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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 (Pasayten) — Jul 04, 2002 — Trail Pair
Day hike
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It is a long drive from Kirkland to the Iron Gate trailhead(6 hours), but well worth it! Thursday a...

It is a long drive from Kirkland to the Iron Gate trailhead(6 hours), but well worth it! Thursday afternoon we set up camp during a short shower of snow pellets just below Sunny Pass. It was a beautiful camp spot, but a very cold night! The next morning was cold, sunny, and warming. We decided to dayhike to Windy Peak. The first hour was a boring forest walk, actually losing elevation. Once the trail started up the views were fantastic. After returning to camp we decided to pack up and move further into the basin. Our next camp was at Louden Lake, a beautiful spot in a meadow. The next morning we climbed Armstrong Peak, which is relatively easy. The views were great from this peak, also. The trails in this basin are in great shape, and there are numerous places to camp.

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Horseshoe Basin (Pasayten) — Jun 16, 2002 — meganerd
Day hike
Issues: Blowdowns | Water on trail | Snow on trail
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Headed east on Friday with my dad (father's day) in search of higher snow levels and surefire good ...

Headed east on Friday with my dad (father's day) in search of higher snow levels and surefire good weather. We got both, pretty much.

First order of business was to drive up Cascade River Road to retrieve my car which we stashed for a couple days at the Chevron in Marblemount. Next was the continuation of the LONG drive (~6 hours) to Omak, where we spent the night in a motel (hey I wasn't complaining because I didn't pay for it). We headed up to Iron Gate Trailhead early Saturday morning. Toats Coulee Road is paved and in great shape. It is of course the six mile Iron Gate Road itself that is infamous for being rough. I was able to drive it in my pathetic 1995 Pontiac Grand Am (yeah it's white too :( so I guess that says it can't be in too terrible shape. It was at the very limit of what my car could handle though (at 8mph).

The lady at the Tonasket Ranger Station that I talked to on the phone a few days before the trip was a freakin moron (beyond Iron Gate Road, she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and whether or not there was snow there, which is odd considering Horseshoe Basin is probably the most popular hiking destination in the Tonasket Ranger District) so we really didn't have much idea what we were getting into. The first 2.5 miles or so were completely easy and snowfree (3 minor blowdown). From there on were intermittant snow patches. Neither travel nor routefinding were overly difficult. Soon enough, we entered the treeline basin approaching Sunny Pass where the occasional patches continued to the pass where we camped because views are really as good here as anywhere. All the snow in the area is very thin and melting fast. It will probably be almost completely gone within a week.

Horseshoe Basin is open for hiking!!

After getting the tent set up and my dad in it for a much wanted nap, I set off to do some ""hardcore wandering."" This activity cannot be done in most areas and consists mainly of hiking cross country as quickly as possible and bagging as many peaks or other destinations as possible in the least amount of time. First I headed off directly towards Horseshoe Peak which loomed 800 gradual feet above camp. This was quickly attained, so I descended to the trail heading towards Horseshoe Pass. This section of trail still has some sortof significant snow on it (boo hoo). Once at Horseshoe Pass, I headed directly up Arnold Peak which had the greatest elevation gain (about 1000 feet) but was completely gradual meadows and tundra. Fun fun. From Arnold, I headed down to the treeless gap between it and Armstrong and then ascended Armstrong and hiked to Canada (woo hoo...). I then descended the same way I came up and made my way back to the snowy trail taking me back to camp. This all took about four hours. Fantastic weather, truly a mountain amusement park.

The night was good (and warm!) and we woke up to filtered sunshine changing quickly to high clouds possibly foreshadowing a negative change in the weather, so we packed up and headed out. Fantastic trip! Very few bugs, little elevation gain, managable snow, good conditions, awesome!

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Horseshoe Basin (Pasayten) — Jun 12, 2001 — Jorj Aldair
Day hike
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Well, bouded by not knowing where the rain would fall, and not having ever been in the pasayten, he...

