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Horseshoe Basin

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A land of immense natural beauty teetering on the extreme eastern end of the North Cascades, Horseshoe Basin has long been a favorite destination for backpackers. With sprawling alpine tundra, shimmering tarns, a half-dozen wide-open, easy-to-scramble summits, and spectacular wildlife observing, it's no wonder visitors prefer to spend days here. But Horseshoe Basin's fairly easy approach and gentle terrain make it a dead ringer for day hikers too. You won't be able to experience it all. But you'll get a nice taste-and by traveling lightly in this precious area you'll leave less of an impact than all of those backpackers.

Setting out on the Boundary Trail (a 73-mile odyssey across the Pasayten), immediately enter wilderness and begin a slow descent on what was once a service road to a mine. In 0.25 mile cross a meadow with a nice view west to Windy Peak. Then enter lodgepole pine forest burnt to a crisp in the Tripod Fire of 2006, a conflagration that scorched over 175,000 Okanogan acres. Most of the way to Sunny Pass traverses the burn. A healthy forest will return, but in the meanwhile this hike can be hot in summer (no forest cover) and potentially hazardous in strong winds (falling snags).

At 0.7 mile come to a junction with the Deer Park Trail and, shortly afterward, with the Clutch Creek Trail. At 1.5 miles cross a branch of Clutch Creek (elev. 6000 ft) and begin winding upward at a nice grade. Work crews with the Pacific Northwest Trail Association have nicely restored tread and repaired water bars damaged from the 2006 fire.

At 3.3 miles break out from the blackened snags (woodpecker heaven) into a lush verdant meadow garnished with a multitude of wildflowers (bluebird mecca). Sunny Pass shines ahead.

Continue upward through increasingly greener pastures, crossing gurgling creeklets and skipping through showy flower gardens to reach 7200-foot Sunny Pass at 4.8 miles. Horseshoe Basin, with its stable of stunning peaks carpeted in alpine tundra, spreads out before you. Take the trail to the right for closer inspection. In 0.1 mile ignore the Albert Camp Trail by continuing left. And after losing 200 feet in just over 1 mile, arrive dead-on in wide-open Horseshoe Basin. Sit and gape or consider your roaming options.
Driving Directions:

From downtown Tonasket turn left onto the Loomis Highway (signed "Many Lakes Recreation Area") and drive 16 miles northwest to the small village of Loomis. Bear right (north) onto County Road 9425 (Loomis-Oroville Road), and after 2 miles turn left onto Forest Road 39 (Toats Coulee Road). Follow this paved road 13.6 miles, turning right onto FR Spur 500 (signed "Irongate Trailhead"). Continue for 5.8 very rough and slow miles (high clearance necessary) to the trailhead at the road end (elev. 6150 ft). Privy and primitive camping available.

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Recent Trip Reports

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There are 60 trip reports for this hike. See all trip reports for this hike.
Horseshoe Basin — Jul 22, 2013 — Hikermom
Multi-night backpack
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: Bugs
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Matt & I spent 4 days backpacking in this magical part of the Pasaytan Wilderness Area. We spent ...
Matt & I spent 4 days backpacking in this magical part of the Pasaytan Wilderness Area.

We spent the night in Twisp, then drove up through Tonasket & Loomis, arriving at the trailhead by 2pm. The last 6 miles of Forest Service Road were very rough, and took about an hour to drive, even in a relatively high-clearance Honda Pilot. Bugs (black flies & horseflies) at the Iron Gate trailhead were absolutely awful (or thriving, depending on your perspective). We donned mosquito head nets and got on the trail as quickly as possible, and though we were hungry did not stop to eat our breakfast wraps and fresh fruit from the Glover Market (yum!) until we were about 45 minutes up the trail and could stand to lift the bug nets long enough to eat!

I hadn't hiked here in 27 years, and the 5-year-old burn (Tripod fire) is beginning to green up, with shrub willow joining the fireweed and undergrowth. There was waist-high shade through the burned pines, and views up to Sunny Pass for most of the hike.

We camped at Sunny Pass, a fabulous site with views to the west (North Cascades) and east (Okanogan Highlands out to the Selkirks?), a good "kitchen area" and a great tent site that turned out to be...a favorite sleeping place for the deer as well. After watching the full moon rise from our tent door we retired.

Shortly after retiring we woke up to the sound of footsteps. After a few seconds of breath-holding, we realized it was the sound of deer. The deer tromped outside our tent all night; they even licked our hiking poles and stole my hiking shirt off the line for the salt! We had decided to camp at Sunny Pass and day hike out of our camp, so for subsequent nights we moved the tent to a nearby and less deer-popular hill, while keeping the kitchen area & our fabulous dining-rock-with-a-view.

Day hiked up Arnold Peak and to Smith Lake one day; west past Louden Lake and Rock Mountain to the "edge of our Green Trails map" the next, completely smitten by the 360 degree views, rolling hills, peaks you can walk up, and meadows and meadows of wildflowers: penstemon, paintbrush, lupine, columbine, all kinds of worts, bog orchids, shooting starts, sedum of many types and colors. I used up my camera battery in two days (ugh! Pack the spare battery--I had just learned the same lesson on a cycle tour in the gulf islands a week before!)

