Home Trip ReportsDayhike Heather Maple Pass Loop

Heather Maple Pass Loop

by Amanda Phillips
Lake on of the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail

There are some routes that I find on a Friday night and by the following morning, I am hitting the trailhead. Others join my to-hike list in May and are completed by September. Then there are routes that sit on my goal list from the first week I started researching routes until now–5 years later. Heather-Maple Loop Pass is that hike.

It is a simple route, achievable by most beginners with reasonable fitness, it is on a paved road, so no gnarly forest roads to deal with, phenomenal views for the effort. It is not close to Seattle, but certainly closer than routes on the Olympic Peninsula that I have found worthy to travel for. And yet, it sat withering on my to-do list year after year. Many things came up between then and now, busy schedules, hangovers, weather, refusal to see it without Meg, not wanting to go when it was crowded and popular.

As we wandered around the golden larches, on a day that did not have perfect weather, did not fit well into my schedule and was filled with people, I wished that I had made it to this spot sooner. It is simply a magnificent spot, filled with stunning lakes and fall colors, endless peaks and a happy little bear. It is deserves all of the praise it garners around the internet and it was so worth the wait. 

Maple Pass

Cars lined the highway in all directions as far as the eye could see; we arrived at the trailhead on perhaps the busiest weekend of the year. It did not matter. Meg and I planned this trip four years ago, but life or weather always seemed to stand in the way. This was my one absolutely have to do hike of the year. Now that we had driven 3.5 hours to get there, nothing would stop us from completing this route.

But first, we had a decision to make: clockwise or counter-clockwise? Both had its merits and in the end, we let a coin choose. We opted to go clockwise, get the elevation finished in the beginning and enjoy the rest of the route leisurely losing elevation.

The route started on a paved path, then began forested switchbacks, like most hikes in Washington. Before too long, the switchbacks led to a view of Rainy Lake. The view was spectacular and it was hard to believe that it wasn’t our final destination.

Lake on of the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail
Woman walking through larches in the North Cascades
Old tree on the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail
Detail shot of golden larches in the North Cascades

Yet, the switchbacks continued and with it, the view of the lake continued to get better. Soon we began to see the first golden larches. Evergreen gave way to golden needles as we climbed higher. We reached a little plateau with an old gnarly tree overlooking Rainy Lake and decided to stop for a snack. Meg grabbed a blanket before we left the car, drunk with the possibilities of a dayhike and light packs for the first time in months–you can bring so many extras when you are not spending the night. We snuggled in close under an old crone tree and shivered as we ate.

Women sitting near a tree in the North Cascades
View from the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail

When it became too cold to continue sitting, we opted to continue the loop. Climbing higher, we left Rainy Lake behind and entered alpine meadows filled with golden larches. A perfect little tarn stood above Rainy Lake as we climbed higher still. I wished desperately that I had a tent on my back and could stay the night, but alas this was a dayhike.

Small tarn and golden larches in the North Cascades

Larches dominated the hillside as we neared Maple pass, maneuvering over white rocks surrounded by red huckleberry until we reached the ridge separating the Lake Ann basin and Rainy Lake basin.

Alpine larch on the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail
View from the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail in the North Cascades
Alpine larches in the North Cascades
woman on the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail
Woman running on the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail

Heather Pass

Golden larch on the Heather Maple Pass Loop Trail

Stopping to admire the open meadows, we wandered around Heather Pass. Endless peaks surrounded where we stood, many obscured by clouds but just enough visible to allow us to grasp the enormity of the place. Our hiking speed dropped dramatically as we stopped to spin every 50 feet. Open and expansive, the views were better than I imagined.

woman on the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail
View from the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail


As the loop began to descend, we found a boulder that we could rock-hop to from the trail, ensuring that we wouldn’t for any new social paths in this highly sensitive area. The blanket came out again with the rest of our lunch and we enjoyed the sights and watched the constant stream of people pass.  

woman on the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail
Plaid blanket next to golden larches on the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail
Lake on of the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail
Lake on of the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail
woman on the Heather Maple Loop Pass trail
Lake on of the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail

Soon, we were back on the trail, heading down towards Lake Ann. As we traversed across the meadows, we ran into a crowd looking intently down the hillside. The small black log amidst the huckleberry bushes stood up and began to amble away because the small black log was a bear. Shocked to see a black bear on such a busy trail, we enjoyed watching it live its little bear life from a distance and continued the loop knowing the switchbacks heading down would give us a better view.

We rounded through a few larches, evergreens and beside spectacular fall colors until we were closer to Lake Ann and the bear. It stood up a few more times and rambled around the hillside. We gave it one last look then continued wandering down the trail. We re-entered the forest and found ourselves at the trailhead shortly after.

The parking lot was fully slammed by the time we made it out, cars stretching for nearly a mile down the highway. We jumped back in the car and made the great journey back to Seattle.

Black bear on the Heather Maple Pass Loop Trail

Leave No Trace Etiquette during larch season:

Larch season is spectacular for many reasons, it is some of the best displays of fall colors in Washington and the places where larches grow are stunningly beautiful. These are also highly sensitive areas that are extremely popular, and need to be treated with care to keep them available to all. Here are some things you can do to mitigate your impact:

  1. Be prepared for your route: Larch season is early fall, which can mean winter temperatures in the mountains. Be aware that it can easily snow during this time and weather can change very quickly. You are more likely to degrade backcountry resources in unexpected conditions, and a lack of preparedness can unduly stress search and rescue groups. If you are wondering how to prepare for a hike, read my post on trip-planning for some extra resources. 
  2. Pick one route a year, rather than doing them all. High use can cause environmental degradation at a rate faster than the system can recover. Reduce your impact by reducing the number of times you visit. Consider picking one larch route a year, then giving it a break the following years to allow the system to recover and give other hikers a chance to experience it. When you are on a busy route, stick to durable surfaces and avoid places where impacts are just beginning to avoid contributing to erosion. 
  3. Dispose of waste properly, including human and dog waste. When an area is heavily stressed during a seasonal event, trash can accumulate. Pack everything out that you bring in, and if you find trash, be a good steward and grab it on your way out. Any solid human waste needs to be in cathole dug 6-8 inches deep and please pack out the toilet paper. For liquid waste, check out the Kula Cloth as a toilet paper alternative, it is awesome! 
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