Well, bouded by not knowing where the rain would fall, and not having ever been in the pasayten, headed up to Horseshoe basin just out of Loomis. The drive from Seattle took around 8 hours, but we stopped and tromped though the meadows of Washington Pass. The bog flats right opposite the highway of the base of Liberty Bell, was a breath taking layout of forest, ice and rock. From there the road up to Iron Gate from Loomis was not bad, paved, and then the Iron Gate, with ruts, but Joe and I creaped his neon all the way to the trailhead at Iron Gate. Unless you have a low rider, and not familiar with Mountain Roads, the warnings against the road were overated. We arrived at the trail had at about 9pm, In the beginning the trail followed a wooded ridgeline with small stands of trees soo thick, it reminded me of tales of the Black Forest, once crossed a creek about 1 mile in, the trail began a realively light accent to the base of a pass (can't remember the name of this pass at the moment) but the elevation gain was not bad at all just above 1000 ft over about 4 miles. At this time the it was dark, and the head lamps went on. The trail is a good night hinking trail, due to the open nature of the high county meadows (looking more like pasture). We accended to the pass and set up camp. The wind was cool, but the Basin Spread out before me, and Arnold Mountain and beyond were in clear view. Now what we found in the morning was a prime example on changing weather in the North Cascades. We awoke to about 3 to 4 inchs of Snow. The pass was in a white out condition. Due to the ruts on the road, and not wanting to push the car out of each one of them, we turned back. Once below 6500 feet the snow began to melt, and it was clear that we could have porably waited out the storm. But oh well.

My take on this trail is that if you are a beginning backpacker, or just want the ability to wonder high meadows, without breaking your back over ridges that lay in the Western Part of the State, then this is the trail for you. It is great for packing in, establishing a basecamp and roaming. I will definatly head back again towards the close of the season to fully explore this area.

Mountain Wanderer, Jorj Aldair

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Horseshoe Basin (Pasayten) — Jun 12, 2001 — Halpine
Day hike
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We arrived at Iron Gate in the afternoon, with no precipitation and generally dry conditions. Our i...

We arrived at Iron Gate in the afternoon, with no precipitation and generally dry conditions. Our intention was to hike into Sunny Pass, put down camp for a couple of nights and explore some of Horseshoe Basin.

About two miles in, we hiked into a significant snow fall - which continued most of the way to the basin below Sunny Pass. As we approached the 4 mile point, we became very aware of the strong NNE winds in the tops of the trees.

The trail is in good condition, with only one small remnant of avalanche snow across the trail at about mile 3.5 - it required only a few steps to cross.

We chose to camp in the basin just short of Sunny Pass to avoid the wind that was roaring across Horseshoe Basin and the low cloud that obscured Sunny Pass - and found a very comfortable camp with some clear ground at about 6,950 - even though most of the area was covered with about 6"" new snow.

Wednesday we awoke to brilliant sunshine on Pick Mountain, blue skies beyond - and still air - with a temperature of about 28 deg F. The roaming up through Sunny and environs was very pleasant - although best accomplished out of the snow filled trails which were running with melt water under several inches of rather wet new snow.

The flowers have begun to bloom and by afternoon Wednesday the new snow fall had melted sufficiently around camp for many to show through the snow again.

By Thursday morning, most of the snow had melted, and we had another dry and beautiful day - with only some high clouds - for our afternoon hike back to the vehicle.

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Horseshoe Basin (Pasayten) — Jul 13, 2000 — meganerd
Day hike
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This really is a great hike; probably one of the best I have ever been on. Jagged peaks are few, an...

This really is a great hike; probably one of the best I have ever been on. Jagged peaks are few, and the ones you see are far away, but the feeling of being in such high rolling meadow land is absolutely incredible. But, good god is the drive long from the Seattle area!

We started out at about 6:30 Wednesday morning to drive the North Cascades Highway Route to Okanogan. We stopped a few times to admire the incredible mountain scenery along the highway, and also to get lunch in Omak. Because of this, and generally relaxed driving, the trip took about 7 and a half hours. I think it would take about 6 if you drove straight there, but what's the point'

Most of the way is on very good paved roads (see a guidebook and/or a map for exact directions; it’s a little involved and you must choose your preferred route) except for the last six miles to Irongate Trailhead. This is on a sparsely maintained dirt road. It is only the last three miles of this road that are any worse than most mountain roads. Moderatly high clearance is necessary if you don't want the bottom of your car to get scratched up a little bit. I drove it in my 1978 Oldse boat of a car. It got a little scratched up, but I don't care. Don't bring nice cars up here. Four wheel drive isn't necessary as the road isn't terribly steep. Just go very slow and pay lots of attention to the road.

When we got to the trailhead, there was a gigantic group of people just sitting there! (actually we didn't see that many people, but there were 20 to 30 backpacks just laying around) We didn't encounter this group on the trail (thank god). This is the Pasayten Wilderness and the group size limit is 12. We still don't know what the group was doing there.

