Cathedral Lakes Pilgrimage
by Andy Dappen
Forty two miles is a long way for a weekend warrior to walk. Your body sweats; then stinks. Your feet steam; then blister. Your legs go spastic; then cramp. Your back tightens, then knots. The big trouble, however, is the mind. It’s prone toward coddling, “You poor thing, why don’t you just stop?” To keep you from dwelling on physical discomfort, you pass the miles with mental gymnastics like math problems or word games. On this marathon weekend, however, I use religion as a mental tread mill. I am, after all, traveling to Cathedral Lakes, Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Pass and will pass through these sacred settings on Sunday, a time some would claim I should be in church.
To be clear, I don’t profess to a creed like Judaism, Christianity, or Islamism. I have no complaints with those who observe the world and come to different conclusions, and I appreciate that the Holy texts of these creeds lay down a code of behavior that should, in theory, help us all help each other.
But given the confounding questions we all try to answer (how was all of this created and why?) and the questions we are all dying to know but must die to find out (what will happen to me, is there meaning to my existence?) the bibles of the religions I have read come across as simple, black-and-white, human-centric, and focused on the small scale. This is at odds with the cosmos I perceive which is complex, gray, bizarre, mysterious, paradoxical, and unfathomably immense.
Furthermore the religions I’m familiar with when followed literally are tribal and exclusive rather than global. I can’t reconcile the Creator, whether that’s a personal or impersonal force, being tribal about any small group of humanoids on an insignificant planet in the backwaters of nowhere. We walk around with the pompous conceit of film stars who can’t get over their own importance, yet have contributed little to be truly proud of – ours has been a history of desecrating each other and the creation itself.
Saturday night in the black hole of the Pasayten Wilderness I enjoyed some of the darkest skies in the country. I slept under the stars with the tent door open and looked up into blackness whenever I rolled over … which was often. The Milky Way curved through the inky heavens like a pale silk sash. So massive was this expanse of stars and yet the most supportable scientific theories today hypothesize that at the dawn of creation all of this along with hundreds of billions of other galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, erupted from a singularity, an infinitesimally small point that expanded during the Big Bang. It was enough to have my brain exhibiting a Big Bang of its own. Reverently I thanked the unknowable for the privilege of being able to marvel.
Sunday, as I walked by Cathedral Lakes, over Cathedral Pass, and under Cathedral Peak, reverence turned from the unimaginably big to the unimaginably beautiful. The morning sun streamed through a pale sky to illuminate the stained glass of the fall foliage. Yellow, oranges, reds and greens glowed in a brilliant feast of color. Unlike the paintings of man, this artwork changed by the minute. Next year at the same time the arrangement of plants, the concentration of carotenoids in their leaves, and the clouds streaming overhead will all shape and color the landscape differently. This was the ever-changing artwork of the ultimate Master who ignored the simpleton’s colors of oils and watercolors and used the mediums of geology, weather, and life to create dynamic art.
Overhead the 1000-foot granite walls of Cathedral Peak, complete with a flying buttress that supported the dizzying height of the peak, dwarfed all of Europe’s famous holy structures – Notre-Dame Cathedral, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Saint Mark’s Basilica. Also overhead was the blue cupola of the sky which, made a mockery of the human architecture tourists travel so far to see.
Why do so many rush to such places to witness something paltry when almost everywhere, but especially in mountains, we can observe architecture on such a grand scale? Our creations are a child’s first stick-figure drawings next to a Michelangelo and yet we are so engrossed with our own cleverness, so convinced about our superiority that we are oblivious of the dazzling wonder and complexity surrounding us.
On this Sunday worship session inside the Church of the Blue Cupola, I felt totally awestruck and completely befuddled by the darkling beetle underfoot that perceived my presence and pointed the stinky pheromone pistol of its bottom at me to deliver a dose of bad juju if I opted to examine it too closely. And how could I not see the crow overhead as a kindred spirit with consciousness? He rode the wind, performing barrel rolls for the sheer pleasure of flight, and he taunted me, seemingly for his own humor, from the safety of tree branch.
Albert Einstein, who believed in a pantheistic God rather than a personal one, said “Only two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not so sure about the first.” As I walked under and beyond Cathedral Peak taking in the miracle of this church, the notion that the Creator of all this would put humans on a pedestal, give us dominion, and wouldn’t mind us slaughtering other life or pillaging nature makes no sense. This seemed too convenient and self-serving to represent anything but a human-created flight of fancy. Taking a page from Einstein’s book, it struck me as a flight of infinite stupidity.
What followed my Sunday morning reflection was a 20-mile plod back to the car. By the time I stumbled into the parking lot it was night and I walked by headlamp. Three blisters inhabited my left foot and one smarted my right heel. The muscles behind each knee that help bend the legs were shot and I tottered on peg legs. Collapsing against the car I also knew myself to be hobbling proof of man’s infinite stupidity.
Details, Details: Cathedral Lakes Loop
Any way you cut it, the walk into Cathedral Lakes and Cathedral Peak is going to be a 40-plus-mile roundtrip jaunt, but the pilgrimage into the Pasayten Wilderness and to this peak sitting near the American-Canadian boundary is a prize worth the endeavor. The initial burnt forest approach is long and underwhelming. As you move into the alpine zone, however, the nature of the walk flip flops. Suddenly the country is expansive, made for walking, and perfect for setting the spirit wandering — to nearby peaks and to faraway corners of the mind. Try to move through the low country quickly and reserve extra time to establish a camp up high from where you can day hike in different directions. Once you reach this hallowed area you won’t want to come back down.
