Exploring the ‘American Alps:’ the North Cascades

By Michael Lanza

The wind and horizontal rain battered us and the fog reduced visibility to 50 feet at times as we hiked up Sahale Arm. We struggled into the maelstrom with rain jacket hoods cinched snugly, our heads bent forward into the wind. Bullets of cold rain pelted my cheek. It was mid-July in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, but it felt like mid-October—no surprise in the northernmost and one of the wettest mountain ranges in the contiguous United States, where 110 inches of precipitation falls annually on its western slope. My friend David Ports and I were headed up toward some of the most severely vertical mountain scenery in the country—though that morning, it didn’t look like we’d get treated to any of it.

But the rain mostly stopped by midday, and the overcast began breaking up, leaving just a giant white wave of cloud crashing over Cascade Pass—which we looked down on from our tentsite at Sahale Glacier Camp, at 7,700 feet. The next morning dawned blue overhead, with row upon row of tightly packed pinnacles arrayed before us like soldiers standing at attention with bayoneted rifles pointing skyward. David and I got views so inspirational that he and his wife later gave their newborn daughter the middle name Sahale.

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The North Cascades are one of the wildest, most rugged and spectacular, and least-visited national parks—and after several trips here, one of my favorites. The park supports eight distinct life zones within its 9,000 feet of relief. The range’s sharp profile, extreme relief, extensive glaciation (more than 300 glaciers just within the national park), and year-round snow coverage have earned it the nickname the “American Alps.” But there’s one significant difference between our Alps and the Old World’s: With 93 percent of its nearly 700,000 acres designated as wilderness, and little in the way of human-built infrastructure, North Cascades is managed as one of our most-primitive parks, a huge swath of mountains and deep valleys largely unchanged since the last Ice Age.

There’s a reason so few people come here: It’s a hard place to see much of. Access is limited, with just one road crossing the park, and it’s closed in winter. And for the most part, that road sits at lower elevations, within the forest. Seeing the full grandeur of these mountains—the endless rows of knife-like pinnacles, the lush green valleys shooting up thousands of feet to jagged peaks, the greatest bastion of glaciers in the Lower 48—requires a lot of uphill hiking. But for that entrance fee of substantial sweat, the prize is having some of America’s finest mountain scenery to yourself.

Generations of climbers have explored the North Cascades, and backpackers enjoy its incredible scenery and solitude on multi-day hikes. The terrain makes these mountains challenging to see on dayhikes—but not impossible. This story describes my favorite dayhikes in the park, and one just outside its boundary, ranging from seven to 14 miles, each different in character and well worth a place on your tick list.

Hikers at Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park.
Hikers at Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park.

Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm

Cascade Pass has seen human footprints for centuries. The area’s native tribes called it “Stehekin,” meaning “the way through,” a name which has stuck to the river draining southeast of the pass and the tiny village near the river’s mouth, at the head of 50-mile-long Lake Chelan. Explorers, trappers, and prospectors tramped over the pass in the 19th century, but enjoyed limited success in exploiting the region’s natural resources, due to its remoteness and harsh climate.

Today, Cascade Pass ranks as the national park’s most popular dayhike, and the reason becomes abundantly clear beginning at the trailhead, where you crane up at waterfalls plunging hundreds off feet off sheer cliffs. At the 5,400-foot pass, you’re overlooking what looks like a violent pile-up of vertical walls and spires. Many hikers don’t go beyond the pass, leaving the best views to those willing to continue following the trail that climbs 2,300 feet and 2.2 miles up Sahale Arm. From this broad ridge littered with wildflowers, you look out over a roiling sea of jagged peaks, including Johannesburg Mountain, Eldorado Peak, Mts. Baker and Shuksan, Glacier Peak—and on a clear day, Mt. Rainier 140 miles to the south.

By the Numbers 7.4 miles and 1,800 feet round-trip to Cascade Pass. Add another 4.4 miles with 2,300 feet of up and down to ascend Sahale Arm to the trail’s end at Sahale Glacier Camp; but the impressive ridge-top views begin well before the camp, and you can turn around at any time.

Getting There From Marblemount on WA 20, follow the Cascade River Road—a gravel road passable for cars—23 miles to its end.

Along the Heather Pass and Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades National Park.
Along the Heather Pass and Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades National Park.

Heather Pass and Maple Pass Loop

Similar in distance and difficulty as the hike to Cascade Pass, this loop delivers more continuous views of the peaks in the park’s northeast corner and the vast Pasayten Wilderness to the east and north. And you don’t spend half the hike retracing your steps. Walking this loop counter-clockwise, for steadily improving scenery (though a steeper descent), you begin in cool forest of enormous fir, hemlock, and spruce trees, where huckleberry bushes line the trail, producing delicious berries in late summer. Columbine sprout their large, colorful flowers in mid-summer along stretches of the trail before it breaks out of the trees above the cirque containing Lake Ann. At about 6,200 feet, Heather Pass, an easy destination 2.3 miles from and a bit over 1,300 feet above the trailhead, offers a great view toward Black Peak and a look at the loop ahead of you.

