- THINGS TO DO
The North Cascades are calling! Andy Porter’s image captured the wildness of 684,000 acres in the North Cascades National Park. With over 300 glaciers, peaks, valleys, and cascading waterfalls, the North Cascades are fondly called the American Alps. The North Cascades National Park is in the eastern region of Skagit Valley. The North Cascades National Park Information Center, located in Sedro-Woolley, includes an exhibit map model of the park and adjacent national forests along with retail sales of books, maps, videos, and other items related to the North Cascades National Park.
The North Cascades Visitor Center is located across the Skagit River from the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) near milepost 120 and the town of Newhalem. Learn about the park with the map model of the park, exhibit room featuring multimedia exhibits on the park’s natural and cultural history, and pick up a souvenir in the retail area.
Are you looking for a backcountry permit? Stop by the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount (7280 Ranger Station Rd) at State Route 20 milepost 105.3. Inside find exhibits about wilderness and backcountry travel, map model, and sales of books, maps and other items related to wilderness, hiking, and climbing. This center is the main backcountry permit office for North Cascades Nationa Park and the adjacent Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Backcountry permits are required year-round and are available at an outdoor self-issue station when the station closes during the winter season.
Looking to stretch out those legs, a quick restroom break and a surprisingly fun exhibit, stop by the Skagit Information Center on State Route 20 in the town of Newhalem. Jointly operated by Seattle City Light, North Cascades Institute, and North Cascades National Park, learn about hydroelectric power and Skagit Project dams at the exhibit. Take the Trail of the Cedars short hike over the river and enjoy the forest. Also, the park at the Skagit Information Center is a great place to let the kids run around the steam engine while enjoying lunch in a majestic setting. Climb aboard Old Number Six, a restored Baldwin steam engine and ring its big brass bell. Located next to the Skagit General Store, this locomotive used to run between Newhalem and Rockport and offered the only access to the area during construction of the Skagit River Project. Picnic tables, a playground, and restrooms are nearby.
The Skagit is one of the great rivers of the west, supplying nearly 40 percent of the freshwater and wild salmon entering Puget Sound. A multiday trip down the Skagit River is a real gem. Designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978, the Skagit drains an area of 1.7 million acres, including the most glaciated region in the Lower 48. I like to put my canoe in at Copper Creek in North Cascades National Park and paddle to the mouth where it empties into the Salish Sea. This trip takes three to four days and involves camping on gravel bars and beaches. The river gains momentum after the Cascade, Baker and Sauk rivers add to its flow, and you can finish a great journey by paddling up the Swinomish Channel for dinner in La Conner. Shorter day-trips can be made by paddling from Marblemount to Rockport or Rasar State Park.
There are several long backpacking routes in the North Cascades. One of my favorites begins from the Mount Baker Highway, climbing Hannegan Pass and continuing north along Copper Ridge before descending to the Chilliwack River, climbing over Whatcom Pass and finally over Beaver Pass and down Big Beaver Valley to Ross Lake. A fire lookout, incredible views of the Picket Range and one of the best old-growth cedar forests in the range — this trip is hard to beat. Other great long hikes include the Devils Dome circumnavigation of Jack Mountain, or dropping into Stehekin via Bridge Creek from Rainy Pass.
Perhaps the most famous literary spot in the North Cascades is the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. This is where writer Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 working for the U.S. Forest Service, an experience he later recounted in “Desolation Angels” and “The Dharma Bums.” The lookout is still there, perched atop the 6,102-foot peak and commanding one of the best views in Washington. The Desolation trailhead on Ross Lake can be reached by canoe, by renting a small powerboat from Ross Lake Resort or by hiking the East Bank Trail from Highway 20. The lookout trail is steep — carry plenty of water — with views around every corner.
I was a backcountry ranger at Cascade Pass in 1979, and that trail and the view from Sahale Arm are close to my heart. However, to avoid the crowds I like to turn off the Cascade River Road before reaching the Cascade Pass Trail, at the short spur to the trailhead to Hidden Lakes Peak. It’s a beautiful trail to an old fire lookout, which is open to the public, and fabulous views of Cascade Pass and Boston Basin looking east across the valley. Hidden Lakes are surrounded by a veritable rock garden of giant talus boulders. Sibley Pass, accessible by a short scramble from the trail, is an amazing place to watch the fall migration of raptors overhead by the hundreds.
The North Cascades are sometimes called “the American Alps” and they offer a mind-blowing array of mountaineering opportunities that have challenged and inspired the world’s best climbers. The legendary Fred Beckey pioneered many first ascents here and wrote three volumes of his “Cascade Alpine Guide,” still used by climbers today. There are too many great climbs to recommend just one, but several of my favorites include peaks aptly named Forbidden, Fury, Triumph, Torment, Terror and Eldorado.
The highest road in Washington state will take you up to the alpine zone on the crest of the range, one of my favorite places to explore the land above tree line. Time your trip to coincide with the wildflower bloom, usually peaking in late July or early August. The wildfires that burned through in 2003 changed this area dramatically. Silver-fir forests have been replaced by meadows, and bluebirds, woodpeckers and raptors are everywhere. The Meadows Campground is one of my favorite places to base camp, with incredible opportunities to roam in all directions, including the Pacific Crest Trail north to Canada.
North Cascades Institute operates the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in partnership with North Cascades National Park and Seattle City Light. This wilderness campus in the heart of the national park is home to many of the institute’s programs — Mountain School, Family Getaways, Skagit Tours — and a wide array of classes on natural and cultural history. The Learning Center is also a great place from which to “explore the neighborhood,” on local hikes up Thunder Creek, Sourdough Mountain, Pyramid Lake, Diablo Lake to Ross Dam and the North Cascades National Park Visitors Center in Newhalem.
“Top 10 lists” make me a little crazy. What I really like to do is leave the trail behind at some point, find a secluded spot where I can set up a good “Leave No Trace” camp, and use this as a base camp to explore, poke around, read a book, follow birds and bugs, or just remember why I fell in love with this special part of the world over 30 years ago.
by Saul Weisberg and Christian Martin