Activities: Backpacking, horsepacking, and peak bagging. Rock climbers also have lots of technical rock to climb on Cathedral Peak, The Monk (the flying buttress leaning against Cathedral Peak’s east flank), and Amphitheater Mountain confining Cathedral Lake to the south. Motorized vehicles and bicycles are forbidden.
Length: This entry gives the most details about accessing the area from the Thirtymile Trailhead located at the end of the West Chewuch Road (29 miles from Winthrop) and describes a 42-mile loop. You can also hike to Cathedral Pass via the Andrews Creek Trailhead and Andrews Creek Trail (42-miles roundtrip) or via the Boundary Trail from the Iron Gate Trailhead (49 miles roundtrip to Cathedral Pass).
Elevation Gain: The routes mentioned above, gain elevation gradually and involve 4,200 to 4,600 vertical feet of climbing.
Fitness: 2 (intermediate) if you give yourself 4 or more days.
Skill: 2 (intermediate). The trails are in good shape, well graded, and fairly well marked.
Access: From Winthrop, drive 0.3 miles west of downtown Winthrop along Highway 20 and turn north onto the West Chewuch Road. Stay on this road as it turns into Forest Road 51 and, eventually Road 5160. The road is paved for 23.5 miles to the Andrews Creek Trailhead (another way to hike into the same area). The final 5.5 miles of the road leading to the Thirtymile Trailhead is unpaved but well maintained and easily driven with a passenger car. Both these trailheads have unloading docks for horses, outhouses, and a picnic table. Northwest Forest Passes are also required for both trailheads.
From Loomis, follow the Loomis-Oroville Highway 2.2 miles north. Turn left on Toats Coulee Road (Road 39) and drive 13.6 miles (mainly uphill). Turn right onto Road 3900-500 and follow this rough, dirt road 5.7 miles to its end at the Iron Gate Trailhead (high-clearance vehicles are recommended on this road). The trailhead has an unloading dock for horses, outhouses, picnic tables and a few camping sites (bring your own drinking water for camping). There is no charge for camping but a Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead.
Trip Instruction: From the Thirtymile Trailhead (waypoint c1). Follow the Chewuch Trail #510 up the Chewuch River for 8.25 miles (you’ll pass a few intersecting trails), boulder hop across Tungsten Creek (c2, easy in late summer and autumn) and in another few hundred yards reach the intersection of the Chewuch Trail and Tungsten Creek Trail (c3). You’ll be returning to this junction via the Tungsten Creek Trail but, for now, stay left and keep following the Chewuch Trail uphill. In another 9.5 miles, reach the trail intersection (c4) with a short spur trail branching left and leading down to Remmel Lake (a good place to camp). To reach Upper Cathedral Lake, stay right and walk on for another mile where you’ll intersect the Boundary Trail (c5). Go right and enjoy another very beautiful and pleasant two miles of walking to reach Upper Cathedral Lakes (c6). Now about a mile of spectacular walking leads to Cathedral Pass (c7). From this pass follow the trail east right under the cliffs of Cathedral Peak and then contour to Apex Pass (c8) and eventually to the trail junction (c9) at an old tungsten mine (5 miles from the pass). Turn right here and follow the trail 6 miles down Tungsten Creek until it re-intersects the Chewuch Trail (c3) (the intersection mentioned earlier). Turn left and follow the Chewuch Trail 8.5 miles back to the car. Note:The mileage figures given above won’t exactly match the mileage figures on the signs you’ll pass, but I walked the route with a GPS and believe the stated mileages are more accurate.
From the Iron Gate Trailhead. Follow the Boundary Trail 6.25 miles to Horseshoe Basin. Stay on the Boundary Trail as it contours gorgeous country near the 7,000-foot level for 13.25 miles until it reaches a trail intersection at an old tungsten mine. Stay right here and contour another 5 miles through Apex Pass and eventually to Cathedral Pass. A final 0.75 mile descent leads you down to Upper Cathedral Lake. This route is longer than the one described above, but it’s actually way prettier.This route gets you up into the high-country much faster and then contours through the alpine zone mile after mile. There are also all manner of easy peaks to hike up as you go. Horseshoe Mountain, Arnold Peak, Rock Mountain, Haig Peak, Teapot Dome, Bauerman Ridge, Wolframite Mountain, and Apex Mountain, are all easily climbed via non-technical routes from the Boundary Trail. You can get most of the way up Cathedral Peak via easy scrambling but the summit ridge near the very top is exposed fourth class or easy fifth class.
Maps: Map 1 (first 7.5 to miles). Map 2 (next 11 miles). Map 3 (highest part of route). See maps attached to this article.
Land Ownership: Okanogan National Forest
Fees/Permits: A Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park at the trailhead. You will also be traveling in the Pasayten Wilderness and must carry a free, self-issued wilderness permit. Fill this out at the kiosk at the very start of the trail.
Date: First posted September 23, 2015
Leave It Better than You Found It: This should be every user’s goal. Do no damage and pick up trash left by others.
Disclaimer: Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.
This article was originally published on 09/23/2015