In spite of not-sleeping with deer and early tent retirement due to bugs (yes, the mosquitoes were plentiful too) it was the highlight of our summer, and an excellent area for setting up camp & day-hiking from there (particularly good for folks like us who have not yet joined the ultra-light revolution)

When we left, we said to each other: I don't know when we'll be back, but what a blessing to know that this is federally protected wilderness, and will "always" be there...even if we're not.
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Boundary Trail, Horseshoe Basin — Jul 16, 2013 — letsgobobby
Multi-night backpack
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: Bugs
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Made the long drive out to the Eastern Pasayten for this famous hike and did not regret it. You c...
Made the long drive out to the Eastern Pasayten for this famous hike and did not regret it.

You catch the Boundary Trail at its inception at Iron Gate trailhead (camping, vault toilet, no water). From PDX it's about 10 hours of driving with a couple of potty and snack breaks to the trailhead. I got in late enough that I just slept in my truck. The road is pretty rough, I wouldn't bring my sedan but as always at the trailhead someone has done it! I used a RAV4 with 4WD and pseudo-high clearance and felt secure.

Day 1: 16 miles to Scheelite Pass. It's a fast and easy 7 miles to Sunny Pass, Horseshoe Basin, and Loudon Lake. There are a few muddy spots but nothing bad. Flowers are out especially lupine in this section. The burned area is hot in the afternoon so my unplanned strategy of heading in at 7 am was great. There are a lot of flies at the trailhead, and then a lot of mosquitoes in the basin, especially in the morning and evening hours. After Loudon Lake there are off and on dry sections for the next 10 miles to Scheelite Pass but never more than two miles or so. The bugs get progressively worse as you head further west; at Scheelite Pass they shook me all.. night... long. Bring spray and a head net. Trail is in very good shape. At midnight thunder, lightning, and rain, which lasted about 8-12 hours.

Day 2: 9 miles to Cathedral pass and Lakes, and 2 mile loop from Upper Cathedral Lake to Lower Cathedral Lake. The trail is more interesting here, with big open views to the west and the Tungsten mine. You cross Apex Pass, then Cathedral Pass. The weather was clearing out making for nicer hiking. The trail is a little rockier in places here. Lots of water en route. At Cathedral Lakes the mosquitoes are simply ferocious, unless you are right on the edge of the water and a breeze kicks up. I got bugs in my dinner. Mountain goats wandered through camp. And I saw no other hikers west of the Tungsten mine in 2 days - a benefit to going midweek and earlier in the season?

One question: I took the trail down to Lower Cathedral Lake but either missed the turnoff or the Lake has shrunk quite a bit into a pondlet. At some point an unmaintained but clearly defined trail loops back north and then connects with the descent from the Upper lake, circa 2 miles total. It's even signed 'not maintained' but obviously people use it.

Day 3: 18 miles back to Loudon Lake. The bugs chased me out of Cathedral basin, where I was going originally planning to stay two nights to rest, read, etc. The second half of this hike is not that interesting - from Scheelite Pass to Loudon you just keep sidewinding bump after bump of Haig Mountain with views of the 2006 Tripod complex fire and Windy Peak.

Day 4: 3 miles up and down Armstrong Peak and then 7 miles out to Iron Gate. Going up and down any of the rounded peaks of Horseshoe Basin is worthwhile, but I liked Armstrong for the monuments marking the US-Canadian border. Spectacular views, more breeze, fewer bugs. The basin is a very special place, I can see why it gets so much hype.

On the way out, you hike back through the burn for about 3 miles and in the mid-day that sun really bakes. About 1.5 miles from Iron Gate you'll cross this good-sized, plunging-into-pools stream which is absolutely perfect for a bath. Highly recommended, made the rest of the trip out a real pleasure.

Wildlife: mountain goats, tons of hummingbirds, the usual pikas and marmots, no bears but some bear scat, and two horse parties. On the drive home I almost hit a coyote but that doesn't count.

Bugs: oh yeah. Bring spray, better yet come later in season.

People: hardly any after Loudon Lake. The basin has a handful of parties at any given time but it's big and open and never feels crowded.

Snow: none to speak of, you won't need an axe.

Water: plenty.

Berries: there are some flowering wild strawberries between Loudon and Scheelite, but no ripe fruit.

What a trip - a classic Washington experience. Next time I'll come later; and/or stay longer in the Basin to day hike some of the other local 'peaks.' Alternatively you can take Boundary Trail all the way to Ross Lake, which is the real experience; but I think you need about 8-10 days for that.
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Horseshoe Basin — Jul 09, 2013 — HikerJim
Multi-night backpack
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: Water on trail | Bugs
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I joined Gwen and Janet for a four day backpacking trip to Horseshoe Basin in the Pasayten Wildernes...
I joined Gwen and Janet for a four day backpacking trip to Horseshoe Basin in the Pasayten Wilderness. We summited three peaks and walked through miles of blooming wildflowers. The skeeters are out but we had enough wind most days to keep them to a nuisance level. Mid 60s temperatures vs. 90 in Omak far below.

