Larch Hunt

I don’t know much about larches. I know they are conifers (“evergreens”), yet they lose their needles. I know that there is a special species of subalpine larch that can only be found above 6000 ft on the northern and eastern slopes of the Cascades in Washington. And I know that this particular high-elevation larch turns a really pretty golden color in the fall. I also know that for the last several years, I have done a really bad job at predicting when the larches are at peak color. I always jump the gun and head out on a “larch march” a week or two early.
This year, I was determined to time it properly. I chose two routes for larch hunting – one was the Golden Lakes loop in the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, and the other was the Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge Windy Peak Loop. I figured I’d do the Golden Lakes loop “on the way” to the Windy Peak Loop.

Road trip. Left Seattle and camped at Beebe Bridge Campground. Next day, did the Golden Lakes loop starting from the Crater Creek trailhead. Then drove to the Iron Gate trailhead, where I camped and did the Windy Peak loop. After Windy Peak loop, drove home via Hwy 20 through the Methow.

I left Seattle around 7 pm on Sunday night. I’m always excited to head out on my little adventures (otherwise why go?) but that evening I hesitated just a bit. We were at a friend’s house for dinner, all the kids were playing outside, and all the adults were standing around the kitchen laughing. And I was about to get in my van and drive 3 hrs in the dark to camp alone at a paved county park directly adjacent to Hwy 97. Wheeeee.

Of course, as soon as I got behind the wheel I started to get excited. And the campground at Beebe Bridge Park, although not exactly wild and remote, was clean and convenient. I pulled off the highway, had a great night’s sleep in the van, and woke up early the next morning to drive the final 1 hr to the Crater Creek trailhead.

The Golden Lakes loop (aka Angel’s Staircase loop) is a route I’ve been wanting to do for awhile, and it was everything I’d hoped for. The weather was lovely, the larches were golden, and the trails were in perfect condition. Although I didn’t have the place to myself, it definitely was not crowded (that’s the beauty of picking a trailhead 4 hrs from Seattle).

A map of the Golden Lakes loop is below. You can also download the GPX file here, and read more about it here.

Golden Lakes loop.jpg
Golden Lakes loop – with side trips, approx 25 miles and 5500 ft of elev gain.
Larches glowing at Upper Eagle Lake
More larches at Upper Eagle Lake
I took a lot of photos at Upper Eagle Lake.
Larch grove
Sunshine and larches on Sawtooth Ridge
Boiling Lake
I snuck in!
Views from the top of Angel’s Staircase
I would like to wander that ridgeline.
Smoke from a prescribed burn in the next valley over (as seen from the top of Angel’s Staircase)
Mountain bikers starting the descent towards Merchants Basin
Larch needles everywhere
Cooney Lake
Cooney Lake reflections

Windy Peak Loop
After finishing Golden Lakes, I got back in the van and headed for the Iron Gate trailhead outside of Loomis, WA. The UPWC Windy Peak route is a lollipop loop and most UPWC participants have followed the route description and started from Long Swamp campground, which makes this an approx 30 mile route (~20 miles for the loop plus ~10 miles for the lollilop stick from Long Swamp). However, I had an idea for modifying the route. I checked with Kathy Vaughn, the “creator” of the route and one of the UPWC organizers, and she confirmed that I could start from any trailhead, as long as I included the loop. My plan was to start at Iron Gate trailhead, which makes for a shorter lollipop stick than if I’d started at Long Swamp. However, I planned to make up the extra miles later in the day by exploring Horseshoe Basin and nearby peaks, bringing my modified Windy Peak route to approx 28 miles and 7800 ft of elev gain.

Planned Windy Peak.jpg
Planned (not actual) Modified Windy Peak Loop: Just under 28 miles and ~7800 ft of elev gain. My actual route (21 miles, 5500 ft of gain) did not include the diamond-shaped jaunt into Horseshoe Basin at the top of the loop.

I saw a few people as I drove through Loomis, and then no one. I was the lone vehicle at the Iron Gate trailhead when I pulled in that night, and I was still the only one there when I woke up the next morning.  I made some coffee and oatmeal and then loaded up my pack. I felt some fatigue from the Golden Lakes loop the day before, but I was ready to get going. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground and a few flakes were gently falling from the sky as I left.

Woohoo, Day 2!
Day 2 – snow on the ground, chill in the air
On the Iron Gate trail with Windy Peak in the distance
Another shot of Windy Peak.

I felt pretty good until I hit the first climb of the day, at which point it became clear that this was not going to be a pretty day for me and my legs. I slogged my way up some switchbacks and quickly found myself in a recent burn. The sky was grey, the grass was brown, the trees were bare and charred. I was dragging.

This picture sums up how I felt on Day 2.
One of many piles of fresh mountain lion scat. This picture also sums up how I felt on Day 2.

I made a deal with myself that at the very least I would summit Windy Peak (8,333 ft., easternmost Washington Top 100 mountain) and assess from there. As I approached Windy Peak, the skies cleared literally and metaphorically and I started to feel better. I made the final push to the summit, signed the register, and then stood around for 30 minutes taking photos as the fog rolled in and out of the valley below. After a while I started to get cold, and headed down.

Although I’d felt good on the summit (probably because I had stopped! :), I lost my mojo again as I headed towards Sunny Pass. The Pass was a decision point. Option A: Bail out and take a shortcut (the Clutch Trail) back to the van. Option B: Do the damn loop but nothing more. Option C: Do the loop plus Horseshoe Basin, as originally planned.

I’d registered for the UPWC Windy Peak Loop just the night before, and now I was kicking myself. If I hadn’t registered, I could’ve just taken the shortcut back to the van and gone on my merry way. But by registering I felt like I’d committed to something. Accountability is a bitch of a motivator. I chose Option B.
So, I “officially” completed the UPWC Windy Peak Loop. However, I didn’t do any extra miles in Horseshoe Basin, and so my total distance was only ~21 miles (compared to the 30 miles most others did). I basically did the shortest distance possible to still complete the loop. Yay?

Clouds starting to clear as I hit the saddle before Windy Peak summit
Can someone help name these peaks?
What’s the pointy guy?
Sunshine hitting larches on the flanks of Windy Peak
Looking down at the plateau south of Windy Peak
Snow quail with perfectly cryptic plumage
Pasayten meadows
Looking towards Horsehoe Basin

Even though Day 2 didn’t turn out as planned, it was by no means a total loss. The Pasayten Wilderness, where Windy Peak is located, is known for being relatively remote, and it was pretty cool to know I was the only human in that area. The landscape, though different from what I know and love, was beautiful in its own way – especially once I got up out of the burns and peeked into Horseshoe Basin. I’ll be back for that, for sure.

4 Replies to “Larch Hunt”

  1. Get the peak finder app. It will tell you the names while you’re there. Take a screenshot and then you can reference later. I love your posts. The larches in that first one are incredible!

      1. Oh no! It always works for me. Try it closer to home and see you can get it to work. You have to tap on the compass file to get it to rotate the full 360 and then pinch and zoom helps too.. It identified the Issaquah Alps for me from home. Lol. I’ve started using Gaia recently for routes that are off the main trails. I’m totally a paper map girl but Gaia is such a great addition to the route finding.

  2. Jessica, those trips are some of my favorite running country, and you hit it in a good time of year.
    The “pointy guy” is Cathedral Peak, with Amphitheatre Mountain to its left and the Grimface group (Grimface, Macabre Tower, Matriarch Mountain, Lakeview all sort of merging together, in B.C.) on the right.

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