Cathedral Lakes — complete album
This hike has been on our priority list for a few years, and between fires, weather, and the desire to do this hike during prime golden larch season in early October, everything finally came together this year. The weather was unusually stable and warm all summer and through September, and the forecast for the first week of October was ideal. This is a 45-mile lollipop hike, and by adding a dayhike to summit one of Amphitheater Mt.’s 8,200ft peaks, adds a day or so and tops out around 50 miles. We allocated 5 nights for this trip, averaging about 8 miles on the four days we moved camps.
The other impetus for this hike was to experience it with our friend Lee Jacobsen, who was ticking off hikes of the 100 Classic Hikes of Washington list; this hike was a two-for him. The remoteness and distance of the hike all but guaranteed that we’d not see many people, which proved to be true.
We drove up the night before to return to our Labor Day campsite along the Chewuch River, again delighted to see no one in the area. In the morning, we met Lee and three friends at the trailhead for a 9AM start.
Even Baker had a comparatively heavy hike given the amount of food we had to carry for the trip. As forecast, it was sunny and warm as we headed north on the gently sloped trail above the Chewuch to our first night’s camp at about 9 miles through an old burn. The large horse camp at the confluence of Cathedral and Remmel Creeks allowed the six of us to spread out. Baker made quick friends with everyone and was always up for a quick game of fetch.
Morning’s arrival saw us set out on a longer and more arduous trail toward Remmel Lake for night two. We were at the base of the loop part of the lollipop and heading clockwise with Cathedral Lakes at the top of the loop, Remmel Lake at the loop’s west side. The hike started gently enough, but opened back up into a large burn area, which meant lots of blowdowns and little shade. We made decent progress, but had several small re-routes to navigate and dozens of logs to cross. After a few hours we stopped for a break and a snack, and then headed more steeply toward the upper basins with golden larches on our minds to drive us forward. Again, most of the trail was annoying through an old burn and had only been partially logged out.
I got a bit warm and bonked as we climbed up, nearing 7,000ft before I got a Gu gel in me to recover and make the last mile or so down to Remmel Lake – I love the Gu espresso gel – it’s magical. Baker was happy to be done, too, and was excited to have his pack off and roam around and visit everyone as we made camp. Remmel Lake is a beautiful basin, with Remmel Mountain in profile a bit off the lake. The sky glowed for a pretty sunset, and the moon over Remmel was a site as we hunkered down for a chilly night.
The downside of late-season camping is that the nights are long, and especially without a campfire, you’re compelled to head into the warmth of your tent and sleeping bag to spend the next 10-12 hours. It was frosty overnight, with 28F greeting us when we got out of our tents and tried to stay warm as we made breakfast and broke down our gear.
Thankfully the sun came up to help dry the frost off our rainfly before packing them up. Becka, Baker, and I were headed for our next camp at Upper Cathedral Lake, while Lee and the rest of the group decided to keep camp at Remmel, dayhike with us, and retreat the next day. Kai, the small but mighty hiker in the group, helped carry some of my gear on the short 4-mile hike up to the next camp.
After a couple of easy miles through the trees, we broke out into sub-alpine meadows and saw our first few golden larches; it’d been more than year since we missed out on them in 2021 because the weather didn’t cooperate. Just as beautiful, though, were the broad views of the hills and peaks, with bright white granite outcrops and many darns dotting the landscape. I was so excited to walk through this and increased my pace to see what Upper Cathedral Lake was like for the next two days.
We broke into the upper lake basin and were blown away by all the golden trees, right near their peak of larchy-ness.
I eagerly scouted the basin for the best campsite and found a prime spot near the lake with a cozy and protected spot for our tent. Kristin broke out her fishing pole while the rest of the group headed up to Cathedral Pass to catch the view and to check it off the Classic Hikes list. Becka and I would head out that way in a couple of days. Kristin hooked a nice brown trout on her third cast and released it.
