I said it before and I’ll say it again, I’d scramble Black Peak an innumerable number of times. It’s hard to beat this climb from the varied terrain to gorgeous views of the North Cascades. Last time I went in summer and I vowed to go back in the fall. Due to my poor scheduling, I was pinched with few days to find golden larches. This year was especially hard because summer started a few weeks late after a heavy spring snowfall. Flowers were peaking in August instead of July. And August berries turned into September berries. And no different, the larches should be approaching prime, yet they are incredibly green with a few rebellious specks of gold.
This trip, the goal was to take two friends to summit Black Peak and less for the fall colors. But between me and Sonya and our cameras, we had to make every inch of orange and red work for us. Surprisingly, both friends had been around this area but never did the full Maple-Heather Pass loop. So during the car ride up as we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, we made a last minute decision to star the loop clockwise. For whatever reason people always do the loop clockwise. I suppose it helps the flow of hiker traffic and you can get more lake views earlier on with a mellow ascent. But I kind of prefer the way we went because it’s nicer on your knees on the way down and you get the steep part out of the way. Plus the way the trailhead works is it leads you to the first trail going counterclockwise rather than skipping the it and starting on the next trail intersection. And personally, I enjoy the meadows of the eastern side better for all the larches and no people dotting your photo, which is most pleasant when few day hikers have reached this side. If you’re looking for more larch hikes, check out my larch guide.
I’ve already written a pretty well detailed trip report about the magic of Black Peak before, so I’ll save repeating myself and only add a few more points here regarding decision making this time around. A good note to make, upon re-reading my previous report is that people will get lost finding the side trail to Black Peak. We had finished soaking up views from the apex of the loop and was making our way down when we saw people with backpacks on. No camping is allowed near the trail so we wondered where they were going. They mentioned Wing Lake towards Black Peak and we kindly informed them they had severely passed the turnoff! By at least 15 minutes of hiking. We endearingly named them the “Lost Group”. It’s actually a common mistake – just pay attention to signs that talk about Heather Pass if you’re going counter clockwise on the loop.
Surprisingly the berries nearly a month later were just as ripe and we munched on many as we made our way to camp. At Lewis Lake, we took a nice long break to enjoy the aqua perfect lake and some of the fall colors surrounding us. The whole way was just as I had remembered, only a tad more red in parts. We squeezed around the lake before the last climb up, stopping frequently to capture a few more bits of fall color in the peripherals.
When we got to Wing Lake, we found a secluded camp spot before more people came up. Surprisingly there were quite a few parties up there with us. We were a bit worried about Leave No Trace principles since many people were camped so close to water or on vegetation when there were clear spots that were on durable ground and more than 200 feet from water. I suppose last time we did camp only 10 feet from water but we were at a very well established site at the same time. There’s a lot of gray area about best practices, but I guess we can all only do our best. We did find it brow-furrowing that people were collecting firewood. We incorrectly cited no campfires above 5000 ft, but actually that’s just an Alpine Lakes Wilderness rule. But either way, we’re in high fire danger and burn ban season, so it really should not even enter people’s minds to start a fire!
This time around I also brought my hammock but it got less use since I used more of my free time running around to find the most golden larches. Time well spent because Hannah and I found the best little patch! Fall is coming! With an easy dinner and pumpkin snickerdoodle (courtesy of Hannah) for dessert, it was time for sunset and bed time.
I love friends like these who are willing to wake up early for hopes of sunrise views. Plan was to get to the saddle, base of the Black Peak scramble at sunrise, giving ourselves about an hour to go up 1000 feet of loose rock. Surprisingly despite leaving 15 minutes later, we were efficient enough to get to the base in 45 minutes at sunrise. But unfortunately, the clouds didn’t cooperate and we weren’t rewarded with the expected alpenglow on Goode.
Then we felt raindrops. And a raincloud barreling our way with high gusts. Do we leave or do we go? After some 15 minutes of deliberation, we felt the majority of the cloud move past and all agreed that we’d cautiously climb up. I think everyone had a bit of summit fever with a big dose of risk intolerance too, so we were caught in a hard place. It was still fervently windy. Once in a while we’d catch a break behind the rocks, which kept me leading further and further left of the standard route. But good thing, there’s many acceptable gullies! Plenty of cairns to lead you up many various ways too. I was pleasantly surprised by how well both friends were keeping up with the scrambling. Like perhaps I could go a bit faster but I was also very content with our pace because it’s important to take cautious steps to avoid kicking down too many rocks and losing balance.
Soon we came up on the flat section before the final approach and got some pretty incredible pink views of Baker and Shuksan just under the cloud layer. I was glad we stopped for pictures here (even if it was hard to photograph) because by the time we got to the last couple moves to the summit, lower clouds had rolled over us, stalling any distant views. At least we could still see the lakes below! I’d also like to rescind what I last wrote about no class 4 moves. The final approach to the summit I think could be considered class 4 especially for shorter people. Although I think a fll still wouldn’t be fatal there because it’s such a cozy chimney feeling. Someone did leave a sling for anchor if you choose to hand line or rappel a short way down. There’s also a low class 5 rock route if anyone wanted to go up or down it.
We spent all of less than 5 minutes on the summit because it was so windy and we were starting to get pelted by tiny hail or snow. Fall is here! We picked our way down and saw 2 people who turned around as soon as we saw them. I wonder why! We never caught up to them because we eventually took a long break to let the clouds pass and get our Cascade Range views. We weren’t rushed at all and at this speed we still made it back home by dinner time, which is my perfect kind of trip! Early wake ups do have their perks. On the hike out, we all felt like the hills felt more golden whether the colors did change within a day or the back light did a number on making colors pop.
No gear required other than helmets during summer/fall. A snowfield may persist during other times of the year. We brought microspikes because we weren’t entirely sure and I forgot the exact route. You’ll climb just right of a permanent snowfield up to some orange section that some might call the “red staircase”. It’s more like red loose scree to the right most low point in the saddle.
Plenty of campsites near Wing Lake and a few more by Lewis Lake. Try to follow Leave No Trace principles by camping on durable surfaces.
Check for fire bans before you start a campfire and put it out completely once you’re done.