Maple Pass Loop & Black Peak (day 1): Rainy Pass to Lewis Lake via Heather Pass
As one of the most popular day hikes in Washington, Maple Pass Loop makes nearly every “best of” and “top hikes” list, grabbing my attention fairly instantly with promises of autumn colours and alpine lakes set against the backdrop of the snowy North Cascades. Maple Pass was therefore an early pick during my recent visit to Seattle, endeavouring to cram maximum trail hours into an already overflowing schedule before winter rolls in.
The traditional loop is a moderate 11km, but given its proximity to some spectacular (and less popular) trails, we cobble together a 3-day backpacking trip that includes exploration out to the reportedly beautiful Lewis and Wing Lakes, as well as a summit of 2,734m Black Peak. Not only is it a hike I’ve been wanting to do for ages, but it’s set to be my first major peak summit (!!), a milestone that could really only be celebrated with my usual mountaineering buddies, dad and Eileen.
Trail stats: Rainy Pass to Lewis Lake via Heather Pass
Elevation gain: 660m
Trail hours: 6hrs including a LOT of photo stops
Highlights: Beautiful views of Rainy Lake under Frisco Peak; fresh snowfall on Maple Pass; early golden larches and heaps of autumn foliage; clear views of the North Cascades, Glacier Peak, and Black Peak, our summit goal for tomorrow; camping at picturesque Lewis Lake
Campsite: Lewis Lake
Read more: Top Washington Hikes COMING SOON
Cruising across from Winthrop (where we’ve spent the last couple days hiking) towards the Rainy Pass Trailhead (the starting point for Maple Pass Loop), we are waylaid for nearly an hour at Washington Pass Overlook gawking at superb views of Liberty Bell, Concord and Lexington Towers, and the Early Winters Spires dusted with a fine coating of fresh snow.
The sun is burning, the mountains are towering above us, and it feels like the perfect day to be outside.
Spinning around to the east, the dramatic rock fingers of Silver Star and the Wine Spires capture our attention, and soon I’m practically running in circles trying to take it all in. With the promise of bluebird weather and a major summit hanging in the air, we’re finally compelled to get back into the car and finish the drive to the trailhead. It’s still genuinely hard to leave, but Dad assures me that the best is yet to come.
Finding a car park proves amazingly difficult, as several hundred others are also capitalising in the nice Sunday weather to tackle the 11km Maple Pass Loop. We pass dozens of people just walking across the parking lot to reach the trail, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence for the trail itself.
Thankfully, the views are more than enough to make up for the crowds, and with about 2 million viewpoints interspersed throughout the Loop, there’s never more than a person or two nearby when we stop to take photos.
After a short-lived flat lead-in, the trail begins to climb gradually uphill towards the high point just before Maple Pass. We make long work of the day by stopping constantly to photograph the amazing surroundings, snow-dusted Rainy Peak and Frisco lurking high over Rainy Lake.
Even more enchanting is the waterfall making the long descent from Lyall Glacier to the lake, all framed by lush foliage in the midst of turning red and orange for autumn.
Eileen eventually leaves me and dad behind to frolic around and take photos at our own pace, and soon after we encounter an entire colony of ptarmigans cooing and crossing the trail excitedly in front of our boots. It’s my first time seeing a ptarmigan, which looks something like a grouse, and apparently it’s not every day that you stumble across a whole family, so I’m left feeling very optimistic about future animal sightings.
Approaching the high point, the snow is no longer just on the mountains but extends down to the trail as well, making the going a little slower but a lot more fun. When we finally crest over the ridgeline, we are greeted by an entire panorama of mountains, including Black Peak, our ultimate goal for the trip.
All day I’ve been admiring imposing Black Peak, not quite believing that we’re really going to be able to climb it for all the snow (not to mention the size). Even dad is somewhat sceptical, and each subsequent time were asked along the trail what we’re doing with full packs, his answer seems less and less confident.
To see it from this high point, standing in calf-deep snow, I’m really not sure what tomorrow’s summit attempt will bring or if a clear route will really materialise through the snow OR if I’ll even be able to get myself up it without extensive mountaineering experience. Only time will tell.
Rendezvousing with Eileen at the ridgeline, she tells us we need to be at Heather Pass, the junction out to Wing Lake Trail which will carry us towards Black Peak, no later than 430 in order to make it to camp before dark. Apparently, we’ve been taming a few too many photos— but really, who can blame us?!
I’m confident we can coast these 3km downhill to the junction within the hour, even with photo stops, so we all set off at a brisk pace.
The incredible views of Lake Ann and her little island threaten to blow the timeline out of the water, particularly with all the red and orange foliage framing the trail, but we do eventually make it through and meet Eileen a whole 5min ahead of schedule.
We sit for a small snack and then packs are back on for the final journey, a small section of downhill to reach a massive talus field between Heather Pass and Lewis Lake.
We follow cairns through the rocks, but the going is still slow and I manage to tweak my Achilles (which has developed tendinitis, probably from all these hikes after 6 months of relative inactivity in lockdown), so it’s a relief when we finally arrive at Lewis Lake 90min later.
The plan is to continue a further 1-1,5hrs uphill to more scenic Wing Lake, but I fall in the creek coming off the talus and the day is approaching its chilly conclusion, so instead, we scout out a decent site just above Lewis and begin to set up camp. The good news is that we will leave our tents and big packs here for the hike to Wing Lake and up to Black Peak tomorrow— pitching here adds about 2.5hrs to our day 2, but shaves time off day 3 for a quicker hike out, which is very appealing (since we are Lake Chelan bound on day 3).
I situate my tent in perfect view of black Peak, pull on every article of clothing I packed, and then we tuck into an enormous and very well-deserved dinner. We will need all the fuel we can get for our big ascent tomorrow, and every finger is crossed that we get sunny weather and good climbing conditions!