But the views keep getting better as you cross the steep headwall to the south—on a good trail—to reach Maple Pass at 6,600 feet, with its sweeping panorama of Corteo Peak, Mt. Benzarino, the heart of the park’s Stephen Mather Wilderness to the west, and the Pasayten in the opposite direction. The trail climbs a bit more, following the open ridge separating Lake Ann and Rainy Lake before dropping abruptly back into the forest. In early July, the loop’s higher sections remain mostly snow-covered, making it hard to distinguish the trail but offering much more solitude. Mid-summer delivers a rich display of alpine wildflowers like glacier lilies, paintbrush, lupine, and cinquefoil.

By the Numbers 7.2 miles with 2,000 feet of up and down for the entire loop over Heather Pass and Maple Pass. Add an easy mile for the side trip to Lake Ann.

Getting There Start at the Rainy Pass Trailhead on WA 20, 51 miles east of Marblemount.

Mt. Shuksan in North Cascades National Park.
Mt. Shuksan in North Cascades National Park.

Hannegan Peak

The 10.4-mile, 3,100-foot out-and-back hike up 6,187-foot Hannegan Peak is one of the great dayhikes of the North Cascades, being one of the few summits that can be reached on a dayhike and has sweeping panoramas of the Picket Range and the park’s northern peaks. Even just reaching 5,050-foot Hannegan Pass, an eight-mile out-and-back, is a worthwhile objective; the hike up the valley of Ruth Creek is spectacular, weaving in and out of old-growth forest and open areas with views of the serrated Nooksack Ridge and the snow and glacier of Ruth Mountain at the head of the valley.

From Hannegan Pass, a trail leads north 1,100 feet uphill in 1.2 miles to the summit. But within minutes, you’ll emerge from forest with first views of Mt. Shuksan. Climbing higher, you’ll see an expanding sea of jagged peaks. Hannegan Camp, 3.5 miles in (about 20 minutes before Hannegan Pass), is a popular spot for backpackers, as is Copper Ridge beyond Hannegan Pass.

By the Numbers 10.4 miles out and back with 3,100 feet of vertical gain and loss to the summit of Hannegan Peak; eight miles and 2,000 feet just to Hannegan Pass.

Getting There From the Glacier Public Service Center on the Mt. Baker Highway (WA 542), 34 miles east of Bellingham, drive 13 miles farther east on WA 542, then turn left onto Forest Road 32 (Hannegan Pass Road), right before a bridge over the North Fork Nooksack River. Continue 5.3 miles to the end of the road and the Hannegan Pass Trailhead.

A marmot in the North Cascades.
A marmot in the North Cascades.

Easy Pass

Easy Pass carries an honest name only when placed in the context of the North Cascades: Requiring an ascent of 2,800 feet in 3.5 miles, reaching this gap in Ragged Ridge isn’t exactly an after-lunch stroll downtown. But the vistas pay big dividends for the relative degree of effort.

Climbing through cedar and hemlock forest, the trail crosses Granite Creek on a bridge, then follows quieter Easy Pass Creek up into wildflower meadows below tall cliffs. At the 6,500-foot pass, you overlook massive Mount Logan and its glaciers, Ragged Ridge, Fisher Peak, the Pasayten Wilderness, and the deep, densely forested valley of Fisher Creek, site of one of the last shootings of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades. (Grizzlies are now estimated to number fewer than a dozen here.) Optionally, from the pass, hike off-trail more than 700 feet up the meadow-covered slope to the north, to an unnamed summit on Ragged Ridge with a signature North Cascades view: a 360-degree panorama of snowy, pinnacled, glaciated mountains reaching as far as you can see. Return the way you came.

By the Numbers 7 miles, with 2,800 feet of vertical gain and loss, round-trip to Easy Pass; add a half-mile and 700 feet RT to scramble off-trail onto Ragged Ridge.

Getting There The Easy Pass Trailhead is off WA 20, 45 miles east of Marblemount and six miles west of Rainy Pass.

David Ports hiking Crater Mountain in the Pasayten Wilderness.
David Ports hiking Crater Mountain in the Pasayten Wilderness.

