Trip Report: Backpacking to Horseshoe Basin, Pasayten Wilderness
It seems that were you given only Washington state to explore for the rest of your life, you wouldn’t pass with an empty, wanting heart. The state’s diversity of profound geologic zones—portraits of the natural world on another scale—only grows the more you seek them out. And your labor becomes more about satisfying Washington’s ever-calling invitations, than it is about finding some way to satisfy your own heart’s yearning.
This time, we were in search of snow-free backpacking at high elevation so early in the year. Intrigued by what we’d heard of the luring Pasayten Wilderness in the Okanogan National Forest, we set our sights on its Horseshoe Basin, for a two-nighter.
Sprawled out at the far eastern fringes of the North Cascades—and just a deep breath away from the Canadian border—Horseshoe Basin is something of a sweeping alpine-tundra paradise. For us, though, that meant bellicose thunder and lightning storms, and all.
We committed to a simple out-and-back along the Boundary Trail (533). In total, this well-worn path can send you 73 miles into Pasayten abyss. But with only two nights, we decided to basecamp in the basin and day hike to a nearby peak. Irongate is your trailhead, east of Tonasket, Wash., and Horseshoe Basin is a casual six miles in.
Don’t be discouraged by this short length, though. Immediately, the wilderness takes you in.
Beginning on the remnant scar of an old mining road, we past young forest that broke out into vibrant wildflower meadows, with Windy Peak jetting into the sky off to our left. Early on, the rest of the world was left far, far behind on some dusty fireroad back at the…. somewhere…
After about a mile, the scene took a turn as we entered a forest of black spines. Scorched by the 2006 Tripod Complex fire that consumed 175,000 surrounding acres, the thin charred trunks rose out of fireweed grass, which was on the verge of alighting the ground with red-pink flowers within the next few weeks.
With heavy steel-blue clouds shielding us from the sun, this area was both haunting and beautiful. Eerie, because we knew we shouldn’t have been seeing so much of nature’s underside in this zone. Turn away, though, to the left, and gigantic talus piles cascade from the walls of the canyon, and you remember that in nature everything is in flux.
The grade crept upward from there on its way to Sunny Pass—sentinel at 7,200 feet and the threshold to “the other side.” We past rushing creeklets, with penetrating southern views of the valley behind us. With landscape to inspire books, conversation was lost here.
Reaching Sunny Pass, well, it turned out to be rather cloudy for us and of the pass, there’s not much to see. But look north and there it is: the oasis that is Horsehoe Basin—wide open and calling from a distance. Heading right at the trail marker should have sent us down into its pasture lands a little more than a mile away.
We, unfortunately, went left. The map was upside or something.
“Scouting missions,” however, are OK if you realize early enough that you went the wrong way and that seeing the pass’ pinnacle twice in one day is just fine for backcountry travelers who are in no hurry.
Back on the right path, we made our way into Horseshoe Basin.
At the trailhead for Smith Lake, we took a right and continued another mile or so until reaching the snow-fed pool. We set up camp and settled into the evening.
I think it’s something about the utopian feel of life in the backcountry that draws many of us into it. The simple processes that design the day: creating food, finding water, building shelter and warmth. Beyond that, the only occupation is quiet appreciation of the splendor of nature; and being gracious guests. And maintaining the company of a good trailmate, who’s needed to share in the reverence.
The dusk crept in along the lake, followed by an alpine sunset—and the bugs. We called it an early night for an early morning, which just seemed right and pleasant.
The next morning we awoke, though, to find our early morning had fallen victim to mountain weather. And in haste, we moved camp into the basin and hunkered down just before a pack of thunderheads rolled in.
With pouring rain watering the basin and the angry gods clashing no doubt directly above us, we had nothing to do but surrender to a day holed up, hoping the storm would pass quickly—and without a deadly zap to our tent, which was hidden in well-chosen cluster of trees. Carbon fiber is an excellent conductor. “The tent will explode,” we were told by a co-worker. “It’d be advisable not to be struck by lightning.” With every flash of electricity beyond our green walls, the words rang.
Six hours later, just before cabin fever manifested, the storm moved on and we moved out of the tent to get what was left of the day. And maybe it was for us, maybe it wasn’t, but we found this gentle evening alive with elegance. Horseshoe Basin is land of rolling hills, lush alpine tundra replete with wildflowers, pristine tarns and just enough tree groves to dapple it with evergreen. With hints of sun illuminating sections, we’d surely happened upon a late matinee. We hiked several miles up the Boundary Trail, finding hail deposits. Teapot Dome had been on the agenda for the day, a 15 mile hike. Instead, now, just quiet wonder, and the rush of the wind from far up the valley.
We returned to camp and fashioned a fire out of wet wood, by Justus’ genius, not mine, and enjoyed spiked tea, and soon found ourselves silently drowning into a hypnotic fire…
The next day we made the trek back, saying hello to border patrol on horseback on the way, and soon returned to the outside world.
So maybe the trip was too short, but the invitation is always there; and the will to answer is strong. But… do prepare for the weather; beautiful and bold, she is a capricious mother.