The Northern Cascades of Washington state are home to some of the most incredible hikes on the entire planet- and Heather Maple Pass Loop is undoubtedly one of them. Offering spectacular views of wildflowers, jewel-colored alpine lakes, and a sea of Cascade peaks encircling the trail, this hike is the perfect introduction to Washington’s rugged and impossibly colorful natural beauty.
So if you’re ready for your next Pacific Northwest adventure, lace up those hiking boots and hop in the car- here’s everything you need to know about the Heather Maple Pass Loop.
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Table of Contents:
- About Heather Maple Pass Loop
- How to get to Heather Maple Pass Loop
- When to hike Heather Maple Pass Loop
- Should I hike Heather Maple Pass Loop clockwise or counter-clockwise?
- What to expect along Heather Maple Pass Loop
- Tips for Heather Maple Pass Loop
- Can you camp along the Heather Maple Pass Loop?
- Where to stay near Heather Maple Pass Loop
About Heather Maple Pass Loop
Trailhead: The trailhead is located here, along the North Cascades Highway.
Distance: 7.2 miles
Elevation gain: 2,191 feet
How to Get to Heather Maple Pass Loop
The trail (also just called the “Maple Pass Loop”) is located right along the edge of North Cascades National Park in (unsurprisingly) the northernmost part of the state, approximately a four hour drive from the city of Seattle or a four and a half hour drive from Vancouver, Canada.
The parking lot for the trail is fairly large, but fills up pretty early, especially during the trail’s busy fall season. If the parking lot is full, you can park along the shoulder of the North Cascades Highway (although, as always, be sure to look for any “No Parking” signs)- my husband, Justin, and I have done this hike where we’ve had to park a good half mile from the trailhead when we’ve arrived past 9 AM, due to the sheer volume of people interested in hiking here.
So if you want to skip a pre-hike mini-hike, be sure to get here early!
To park here, you’ll need a valid pass- either a $5 day pass that you can get at the trailhead (if there’s no parking in the lot itself, you may want to drive to the trailhead first to snag your permit and then head to your parking spot); a Northwest Forest Pass, which allows you to park at National Forest trailheads in Washington and Oregon; or a U.S. National Park Service interagency pass, like America the Beautiful (which you can leave on your dashboard). Once you’re in the parking lot, follow signs for the Rainy Lake trail.
Note that you won’t be able to access the road to the Heather Maple Pass Loop in the wintertime starting from around the beginning of November through around May, as the North Cascades Highway closes each year due to heavy snowfall.
When to Hike Heather Maple Pass Loop
While the trailhead becomes accessible in late spring, there’s usually a fair amount of snow on the trail through the beginning of July (or later). If you want to hike it any earlier than that, I’d recommend bringing along some microspikes and trekking poles to give you better stability on the snowy or icy patches.
Come mid-July, the snow mostly melts and gives way to technicolor fields of wildflowers, impossibly green meadows, and clear views of the gorgeous North Cascades.
The real showstopper, though, is fall– and, in fact, North Cascades is one of the best national parks to visit in October, with peak fall foliage hitting in the first week or two of October.
During this period, the North Cascades totally transform, offering the most out-of-this-world autumnal foliage you can imagine. It literally feels like you’re walking through some Pumpkin Spice Latte-version of Candyland.
The valleys are carpeted with deep scarlet and burnt orange wildflowers and there’s dozens of groves of larches along the trail, a unique type of deciduous alpine tree whose needles turn a vibrant golden hue each fall before they fall to the ground for the winter. In fact, Heather Maple Pass Loop is one of the best hikes to see larches in the North Cascades!
Washingtonians go absolutely NUTS over these trees- in fact, you’ll hear lots of Washingtonians wax on about “larch madness” come fall.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that autumn can be an extremely crowded time to visit some of the hikes in the North Cascades with the best fall foliage, like Cutthroat Pass, Yellow Aster Butte, or, of course, Heather Maple Pass Loop. So if you head here on the weekend, be prepared to hike alongside hundreds or even thousands of your best trail brethren.
While this trail offers one of the most uniquely gorgeous autumnal landscapes I’ve ever laid eyes on, this definitely isn’t the place you should go for quiet contemplation in nature by your lonesome– there will almost always be someone a few feet ahead or behind you along the trail.
By mid-October, the fall colors fade and you’ll again be risking encountering snow and ice along the trail.
Should I hike Heather Maple Pass Loop clockwise or counter-clockwise?
So this trail is a loop, which means you can hike this trail either clockwise or counter-clockwise. I’ve actually done this hike both ways, so here’s the low-down.