Crater Mountain

This stout out-and-back tromp to over 7,000 feet on the east ridge of 8,128-foot Crater Mountain comes with some caveats: It’s a butt-kicker that can seem relentless at times, requiring a lot of effort just to gain your first views; it has boggy areas that are thick with mosquitoes; and the trail isn’t always as well-defined as the others described here. But if you’re looking for a rigorous outing, the scenery and wildflowers are spectacular, you’ll see few if any other people, and you’ll get a good, high overview of the Pasayten, and area that’s well worth exploring on a lengthy backpacking trip. Lying on the drier east side of the Cascade crest, Crater is also a good option when rain threatens west-side hikes like Cascade Pass.

Follow Jackita Ridge Trail 738 (with bridged crossings of Granite and Canyon creeks) up through mixed forest with cedars and huckleberries—and many switchbacks—to a junction at 5,300 feet that can be obscured by vegetation. Just before the Jackita Ridge Trail crosses a small stream, turn left onto unmarked Trail 746 to Crater Mountain. Around 5,900 feet, at another trail junction marked only by a cairn (below a dramatic cirque with waterfalls pouring off cliffs), turn right onto a narrow but decent path that ascends through gorgeous wildflower meadows onto the shoulder of Crater Mountain, looking down on the Jerry Glacier and its iceberg-choked meltwater lake. The panorama from there takes in a big chunk of both the Pasayten Wilderness and North Cascades National Park.

By the Numbers 14 miles round-trip, with 5,150 feet up and down.

Getting There The hike begins at Canyon Creek Trailhead on WA 20, 35 miles east of Marblemount and 16 miles west of Rainy Pass.

David Ports on the Thunder River Trail in North Cascades National Park.
David Ports on the Thunder River Trail in North Cascades National Park.

Thunder Creek

On the wetter west side of the Cascade crest, the park preserves some of the most pristine and biggest tracts of primeval temperate rainforest remaining in the country. Giant old-growth cedar, Douglas fir, and hemlock, spanning several feet in diameter, lord high above an environment with as much biomass as is found anywhere on the planet. The Western red cedar, called the “tree of life” by native tribes who made clothing and blankets with the inner bark and totems, dugouts, cooking utensils, and homes from the wood, can live 1,000 years, growing 15 feet thick and 200 feet tall.

And the best area to see this forest is the Thunder Creek Trail, where giant trees loom above a carpet of ferns, moss, and dinner plate-sized mushrooms. The silted turquoise creek—draining the most-glaciated basin in the Lower 48—is frequently obscured from view by thick forest, but its roar is usually audible. Occasional breaks in the trees give views up thousands of feet to glaciers and sharp peaks.

By the Numbers 12.4 miles round-trip to the bridge over Thunder Creek at McAllister campsite, with 650 feet up and down, but you can turn back at any time to make the hike any distance.

Getting There Thunder Creek Trailhead is at Colonial Campground on WA 20, 24 miles east of Marblemount and 27 miles west of Rainy Pass.

Take This Trip

THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR hikers with good to excellent fitness and the ability to follow marked trails. Thunder Creek is the only relatively easier hike described above; the others are all rigorous. Crater Mountain’s trail becomes faint at times and is not always well-signed.

Season Lower-elevation trails like Thunder Creek can be hiked generally April to November, while snow covers higher hikes, like the others above, at least until mid-July; prime hiking season in the mountains lasts into September or October. Cascade River Road is closed two miles before the Cascade Pass Trailhead in winter and may be snow-covered and impassable before that point until late spring or early summer; check the park’s website for current conditions.

Getting There The little town of Marblemount on the park’s west side, the location of the park’s Wilderness Information Center, is about a 2.5-hour drive north of Seattle. The North Cascades Highway (WA 20) is closed from Ross Lake on the west side (at milepost 134, east of Colonial Campground) to Silver Star Creek on the east side (milepost 170.6), generally from November or early December until April or early May; check the park’s website for its status.

Where to Stay North Cascades National Park has four campgrounds along WA 20 with about 285 sites total, most managed on a first-come basis. There’s no lodging within the park. Marblemount has one inn, and Winthrop, on the park’s east side, has numerous lodging options.

Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping only, not day trips.

Map Green Trails maps for each hike, $7 each, (206) 546-6277, greentrailsmaps.com:
•    Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm: Cascade Pass no. 80.
•    Maple Pass and Heather Pass Loop: Mt. Logan no. 49 and Washington Pass no. 50.
•    Hannegan Peak: Mt. Shuksan no. 14.
•    Easy Pass and Crater Mountain: Mt. Logan no. 49.
•    Thunder Creek Trail: Diablo Dam no. 48.

Concerns The main challenge is weather—cold rain is common on the west side of the Cascade crest, though mid-July through mid-September sometimes brings long spells of warm, sunny days. Even more imperatively than in some other mountain ranges, it’s important to dress in layers for a wide range of conditions.

Contact North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center, (360) 854-7245, nps.gov/noca.

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