by: Jeanine Schmitz
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is reprinted with permission from the author from Wheelchair Wandering. Jenny lives in Seattle because of its unique offering of mountains, water, culture, and cool weather. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Her passion is travel, which has become a multi-adventure experience since her MS required a transition into a wheelchair.
We first saw the golden larches in Switzerland. And then in the Canadian Yukon. We were transfixed -- not only because these conifers seemingly defy nature and drop their needles in the winter, but because they first turn a magnificent gold, glowing in the sun. Wilderness wisdom has different dates for this spectacle -- from mid-September through mid-October, including one insistence on the exact date of October 10. I guess, as with most things, it depends on the regional weather and weather patterns that year. At any rate, the larches in the North Cascades are the sub-alpine variety, which means that they grow only above 6000 feet, in a state where even the tallest non-volcanic mountains are shorter than 10,000 feet.
Still, their beauty calls, and we were drawn to the famous "larch march," this year. We drove to Rainy Pass in the Northern Cascades, where a hike to Rainy Lake took us through temperate rainforest, fall colors, chilly temperatures, and patches of snow from a recent snowstorm to a mountain lake surrounded by more fall colors, high mountains, and -- far away -- views of golden larches.
The Rainy Lake Trail is one of my favorites. It is a mile (each way) paved trail that is accessible to all wheelchairs, as long as the wheelchair hiker is strong (or has a strong hiking companion!). The most exciting thing about this trail is that it is an actual trail used by hundreds of able-bodied hikers, through an actual forest, and ending at an actual view destination. All of this while being completely paved (and, mostly, in good condition). People using a manual chair need to be very strong (or have assistance), since there are quite a few steep hills. People using a power chair should be careful that it doesn't get stuck in one of the puddles of water or mud on the otherwise-well-mantained paved path. All wheelchair hikers should be forewarned and careful about a common but difficult barrier to wheelchair hiking: the trail slopes significantly sideways toward the downhill side. Finally, it is a rainforest, so it will probably be damp. We hit the trail in the final days before the highway closed (due to snow), so the dampness was compounded by the chilly weather (it was in the mid-thirties) and the scattered remains of recent snow.
All of those precautions aside, it is a fantastic trail, and it was a fantastic hike. We hiked through the rain forest, with its big, beautiful trees, moss, lichen, and ferns. We were often greeted with bursts of fall color from the deciduous trees, bushes, and vines.
At the end of the trail, we stopped to admire and photograph the distant golden larches hugging the crags of the high peaks, while bright fall colors highlighted the vines and bushes on the slopes nearer the lake. All fronted by a beautiful mountain lake.
There are several accessible trails outside of the North Cascades visitor center in Marblemount, WA, which I would like to try in the future, so I'll definitely return after the winter passes and the low snow melts. Candy Harrington, who has published several books on barrier-free travel, including a book about barrier-free travel in Mt Rainier and Olympic National Parks, is planning to publish a book about barrier-free travel in the North Cascades next year. I'm looking forward to using someone else's research to find and enjoy wheelchair-accessible trails!