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Cutthroat Pass Trail: The North Cascades’ Most Underrated Gem

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The North Cascades in Washington state are fantastically gorgeous, with some of the most dramatic mountainscapes and best hiking opportunities on the planet. The Cutthroat Pass Trail is no exception, taking you past a beautiful lake and up to the ridge of a mountain, with dazzling views of the surrounding Cascades. So lace up those hiking boots and let’s hit the road- here’s everything you need to know about the Cutthroat Pass Trail. 

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Couple standing and looking at Cutthroat Pass, with the North Cascade mountains in the background
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About the Cutthroat Pass Trail

Length:

11.4 miles

Elevation:

2300 feet

Difficulty:

Hard. Other than this trail being looong, I’d actually probably categorize this as moderate, due to the consistent, yet gentle incline along the trail. 

Larches along the Cutthroat Pass Trail

Are dogs allowed at Cutthroat Pass?

Yes, you can bring your furbabies here, but be sure they’re on a leash.

Pass required?

You can either get a $5 day pass at the trailhead (bring cash) or use your Northwest Forest or America the Beautiful Pass

How to Get to the Cutthroat Pass Trail

There’s a couple of different trailheads that you can take to reach Cutthroat Pass, but I’m going to be covering the Cutthroat Lake and Cutthroat Pass trail, which has a trailhead located here.

Found along the aptly named (and stunning!) North Cascades Highway, it’s located three hours and 15 minutes northeast of Seattle or three hours and 45 minutes southeast of Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Couple standing in front of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades Highway itself is well-maintained, but you will have to drive about half a mile down an unpaved road to the trailhead. It’s a bit bumpy, but, so long as you drive slowly and carefully, any passenger vehicle should be able to make it just fine.

One important thing to note is that the portion of the North Cascades Highway that the trailhead is on is typically closed from November all the way to sometimes through June, due to the extremely heavy snowfall the North Cascades receives in winter.

Diablo Lake surrounded by the North Cascades

Once you’ve reached the trailhead, its parking lot holds a couple of dozen cars, but there’s plenty of parking along the shoulder of the National Forest road if the lot happens to be full. 

One of my favorite things about this trail is that it’s waaaay less popular (but, in my opinion, not any less stunning) than some of the other nearby trails, like the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail, where I’ve literally had to walk almost an extra mile from where I parked to the trailhead. I’ve hiked Cutthroat Pass trail twice now and have been able to park right in the lot on a Saturday during the trail’s busiest season (which, when you’re already going to be hiking 11 miles, I’ll take!). 

What to Expect Along the Cutthroat Pass Trail

From the trailhead, you’ll start by crossing a wooden bridge over the rushing Cutthroat Creek. 

Continuing on, the path is a bit rocky, with a gentle incline, and through the clearings in the trees, you’ll get peekaboo glimpses of the surrounding mountain peaks above (which are basically like teasers of the epic views that wait ahead!). 

Woman walking along the Cutthroat Pass Trail in the North Cascades

About 1.7 miles into your hike, the trail will fork. 

If you head to the left, you’ll again cross Cutthroat Creek and make your way 0.2 miles to the marshy shores of Cutthroat Lake. This alpine lake is quite pretty, sitting in the shadow of the epic Hinkhouse and Cutthroat Peaks, with lots of colorful foliage surrounding it. In the late summertime, you can even spot trout jumping here! 

Psssst… many hikers have reported seeing a black bear around the lake (maybe he’s hoping to see some of those jumping trout, too), so here’s a friendly reminder to always pack bear spray when you’re hiking in bear country.
Marshy shoreline of Cutthroat Lake with mountains and larches in the background

It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re camping along the trail (more on that later!), this is the last place where you can count on finding water here (of course, be sure to use a water filter, cuz there’s, like, bacteria, viruses, and trout in there!). 

If you, instead head to the right, you’ll continue on to Cutthroat Pass, climbing up a series of switchbacks. The elevation gain is pretty consistent along the switchbacks, but you’ll be too distracted by the surrounding mountain views, which continue to get more spectacular the further up you climb.