For a trail that's so far away from major population centers, this one is very well maintained. It starts out on an old road that looks more driveable than the one you just drove on. It first passes through a meadow ablaze with wildflowers (paintbrush, lupine, and lots more). The trail then enters incredibly dense lodgepole pine forest that completely blocks out views for miles. This is the hard part of the trip, especially on a hot day. There is nothing to inspire you. The trail soon crosses a creek (last water until near Sunny Pass). The road gradually turns into a trail (I would be hard pressed to say where the road stops and the trail begins). Finally, you enter meadows as you climb to Sunny Pass with views of Windy Peak. This trail appears to have been made for horses so the grade is gentle all the way from the trailhead.

As you contour away from Sunny Pass, the long drive and boring hiking immediately become worth it. The open, alpine meadow scenery is truly inspiring. I would suggest continuing to either Horseshoe Pass or Louden Lake before camping as there is more shelter from the frequent strong winds in the area. When you come to the junction at Horseshoe Pass, take a right on the lesser used trail just a few yards and then walk to the right to a clump of healthy Engleman Spruce. Here is a perfect heavily used campsite next to a creek. If this one is occupied, there is at least one more like it a little further up the trail. There is a fire ring at the site, but don't start fires, there is nothing in the area to burn that isn't alive. Also, don't camp on meadows unless you absolutely have to, if then, don't camp in wet meadows.

It took my friend and I about 3 and a half hours to walk to our campsite at Horseshoe Pass. We weren't walking fast and we stopped frequently to admire the scenery. I would not suggest dayhiking to Horseshoe Basin. The sunrise and sunset weren't particularly fiery, but, to fully appreciate the scenery, you must see it in different lighting. Also, there is an infinite amount of exploring to do. This was our goal for Thursday morning. We got up just after sunrise and packed up our stuff and then took off to experience the basin. Bring water, a sweater (because of cold winds), and a camera of course. Also, you must have a map and compass so you don’t get lost in the sometimes featureless terrain.

First we took the main trail to Louden Lake (really just a large pond). There are some more great campsites here on the opposite side of the lake. We then struck out off trail to climb Armstrong Mountain. The climb up meadows is fairly steep (but not technical at all) Also, the elevation (7000-8000 feet) will probably get to you a little bit if you live near sea level. The best views of the Louden Lake area of the basin are from a little less than halfway up Armstrong. We made it to a false summit on the south side of the large mountain and descended slightly to a pile of rocks in a saddle for protection from the wind.

From here on, the immediate scenery is completely alpine with very low growing plants and only a couple of the smallest “trees” you can imagine (only about a foot high). After a rest, we continued north to a saddle between the two peaks. We first scrambled up the one to the west to stand by the 103rd Boundary marker between the US and Canada. Yes we hiked to Canada. We then walked across the nearly flat, windswept basin above 8000 feet to the other peak (a little higher still) which had a large cairn on it. The views west to the rest of the Pasayten Wilderness were incredible. The Cathedral Peak area was the closest and most obvious. Even the main crest of the cascades was visible in the incredibly clean, dry air of this area. We even saw what we think was Mt. Baker! I checked it out on my TOPO! maps program when I got home and it would be technically possible to see the upper third of Baker from where we were; 90 miles away. Wow. From this summit, you could wander a tundra ridge far into Canada to even higher mountains.

We descended on the opposite (East) side of Armstrong Peak to Snehumption Gap between Armstrong and Arnold Peaks. This side was a little steeper and was a little nerve racking going down and would be hard on the thighs going up. We stayed near the northern jagged crest because it looked a little easier. If you don't have the time or energy to climb a peak, go to this gap. The scenery here is nearly as alpine as from the peak. From the gap, it appears that you could descend north into a glacier carved basin with a beautiful stand of subalpine larch. A path leads from the gap back towards Horseshoe Pass (you wouldn’t be able to find it from Horseshoe, just go cross country). This pretty much wrapped up our wanderings for the morning. We went back to the Pass and packed up camp. We then hiked back to the parking lot on already sore feet. As always the car was a beautiful sight.

This hike is very do-able for almost anyone who has ever backpacked 5 miles before. It is definitely worth it in my opinion despite the long and partly rough drive to the trailhead. (I don’t think the drive from the Vancouver B.C. area would be nearly as long) Bring LOTS of water later in the summer. There should always be a water source somewhere but many of them dry up. It can also be very hot, or very cold, or very windy, or all three at once here in mid-summer.

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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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