travelog 18

Hart's Pass - the state's most terrifying road

Quoting Lonely Planet Guide Pacific Northwest: "Near the end of what may be the state's most terrifying road - a steep one-laner with long, deadly drop-offs and no guard rails - is Hart's Pass (6197 feet), a true panorama... Suck in your breath and drive, for the views from the top are outstanding!"

After reading this description about Hart's Pass in the Lonely Planet Guide, I decided we should visit this place. Of course I don't tell Martin about the most horrible passages in the book. I don't want to remind him of his bad feelings about narrow roads, steep cliffs and dizzying views into deep valleys. Besides that, we now know the Americans a little bit better and we also know their love for exaggerations. As we then meet on a campground a nice couple who couldn't get married on Hart's Pass because of too much snow, we get even more curious. They really go into raptures about the panoramic views and they are very disappointed that the wedding ceremony only took place on Washington Pass (in the North Cascades National Park). To be on the safe side we also ask at the ranger station for the actual road conditions. But we deliberately keep quiet about the real size of our vehicle. The ranger answers our question about the weight and other limits and only says that we would have absolutely no problem at all with a normal passenger car...

We almost miss the turn-off in Mazama. Amazingly enough, there is no sign at all and nothing that would indicate the spectacular view - that's lucky, because many people won't find this. On the bottom of the valley you pass many small holiday houses that are hidden behind fir trees. The Methow River glistens in turquoise blue color and there is even a little airfield. Soon we reach the sign "No Trailers, One Lane Road Ahead". From now on it's getting thrilling! Our PocoLoco just fits on the narrow track, but we are glad to drive uphill and therefore to have the right of way. The track climbs from around 1500 ft to 6000 ft in numerous switchbacks and steep passages. Again and again we pass over small streams, and everywhere it's green and blooming. In the lower regions big stands of Turk's Cap Lilies, in the higher regions Forget-me-nots, Sedum, Phlox, Columbines and many more plants are growing. The views into the Methow Valley get more and more exciting, but we are lucky to meet only very few on-coming vehicles. At Deadhorse Point it's getting really narrow. You pass a steep rock wall alarmingly near on the right-hand side - on your left-hand side a breathtaking view and a lot of clean fresh air. We repeatedly wonder what bad times the people must have gone through while carving that kind of track through a sheer canyon wall. But they readily ran these risks, because someone once found gold ore near the end of that track. Sand is trickling down gently and we have to drive around piles of rubble here and there - no easy job on this narrow track! We insistently hope that there will be no on-coming traffic. It would be a tough job to maneuver this big vehicle backwards. Shortly after that passage we can observe deer and mountain goats with their youngsters at a salt lick, but we search in vain for bears. Soon we reach the first snow fields, the track is getting wet from lots of melting snow, water is burbling and murmuring everywhere, and the abundance of flowers is simply overwhelming.

After around 18 miles we reach Hart's Pass. Both of the primitive campgrounds are still deeply snowed in and we also hit the first snow on the road. We have to park PocoLoco on a little parking lot, because the next switchbacks further on the road are still buried under several feet of wet snow. We are a bit astonished about a massive, but totally destroyed fence structure (normally built for tethering horses to). We learn from a hiker that this damage hasn't been caused by vandals. It was the weight of the snow, which can pile up here to 100 ft in harsh winters. We pack some food and the photo gear and start the ascent to the summit, to the look-out tower. The meadows here are covered with white Anemones, leaves of Helleborus and small, yellow Avalanche Lilies. Marmots let us hear their alarm whistles. The hiking trail is still partly muddy and the ground softened by the recently-melted snow. The higher we climb, the more impressive the view of the surrounding peaks gets. We look down in a small valley where a tireless skier slides down the slope in that wet and sticky snow - only to climb up again and to repeat the same action over and over again. The view is breathtaking: all these craggy, snowed-in rock towers, the small glaciers, the coniferous forest, the flower meadows - a 360-degree panorama of the whole North Cascade Mountains!

Back on the parking lot we meet some men with shovels. They want to clear the snow and ice from the road. Astonished, we ask why they want to lend nature a hand. They answer: "For true love!". Their friends plan to marry here within a week and therefore the road must be accessible for the wedding party. To marry here "on top of the world" seems to be "in".

Because we like this area and we feel comfortable, we look for a spot with a nice view for the oncoming night. We find a little forest clearing with a level spot where other people already camped - a fire pit (with the usual remnants of civilization) testifies to that. We shortly clean up the scene and settle down. Even a small hummingbird with an orange belly has found his way up to this point and visits our red brake lights. Towards evening some deer dare to browse around the vehicle. From time to time we scan the surroundings for signs of bear. But not one shows up although we're convinced that they must live in this remote area. This peaceful place is perfect for us! We enjoy the evening, read a little, listen to some music and enjoy a nice glass of wine.

August 1999

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen