The American Alps

Date: 9/22/16

Miles: 21.2
Total Miles: 2598.4

The clear skies that we’d fallen asleep to were the same ones we woke to, but somewhere in between we had yet another dose of overnight rain. Fortunately, it was the last we would see of the wet stuff for the rest of the day. Under the newfound sun, steam was quietly rising off of the damp understory like smoke from a smoldering fire as we began the steady 17-mile climb from our camp up to Cutthroat Pass. Along the way, we got to see up close what the power of water and neglect can do to otherwise solid trail work…

As we anxiously watched the clouds for a repeat performance of the last few days, we crossed Highway 20 at Rainy Pass, the last paved road the trail will cross.

Into the afternoon, little by little the puffy clouds that had ultimately conspired against us in the past week began to drift off, unleashing yet more sunshine as we neared the top of the climb. Looking back, we could see deep into the heart of the North Cascades, full of jagged peaks, some dusted with snow, others cloaked in glaciers.

By the time we’d reached the top of the pass, soaking in the dramatic landscape that stretched out before us, it was easy to understand why this range has been dubbed the "American Alps." Returning here now at the culmination of this great adventure after seeing these mountains only from weekend and day trips in the past, my sentiment is still the same: It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.

Though not quite in peak color, the western larches that flecked the slopes near the trail had begun to show signs of their trademark fall color. Growing only in a very narrow band of elevation between 6000 and 7000 feet, the larch is a fir tree with very soft deciduous needles that turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn before falling to the ground. As one of my favorite trees, I had hoped that large stands would be at peak color but I had to settle for a lone tree here and there whose golden needles had set off a beautiful contrast against the snowy peaks in the distance.

Rounding a bend over another pass, we had a whole new perspective into another part of the range that appeared quite different, though no less dramatic, and by the time we made the traverse of the final few miles for the day, the sun had grown to dominate the sky with only a few harmless clouds remaining.

The countdown to Canada is officially underway, and tonight is the first of only three remaining nights on trail. Camped in a small meadow with sweeping views, it promises to be another clear and cold night nestled into the warmth of my sleeping bag.

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