Trip Report: Horseshoe Basin & The Canada-US Border
The Pasayten is a vast, rugged land. A good enough distance from any major city effectively eliminates the horde’s of casual day-hikers (not bashing, I’m one too!) and affords you about the best opportunity for solitude in the Cascades. And you can see the Canada-US Border, how cool is that!?! Yes, you can literally see it, an actual line, a swath of cleared forest extending as far as you can see in either direction.
The drive to the Iron Gate Trail Head is more than 6 hours from Seattle. While this is a two night romp, I would recommend you consider turning it into three nights, spending the night at one of the campgrounds nearby to the trailhead. This allows you to begin your day fresh for a more relaxed hike into camp.
Directions to the trail head are pretty straight forward, easily mappable with Google Maps. WTA (see Resources) also has decent directions. Map it out and then look for Loomis. Very near here you will leave Loomis-Orville Rd and turn onto Toats Coulee Rd. This will be an interesting part of the drive as you actually go through the Double R Ranch, crossing over cattle guards and through land that you will be sharing with the cattle. Drive slowly as it is pretty common for the cows to be near and even in the road.
As you continue along and ultimately exit the ranch lands you will encounter a couple of nice campgrounds. You are very close to the trailhead now so this is perfect for the night prior to your hike.
South Fork Junction Campground
– National Forest, First Come First Served, Small Fee
North Fork Ninemile Campground
– State Park, First Come First Served, Covered w/ Discover Pass
The Pasayten Wilderness, and perhaps Horseshoe Basin in particular, comes up often when you ask a PNW hiker about some of their favorite destinations. When people link of backpacking in the PNW the images that often come to mind are the snow-peaked mountains, valleys filled with wildflowers, and crystal clear alpine lakes. Perhaps the reason the Pasayten stands out is because so much of it is just not that. Sitting at the eastern edge of the Cascades, it will be drier and warmer. Though at an altitude above 7,000′, the mountains embrace an alpine tundra, like a gentle giant cupping a fragile egg within it’s massive hands.
As you hike towards the basin, you will pass through stands of trees serving as stark reminder of the 2006 Tripod Fires. Trees killed by mountain beetle had left an abundant supply of dry tinder so that when lightning struck the resulting fires were not controllable. The fires would continue from July, only to be extinguished once the snow began falling in October. The impact was severe.
Entering the basin though, you are welcomed by that sprawling alpine tundra. You have wide open views and all around opportunities to explore and summit the fairly gentle mountains. This is an easy place to spend some time exploring, so setup basecamp, take an extra day or two, and enjoy the unique beautify of the Pasayten.
Day 1: Iron Gate Trailhead to Horseshoe Basin
Elevation Gain / Loss: +1586′ / -597′
This hike begins at the very nice Iron Gate Trailhead. There aren’t too many trailheads that I’d stop and take note of, but this is one of them. Don’t you love that trailhead sign! Note the dedication to Trygve Culp by the BCHW. That’s the Back Country Horsemen of Washington, of which Tryve was the president at one time. This trailhead is popular amongst the horse riders. On my trip I encountered a couple, on their way out, both riding with a mule in tow carrying their camp gear.
All the way to the basin you will be following Boundary Trail, much of which is what remains of an old mining road. The first 1.5 miles or so is mostly flat, through pretty sparse stands of trees. There won’t be any real sun cover on this trip, so prepare accordingly. As you continue along, you’ll be seeing the standing reminders of the fires along. It’s refreshing to see the young pines finally emerging.
At about 1.5 miles or so you will cross Clutch Creek. Not particularly notable other than a good source for filling up water as there aren’t really any other options until you get into the basin.
Keep an eye out for wildlife, it can be surprising plentiful and the lack of thick tree cover and undergrowth can sometimes make it easier to spot. The area is known to have deer, The dusty trails are pretty good for tracking as well. Here you see several deer track impressions (as well as a horse).
From about mile mark 1.5 you’ll begin a gradual ascent, rising 1,200′ over ~3.25 miles, until you reach the highpoint of the high at Sunny Pass. There are several trails that converge here, but the signage is good. You’ll head to the east (right) and then in a short distance turn left (north) staying on Boundary Trail the entire time.
In short order you will reach Horseshoe Basin. At around the 6 miles in there will be an area of intersecting trails and a few potential campsites. You will see a small trail heading east towards Smith Lake. Going down that trail will reveal another spot or two and following it all the way to the end, maybe 3/4 of a mile, will yield a large camping area near the lake. It appears to be a very popular location, suitable for a group or for spreading out.
If you prefer a bit more solitude, continue along the Boundary Trail just a bit farther as it bends to the West. About 1/4 of mile past the trail to Smith Lake you will cross a reliable stream. Make note of this as it is probably your best source of water here. I always prefer running water over the small lakes, some of which will just be standing water in the later summer. Over the next 1/2 mile or so keep your eyes peeled to the North (the right side of the trail). There are a few hidden camp spots tucked amongst the trees. There will be no obvious trails. From my CalTop map you can get a very good sense of where I camped. A little higher up I later discovered a wonderful site completely tucked into the trees, so it may be worth your time to explore a bit before settling on a spot. Eventually you reach Loudon Lake, where you may also find a couple of suitable spots.
