Cutthroat Pass

Janet suggested a hike to Cutthroat Pass. I canceled a hike on Tiger Mountain due to wildfire smoke. The McCallister Creek Fire was pouring smoke down the valley of Thunder Creek. We hoped that the smoke would be less far east. The smoke forecast was moderate but not unhealthy. Larch season is short and reports showed the trees to be a little short of peak a few days earlier. With gas prices over $5.00/gallon, it would be an expensive trip and a possible wipeout if after driving 150 miles it was too smoky to hike. We decided to take our chances. Another problem is that the Maple Pass hike, right across the highway, has become insanely popular at larch time. I saw photos from last year where cars were parked far down the highway on both sides in both directions. We needed an early start. I was up at 4:10 am and met Janet at her home at 5:30 am. The smoke began at or before Darrington and was really bad at Thunder Creek. As we continued on Highway 20 it stayed very smoky. As we approached Rainy Pass the smoke thinned but did not go away. Also, as we approached the pass we saw the cars on both sides of the road. Rather than look in the parking lot we immediately parked on the side of the highway. We were about .20 miles from the road to the trailhead. It was 8:10 am. We were not early enough.

The road into the parking lot was filled with cars. It was worse on the way out. We reached the start of the trail at about 8:32 am. I had only been on the trail one time. At the start of October 2010, Gary and I backpacked to Snowy Lakes. That was a mid 60s weekend with sunshine and larch a little before their peak. This day would be in the mid 60s with sunshine but some amount of smoke. The trail starts with minimal elevation gain in the first mile. It is the PCT so it is smooth with no especially steep sections. Perfect for easy hiking. Over 5 miles to the pass it gains 2000'. The creek crossings were all easy. The forest walk had no wildflowers. Just a walk in the forest. There were a few open spots with views out. The views were of peaks shrouded in smoke. Early on, I put on an N95 mask. It worked. I could not smell the smoke. Until the pass, I did not see anyone else with a mask on. I had started to get a headache but with the mask, it went away. Higher up I dropped the mask as there was less smoke.

When we finally left the deep forest a few small larch trees appeared. They were mostly green. A little further, the colors started. It was early enough that the sun had not risen above the high ridge above us. The larch were colorful but dull with no shin shining on them. We passed several groups coming down. A dozen or so hikers passed us going up. It was never crowded and we had long stretches of solitude. Clearly, the vast majority of the many hundreds of hikers at Rainy Pass were heading to Maple Pass. We slowed way down as the colors provided great views and photos. Some peaks were clearing up high while those across the highway were in thick smoke.

Without sunshine, the colors were muted but looked to be near their peak. I had high hope for our descent. As we neared the pass, the sun came over the ridge. The colors began to pop. It was clear that the smoke was blocking some of the light. It was much better but not as good as it might have been. We reached Cutthroat Pass at 11:18 am. Our time of 2:46 coming up included a lot of slowdowns for photos in the last mile. We took a food and water break. There were folks at the pass and groups heading down and others continuing on. Many hikers were in short sleeves and shorts. Just a typical October hike at 6800' in the mountains. I'm often slogging through fresh snow on these larch hikes. Views out to peaks were very hazy. The other side of the pass was very hazy. We had talked about continuing on the PCT for more views and larch trees.

We headed that way. As we hiked it became clear that it was even smokier ahead. We decided instead to scramble up the slope. It was pretty easy to climb as much of it was on rocks. We angled left to a flat area with some larch trees. There was a good spot on a big slab. Two other hikers beat us to it. Instead, we continued climbing up to a saddle at about 7090'. There was a cool breeze blowing through and it felt good. We had views of the PCT beyond Granite Pass. Tower Mountain and Golden Horn dominated the views. It was smoky there too but less so than across Cutthroat Peak. It was a good place for lunch. At 12:40 pm we headed back. Instead of climbing down the rocks, we had an easy walk back to the pass by staying higher. We even ran into a boot path. There were more golden larch and red leaves up there. The route brought us back to Cutthroat Pass.

We headed down at 12:58 pm. More groups were heading down then too. Since the larch were now lit up we took photos while groups passed by. More hikers were coming up too. This part was probably the most crowded of the day. At times the smoke in front of the sun would clear and  the larch were even more lit up and colorful. A moment later smoke would return. It was challenging to not waste the brief minutes of full sunshine. The colors were so much better coming down than going up. We took far more photos and videos. I had used my mask on and off above the pass but now I put it away. There was still a bit of smoke but much less than on the ascent. Our pace was pretty slow until we reached the trees. The upper slopes had larch, bright red and orange leaves, and white granite rocks. The combination was really terrific.

Once we reached the forest the cameras went away for the most part. Now it was time to finish the hike. Janet had foot surgery earlier and this was the longest hike she had done this year. With our explorations above the pass, I calculated 11 miles with 2300' of elevation gain. The smooth trail made the descent easy on our knees. Even up to 3:00 pm we saw a few hikers heading up the trail. We reached the trailhead at 3:14 pm. It was still pretty early with sunset now at 6:33 pm. We still had to walk down the entry road and back along the highway to the car. In the morning, most spots along the dirt road were taken. On the way up all spots were taken. That included one car sitting where the roadway was cut down to a car width plus about two feet. Anywhere that the road was not completely blocked was fair game for parking.

The roadside was still filled as far as visible in both directions on both sides. We spoke with a ranger who said the highway had cars parked on both sides for about one mile in each direction. Our short walk along the highway did not seem so bad now. On the drive home, the smoke at Thunder Creek was even worse than in the morning. I could not even look down on Diablo Lake. Nothing but smoke. The drive was no trouble and I was home at 7:10 pm.

This hike was a gamble. If the smoke had been much worse I might have bailed out at the start. It was a nuisance at first but did not ruin our day. The larch were not quite at peak but many were and they really looked great when the sun shone on them. The leaf color was right at its peak. The reds and oranges were really great. 11 miles is a good day's hike but the smooth trail and steady moderate grade made for easy hiking. The larch season is short and some years there is rain or snow or clouds that do not bring out the colors. This year we had better than average conditions and it made for a memorable hike.

Many Parked By Highway
More Cars
Janet On Trail
Smoky Peaks
Forest Opening
Great Leaf Colors
More Colors
Lined With Color
Group Goes By
The Larch Begin
Many Colors
Larch Needles
Variety Of Trees
Muted Colors
No Sunshine Yet
Almost At Peak
Red Leaves & Granite
Hazy Peaks & Blue Sky
Wandering Through Larch
Leaves & Granite
Moving Higher
Pass Almost In Sight
Brighter Reds
Sunlit Red Leaves
Lit Up Larch
Colors Popping
Still Smoking Peaks
Nearing Pass
Beyond The Pass
Blue Sky & Larch
Looking Back To Pass
Smoke & Liberty Bell
North On PCT
View From Saddle
Heading Down
Larch In Meadow
Bright Red!
Below The Pass
Sun Lit Larch
Red Leaves & Larch
Lined With Color
Warm & Sunny
Line Lit Larch
Happy Janet
Really Getting Good
Down The Slope
Right At Peak Here
My Favorite
Golden Swath
Great Reds
Colors On Fire
Making A Point
Good Lower Color
Colorful Border
Miles Of Cars
Click on thumbnails to get larger pictures.

Trips - 2022