October hike: Beat the snow to Thornton Lakes Trail

"As I wearily tramp up the final stretch of ridgeline, the Southern Pickets appear to rise from behind the rocks like a choir standing to sing. I take a few more steps."

“As I wearily tramp up the final stretch of ridgeline, the Southern Pickets appear to rise from behind the rocks like a choir standing to sing. I take a few more steps. A deep, green gash cut by Goodell Creek slices through the terrain between that jagged range and the rocky peak where I stand. The Skagit River is over a mile below me, to the south, and Teebone Ridge rises high above it. Upstream I can see the town of Newhalem, and can follow the line of Ladder Creek as it drains into the Skagit just above the town. That line starts at the Neve Glacier, a mass of snow and ice beneath Snowfield Peak. Mt. Triumph looms large to my north, and I spot the upper Thornton Lake, still snowbound late in the year.My father-in-law, Virgil Askren Jr., settles onto a large rock behind me. He is tired. My wife’s parents are visiting from Wyoming, and I asked Virgil to join me on this hike to Trapper’s Peak, possibly one of the finest dayhike destinations in the North Cascades National Park. He came not only for the view, but also for a certificate. I promised to make him an honorary member of the Fat Father’s Hiking Club if he completed the trip.Get some good pictures, he says. My friends wouldn’t believe I made it here, even if I do show them some cheap certificate.Trapper’s Peak is accessed from the Thornton Lakes Trail, off State Route 20. The official trail leads to Lower Thornton Lake, which is a fine destination in itself. The lake trip covers about 5.3 miles, with a gain of 2,400 feet and a drop of 500 feet. This is harder than it seems because the first two miles, on an old logging road, gain almost nothing. The route to Trapper’s Peak adds 960 feet to the climb, cutting away just before the main trail attains a ridge that overlooks the lake. Park rangers report new snow near this level, at 5,000 feet.Many dayhikers will want to eat lunch at the large boulders on the ridge. Mount Triumph is the main attraction here. From the overlook one can also see Trapper’s Peak to the northeast. It’s not as hard to get to as it looks, unless snow blocks the route. Otherwise it’s a non-technical scramble, if somewhat tiring. Turn back down the trail a few hundred feet and look for a track heading up the ridge. From here, pick the main and plain among the little paths. Faint tracks can lead you astray, though you won’t get lost for long.There are three distinct humps on the ridge. The first is by far the steepest. Hikers that can handle this one will probably find the remainder easy enough. Any place on this ridgeline is a worthwhile destination, though, so don’t feel the need to hike beyond your comfort zone, especially if snow covers the way.Three campsites wait near the lake, but there are better places to backpack in the park. Permits, obtainable at the Marblemount Ranger Station on your way in, are necessary. Anglers dropping to the lake should remember that Washington state fishing licenses are required in the park.At home, I chide Virgil for choosing to not bring along the trekking poles I offered. Though I explained they would save his knees much torment on the descent, he probably thought they didn’t look dignified. Virgil doesn’t look too dignified, either, as he limps across my lawn. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Getting ThereLook for the (signed) road to Thornton Lakes between milepost 117 and 118 on the north side of State Route 20. Even the access road is steep, and a bit rutted in spots. That shouldn’t stop you from getting to the trailhead, though snow might by November. The trailhead itself is 2,600 feet above sea level, and snow levels are dropping.So the time may be short.A few things to remember while hiking in the North Cascades National Park Complex:Dogs are allowed in the National Recreation Area, but not in the park. The Thornton Lake Trail leaves the recreation area and enters the park about midway, so dogs should be left at home;It is illegal to remove flora or fauna (that means you, mushroom hunters!); Please stop at the Marblemount Ranger Station (on Ranger Station Road — look for the brown sign) for more information, and to check on current trail conditions. Be ready to alter destination plans, especially if weather threatens. High on a ridge is no place to be when a storm hits.The recommended map is Green Trails Number 47, Marblemount.”