The North Cascades are the wildest and steepest mountains in the lower 48 states.
That statement was one of our first introductions to this national park as we stood reading the interpretative panel at a trailhead we were about to take. But of course I had done my research and knew ahead of time what we were getting ourselves into. Remote, yes. Away from civilization and conveniences, it went without saying. Pretty much on our own. For five days. If we didn’t bring it, we wouldn’t have it. If it breaks, count on fixing it or manage without it. That would be our mantra. And so we drove in.
It is a place where you will find some of America’s most beautiful mountain landscapes, yet It is surprising how few ever feast their eyes upon it. With barely over 20,000 visitors a year, it is one of our country’s least visited national parks. It’s remoteness accounts for some of that, although a paved state highway traverses it (albeit, closed due to heavy snow for more months than it is opened). Those that do make the effort will find countless waterfalls dropping from ridges below jagged peaks and more than 300 glaciers (more than any other park in the lower 48 states). Miles of trails through thick conifer forests connect jewel-like alpine lakes. Rain falls on the west side of these Cascades, and more snow falls on Rainy Pass, the road’s highest point, than in any other national park in the lower 48. It is at once an extraordinarily spectacular place as well as a very wild and raw place.
This incredibly scenic national park, established in 1968, is located in the very heart of Washington’s North Cascades. The mountains, formed by ancient volcanoes, contain more than 300 glaciers and more than 127 alpine lakes. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails, including the northernmost stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. The only access into North Cascades National Park was completed in 1972.. SR 20 crosses some of the most rugged mountain landscapes in North America. The range has required ingenious engineering feats in order to surmount the obstacles encountered when constructing a route passing through its mountains. Whether intentionally or not, the road itself offers tremendous, in-your-face views of the rugged peaks—you don’t need to leave the comfort of your car to get a real feel of the North Cascades. But, of course, we did get out.
There are two campgrounds within the park. Staying here for a full five days, we decided to try them both. The first one, Newhalen, is on the west side. Although without hookups, it was still a very comfortable place, easily the best national park campground we have ever experienced. Paved roads and trailer pads, sites spaced far apart, the forest, although thick, was kept at bay, not encroaching too closely within the campsite. Very modern restrooms, for those who needed one. We had a pull-through site which suits us very well. We quickly made ourselves at home.
And rested up for the big day to come. We were going to hit this park in a definitive way. Cascade Pass trail was “the one serious hike that must be taken within the park.” Serious was another way of saying what is lacking in the length of the trail is made up for in the steep grade of elevation on the trail. Slightly less than 4 miles to the pass, the elevation was around 2,000 feet. Yes, we would leave our mark on this trail and it began as soon as we had a hearty breakfast.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the drive to get to that trailhead. After backtracking to the park’s West Entrance, a rough, mostly gravel forest road must be taken for 23 miles and 3,600’ elevation gain where it deadends at the trail. The last section is particularly steep and rough, but a regular car can usually handle it. Our truck passed the test.
Finally we began the hike. Straight up. Thirty-seven switchbacks in all. But when we stopped to breathe for awhile, the views were our compensation. We were looking out at glaciers, seemingly at our eye level. Dramatic pinnacles of the Cascades were before us as well as behind. The views were taking away what little breath we had to spare.
We hiked on.
Our reward was found at the Pass. Literally at the heart of the park, the views were spectacular, looking out over high country glaciers, rugged snow-covered peaks, spires and tiny alpine lakes. We sat for awhile, ate some fruit and energy bars, and watched daring mountain climbers traverse those glaciers while others were setting up camp on the shores of those alpine lakes.
After a two-day layover, we moved our camp down the road to the second campground. Closer to some of the tallest peaks and three gorgeous mountain lakes, Colonial Creek Campground was slightly more rugged with a primitive look about it. However, our site was nicely located adjacent to one of those huge lakes. We set up camp quickly, and then got a cheery fire going before heading down to the lakeshore to breathe in that pure mountain air.
We were truly within the heart of those rugged mountains here at this campground. You could see the peaks showing through the pine trees. Colonial Creek gurgled nearby and a popular trail took off from the end of our road. Convenient for us, we put it first on our list for the following day.
Thunder Knob Trail was a good leg warm-up and was a piece of cake after our hike to Cascade Pass. Mostly through forest until attaining the knob, where we had great views of distant peaks and one of those pure mountain lakes below.
In the days to come there were many tremendous sights waiting to see. The park is overwhelming in its scope and scenic attributes. We would get up early and capture first light on those peaks. Overlooks along the road presented other spectacular scenes . . . sometimes pictures don’t need words to explain them.
The Cascades didn’t come by that name simply because of all the water cascading down from those mountain peaks. In the days we spent there, we came to learn that other elements are found to cascade too. There were rockslides and log slides, and endless streams, all cascading downhill.
But the waterfalls were truly the star of this park . . . they couldn’t be denied . . . they were a ubiquitous part of the scenery.
Hiking and driving around filled our days to overflowing. We explored, and we rested, and we slept soundly each night. This wild place gave us contentment and peace. We relished every minute spent here.
Our last evening found us at 5,477-foot Washington Pass, where Highway 20 crests the Cascades. It was a fitting place to wrap up our time here, for the mountains couldn’t have been more glorious. A very well-constructed overlook juts out from the rocky crags, giving striking views of some of the most rugged peaks we had seen. Overshadowing them all, commanding attention, the peak that stole the show was Liberty Bell, with its very distinctive shape. The evening light warmed its rocky face, gilding it as was so fitting.
Returning to our parked truck just as the sun was dropping below mountain peaks, as I am prone to do, I took one last glance back at the mountains from where we had come. The alpenglow had hit the Early Winter Spires, setting them ablaze. Could there be a better way to end our visit here? North Cascades National Park had won us over.
From the mountains of the high Cascades,
Airstream Travelers, climbing on . . .
Chris and Melinda