If you fancy visiting North Cascades and only have time for one hike, make it the Maple Pass Loop. This hike has it all and will leave you in awe of the landscape and a little sore from the hiking or the mosquitoes that love to attack when you stop for more than 20 seconds but trust us it will be worth it!
Whilst it may not seem to be that long a hike, the gradient can make this trail slow going, so we recommend giving yourself plenty of time to enjoy the views and catch your breath.
The Maple Pass Loop hike is one of our favourites in Washington State and a fantastic introduction to the hikes in North Cascades.
Maple Pass Loop
Distance: 7.5 miles (12km)
Elevation: 2,000 ft (632 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous (steep uphill climb)
Time Taken: 3.5 hours
Choosing your direction
As this trail is a loop, you can tackle it in two different directions. Most people choose to go clockwise which presents a brutally steep uphill hike but a much more gradual downhill. We chose anti-clockwise for the gentler uphill (it was still steep) and the steep downhill trail. We’d like to say it was also because we were told the views were better in this direction but it was mainly to avoid extra steepness on the uphill : )
No matter which way you go, you’ll have to climb up 600m in a short distance.
Our advice and account is all about the anti-clockwise route. If you want to go this route, take the path that is signed for Lake Ann from the car park.
The start of the Maple Pass Loop trail
The trail starts at the Maple Pass Trailhead car park and heads gently uphill through the forest. This is your stereotypical start to a hike in Washington - beautiful pine forest and heading straight uphill. In this direction though the trail starts on fairly gentle switchbacks so it’s not too difficult.
The trail soon opens out onto a ridgeline and gives a quick glimpse of the view you’ll become accustomed to along the trail, before heading into the forest again.
But it’s not long before the trees disappear and you get a view of the stunning Lake Ann from above, characterised by its deep blue water.
You can head down to the lake on a short side trail but we’d read that the mosquitos down there were even more ferocious and we weren’t feeling brave enough!
From the junction the trail starts to get steeper, it’s still switchbacks but they are a little harsher and more rocky.
Remember those mosquitoes we mentioned at the start? Well it’s around this point where they come out in force. It’s not so bad if you keep moving but stop even for a few seconds to take a photo or just admire the spectacular views and you will quickly be inundated!
There were thousands that went for us - even in the wind - and managed to bite through our clothing! I found a cluster of 10 bites on each elbow - pretty sure they chose that spot on purpose 😂
The trail will give a glimpse of the neighbouring valley before winding up to a stunning ridge with panoramic views at the boundary of North Cascades National Park.
The trail is fairly relentless but the views are so good that you can get over it. I think we were uttering a ‘wow’ approximately every 10 seconds.
It’s around this point you’ll think you’re near the top, but no, you still have a decent distance to go!
The trail winds further and further up before you appear at the ridge at the top with epic views of yet another deep blue lake and surrounding mountains.
It reminded us of walking in the Alps but even more dramatic!
You come out to a much more open area with 360 views before following a last ridgeline uphill to the top of the pass. We were really feeling the elevation gain by then but again the scenery will keep you going.
At the top we took some time to admire the views but did sacrifice some serious blood to the mossies so bring the strongest repellant possible so you can actually stop in peace!
If it’s strong wind you might be ok but we had light wind and they just kept on coming!
Read next: The best Mount Rainier hikes you have to do
The trail down
The trail down can seem a bit daunting, with the worst being the first part. This series of switchbacks are not only steep, but made of loose gravel which makes for some slippery footing.
Add in a narrow path and a hefty drop on one side and you have a path which can be nervy for those of us who are less sure footed.
If you have walking poles, you’ll want them for this section. Otherwise you can trust your feet and try to take it quickly.
The good news is that the worst of it is over relatively quickly and soon the path will still head down, but your footing will be a lot more stable. It was steep but not as bad as we’d been expecting after reading some trail reviews online.
As we were hiking in summer, the path dissected fields of wildflowers that made this already beautiful scene even more picturesque.
You’ll soon start see Lake Ann again and those mountain views from the other side.
It’s not long before the trail heads down into the forest where it does become more rocky and tree roots mean footing is not as easy but it’s still not a particularly slippery or difficult path.
You’ll continue to head downhill until you reach a concrete path. This is where the trail flattens out and takes you back to the car park.
Best time to hike the Maple Loop Pass
The trail is best tackled between July and October but we would recommend checking trail conditions at any time of year as snow can linger into summer and arrive early.
The paths are narrow which is fine in snow free weather but could make it treacherous in heavy rain or snow.
It’s a popular hike so avoiding weekends and public holidays will see less crowds. We actually found that starting your hike a bit later in the day (after around 3pm) made for far less people on the track and we actually rarely shared the trail for more than a few seconds which we could hardly believe.
The alternative would be to hike very early in the morning.
Bears on the Maple Loop Pass
There are signs at the trailhead car park for both black bears and grizzly bears. We hadn’t seen grizzly signs on any of our other Washington hikes so were a bit surprised.
Having talked to locals though, we heard that there are thought to be fewer than 10 grizzlies in the whole of the North Cascades and there hadn’t been any sightings for years, which put my mind at rest. We still carried bear spray though.
Getting to Maple Pass Loop
The Maple Pass Loop starts from the Maple Pass Trailhead which has its own car park.
This is about 150 miles away from Seattle (taking between 3-4 hours to drive to) and the nearest town is Marblemount - which is an hour away.
North Cascades National Park has an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle for 7 days. If you plan on visiting three or more parks we recommend buying the Annual Pass for $80 which allows you unlimited access to all national parks in the US for a whole year.
Where to stay in North Cascades
The most convenient base from which to explore the North Cascades is camping within the park. The surrounding towns are actually quite far from the trailheads making for potentially long days.
However, if you are like us and you don’t want to camp, then the most convenient base for the Maple Pass Loop and many other trails is the little town of Marblemount. We stayed at the two places below.
Totem Trail Motel
Totem Trail only accepts reservations by telephone which is a bit of a pain for foreigners but we also thought it was the best value accommodation in the area.
The rooms were clean and comfy and though both the bed and the shower were really small we liked this place. You have access to a shared BBQ and bench area outside where you can set up a camp stove and cook if you need to. Wifi doesn’t work in all the rooms though it does work outside on the patios.
Buffalo Run Inn
The Buffalo Run Inn has ensuite and shared bathroom rooms. We opted for the cheapie shared one which is in the upper floor of the hotel. The room was small but very clean and comfy despite being on a bit of a downward slope.
The bathrooms (two are shared between five rooms) are spotlessly clean which is something I was really grateful for as I prefer not to share where possible : )
There is also a little sitting room with a shared fridge and microwave but no coffee pot. We liked the place but thought it could do with a coffee pot and sink to wash up in at the least. It did have a nice feel to it but it was more expensive for a room with a shared bathroom than Totem was for an ensuite room.
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Are you planning a trip to Washington State? Would you take on a brutal uphill climb at Maple Pass Loop? Let us know in the comments below!