Thorton Lakes

Last minutes of sunset over Pinnacle Peak, Paul Bunyan's Stump, Neve Peak, The Haystack, and The Needle (L to R)This past weekend I visited the Thorton Lakes region within the North Cascades National Park. I’ve never been there before but the promise of good views (including north towards the Southern Picket Range) was too intriguing. The great views don’t come without a price. The hike follows an old logging road for a few miles before bringing a steady uphill slog. Five miles and 2,500 vertical feet later, the ridge surrounding the Thorton Lakes basin is reached. From this point, a half mile and 500 foot descent takes you to the offical campground along the shores of Lower Thorton Lakes. The other option is a steep, climbers trail up towards the summit of Trappers Peak.

My primary interest was to stick around for sunset but I also wanted to get up Trappers Peak for those good views of the Thorton Lakes and the Southern Picket Range to the north. I was taking a little bit of a chance heading here because I didn’t have much intel about falls colors. I scoured older trip reports on to get a sense of what might be possible but the results weren’t conclusive. Making matters worse, a recent trip report from Cascade Pass showed great fall color. My decision was to roll the dice and still head for Thorton Lakes.

West slopes of Trappers Peak from the ridge above Lower Thorton Lake, North Cascades National Park
X Mountain from the ridge above Lower Thorton Lake, North Cascades National Park
Fall color on the benches above Lower Thorton Lake, North Cascades National ParkThe access road off of Highway 20 is fairly rough with several washboard sections but not impossible for passenger vehicles. The old road section turned trail is a nice warm up for the steady ascent to come. Once the trail turns away from the Thorton Creek valley, the trail suddenly becomes very quiet. Views out from the forest don’t really exist save for some fleeting glimpses across the valley at Big Devil Peak. After the trail crosses the Park Service boundary, it enters a small bowl below the ridge that surrounds the lakes. A hiker on their way down told us we had 20 minutes left until we reached the ridge. It didn’t seem believable but- it was.

I received my first disappointment upon reaching the trail junction between the path down to the lake and the path up to the peak. I expected the ridge to be much more open than it actually was. Instead of smaller subalpine trees, the ridge contains mostly larger trees with few unobstructed views down towards Lower Thorton Lake. If I was to get shots of the lake, they would have to be from the trail up towards Trappers Peak.

Fall color at the base of X Mountain, North Cascades National Park
The Haystack and The Needle, North Cascades National Park. The foreground ridge separates the Ladder Creek (L) and Newhalem Creek (R) drainages
Ladder Creek drainage cast in shadow, North Cascades National ParkThe next bit of disappointment was the lighting. The goal was to shoot sunset so we started our hike in the afternoon. By the time we gained the ridge, the sun had traversed far to the west. To photograph the west side of the basin, I had to point my camera into the sunlight and this adds a significant amount of haze to the photos. These two factors alone stopped me from trying to photograph the lake. With the late afternoon, I was beginning to realize that Trappers Peak would not be a reachable destination. Time and exertion would tap me out before I could get into a great position for photos.

There was still some time before the “magic hour” of light before sunset and that was enough to attempt to climb up to the intermediate knoll between the ridge and the summit. This led to my next disappointment of the day. While information on the internet states that there is a trail to the summit, it does elude to the fact that there are some “interesting” sections of the trail. The ascent up to the intermediate knoll is one such section. The crux of this section is where the trail ascends a 100 foot tall gully. Climbing the gully is generally class I-II but a specific move or two might be considered class III. I found it to be serious enough that I wasn’t as comfortable with the thought of down climbing this section after the sunset.

Newhalem Peaks and Klawatti Peak from the Thorton Lakes vicinity, North Cascades National Park
Southern Picket Range from below Trappers Peak, North Cascades National Park
West McMillan Spire in the Southern Picket Range, North Cascades National ParkSunset was still a little ways off which meant there was no reason not to hike “just a little further.” I really wanted to get my glimpse of the Southern Picket Range. After a few false benches, I turned a corner and got my glimpse. I got a few quick shots and then hurried back down to return to a spot further down the ridge for sunset. As we down climbed, I saw a side path which finally gave a relatively unencumbered view of Lower Thorton Lakes. Even though the sun had set enough to cast the entire basin in shade, getting a nice shot of the scene was still a challenge. Warm sunset light was really starting to show off on the rugged ridges back across the Skagit River to our south so I didn’t spend much time on the lakes. Another time, I suppose..

To the west, a few high clouds added some interest in the warm, orange light. To our south and the east, that light was more pinkish but with clear skies. The best displays were located to the east on the upper slopes in the vicinity of Paul Bunyan’s Stump and towards the southeast near Eldorado Peak and Klawatti Peak. The lack of any rain in the region has allowed for the development of some haze which really accentuates colors during sunsets. Even with this haze, we were able to clearly see Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers 36 miles to the southwest.

Trappers Peak and the Southern Picket Range, North Cascades National Park
Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers Mountain, 36 miles towards the southwest from the Thorton Lakes vicinity, North Cascades National Park
Lower Thorton Lakes and fall color, North Cascades National ParkAbout a half hour after official sunset, the colors in the earth shadow subsided and it was time to hike out. I was not looking forward to this since I had some concerns about following the trail on the way back out in the dark. Below the ridge, the forest proper isn’t heavily vegetated so there were a few times when it was quite easy to make a turn off trail. Thankfully, we managed to make the descent back to the decommissioned road without any navigational incidents. We reached the trailhead a little bit more than 2 hours after leaving the ridge.

The day didn’t quite go as I expected but that seems to be my modis operandi. I’ll return at some point but for now, I think it’s time to hunt down some fall color..

The Haystack (L) and The Needle (R) in the last minutes of sunset, North Cascades National Park
Last sunset light to the west from the Thorton Lakes vicinity, North Cascades National Park
Looking across the Skagit River valley at the last minutes of sunset
Last light of sunset over Eldorado Peak (far R), Klawatti Peak (C), and Primus Peak (far L), North Cascades National Park

2 Responses to Thorton Lakes
  1. Derek (100 Peaks)

    The pics look great to me!

  2. Steve Cole

    Thank you, Derek!