The road to Iron Gate is in average or better shape. Our Subaru had no problem. Someone drove a mini van up the road. Higher clearance is better if possible. Wildflowers are near their peak so don't wait if you are planning a trip to the basin.

I have posted a four page report on my site. Both write up and photos for each day on a separate page. I have the first 30 photos for day one up now. The rest will follow in the next few days.

Day one's report and photos can be found on my website at: Go to "Trips - 2013" on the left margin. Link for the next day is at the bottom beneath the photos.
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Horseshoe Basin — Jul 04, 2013 — Humperdink
Features: Wildflowers blooming
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Snow free to Horseshoe Basin and beyond on the Boundary Trail as far as Hague Mountain (and from the...
Snow free to Horseshoe Basin and beyond on the Boundary Trail as far as Hague Mountain (and from the looks of things, a whole lot further at that elevation, but that's as far as we went). Trail is eroded and muddy at times, but always totally passable. Windy at night.
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Windy Peak, Horseshoe Basin — Jul 04, 2013 — hiker momma
Multi-night backpack
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: Blowdowns | Snow on trail | Bugs
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Did the loop trip described in Backpacking Washington by Craig Romano. It was wonderful! Gorgeous ...
Did the loop trip described in Backpacking Washington by Craig Romano. It was wonderful! Gorgeous wildflowers galore! The Boundary Trail from the trailhead to Sunny Pass and then on to Loudon Lake was easy to follow (once you figured out that the sign for Scheelite Pass was the way you wanted to go). Lots of ground squirrels and a skinnier version of marmot than what we see on the west side – looked more like prairie dogs. We camped down in the basin near the lake, it was quite windy and chilly all night. Noticed that the few other backpackers in the area found places up in the trees on the side of Rock Mtn. Probably a wiser choice. Climbed Armstrong Mtn to the summit in Canada. Took obligatory pics at the boundary marker with one foot in the US and one foot in Canada. No border guards, no passport needed.

Backtracked to Sunny Pass and took the not-very-well used trail to the left – the Windy Peak Trail. We camped at Windy Lake. There is no trail to Windy Lake. Go straight where the trail makes a sharp right away from the small creek mentioned in the book. Go up the hill and to the left and find the lake about a quarter of a mile up. We were the only ones there and the campsite was great. Had a nice campfire and wandered around the lake and gazed at our destination for the next day – Windy Peak.

Back on the trail, it climbs steadily to the junction with the half mile side trip to the Peak. Well worth it. Took pics on top of the summit marker, filled in the Mountaineers summit register, and admired the wonderful views.

Trail from Windy Peak to Clutch Creek back to the Boundary Trail was somewhat hard to follow and obviously gets little use. After traversing the southern ridge of Windy Peak we ran into the snowfield mentioned in the book. We by-passed the snowfield by taking the trail up to the right and over the ridge and promptly lost the trail there. Finally realized the trail takes an immediate left and descends into the basin right after the snowfield. You can see the trail down below in the basin. There are cairns to mark the track down through the rock. Down in the basin, the Clutch Creek Trail (CC Trail) is marked with a recent sign nailed to a burnt tree on the CC Trail once you reach the intersection of CC Trail & Windy Peak Trail. The CC Trail traverses through miles of meadows with absolutely gorgeous wildflowers, sometimes the long grass overgrows the trail - just look ahead to see the path through the grass. There are several blowdowns that have been down for quite awhile but can be skirted fairly easily. The lower part of the trail before the Middle Fork Toats Coulee Creek is very brushy. Windy Peak and CC Trails both had hundreds of elk, deer and what were possibly goat tracks and scat piles. We saw 3 fairly fresh bear tracks near the Middle Fork Toats Coulee Creek. One large black bear (front paw) and one smaller bear (front and back paws) with very prominent claw marks.

The 5.7 miles of road to the Irongate Trailhead is slow going and deeply rutted. Was surprised to find that someone had hauled a horsetrailer up there on it. It was somewhat buggy at Windy Lake and down by the Middle Fork Toats Coulee. All in all a great trip!
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horseshoe pasayten by '2 old hikers'.jpg
The rolling hills around Horseshoe Basin invite lots of wandering. Photo by Trip Report poster '2 Old Hikers.'
Boundary Trail (#533)
North Cascades -- East Slope
Okanogan National Forest, Tonasket Ranger District
Roundtrip 12.0 miles
Elevation Gain 1550 ft
Highest Point 7200 ft
Mountain views
Established campsites
User info
Dogs allowed on leash
May encounter pack animals
Guidebooks & Maps
Day Hiking: North Cascades (Romano - Mountaineers Books)
Green Trails Horseshoe Basin No. 21

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Note: the description and driving directions for this Mountaineers Books entry are copyrighted and can't be changed.

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