Ask Me: Advice about North Cascades, Olympic, and Mt. Rainier National Parks and Mt. St. Helens
[Originally a message via facebook.com/TheBigOutside]
Thank you SOOOO much for taking time out to answer some questions I have. Myself (55 years young), my husband, my daughter, and her boys, age seven and 11 are hoping to camp at the Sahale Glacier camp in North Cascades National Park in August. We do backpack and have great gear. We did the Grand Canyon, to the river and back, last year.
We understand that it is hard to get a backcountry permit, so I plan to be at the ranger station at 5 a.m. the day before we hike. So, my questions:
Is there any route-finding to Sahale Glacier Camp or is the trail well established?
What should we expect for temperatures up there in mid-August?
Up high at camp, are bears a real problem? Do we need to lug up a bear can, or can we use the odor-proof bags?
And the biggest question: Are there any campsites that will hold an ultralight, four-person (really holds 3 people) tent? I heard a rumor that the sites will only fit a two-person. Do you think one site will cram in a four-man, Big Agnes freestanding tent?
We are making this a three-and-a-half-week trip. My brother lives in Washington, and he will join us on some of our adventures. We are going to do a four-day backpack on the Olympic coast, from Ozette to Rialto. We also need info for that if you’ve been.
We are climbing Mount Rainier to Camp Muir, we are going to Mount St. Helens, kayaking in the San Juan Islands, hiking in the rainforest, hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, and visiting Cape Flattery.
It’s going to be an epic adventure for us, though it looks like you are WAYYYY ahead of us. Reading your blog makes me keep adding to my dream list. In the next few years we are doing Rocky Mountain, Capitol Reef, Channel Islands, Acadia, Canyonlands, Yosemite, and hoping to do rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, and the Subway at Zion. We dream big.
You do dream big! I’m inspired just reading your email.
There’s a regular, maintained park trail in North Cascades National Park from the end of the Cascade River Road (one of the most scenic trailhead parking lots you’ll ever see) up to Cascade Pass, and a good, obvious, though steep trail that ascends Sahale Arm to Sahale Glacier Camp. A friend and I backpacked up there in wind-driven rain with little visibility, but had no trouble following the trail.
We went in late July and we had cold rain and wind the first day, beautiful sunshine and calm weather the second. August can be very much the same. I’ve hiked, climbed, and backpacked in the North Cascades numerous times in summer, and have seen the full gamut of weather conditions. I always go there prepared for warm sunshine as well as weather that feels like October. Also, those mountains are always wet, so they’re famous for ravenous mosquitoes and deer flies. I suggest wearing lightweight pants and long sleeves even in warm weather as added bug protection, even though the bugs will hopefully have tapered off by mid-August.
It is popular, so it is a good idea to plan on getting to the ranger station well before it opens, to get a first-come permit. (As you know, North Cascades National Park does not accept backcountry-permit reservations.) Weekdays are less busy than weekends, of course.
By the way, it’s a good idea to check in advance about the condition of the Cascade River Road, which is a slow, winding mountain road. There was a washout during a severe thunderstorm that temporarily closed the upper part of that road for nine days last August (2013).
This page at the park’s website explains food storage in the backcountry there, but does not specify whether bear canisters are required in the alpine zone areas like Sahale Glacier Camp. But there are absolutely no trees or any other way of hanging food at Sahale Glacier Camp, so even the bear-proof bags don’t really offer good protection; those are designed to be hung, where it’s hard for bears to tear the bag apart even if they can reach it. Bears might wander up there occasionally, but there are also mountain goats, marmots, and other critters. I’d carry bear canisters for food storage.
The tent site we had was barely large enough for a compact, two-person tent (see above photo). I did not check whether there are larger sites up there. You should ask a ranger before attempting to bring a four-person tent, because the established sites there have rock walls built around them for wind protection, and you may find no options for improvising a larger site. You may be better off just planning to bring two-person tents. By the way, the area around that camp is beautiful for exploring and taking photos, and we did see a mountain goat stroll right through the camping area.
I have not backpacked Ozette to Rialto, which I understand is a beautiful stretch of the Olympic coast and popular, so I think it’s competitive to get a permit; look into reserving one. Check out my story about backpacking the southern Olympic coast, an equally scenic section that’s not as heavily used. It’s not hard to get a permit for this trip.
I have not been up to Camp Muir on Rainier (only to Camp Schurman on the Emmons Glacier route, a photo of which you’ll find in my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites,” which may be where you saw my photo of Sahale Glacier camp). But I describe my favorite dayhikes at Mount Rainier in this story. I did climb Mount St. Helens (for the second time) last summer with my kids, my nephew, and my mom, and wrote this story about it.
I’ve hiked in the Columbia Gorge with my family. You’ll also find stories at The Big Outside about Capitol Reef, the Grand Canyon (including a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike), Yosemite, Zion, and Canyonlands (including my story about a wonderful, multi-day family trip floating the Green River through Canyonlands). I’m planning upcoming stories about a trip earlier this spring to Canyonlands and Arches national parks and backpacking last November in the Grand Canyon, and I’m eager to get back to Rocky Mountain National Park again. I also have the Channel Islands on my list of places to visit, so I hope you’ll see a story about that place eventually at The Big Outside.
Best of luck with the wonderful travels you have planned. I’d love to hear about them; share some pictures at facebook.com/TheBigOutside.
Thanks for writing and following The Big Outside. Keep in touch.
