September brings with it the end of summer, and with the end of this particular summer comes the last of this interlude in the PNW. It’s been a whirlwind of activity, with hikes all over the Chuckanut and Cascade ranges, as well as a ton of get-togethers with friends and family. This ritual of visiting old haunts and discovering hidden gems in my old backyard has revived my appreciation for the Pacific Northwest, and I can’t wait to share this place with a good friend of mine from my working holiday in New Zealand.
But before I leave for my next adventure (more on that in a future post!), there are still a number of spots to explore in this little corner of the world I call home. One of these is just off of Highway 20 — a portion of the massive Pacific Crest Trail hiked and written about by Cheryl Strayed in ‘Wild‘. Unlike Strayed, my friends and I were just day-hiking, so we packed our lunches and drove into the heart of the North Cascades to hike to Cutthroat Pass.
The trail starts out with temptation — a box of donuts, several cases of soft drinks, and numerous other junk foods laid out for thru-hikers on the PCT. You’ll know them when you see them, haggard and weary as they trudge towards the trail-head. A trail angel guards the stash of goodies, with a sign reading “For PCT hikers”. We could only gaze longingly at the donuts as they disappeared behind a veil of trees.
The awesome thing about the hike to Cutthroat Pass is the pitch-perfect trail planning — the route slowly, but steadily gains elevation all the way to the pass. Not once does it feel ‘steep’, and the entire first section of the trail is shaded, making for a remarkably pleasant 10-mile stroll.
Along the path, viewpoints peek out in various directions, offering stunning views of the North Cascades and making us feel grateful for the absence of haze. Wildfires have been raging in British Columbia for the last month, and southbound winds have brought the smoke from those to us. After weeks of poisoned atmosphere, it was so refreshing to breathe deeply of the clean, fresh air.
We made good time, emerging from the treeline to walk the dusty path towards the ridgeline. It’s been a dry summer, and the land felt parched — clouds of dust rising with each step. Thankfully, no fires have touched the area this year, though one ravaged the hills around Newhalem several years before, leaving entire hillsides barren and charred.
When we crested the ridgeline, a collective gasp went up from our group as we soaked in the panorama of crags rising up around us. Down below, Cutthroat Lake was visible, shrunken from the lack of rain. Other groups of hikers sat at different spots along the ridge, talking softly and enjoying the stunning views. It was mercifully quiet, every last one of us completely engrossed.
Birds flitted along the trail, from the playful whiskeyjacks to the grouse just waiting to give the unwary a heart attack. Every once in a while, a chipmunk would scamper across the trail. Commonly found all over the state, they can be quite inquisitive and tame — borderline fearless. This one was no exception and watched us with mild disinterest as it stuffed its little cheeks full of grass.
The way down went quickly — a mild decline, my trusty hiking poles, and well-maintained path making for one of the easiest descents I’ve seen lately. On a scale of pain vs. gain, the hike to Cutthroat Pass is one of the top PNW hikes out there!
How about you? What’s a hike you’ve done that has an epic payoff for relatively little effort? Share it with us in the comments below!
Feel like trying the same hike? Download my Ramblr tracks and hit the trail!