountain ridge. The pass is still hidden from my view , but the map indicates that it's very close now. 

Pappa Quail encounters another bold squirrel along the trail. These ground squirrels are very similar to the golden-mantled ground squirrels we know from California but these are of a different species. 
Cascades Ground Squirrel

Strangely, we slow down as we get closer to the pass. There's a lot to see, but also the trail is muddier and harder to walk on. 

Everything looks so beautiful and strange here. Even the grass. 

In an unusual manner, I find myself heading our little family group. Ahead I see a large scree slope and a huge snow patch that blocks the trail. At first I don't think much of it, but as we get nearer, I realize that we're facing a problem. 
Snow on trail

Me and the elder chika reach the snow patch and wait there for Pappa Quail and the younger chika. Meanwhile I look at the wildflowers near the trail. 

The beauty of the mountain's springtime never ceases to amaze me. And the North Cascades summer bloom is absolutely breathtaking. 
Yellow Mountain Heather, Phyllodoce glanduliflora 

I look up at the scree slope. Hikers that we came across as they were descending told us that they'd seen mountain goats u by the pass. I search the higher areas but see nothing. 

Pappa Quail and the young chika arrive and immediately refuse to go any further. They don't want to risk crossing the steep snow patch. Remembering the stressful situation we were at at the South Warner Wilderness a couple of years before, I understand the concern. Still, I'm not ready to turn around just yet. The elder chika is confident about going across and I convince Pappa Quail that it would be ok for me and her to go all the way to the pass and see if we can find any mountain goats there. 

Crossing wasn't easy. We took it slowly and carefully, and I make good use of my hiking poles. I figured that if I did slip and slid down, I'd be stopped at the scree at the bottom of the snow patch before going over the cliff edge. 

I didn't slip, though, and neither did the elder chika. The view on the other side was well worth the anxiety of crossing the snow patch: the eastern valley across the pass was just as impressive as the western valley, although somewhat less green. 

There was a trail junction at the pass, leading deeper into the wilderness. That was where backpackers would go and I part f me wished I was going on as well. As it was, we just stayed at the pass, scanning the area for mountain goats. 

It took a little while but we did spot them! They were very far up the northern slope. The elder chika snapped some photos and we hurried buck down the trail. When we reached the snow patch I instructed the elder chika to stay there and I went back across the snowy myself. I made a very convincing argument for Pappa Quail to go across. He was doubtful and hesitant, but he did, and the elder hike led him to where we've seen the goats. 

They were already getting up and making ready to go and Pappa Quail got there just in time to take a few photos of these shy and magnificent animals. A truly great sighting! 

While waiting for them I made my own nifty sighting of a pika. Not as close as the one we've seen on the way, but still a very exciting little critter. 

While on the other side of the snow patch, Pappa Quail and the elder chika saw a red-headed Rufous hummingbird. We get to see them occasionally in the Bay Area as the migrate through, and it was nice that they've seen it all the way up the North Cascade mountains as well. 
Rufous Hummingbird, male

When Pappa Quail and the elder hike made is back for their goat-sighting trip we started down the trail, backtracking our way down. The younger chika wondered if she should have crossed the snow too but I assured her that it was better to have listened to her gut and stayed behind. Soon I was once again engrossed in the wildflowers beauty by the trail. I now had a second chance at seeing and photographing what I had missed on the way up. 
Mountain Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja parviflora var. albida 

I had also a much better view of the western valley we had come up on. Although these mountains are not as high as the Sierra Nevada, the elevation difference made my head spin. The snow capped peaks topped it all with a glorious touch of mountain magic. 

And way down below I could see the parking lot ... we had as loooong way down. 

Going out and back on the same trail might seem a bit redundant to some, but there are always surprises in store in the wilderness. One such surprise waited for us just around the trail curve in the shape of a young black bear, very close to the trail. 
The bear was very aware of our presence, but showed no excitement at any point. It simply continued to forage as it slowly made its way up the slope and away from the trail. We were sure excited though. 
Black Bear 

Going down is supposed to be faster than going up but now the elder chika was in a much better mood and didn't rush along. Instead, she kept seeing things that made us all stop and admire. 

Another nice sighting on the way back was this hoary marmot that Pappa Quail sow behind a thin tree by the trail. We've seen plenty of them already on this Washington trip, but I always love seeing these cute rodents. 
Hoary Marmot

The muddy part of the trail forced us to slow down again and I could look closer at some of the wildflowers I'd missed on the way up. 
Subalpine Buttercup, Ranunculus eschscholtzii 

The snow-melt waterfalls across the valley on the southern slopes were just spectacular. I wish i could fly and hover over them. From the distance we were at, I couldn't even hear the water trickling. 
Snow melt Waterfalls 

I thought we were going slow but all of a sudden we were back in the forest, galloping down the switchbacks part of the trail. 

Once again I was in my usual place - at the rear. That's where I end up when I keep stopping for wildflowers. 
Queen's Cup, Clinton uniflora

Or mushrooms. How I had missed that one on the way up, I cannot tell. Maybe it had grown while we were up? Mushrooms do grow fast, but I suspect, not that fast. 

Pappa Quail and the elder chika were on good terms now and were heading the hike. They suddenly came to a stop when they made a fantastic sighting - a male sooty grouse wearing his breeding plumage! The cock didn't even shy away as these birds usually do, but stayed put and kept looking at us, waiting patiently until everyone of us was satisfied looking at him and appreciating his beauty. 
Sooty Grouse, male

We were getting very near the parking lot and the end of or hike when the promised rain finally started coming down. Lightly at first, then intensifying. We all pulled our plastic covering to protect the cameras, pulling them back only when something worth photographing was spotted, such as this lovely chipmunk. 

For a moment the rain paused and a struggling ray of sun poked through the clouds. Then the rain resumed, stronger yet. 
Small-leafed Penstemon, Penstemon procerus

We arrived at the parking lot to find a thin, hungry--looking deer wondering between the cars. The deer didn't seem concerned about being near people. It may have been habituated on human food, and may have been looking for more of the such.  

We hurried to get out of the rain. I snapped one last goodbye photo of the clouded mountain peaks of the North Cascades, and stashed my camera away. We had a long, wet drive west to Burlington, where we would stay one last night before flying back to California on the Morrow. Hiking up to the Cascade Pass was the perfect hike to end our trip to this magnificent area. 

Yes, I do want to go back there again!