September 30 – October 6
Winthrop, WA is one of those towns that thrives on tourism. A short drive through the one block main street brings you past a string of western-themed storefronts lined with wooden sidewalks. Signs advertising old-timey photos and cowboy hats mingle with outdoor gear stores and cafes boasting local fare. There’s a sense that you have arrived in an area of Washington where the west meets the Pacific Northwest. Despite the fact that what you see in Winthrop is less historic than it is intentional (the main part of town was built in the ’70s with the express purpose of drawing in tourists), it somehow really works.
I am not sure how they’ve done it, but instead of coming across as a cheesy ploy to get us to stop and spend $$$, it instead felt inviting, and maybe even a bit charming. Maybe it’s the small size, or the lack of “cowboys” in costume roaming the streets while engaged in mock battles (if you’ve been there you know what town I am referring to). Whatever it is, Winthrop made a worthy stopover as we began our journey south.
To get to Winthrop from our previous location in Marblemount on the western side of North Cascades National Park we had to drive up and over the mountains. As far as mountain passes go, this one is long but fairly mild with no extreme grades or extended sections of sharp switchbacks. We drove it in the opposite direction years ago and fondly remember our awe at the rocky mountain peaks and amazing vistas. Sadly, this time around it was raining and foggy as we drove up and over. The clouds were so dense in places that the mountains all but disappeared into a puff of white. I guess it’s only fitting that the rain that has been following us around for months escorted us up and over as we left the “wet” side of the state behind.
Our home for the week was a cute, grassy park called Pine Near RV Park & Campground. Located only a block from the main street, this is clearly the place to stay if you want to explore the town on foot. Our site backed up to a hillside and was flanked on one side by a grouping of teepees and the other side by some RV sites that stayed empty during our entire stay. It was a quiet spot with lots of space, but if we stayed again at this time of year we would definitely ask for a site without so much shade. That giant tree above us blocked most of the sunlight and left us chilly on those days when the temps never climbed out of the 50s.
In contrast to our previous busy week of mountain exploration, our stay in Winthrop was pretty low key. We walked around town a few times, took a short hike up to the top of Patterson Mountain, visited the local cider taphouse, enjoyed a delicious meal at Carlos 1800 Mexican Grill, and spent a lot of time at home with the electric space heater cranking.
By far the highlight of our week was the Saturday hike we took in the mountains. With the forecast calling for nothing but sunshine, we jumped at the chance for one final hike in the Cascades. It was about a 45-minute drive from Winthrop to the Lake Ann/Maple Pass Trailhead. As we climbed higher fresh snow started appearing on the mountain peaks. And not just a light dusting either. This was a thick coating of the cold white stuff! Soon we saw snow on the trees lining the road and the excitement that comes with the first snowfall of the season set in.
By the time we arrived around 10 am, the trailhead parking lot was overflowing with cars lining up and down both sides of the road. Where did all these people come from? This trail is located on the western side of the mountains within the national forest. It took us 45 minutes to drive from Winthrop where the local population is pretty low, and since we were just there we know the towns on the western side are not any more populated. Which means most of these people drove hours to get here. I guess it was Columbus Day weekend, and a rare sunny day, but the crowd really took us by surprise.
It was cold with temperatures only in the mid-30s when we left the trailhead. Bundled up in puffy coats, winter hats, and gloves, we hiked fast and soon began to warm as we climbed up a steady uphill. The trail makes a loop and we read in several places that it was best hiked in a counterclockwise direction. This ensures that you will be climbing up the less steep side and down the more steep side. We can confirm that this was the right call, and for the first few miles at least, it seemed everyone else was following the same advice since we passed almost no one going in the opposite direction.
Near the top of the of the ridge is where things really started to get good. Off in the distance, we could see jagged mountain peaks stretching on for miles while up close the bright yellow larch trees stood in stark contrast to the fresh dusting of snow.
And then, just to ensure we were fully impressed, we reached a high point with a view of the lake below.
The higher we climbed, the more people we encountered and a few times we had to join a slow-moving line of bundled-up hikers and excited dogs. It was busy, but nowhere near as busy as Angel’s Landing on Thanksgiving (which will forever be my comparison for the busiest hiking trail ever).
At the top of the ridge, we took in the view, ate some lunch, and basked in the bright sunlight. At this point, we had climbed up nearly 2,000 feet and I thought for sure I would have warmed up enough to take some layers off. But no, with the wind chill it couldn’t have been more than 30 degrees up there, so on stayed the hat, gloves, and coat.
As we began the downward descent it was now obvious that many, many people chose to hike in the other direction. The narrow trail combined with some slippery, snow-covered spots made it necessary for us to continuously pull over and let others by as they slowly trudged up. Not really a big deal, but it seems that a loop trail should at the very least have a suggested direction at the start so most people are hiking in the same direction.
We reached to the bottom and made it back to the truck four hours after starting. The parking situation was even crazier with miles of cars now lining the road. Glad we got a somewhat early start! This was a fitting trail for our last hike in the Cascades. Not only did we enjoy the mountain views, but the fall color and fresh snow made this one we won’t soon forget.