Cutthroat Pass (via Pacific Crest Trail)

Trail Highlights:Mountain views; wildflowers; autumn foliage
Round-trip Distance:10.80 miles / 17.40 km
Location:Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest,
Washington Pass / Methow Valley, Washington North Cascades


Ancestral lands of the sp̓aƛ̓mul̓əxʷəxʷ, or, Methow
Directions:
  • From State Route 20 at Rainy Pass between Mileposts 158 and 159, turn left from eastbound/right from westbound
  • Proceed to parking area at end of road
  • Required Pass:

    Northwest Forest Pass or equivalent for U.S. Forest Service sites.

    Additional Trail Info:Washington Trails Association
    Washington State Department of Transportation (highway closures and conditions)

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    Peaks and larches figure prominently on Cutthroat Pass. Here, Porcupine Peak peers above the autumn larchwood.
    Pacific Crest Trail,
    Section L,
    October 08, 2021.

    The Pacific Crest Trail’s northernmost sections along State Route 20 offer relatively easy access to the grandeur of the North Cascades in an otherwise remote corner of wilderness.  Cutthroat Pass on the trail’s Section L is a doable day hike destination with mountain views that broaden from its deep forest trailhead to its alpine finale.  It is also a prime location to enjoy another feature of the North Cascades:  the dazzling autumn foliage of the larches at the high-elevation treeline.

    Beginning in the cover of dense evergreen woodland, the trail ascends the valley between Cutthroat and Porcupine peaks before switchbacking up the valley headwall to the pass.  Throughout, the grade remains moderate.  The trail rock-hops Porcupine Creek and several smaller streams, which may result in dampened feet.  Use care crossing the streams during high water and icy conditions.  At about 3.30 miles / 5.30 km from the trailhead, the trail emerges from the evergreen forest into the open larchwood, affording views of Cutthroat Peak and Porcupine Peak, as well as the seemingly unassuming Cutthroat Pass between them.  The grandest view is not apparent until reaching the pass and spying the parade of peaks marching in every direction.  Down the valley on the opposite side of the pass, look for the tiny dot that is Cutthroat Lake.  To extend your experience, consider continuing further on the Pacific Crest Trail or venturing down to Cutthroat Lake via the connecting trail between the pass and the lake.

    Given its ease of access and spectacular sights, expect to share the trail with others, especially during the autumn larch season.  However, the trail quickly veers aware from the highway, leaving no other human sounds to intrude upon the woodland quiet.  Snow arrives early and persists into summer — be sure to check current trail and highway conditions at the Additional Trail Info links above and weather and avalanche forecasts before heading out.  Also note that the annual winter closure of State Route 20 eliminates access to the trail altogether for several months and that the parking area may be snowed in and inaccessible even after the highway reopens.

    Enjoy this hike for its panoramic views, its spectacle of changing seasons, and its varied trailscape that adds interest throughout.

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    Unlike its upper reaches, the lower half of the trail is walled by dense evergreen forest.
    Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    Breaks in the forest reveal glimpses of the peaks arrayed in every direction. One of the first to appear across the treetops is Black Peak. Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    Several creeks and streams dash across the trail and may result in wet feet, even at low volume. Use caution when crossing at high water or on icy stones and logs. Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    In autumn, curious coral fungi abound throughout the lower elevation woodland.
    Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    At approximately 3.30 miles/5.30 km from the trailhead, the trail emerges from the evergreen forest to views of Cutthroat Peak across the valley. Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    Nearing the valley headwall, the trail cuts over to the opposite side and enters the open larchwood, affording views of Porcupine Peak and, in autumn, stunning folige. Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    The North Cascades are home to two species of larch, western larch (Larix occidentalis) and alpine larch (L. lyallii), which look nearly identical. Larch are conifers (literally, “cone bearing”), like fir and pine, but are not evergreen and shed their needles each autumn after a glorious display of gold. If their autumn color at first seems disappointing, turn and look from a different angle or wait until the light has shifted — they are at their glowing best when backlit by the sun.
    Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    From Cutthroat Pass, the panoply of peaks continues across the horizon, including, middle left to right, Silver Star Mountain, Gardner Mountain, Hinkhouse Peak, and Kangaroo Ridge (directly behind Hinkhouse Peak). From the pass, a connecting trail descends to Cutthroat Lake, see here on the far right. Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    Peak views continue beyond Cutthroat Pass. Continue approximately 1.50 miles/2.40 km north of the pass for a view of The Needles at a convenient turnaround point. Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.
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    If returning to the trailhead near sunset during the autumn larch season, keep an eye out for larch illuminated by the sun’s last rays like beacons on the mountaintops, as seen here below Frisco Mountain and Rainy Peak.
    Pacific Crest Trail, Section L, October 08, 2021.

    © 2022-2024 Anthony Colburn. Images may not be used or reproduced in any form without express written consent.

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