Though I am enjoying the beautiful “enchanted forest” of Newhalem Creek Campground, I am feeling the urge to “get high.” I know there are some incredible mountains around, but it seems as if most of them are hidden. Newhalem is only 500 ft in elevation, so any type of vista is tough to find through the thicket of trees.
It’s now the weekend, which means I have all day to hike. I am more of an endurance hiker than a speed hiker, so I like to do “big hikes” and take my time. Stop along the way, take photos, bask in the beauty, stop for a leisurely lunch, and just make a day of it with the mountain.
During my Friday lunch break, I hike up to the Newhalem Visitor’s Center to have a chat with the Ranger Man and get some suggestions for the weekend. I explain my criteria. “I like a loop trail or a ridgeline hike. Five to six miles is my sweet spot, but I will push it if there is something worthy to see.” He responds, “You are willing to push it? Good! Then I have just the hike for you! It is my very favorite hike in the park….Maple Pass. It has the most incredible views. I was just up there last week, and the wildflowers are still in bloom.” Say no more…
Did I mention already I am a slow hiker? I like to go at my own pace, not one set by someone else. If I am trying to keep someone else’s pace, my focus turns to labored breathing and cadence rather than appreciating the awe inspiring beauty around me. As the saying goes, “Unless you are the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” And I don’t like to lead the group either, because I don’t like the sound of encroaching footsteps crunching behind me. So no offense to my traveling community of friends, but today I have decided I am going to treat myself to a long, slow solo saunter up the mountain.
As I am doing my research on the hike, a little face appears below my bedroom window. It is Gayle, coming to ask if I want to walk into town. I tell her of my plans for the Maple Pass hike. As she is walking away, I think about calling after her and asking if she wants to go. After all, Jim’s Achilles sprain is still bothering him, so he is taking some time to heal. But I feel like my speed would be a hindrance, and she will not want to be gone all day. Not 10 minutes later, the little face reappears beneath the window. I don’t have to ask…she asks for me, “Would you mind??” I reply, “I would LOVE to have you join me, as long as you know it is going to take me all day to do this hike. You’d better bring a book.”
Now Gayle is about the most advanced hiker I have ever had the pleasure to hike with, so already I know there will be no problem in keeping pace with her. That is impossible! And I certainly know I won’t need to worry about the crunch of footsteps behind me. 😉 So I am thrilled to have her come along. We pile our gear in the Tracker, put the top down, and putter off for the 38 mile drive up the mountain to the Maple Pass trailhead. The weather is a glorious start to a spectacular day.
The Maple Pass trailhead is in the same parking lot as Rainy Lake, so the lot is packed with hardly an empty space. I find a perch to park the Tracker, and we start out on the hike. This is a 7.5 mile loop, 2,100 elevation gain, so right out of the parking lot, we begin the climb. But the air is cool…downright chilly, which makes it easier to climb.
The trail starts in a thickly wooded forest with the smell of fir trees, and shade of giant hemlocks and cedar. Soon, we break into a meadow filled with purple fireweed. This is the first time I have seen this flower up close, and the size and color are impressive. The photo stops are frequent, and I am grateful for the opportunity to catch my breath, as I feel the effects of the altitude at only 4,600 ft. And I still have another 2,000 to go! As I am snapping photos, some guys stop and ask, “Is this your first time to do this hike? Just wait. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Soon, the clear emerald green Lake Ann comes into view. There is the option to hike down to the lake, but we continue climbing, as the Maple Pass trail skirts the “cirque,” or bowl around the crater lake. By now, we have worked up an appetite, so we find some suitable shade to stop for lunch, and enjoy our PB&J overlooking the gorgeous lake. We are both in awe of the stunning views, and still only halfway there!
We come to the gorgeous Heather Pass, which is about two thirds of the way up. There are fields of yellow and white wildflowers and red Indian Paintbrush in the little meadow overlooking a blue glacial lake below.
As we are approaching the steepest part of the climb, I pass a woman who is carrying a child on her back. I ask “How are you making this climb? I can’t get myself up the hill, let alone with a child on my back.” She replies, “I have given it over to God.” Now I am not a religious person, but I do believe we have available to us far greater power than we realize, so I use this mantra to get me up the hill. By now, Gayle is out of sight, and I am glad she is not there to hear me wheezing.
Once we hit the open area of Maple Pass, there is still another ¾ of a mile climb to reach the highest point, and it is STEEP! But what a knock-out of a view! Complete 360 degree mountains! Oh, I am flying high! So I push on to the top, where Gayle is waiting. We stand and marvel at the majesty that surrounds us. I am so glad she has come along, as having her there to share in the elation only enhances the experience.
There is a 70 year old man at the summit who tells me that 49% of the glaciers in the Continental US are in this park, and he points to several of them. Then he takes off down the hill at a speed that makes my head spin, as he is out of sight in a matter of minutes.
Now, we must begin our descent down the steeper side of the mountain. I notice the sun is starting to drop low in the sky, so we can’t tarry too long. I do my best to keep up with Gayle, as I really want to be off the mountain before dark. LOL!
The trail starts out with steep switch-backs, then skirts another alpine lake with a massive waterfall that we can hear from a good distance. The last mile and a half are through thick forest, and we hear all the spooky sound effects to add to the eerie atmosphere.
I swear, the hardest part of the trail was returning to the asphalt ADA accessible path, as it felt like it would never end. Finally, we are back to the Tracker by 6:00pm. It has taken us almost five hours to do the 7.5 mile hike, but we both are basking in the glow of one of the most beautiful hikes either of us have done in a long while.
As we arrive back at the campground, I ask Gayle, “How long would this hike have taken you and Jim?” Thankfully, she answers with just a smile…