Once you’ve found your spot, sit back and soak in those majestic views. Relax for a while as you look forward to tomorrow and a romp up to the Canada-US Border!
Full Day 1 Gallery Below. Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through full size versions.
Day 2: Armstrong Scramble to Canada-US Border
Elevation Gain / Loss: +1168/-1173
Today is a great day for a Wilder Romp! There are so many peaks worth exploring here and most of them fairly easy scrambles. Amstrong though is the real attraction simply because it gives you an opportunity to see the border. There is no defined trail, but the hiking is pretty easy with no real need to bushwhack as the vegetation is all quite low. I would recommend taking a close look at my CalTopo track over in the Details section (click on it to open up the map directly on CalTop). I hiked in a counter-clockwise fashion, heading up the ridge and then back down a bit more to the west. I would suggest sticking to the ridge and backtracking down the same way you came up. My route down was not difficult, but it is the path that water flows off the mountain and so there are areas with more vegetation and there are some spots requiring a bit more scrambling.
As you amble along, take in the sights and remember to occasionally look back. The views are amazing! This shot is taken about 800′ above camp, looking back on Rock Mountain. You can also see how low Loudon Lake was.
As you reach the top there will be a small cairn marking the precise peak at 8,139′, as you can see in this next photo. This is also pretty representative of a good bit of the terrain as you approach the top. It’s all very manageable, but do mind your footing. Head towards the cairn and from there, you should then be able to see Monument 104.
About Those Monuments
Officially, the border is called the International Boundary and is the longest border between two countries. 3,145 miles of it is over land and the way is marked by these boundary monuments. Mandated by treaty, a 20′ path, called the “boundary vista” is cut through more than 1,300 miles of forest, establishing an actual physical presentation of the border, an otherwise imaginary geo-political construct. The monuments are not evenly spaced. Rather, they are spaced based upon the lay of the land and sighting distances between them. In all there are 5,528 of them. And they don’t all look the same. Most are obelisk shaped, but some are steel, some are cut stone. The two that you’ll see on this hike are typical for remote locations and made of sheet steel.
Take your time exploring, have some lunch, take a nap. The views are amazing and you’ll likely have the opportunity to gaze upon some raptors as they ride the currents and survey the land. As you look around, take a look at the view to the east where you’ll be able to see that “boundary vista” very clearly. It really is something when you consider what it must take to maintain that border in such rugged country.
This is a great opportunity, by the way, to practice some orienting skills with your map and compass. The views are wide open and the mountains very identifiable. In fact, you won’t find a better place to practice following a bearing. So set your compass for 270 degrees, or due West, and head on over to monument 103.
As you get back to camp, if you have time, it might be worth exploring the lakes if you have not already. To the West of Loudon Lake you can also follow the Boundary Trail to some additional nice views.
Day 3: Horseshoe Basin to Iron Gate Trailhead
Distance: 6.84 mi
Elevation Gain / Loss: +563/-1555
For your hike out, you’re going to just follow the Boundary Trail back the way you came in. If you’d like to mix it up a bit, near sunny pass, you can take Albert Camp Trail to the East, climbing Horseshoe Mountain and follow it until it intersects with Deer Park Trail, then head East to catch back up with the Boundary Trail just short of the trailhead.
Otherwise, enjoy the last few glimpses of the prairie dogs, kneel down and marvel at the many bumble bees, or the unusual diurnal moths. Breathe it all in, soak up as much of that nature as you can, because after a long weekend in the Pasayten you will be counting the days until you can return to this paradise of the North Cascades.
As I headed back towards civilization, I was struck by how much damage had been done by the fires I saw as I came into Loomis just a couple of days before. This isn’t an entirely uncommon event here, so the people who live here are prepared for it. Much of the land is actually managed agricultural land. Some was in hay, and of course this area is heavy with orchards. They had well established firebreaks and most had their irrigation sprinkles running which I am sure helped.
It isn’t entirely obvious, but if you look closely at this next photo you can see how well even a narrow firebreak works for these sagebrush fires. Follow the road as it climbs the distance hill and you will notice that the left side of the and the hills in the distance are completely burned. However, to the right of the road the sagebrush and grasses are unharmed.
Region: North Cascades: Pasayten Wilderness
Style: Out and Back, Basecamp, Optional Day Hike
Distance: 14 Miles (w/o day hike)
Elevation Gain: 2149 (w/o day hike)
Duration: 3 Days, 2 Nights
Date: 8/22/2020 – 8/24/2020
Map below shows all three days of activity:
- Day 1: Iron Gate TH to Horseshoe Basin, Basecamp (orange track)
- 7 Miles
- Elevation: +1586′ -597′
- Day 2: Day Hike up Armstrong Mountain (green track)
- 3.71 Miles
- Elevation: +1168′ -1173′
- Day 3: Horseshoe Base to Iron Gate TH (red track)
- 7 Miles
- Elevation: +563′ -1555′
DAY1 Elevation Profile
Iron Gate TH to Horseshoe Basin
Click to englarge.
DAY2 Elevation Profile
Hike up Armstrong Mountaing
Click to englarge.
DAY3 Elevation Profile
Horseshoe Basin to Iron Gate TH
Click to englarge.
WTA Hiking Guide: Horseshoe Basin