Don't wait until summer for 4th of July Pass

"Crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch.I don't think we're going to see any wildlife, Dad, Karen said. These snowshoes are loud. Crunch, crunch.That's probably true, crunch, crunch, unless we get on some softer snow. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.My daughter and I were hiking along the Thunder Creek Trail in the North Cascades National Park, hoping to climb 2,300 feet to Fourth of July Pass. Here, beneath the shelter of giant, old-growth trees, melting snow drips from branches and freezes again each night, forming a hard crust on the snow. A raven croaked in the distance, matching the pace of our footsteps. It almost seemed to be returning the call of our passing feet. We stopped to listen, only to be rewarded with silence.In summer months, Fourth of July Pass can be accessed by the Panther Creek trail, which begins from State Route 20 at the northeast corner of Ruby Mountain. The trail follows Panther Creek southwest to the pass, which lies between Ruby Mountain and Red Mountain. Hikers can then descend to a junction with the Thunder Creek Trail, and walk out at the Colonial Creek Campground.During the winter, State Route 20 is gated near Ross Lake, and Fourth of July Pass is best accessed from the campground. Look for it near milepost 130, approximately ten miles past Newhalem. The campground covers both sides of the highway; the Thunder Creek Trail lies at the end of the southern side. Snow still clogs the parking lot, so pull as far off the plowed road as possible. Hikers should bring snowshoes, unless they prefer to sink thigh-deep in snow. Karen and I desired no such experience. We had put on our snowshoes at the parking lot, and even though the snow was crusted over in the lower forest, we didn't want to hassle with undoing our bindings and continued on. Snow was deeper and softer, anyway, whenever we reached an opening in the forest roof.At one mile, a bridge crosses Thunder Creek. Two feet of well-packed snow brought us to thigh-level with the rail.Look for the marked junction in one mile, leading to the left and uphill. (A sign marks a side trail to Thunder Camp, on the right, a few hundred yards prior to the junction.) Before heading up on the trail to the pass, though, take a last look at the huge cedars in the valley bottom. Why hike to Fourth of July Pass in the winter?• Solitude. Footprints were the only sign we saw of recent human activity.• Snow. The snow makes what would be a relatively mundane, summer hike with nice views, into an interesting hike with more physical challenge and dramatic views. Across Diablo Lake, Davis Peak, with the Pickets in the background, seemed closer and almost alive in the clear, crisp air. On a sunny day, coruscating crystals dance across the forest floor. (By the way, bring sunglasses.)• Sound effects. Sheets of ice covered much of the Thunder Arm, where Thunder Creek pours into Diablo Lake. On the return trip we listened as the ice, warmed by the afternoon sun, cracked and groaned. At other times, we noticed a deep hush that seemed to rest over the snow impregnated forest, if only because the creak of our snowshoes had come to a rest.Our snowshoes came to a rest short of the pass. We had started late, and the short, winter day was threatening to end before our hike. As it was, the sun ducked behind the mountains at 2:50 p.m., and we were glad for our early departure. Karen and I still ate our lunch with a front row seat of Colonial Peak, the Neve Glacier, and Snowfield Peak. One-half mile from the campground, we stopped to notice the lower portions of Ruby Mountain reflected in Thunder Creek. I knew that if I stood in this spot on a summer day, I would probably be overrun by a mob of kids from Colonial Creek Campground. Their dog would probably bark at me, too.Several months of winter, though, remain in the mountains. I'll be back."

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