Washington State is a hiker’s paradise. To scroll around a map of hiking trails in the Cascade Mountains is to be bamboozled with the sheer number of options available to you — and during a summer when any indoors get-together with friends carried a potential health risk for you and everyone else in your bubble, hiking was pretty much the only option.
A couple of weekends ago H and I teamed up with a couple of people in our COVID bubble and headed out to Heather Maple Pass. I can only tell you the name of this hike because it is one of the most popular in the Cascade Mountains, especially at this time of year. That is: I’m not giving away any secret by telling you about it. The area’s upper altitudes are full of larches, a tree with needle-like leaves that turn a luminous yellow this time of year. Meanwhile, the alpine meadows in which they tend to gather are a similar autumny mix of browns, yellows and brilliant reds, including blueberry bushes that are currently flaming out as hard as they can before they get smothered in snow.
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The hike itself is relatively easy if you do it in the right direction, heading up onto a ridgeline with panoramic views into the deep, mysterious valleys and snow-swaddled mountains of North Cascade National Park and over to the drier peaks of the eastern Cascades. This, combined with the fact that it’s a loop — everyone loves a loop — meant the hike was positively bustling on the weekend we took it on.
There are hikes to meet everyone’s level of experience literally everywhere, however, and we soon found ours once we turned off the Heather Maple highway and onto a spur trail to a pair of alpine lakes nestled on the steep feet of Black Peak. We had to scramble across a taxing boulder field to get there, but I think you’ll agree that our campsite was absurd enough to make it worth the effort.
The sun set early behind Black Peak — most of our fellow campers were much more hardcore than us, and left well before sunrise to actually summit the mountain — and the eastern sky glowed purple and orange. Then, as the stars started to wink on in the sky, a tangerine moon made its dramatic entrance over the eastern ranges. We made loud noises of appreciation.
Back when I was cycle touring in North and Central America, I developed a habit of staying out for a few minutes after everyone had gone to bed. I liked to stand at the edge of whatever campsite I was in, looking at the stars or, if the moon was out, the luminous landscape around me. This continued during H and I’s long road trip around Australia, a small ritual to reflect on the day and linger in the darkness. It’s always made me feel small in that way that only a wide starry sky or an ancient ruin or a nighttime forest can. For a species like ours — wrapped up in our daily dramas within a civilisation designed to cater to our every whim and want — I think it’s important to feel small in time and space every now and then.
This night was pretty special. H was snuggling down into her sleeping bag, her cousin was wrapping her dog — the lovely Chowder — in an old jacket and her sister was on her first overnight backpacking trip, and I stood for a couple of minutes letting my eyes get used to the moonlight. Black Peak emerged from the darkness above me and seemed to glow, and I felt very, very small.
Thanks to my hiking buddies for sharing their photos — you know who you are!