Brandon Fralic | 09/16/2019 | Adventure - Outdoors, Hiking, Insider Blogs, Scenic Drives, Seasonal Travel, Sightsee, Spring, Summer, Trails |   

Tackling Twin Lakes Road in the North Cascades

Driving to the top of Twin Lakes Road is a white-knuckle affair. Unmaintained by the Forest Service (or any agency) beyond mile 4.5, the old mining road has fallen into disrepair for decades. Ira Spring and Harvey Manning, in their 1998-published 100 Classic Hikes in Washington, describe it as, “impassible for the average car...either grit your teeth and walk those last 2 miles or see how sporty your car is.”

Deep ruts, wicked switchbacks, and a sheer drop-off on one side of the narrow Twin Lakes Road make for one hell of a ride. So why would anyone (besides off-roaders) want to attempt it? Because the rewards at the end of Twin Lakes Road are immeasurable. The road’s namesake lakes sit 1 mile above sea level, surrounded by mountain peaks and sparkling beneath starry skies. Trails lead into the Mount Baker Wilderness, climbing above 6,000 feet for unparalleled panoramic views. Twin Lakes is a very special place in the North Cascades.

To get there, drive Mount Baker Highway (SR 542) east for 12 miles from the Glacier Public Service Center. Take a left at Twin Lakes Road (FR-3065) and drive 4.5 miles on rough, but passable gravel until you reach the signed Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead. Pullout parking is available here (Northwest Forest Pass required). The first 4.5 miles of Twin Lakes Road are best driven in an SUV, though sedans can make it to the trailhead as well.

The trails along Twin Lakes Road are generally hikeable between July and October. Check Washington Trails Association (WTA) trip reports for current road and trail conditions.

  • Length: 7.5 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 2,550 feet elevation gain

A classic North Cascades trail, Yellow Aster Butte is best hiked during fall for a kaleidoscope of colors. Climb steeply to the top of the butte for views of mounts Baker, Shuksan, and a sea of surrounding peaks. Or drop down to the tarns (small lakes) for access to backcountry camping. Please only camp on snow, rock, or bare ground – the meadows here are extremely fragile.

Beyond Yellow Aster Butte trailhead, the final 2.5 miles to Twin Lakes are jarring. Take Spring and Manning’s advice to walk the road if you’re driving the “average car”. You’ll gain about 1,500 feet of elevation in those 2.5 miles — a significant amount if you’re planning on additional hiking once you reach the lakes. If you have a capable vehicle (high clearance, 4-wheel drive), then go for it!

Once you reach Twin Lakes, several walk-in campsites are available near the lakes. Each lake also has an outhouse nearby. It’s free to camp here, but a Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking at Twin Lakes. Be sure to pack out everything you bring in, and leave no trace behind in this fragile alpine area.

  • Length: 3.4 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 1,300 feet elevation gain

From the signed trailhead between Twin Lakes, Winchester Mountain Trail takes off into the sky. This short, moderately graded trail gains 1,300 feet in 1.7 miles to the summit of Winchester Mountain. Views improve as you climb Winchester’s exposed slopes, culminating in 360-degree views of Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan framed by Goat Mountain, Mount Larrabee, and countless others in the distance. A 1935-built fire lookout stands atop Winchester Mountain’s 6,521-foot summit. Maintained by the Mount Baker Hiking Club, it is available for camping on a first-come, first-served basis.

  • Length: 4 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 1,400 feet elevation gain

Yellow Aster Butte and Winchester Mountain are very popular trails. If you’re looking for a quieter hike from Twin Lakes, begin along the Winchester Mountain Trail and turn onto the signed junction for High Pass. Rather than climbing Winchester Mountain, High Pass Trail skirts around it, losing 300 feet in elevation before climbing steadily north towards Mount Larrabee. Enjoy big mountain and valley views along the way, with lots of wild blueberry-picking potential. At 2 miles you’ll reach the pass. Rusty-red Mount Larrabee looms large overhead. A primitive trail climbs steeply towards the mountain, while another drops down to the old Gargett Mine. Turnaround here or explore a bit before heading back to Twin Lakes.

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