Ask Me: Where Should We Backpack With Kids in North Cascades National Park?
I just stumbled upon The Big Outside! Wow! Amazing! Thank you for it! I LOVE it!
We have two girls, ages 11 and 9. Our first “major” backpacking trip last year was to Olympic National Park. Covered 30 miles in 8 days. Obstruction Point to Moose Lake, Third Beach to Toleak, and Graves Creek to O’Neil. What a trip! Each girl carried about 10 pounds and my husband and I each about 40 pounds. This trip took three to four months of planning. We fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.
Unfortunately, I dropped the ball this year in planning another fantastic westward-bound trip. I am scrambling to put something together. I am looking at North Cascades, primarily because they do not accept online reservations—first come, first served.
I would like any recommendations for this area. Interested in a loop but doesn’t necessarily have to be. We just love the mountains, old-growth forests, lakes, wildflowers, etc. Not interested in camping on top of mountains. Thought we could definitely do a 4- to 5-day trip, or hike in, spend a few nights, hike out and do another section. We are flying in on a Sunday, so hoping for good luck obtaining a permit since it is during week, instead of a weekend.
Thank you and hike on!
Thanks for writing and for the nice words about The Big Outside, I’m glad you enjoy it.
Good on your family for doing such an ambitious first backpacking trip in Olympic National Park! My family has also backpacked the southern Olympic coast, and my wife and I (before kids) backpacked a five-day loop in the northeast corner of the Olympic Mountains (which is much drier than the west side) from Obstruction Peak to Deer Park, Gray Wolf Pass, Lost Pass, Cameron Pass, Grand Pass and Grand Lake, which I recommend when your kids are ready for something a little more rugged.
I’m also a big fan of the Pacific Northwest. (I was Backpacker magazine’s Northwest Editor for many years.) You’re planning a trip to one of my favorite mountain ranges, the North Cascades, where I’ve dayhiked, backpacked, and climbed numerous times. It’s pretty rugged and there aren’t many multi-day loop options, although there are almost-loops that are pretty long. But there are trails I’m familiar with that would be good choices for your family, I think.
We backpacked with our kids, when they were nine and seven, from Hannegan Trailhead, which is just outside the park’s northwest corner, about 3.5 miles to a backcountry campsite called Hannegan Camp, which is in the national forest and doesn’t require a permit. About a half-mile or less before Hannegan Pass, it’s a nice spot where the kids played in a small creek and we had views of Ruth Mountain. On a weeknight, you probably wouldn’t find that camp full. We used it as a base camp for dayhikes up to Hannegan Pass and Hannegan Peak (one mile and 1,200 feet above Hannegan Pass via a pretty good trail with excellent views); and out-and-back partway onto Copper Ridge, a rolling, alpine ridge with spectacular views of the North Cascades and Mount Shuksan. We were there in mid-summer 2010 and there was a lot of snow in some places. There’s also a user trail, not shown on maps but pretty good, from Hannegan Pass leading south across alpine terrain to the snowy slopes of Ruth Mountain (which I skied some years back with friends in late July!). All three side hikes from Hannegan Camp are really scenic with a quick payoff of views.
The full backpacking loop of Copper Ridge and the Chilliwack River Trail from Hannegan Trailhead is a more rugged and strenuous loop of some 34 miles, which I’ve long wanted to do, but we didn’t attempt with our kids on that trip because of its length, the time we had, and the amount of snow still on the ground then.
One of the most popular hikes in North Cascades National Park is Cascade Pass, 3.1 miles one-way and 1,800 feet from the trailhead at the end of Cascade River Road (outside Marblemount). I’ve hiked to the pass a few times, including once with our kids when they were two and about four months. From Cascade Pass, you can continue another 2.2 miles and 1,800 feet on the trail up Sahale Arm to Sahale Glacier Camp at 7,200 feet, one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites ever. It’s a rugged hike and very exposed to bad weather, but a wonderful spot with amazing views and a chance of seeing mountain goats. You can break up the ascent over two days by spending the first night in Pelton Basin camp, just beyond Cascade Pass, then hiking to Sahale Glacier Camp from there on day two. I give more tips on that trip in this Ask Me post.
You should also see this story about hikes in North Cascades National Park, which offers more details about Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm, Hannegan Peak, and another good possibility for your family, the Heather Pass-Maple Pass Loop, which you should save for a nice day and later summer, when most of the snow has melted off.
Another kid-friendly trip to consider in Olympic National Park, which you may still be able to get a permit for, is Royal Basin, also in the park’s northeast corner. I backpacked there by myself once; it’s gorgeous. You actually begin outside the national park boundary, on the Dungeness River Trail, where you don’t need a permit to camp within the first mile in one of the nice, established sites on the river, amid big trees. Royal Lake is a beautiful spot ringed by peaks, about eight steadily rising (never steep) miles from the Dungeness River Trailhead via the Royal Basin Trail. Spend two nights at Royal Lake, and on your free day hike the unmaintained, user trail heading south from the lake less than a mile up into Royal Basin; the trail isn’t shown on maps, but it’s a pretty good path into the alpine zone with lots of wildflowers, some small tarns for playing and a swim on a hot day, and an arc of rocky peaks. You can also follow a faint and steep use path that leads to a pass between Mount Deception and Mount Fricaba overlooking Deception Basin, a spectacular and remote cirque. I didn’t descend into that basin, but it looked quite steep and rugged.
I hope that’s helpful. Let me know how your trip goes. Get in touch anytime and thanks again for following The Big Outside.
My sincere thanks for responding to my email. You are full of information. I hope your website gets more families like mine to become more adventurous.
Since I last wrote, we have decided to tackle the Cascade Pass Trail you described and do the Sahale Glacier. We spoke with the ranger there and it should be no problem to do that since we will be backpacking in the area for five days. He said one of those five days we should be able to score the site. We will also spend some time in San Juan Islands and have hired a guide to take us kayaking/camping with the orcas and sea life. However, I always like to have plan B, so I will check out your suggestions with Hannegan and Copper Ridge. I bought the Falcon Guide, Hiking in the North Cascades, by Erik Molvar, which should educate me more on the hikes.
I certainly will let you know how this trip fares. It should be epic just like last year’s trip. I am “on the ball” now and am looking into the Grand Tetons for next year! So little time, so many awesome adventures to be had!
In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at email@example.com, message me at facebook.com/TheBigOutside, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I receive a high volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.