The hammocks went up and we said our goodbyes as the rest of the group separated and headed back to Remmel. We napped a bit and then explored the area and snapped pictures in a flurry as the afternoon light turned golden again and afforded amazing views of the lake and Amphitheater Mt rising 1,000ft above us.
Next morning our primary goal for the day was to explore the west summit of Amphitheater Mt. We gathered our gear and headed up, retracing some of yesterday’s route before turning left and corkscrewing our way counter-clockwise up to a pass between the north and west peak and then up to the west summit at about 8,250ft. We could see camp almost straight down through cracks and gullies in the ridgeline.
We could see all the peaks up there, including Remmel about 5 miles to our southwest and Cathedral less than a mile to our NE. Canada was only about a mile north, and we could see the firebreak cut through the trees along the border on the 49th parallel. We found a shady, less windy spot on the summit to eat our lunch before returning to camp.
On our way back, B&B set off to find Lower Cathedral Lake as I went back to camp. They came back about 90 minutes later, frustrated that they couldn’t find the lake. We had dinner, and another pretty sunset closed out the day, which Becka enjoyed from her rock that was along the trail and overlooked a small tarn just northwest from camp.
Next morning started our longest hiking day, distance-wise. We had to close the loop and back to the ‘stick’ of the lollipop near where we camped the first night. With lighter packs and almost all downhill ahead of us, we set out as the sun was coming up through Cathedral Pass, which afforded a big view into the Cathedral Creek basin. Thankfully this side of the hike was untouched from recent fire and was far more pleasant and shaded. After a quick switchback from the pass, the near-flat trail traversed below Barchester Towers, inviting look-backs to the east side of Cathedral Pass and Cathedral Peak. Soon we climbed a couple of switchbacks up to Apex Pass at 7,300ft. The larches were at about 7,250ft and above, so it was nice to be surrounded by the golden views once again.
As we swung a big s-curve along the Boundary Trail above the Tungsten Creek drainage, we were excited to visit the old mine site. Two intact buildings, one a bunk / social / mess hall, the other presumably an office and maybe the manager’s quarters (?). Lots of old artifacts were strewn about, including a horseshoe pit. Just below the buildings was the mine itself, long collapsed and filled in, but with many rusting components, rails, machinery, and piping/drills, and a smelter/furnace. Collapsed wooden structures for separating the ore was biggest part still standing. We found a shady spot along the tailings rails and had our lunch, knowing we had covered about half the day’s hike.
Back on the trail, it finally stated to lose some elevation, falling through 6000ft as we sidestepped some mudholes. The trail here wasn’t in very good shape, especially considering it may have been the wagon road used to haul out the wolframite and other ores from the mine decades ago. The trail mellowed out and into a dense second or third-growth forest, where we plopped down on our ZLites for an ad hoc nap. We didn’t bother to move off the trail, because we hadn’t seen anyone since we separated from the group two days ago, though we did see a tent not far from the mine.
We passed a few campsites near a creek and meadowy area, continuing to stay fairly level at about 5,900ft. With just over a mile to go before camp, the trail finally fell steeply 1,200ft until we bottom out in the creek confluence area. We stopped just shy of crossing back over the Chewuch, thinking that if anyone was around, they’d be in the horse camp where we spent our first night, and there were two or three decent sites right along Tungsten Creek. Packs were dropped and hammocks were set up for another break before we put the tent up. We covered 12 miles and descended about 4,000ft.
It was another quiet night to ourselves; we had not seen any humans or megafauna for days now, but we expected to pass some folks on the way out, given it was Friday and people would be heading in. First thing in the morning, we passed through the horse camp with no sign of anyone. The only thing I recognized were Lee’s bootprints from the day before as they had retraced and exited a day earlier.
We moved quickly with our much-lighter packs and legs and lungs in better shape from the last few days’ work. We hiked out 8 miles in under 3 and three-quarters hours, eager to get back to our comfy seats and AC in the vehicle, including fresh clothes and footwear.