North Cascade Mountain peak along the Cutthroat Pass trail

Along the last mile or so, you’ll pass tons of huckleberry and blueberry bushes, carpeting the surrounding slopes (I LOVE me some free trail snacks!) and countless groves of larches. The tree coverage will get sparser, providing a dazzling vista of the North Cascades to the south.

Once you reach the top of the pass, you may notice there’s a lot more hikers here than what you encountered along the trail—that’s because, as mentioned above, you can reach Cutthroat Pass a couple of ways, including along the Pacific Crest Trail. If you happen to spot a PCT hiker, give ‘em a high five—they’ve hiked over 2,500 miles, all the way from Mexico, to get here!

Couple sitting and looking at the North Cascades from Cutthroat Pass

Either way, spread out, find one of the many enormous granite boulders scattered across the mountaintop to plop down on, and take in some of the most grand views in the North Cascades.

Alternative Ways to Hike Cutthroat Pass

As an alternative to hiking past Cutthroat Lake, you could start at the alternative Rainy Pass trailhead and hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. 

This route is actually a smidge shorter (10 miles, with 2,024 feet in elevation gain), but, given that the trailhead is right near the uber popular Heather Maple Pass Loop Trail, finding parking can be harder and the trail tends to be a bit more crowded. 

On the other hand, the Cutthroat Lake side allows mountain bikers (whereas the PCT side does not). We didn’t personally see that many mountain bikers on the lake side, but if you don’t want to ever worry about moving out of mountain bikers’ ways, you may want to consider the PCT side.

Man standing on top of Cutthroat Pass in the North Cascades

Or why not hike both? You can actually hike Cutthroat Pass as a point-to-point hike, dropping one car off at the Cutthroat Lake trailhead and another at the Rainy Pass trailhead, clocking in at 22 miles in length total and with endlessly spectacular views. Doing this combo is definitely on my bucket list! 

Frequently Asked Questions about the Cutthroat Pass Trail

Can you camp at Cutthroat Pass?

Yes, you can camp along the Cutthroat Pass trail (and without a permit)!  

There are some restrictions, though, like no camping within 0.25 miles from Cutthroat Lake. I also noticed some signage at the top of Cutthroat Pass that indicated tents were not allowed in certain areas, likely to protect the surrounding fragile wildflower meadows. So please be mindful and respect any signs you see along the trail.

Woman hiking along a ridgeline of the Cutthroat Pass Trail

On a similar note, let’s all be good stewards of our beautiful planet and follow the leave no trace principles. Only camp on durable surfaces, like rock, sand, or gravel, pack out whatever waste you make along the trail (including any toilet paper you use!), and don’t have any campfires. 

Do you want to be the jerk that burns down North Cascades National Park? I didn’t think so.

Larches along the Cutthroat Pass in the North Cascades

When is the best time to hike the Cutthroat Pass trail?

The North Cascades are probably my favorite place to hike on the planet, but there’s a heartbreakingly short window when its trails are accessible and relatively snow- and ice-free, usually lasting from mid-July to mid-October.

The trail is always stunning, but if you’re looking for Mother Nature at her finest, the North Cascades are known for its trails with eye-popping fall foliage, like Yellow Aster Butte, Heather Maple Pass, and of course, Cutthroat Pass.

Woman smiling in a grove of larches along Cutthroat Pass trail

From late September through early October, the wildflowers and shrubs carpeting the mountain slopes turn shockingly vibrant hues of red and orange and there’s seemingly endless larches. These are a unique kind of coniferous trees found only in alpine settings, whose needles turn flaming gold before falling off for winter- and Cutthroat Pass just so happens to be one of the best hikes to see larches in the North Cascades.

I am not a big crier and I literally burst into tears the last time we did this hike in the fall because, between the autumnal colors and the dramatic mountain peaks, it was so overwhelmingly beautiful.

10 out of 10, would recommend!

Woman hiking along Cutthroat Pass trail with larches in the background
Pretty cute backpack, right? If you wanna learn more about it, check out our Osprey Sirrus 24 review.

The Cutthroat Pass trail has absolutely got to be on your bucket list if you’re exploring the North Cascades. Do you have any questions about the trail? Let me know in the comments below!

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