If you hike Heather Maple Pass Loop counter-clockwise (which is by far the most popular way to hike it), you will gradually climb your way to the ridgeline, with amazing views of Lake Ann, a pool of impossibly turquoise water, for the entirety of the toughest part of your climb up to Maple Pass.
If you hike Heather Maple Pass Loop clockwise, you will get most of the elevation gain over at the beginning of your hike, as you climb approximately 1700 feet through a second-growth forest, leaving nothing but panoramic mountain views as you climb up Maple Pass and down the switchbacks towards Lake Ann.
In the summertime, it’s probably best to do this hike counter-clockwise, given that the not insignificant elevation gain along the trail is more gradual and you’ll be mollified even further by the stellar views you’ll have of Lake Ann as you climb those steep switchbacks up the mountain.
As mentioned above, given that Heather Maple Loop Pass is inarguably one of the best larch hikes in Washington, come late September through early October, this hike is INCREDIBLY popular in the fall– as in, “seemingly thousands of people will hike this trail in a single day” kind of popular.
The vast majority of these hikers (like, seemingly 98%) do the trail counter-clockwise, I suppose, for the reasons already stated- but this means you’ll have lots of frustrating moments being stuck behind dozens of hikers that are slower than you (some of which won’t have the best trail etiquette and won’t provide you room to pass), as well as all the hikers that are faster than you constantly overtaking you as you’re huffing and puffing your way up a switchback. It’s frankly… not the best experience.
As such, I’d actually recommend hiking the trail clockwise in the fall to avoid all these frustrations– we hiked this trail clockwise the last time we did it and probably only saw about four or so groups hiking the same direction as us for the first several miles.
So I’m going to describe the hike heading clockwise (given if you’re reading this article, there’s a decent chance you may be heading here in the fall to peep those larches). No matter which way you go, I promise you’ll be amazed by the views!
What to Expect Along Heather Maple Pass Loop
Hiking the trail clockwise, you’ll follow signs to Rainy Lake and walk along a flat and paved path for about 0.5 miles. Eventually, you’ll reach a junction- continue straight to the banks of the lake or turn right to continue your journey along the trail and start your thigh-burning ascent uphill.
For the next 1.7 miles, you’ll steadily climb about 1500 feet through a second-growth forest, scrambling up the rocky and root-y path and glancing at the peek-a-boo views of Frisco Mountain and the impressive Lyall Glacier to the south.
Eventually, you’ll pop out of the forest into a meadow and have just absolutely jaw-dropping views in every direction- you can peer down into the waters of Rainy Lake, which are so clear, you can see boulders and sunken logs from 1500 feet up or take in the seemingly endless mountain peaks surrounding you. In the fall, you’ll pass some of the largest groves of golden larches, scarlet paintbrush, and other dazzlingly colored foliage blanketing this upper slope.
Continue on up the switchbacks to the ridgeline, which is known as Maple Pass; there will be a sign along the spine of the mountain here demarcating where North Cascades National Park starts northwest of the trail, with seemingly endless layers of the Cascades stretching on towards the horizon.
The trail will eventually lead you downhill through Heather Pass, with meadows of beautiful wildflowers, and past a series of switchbacks, providing views of the azure waters of Lake Ann and its picturesque little island below. Continue your climb down- about 6.4 miles into your hike, you’ll reach a junction where you can turn right to add on a one-mile out-and-back spur trail to the banks of Lake Ann (if you choose this option, be sure to bring bug spray– there’s TONS of mosquitoes!).
Back on the main Heather Maple Pass Loop trail, you’ll end your hike winding down the trail through a lush second-growth forest, which will eventually spit you back out into the parking lot.
Tips for Heather Maple Pass Loop
So we’ve established you should get here early and expect lots of crowds in the fall- what else is there to know?
Check the forecast and recent AllTrail reviews before you head out.
The North Cascades have some of the most mind-blowing hiking trails on the planet- but they definitely can be a fickle friend. Between the ice and snow that can remain on the trail sometimes through August and the wildfires that blaze through this area from July through October, it can be challenging to thread the needle to land great trail conditions here.
So to make sure you can bring along the right kinds of gear and have a safe and enjoyable experience, I’d recommend checking the weather forecast, this Smoke and Fire map, and recent user reviews of either AllTrails or Washington Trails Association before you head out to make sure you know what to expect on the trail.
Download offline maps ahead of time.
There’s spotty cell signal, at best, in the North Cascades, so download offline maps on the Google Maps app and the AllTrails app ahead of time to make sure you don’t get lost along the way.
Pssst… you need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline maps, but you can get a 7-day free trial here, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount for their first year—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out! If you're wondering whether the app is for you, we wrote a whole post on whether AllTrails Pro is worth it.
