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8 North Cascades adventures: National park offers both busy, lonely areas for hiking

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: June 15, 2024, 5:31am
3 Photos
A roaring torrent gives Thunder Creek its name. The glacier-fed river that empties into Diablo Lake offers backpacking trips for everyone from families to long-distance hikers.
A roaring torrent gives Thunder Creek its name. The glacier-fed river that empties into Diablo Lake offers backpacking trips for everyone from families to long-distance hikers. (Gregory Scruggs/The Seattle Times/TNS) (Associated Press) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Despite growing pains and staffing challenges, North Cascades National Park remains one of the most rewarding places to explore the mountains in Washington, if not the entire country. The superlative stretch of peaks motivated Bellingham-based nature photographer John D’Onofrio to pen the newly published guidebook, “Hiking Mt. Baker & the North Cascades.”

“Sure, nowadays there are some places in the North Cascades that attract a crowd and require advance planning to secure a permit,” D’Onofrio said. “But there are also lots of places that are empty of people, where solitude can still be found and where serendipity holds sway. Hikers can experience true wilderness and — with a little effort — the increasingly rare experience of being alone.”

With a lower-than-typical snow year, many of the park’s hikes might melt out sooner than normal, potentially affording a longer-than-average hiking season. Nevertheless, check wta.org for trip reports (and submit your own!) and be prepared for snow travel at higher elevations. Those same conditions have led to lower-than-normal water levels in Diablo and Ross lakes.

Here are eight ways to explore the park this summer.

  • Stay at the North Cascades Institute

The North Cascades Institute maintains a world-class environmental learning center on the shores of glacial blue Lake Diablo. It offers spartan but clean and comfortable overnight accommodations in lodge rooms with bunk beds, three healthy cafeteria-style meals included (from $100 per person; see ncascades.org). The experience is what my colleague Tan Vinh once called “nature camp for grown-ups.”

  • Take a tour of Lake Diablo on a glass-roofed boat

Lake Diablo and neighboring Ross Lake, home to the coveted floating cabins at Ross Lake Resort and boat-in campsites along the lake’s 23-mile serpentine sprawl, are the result of Seattle City Light dams on the Skagit River. Much of the electricity that powers Seattle comes from water draining out of the national park, while tribes are challenging the dams’ future due to their environmental impact. You can ponder those issues on a lake tour aboard the Alice Ross IV, a glass roof boat, offered jointly by the institute and City Light on Wednesdays through Sundays starting July 3 ($50 for adults, $45 for seniors age 62-plus, $30 for youth ages 3-12). Reserve lodging and boat tours at ncascades.org.

  • Swim in a ‘sea of peaks’

If there is one classic hike in the park, with the crowds to match, it’s Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm. Start at the end of Cascade River Road (unpaved for the final 16 miles, but suitable for low-clearance vehicles) and switchback up 1,700 feet across 3.6 miles to Cascade Pass. The view here is stunning as you immerse yourself in the North Cascades “sea of peaks,” as the collection of jagged summits is sometimes described, but it’s worth pushing another 2.5 miles and 2,400 feet up the rocky outcropping of Sahale Arm until you reach the Sahale Glacier Camp. The lucky few campers here are perched at the park’s highest-elevation trail-accessible camp.

  • Climb to an alpine lookout

For another dip into the sea of peaks, perhaps with fewer crowds, try the hike to Hidden Lake Lookout. The trailhead starts after a rutted 5-mile forest road — high clearance recommended — then ascends 3,300 feet over 4.5 miles to one of the most panoramic fire lookouts in the state, cabled to the side of a rock pile. The 360-degree views are spectacular, and you can even spend the night on a first-come, first-serve basis. Consider a donation to Friends of Hidden Lake Lookout to defray maintenance costs. Only a sliver of the trail just before the lookout enters the national park, but the lake itself down below is squarely inside the park — permit required for overnight camping.

  • Beat the crowds while hiding in plain sight

You wouldn’t know cars are zooming above you on North Cascades Highway while you meander along the cacophony of Ruby Creek. Starting from either the East Bank Trailhead or the Canyon Creek Trailhead, it’s a 6.5-mile round-trip walk through mossy forest and along the occasional sandy riverfront beach. If you’re driving over Highway 20 without plans to otherwise visit North Cascades National Park, consider this forest stroll a worthy pit stop.

  • Get way off the grid — then ride a cable car

There are many options for plunging deep into the North Cascades for days on end. But only Copper Ridge and the Chilliwack River trails offer you a chance to live an Indiana Jones-style moment, hauling yourself by hand over a raging river on a rickety cable car. Start at the Hannengan Trailhead off Highway 542 (the road to Mount Baker Ski Area) and head 5.1 miles to Hannegan Pass. From here, you have a choice. Fork right and you’ll reach the cable car crossing at 10.7 miles. Fork left and you’ll reach Copper Lake at 11.2 miles, after passing the Copper Ridge Lookout and some spectacular views of surrounding, rarely seen high peaks like Mount Redoubt. Unfortunately, the trails east of the lake and the cable car are closed due to the 2021 Bear Creek and 2022 Chilliwack fires, so you cannot currently complete this loop hike. This is nevertheless a popular backpacking destination, so overnight permits may be limited.

  • Wing it below Black Peak

While crowds flock to Rainy Pass Trailhead during larch season for the way-too-popular Heather-Maple Pass Loop, take the offshoot trail west out of the basin and toward towering Black Peak, the 16th highest mountain in Washington. Cross a difficult talus field and ascend above Lewis Lake until you reach the alpine gem that is Wing Lake. This is a rugged 8-mile hike with off-trail sections — you’ll be following cairns or your GPS through the boulder field — but the lake is a stunner, especially if you stay the night for sunrise and sunset. On Labor Day weekend a few years back, my wife and I shared the area with just one other tent. We also got snowed on. That’s the North Cascades for you.

  • Take an easy stroll through ancient forest

Colonial Creek Campground may be full of families around the campfire, but the longer you stroll up the Thunder Creek Trail, the fewer people you’ll see. This aptly named waterway makes quite the roar when in earshot, a pleasant soundtrack to the old-growth forest setting. With campsites at regular intervals, backpackers of any level will find something they like. Families can start out little ones on a short 1.5-mile jaunt to Thunder Camp, while scenery seekers can press on 10.2 miles to Junction Camp for views out to the Boston Glacier.