Thank you SOOOOO much for responding. We are really excited about this trip. Thank you so much for the “insider” info. I love reading ALL of your adventures. I just read one that you can hike/rock scramble to the top of one of the smaller Tetons (or was that on Backpacker?). THAT has now gone on my dream list, as well as more hikes in that park. We visited there briefly a few years back and want to return.
Best of luck in all your adventures, and I’ll be watching for more stories.
[Question below received via facebook.com/TheBigOutside after the above Ask Me was posted:]
In response to your recent article “Ask Me: Advice about North Cascades…” Apparently I am taking the same trip Heather is haha. I’ve already researched all the questions she had and got the answers, but my trip is going to be much earlier, July 2 to be exact. When I called the ranger station to inquire about the backcountry permit she mentioned that I may need ice axes to cross the snow as there is still a lot up there that time of year. I’m wondering if you have journeyed there around that time and could clear things up for me? I’m thinking maybe she thought I was actually going out onto the glacier, which is not the case. I just want to camp at the Sahale campground. Is the trail up to it that treacherous? I don’t have any kind of equipment like she described, nor have I ever used any. That sounds like glacier trekking or climbing is required, and as I will be alone I’m wondering if I should reconsider?
Thanks for any advice you can provide! Love your site!
Good question. First week of July is definitely early up there. In a normal year, it’s mid- or late July before most of the snow melts out of some high country in the North Cascades to make it passable for hikers. In a big-snow year, some areas can be difficult or treacherous through August.
In picturing the terrain up there in my head—which was mostly snow-free when I was there—I think that ranger gave you good advice. It’s pretty darn steep when you’re first climbing from Cascade Pass up onto Sahale Arm, and quite exposed. Once you’re up on the crest of Sahale Arm, the terrain grows gentler for a while, but then gets pretty steep again for the last part of the climb up to Sahale Glacier camp. Also, on the Cascade Pass Trail, there’s an open stretch where the trail crosses a steep mountainside. If the trail has been packed out in a trough by previous hikers, it may be perfectly safe. If not, you might not want to cross that section.
If the snow is soft from sun and warm temps, it may be perfectly safe; I’m not sure, though. But with firmly frozen snow, there may be potential for a person slipping and taking a dangerous slide, and cold or freezing night temps would not be unusual. Plus, even if you know how to use an ice axe, self-arresting on hard snow is not at all easy.
Would I go anyway? I’ve climbed for years and I’m comfortable using an ice axe, but I’m not sure I’d want to take someone who’s not skilled with that gear up there in snow-covered conditions.
But the question I would consider is: How disappointed will you be if you go ahead with planning a trip for those dates and get there to find out you can’t go through with your plans? You would probably have other hike options available at lower elevations. But if you want a good assurance of getting to Sahale Glacier camp, and you can reschedule your trip, I would shoot for August. It’s also less buggy in late summer than in July. If you have last-minute flexibility, given that the park doesn’t take backcountry permit reservations, anyway, you could just wait until the end of June, check with the backcountry desk about conditions, and decide then whether to reschedule.
Hope that’s helpful. Glad you enjoy The Big Outside.
Thanks so much for all the great info. It’s definitely something to consider now with my lack of experience. I got a great deal on a flight and jumped on it before I did the research. Something I tend to do frequently haha. I may just check with the rangers on conditions and change my route to Olympic NP. I could always come back later in the year I guess. Thanks again and feel free to use the question for the site! If it can help anyone else I’m all for it.
You’re welcome. Olympic coast may be your best option. But I’ll add this, given that you have a flight booked: Much of the North Cascades is spectacular. Hikers are drawn to Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm because it’s well known, but the east side of the mountains, in the rain/snow shadow, will blow you away. And because it’s drier on that side, the snow melts out 1-2 weeks earlier. July 2 may still be pushing it, but you might get lucky, too. Check with ranger districts and websites like the Washington Trails Association, where members post regular field updates of trail conditions.
I’ve backpacked the Chelan Summit Trail in the first week of July and there wasn’t too much snow; it’s strenuous but gets you up high with killer views of Lake Chelan and the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Access via the ferry from Chelan (town) to Stehekin.
Other trips on my to-do list that might be options for you:
The 34-mile Rainbow/McAlester Pass Loop in North Cascades National Park from the Rainy Pass area may be a little more snow-free than Cascade Pass. Friends have sent me photos of it, looks gorgeous.
The Pasayten Wilderness from Rainy Pass via Mebee Pass to Canyon Creek Trail, about 35 miles, mostly up high, not many lakes. The Pasayten is much drier than the west side of the Cascades, has few people, and one of the most remote mountain ranges in the Lower 48.
The Icicle Divide, 45 miles, from Stevens Pass down to Leavenworth. First week of July could still be pushing it, but it’s worth asking at the ranger district in Leavenworth.
If you’ve never been to the Enchantments Lakes Basin (from Icicle Creek Road, near Leavenworth) and done the two- or three-day traverse of it, put that on your list. It’s one of the most popular hikes in the Cascades, so it’s hard to get a permit; but if you get to the ranger district in Leavenworth early morning (before they’re open to get in line) on a weekday, you might score a first-come permit. The hike from Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass is very steep—don’t do it with frozen snow. But Google pictures of this place, you want it on your radar. Go in early October if possible, the larch trees turn a gorgeous yellow.
Another hike on my list in the Enchantments area is the 24.4-mile out-and-back to Chiwaukum Lake and Larch Lake from the highway just east of Stevens Pass.
I could go on and on about the Cascades—one of my favorite mountain ranges. Look for a story and photos coming up at The Big Outside about backpacking 5 days on the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass route in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, which I did last summer.
Let me know how it works out for you. Good luck.
Note: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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’m receiving an increasing volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.