Bring water and sunscreen.
Besides the very beginning and end of the trail, the majority of your hike will be along exposed mountainsides with no shade. Between the higher altitude and the elevation gain, it can get quite steamy as you’re hiking. So slather on that sunscreen and pack plenty of water with you.
To be kind to the planet and to cut down on wasting money on bottled water, Justin and I both have giant Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere, from international vacations to our RVing adventure to, of course, hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest!
Follow the Leave No Trace principles.
Listen- this hike is gorgeous. Like, arguably one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been.
But with so many people excited to explore the trail and the incredibly fragile meadows and wildflowers here, it’s really important that you understand and follow the Leave No Trace principles during your time on the trail.
Like, for example, always stay on the trail or on other durable surfaces, like stone or dirt, and never, ever step on the beautiful wildflowers surrounding you. Did you know that when most species of wildflowers are trampled, they can’t produce seeds, which is generally how they reproduce?
When you’re stepping through a meadow of wildflowers to make a Tik Tok or whatever, you’re basically not only just killing those wildflowers, but also their future flower grandbabies for years and years to come.
This otherworldly place is worth protecting- so don’t be a wildflower killer, follow the Leave No Trace principles, and leave it so our grandbabies can enjoy it down the road as well!
Can You Camp Along the Heather Maple Pass Loop?
While you can’t camp along the Heather Maple Pass Loop, there are some places you can hike to from the main trail to go backcountry camping. When you reach Heather Pass (4.8 miles in if you’re going clockwise or 2.4 miles if you’re going counterclockwise), you’ll see a spur trail leading through a meadow, heading northwest.
Here, you can hike through an enormous boulder field to the robin’s egg blue, Lewis Lake (an additional 2 miles round-trip from Heather Pass) or Wing Lake (an additional 4.8 miles round-trip from Heather Pass). You do not need a permit to camp at either of these locations- although, word to the wise, if you want to camp anywhere within North Cascades National Park’s actual boundaries, you will need to pick up a backpacking permit.
The scramble through the boulder field is long, tough, and not for the faint of heart- imagine climbing over enormous, unstable, stabby rocks, all while having the agility of a turtle, with approximately 30 pounds of camping gear strapped on your back.
While climbing here, Justin and I actually saw a girl have a pretty intense panic attack, who had to be escorted by her friends back up to the main trail. So if you’re new to backpacking or scrambling, this may not be the right place to kick off your backcountry camping adventures.
Once you make it to either Lewis or Wing Lake, you’ll find a handful of campsites at each body of water- again, if you’re visiting on a weekend, especially in the fall, I’d recommend coming early to make sure you can grab a spot! From Wing Lake, you can actually even try summiting Black Peak, one of the tallest non-volcanic mountains in the entire Cascade Mountain range.
To reach the spur trails leading to Lewis and Wing Lakes, you should start the hike counter-clockwise if you want to go directly to the lakes from the trailhead. Alternatively, if you’re up for a REAL butt-kicking and want to experience the full Heather Maple Pass Loop, start the trail clockwise, hitting Lewis and Wing Lakes on the latter half of the trail, and have an easy hike down past Lake Ann once your backpacking adventure is over.
Where to Stay Near Heather Maple Pass Loop
Since the North Cascades are a pretty far drive from, well, pretty much everything, I’d recommend making a weekend out of your visit to the trail, especially given the seemingly endless hiking opportunities and stunning viewpoints the North Cascades offer.
While you’re exploring the area, I’d recommend staying in the adorable town of Winthrop, Washington, about 40 minutes east of the Heather Maple Pass Loop trailhead, as well as other popular hikes, like Blue Lake or Cutthroat Pass.
Winthrop is too stinkin’ adorable- it was established during the late 1800s gold rush and still retains many of its original boardwalks and Wild Western facades. Be prepared to live out all your childhood Fievel Goes West fantasies while exploring the cute bakeries, microbreweries, and shops that line Winthrop’s main street! While you’re there, consider staying:
- Methow Valley Lodge: Located within walking distance of downtown Winthrop with views overlooking the Chewuch River.
- Mt. Gardner Inn: Tucked a bit farther away from the hubbub of Winthrop’s downtown, with clean, cozy rooms at an affordable rate.
- Hotel Rio Vista: With a wooden facade that fits in perfectly with the town’s Wild West vibes, a riverside hot tub, and sweet touches, like the local artwork adorning the walls, this is the perfect place to call your homebase during your stay in Winthrop.
This is such a special spot on this planet and I can’t wait for you to see it with your own eyes. Do you have any questions about the trail? Hit me up in the comments below!