Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades

By Michael Lanza

“Lots of bears at Grizzly Creek.”

Those words that a backcountry ranger spoke to me over the phone just yesterday echo through our heads now, as my friend Todd Arndt and I descend switchbacks from misleadingly named, 6,500-foot Easy Pass into the densely forested valley of Fisher Creek in Washington’s North Cascades National Park. Fog swirls around the jagged peaks nearly a vertical mile above us. Battleship-gray skies threaten a common meteorological occurrence in these mountains—rain—although we’ve seen only sprinkles and wind so far. We’re hiking downhill past ripe huckleberry bushes toward a thicket of slide alder and chest-high brush that the trail passes through—ideal bear habitat.

“That’s where they’ll be,” I say to Todd. Without taking his eyes off that tangle of alder and tall brush, Todd just says, “Yup.”

Although Grizzly Creek, our third night’s campsite, lies more than 30 trail miles and two hiking days from here, it’s much closer than the circuitous trail route to it suggests. Grizzly Creek itself begins its downhill journey on the other side of the 7,000-foot ridge forming the southern edge of Fisher Creek Basin—the fortress of cliffs and pinnacles we’re gazing up at in awe now. The campsite where we’ll sleep two nights hence only sits about five straight-line miles from where we stand.

That ranger, of course, meant black bears when she warned me about the healthy bruin population at Grizzly Creek. And in most of the U.S. West, the word “grizzly” in a place name serves as a melancholy tombstone for a degree of wildness lost long ago.

But in the North Cascades, that name delivers an ice-water-in-the-face reminder that North America’s apex predator still stalks these mountains.

5 Days in the North Cascades

It’s our first afternoon of a five-day backpacking trip in one of the most uncrowded, rugged, and wild national parks in the contiguous United States—and a personal favorite of mine, for all of those reasons: North Cascades. Our 80-mile route will cross four mountain passes, traversing from the rainforest west of the Cascade Crest—where up to 120 inches of precipitation falls annually—to the park’s drier and sunnier east side.

It will take us from deep in one of America’s most primeval and ancient forests to sub-alpine views of the most heavily glaciated peaks in the Lower 48. While we’ll spend most of our time within the national park—nearly all of which is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, more than 600,000 acres named in honor of the first director of the National Park Service—we’ll also spend parts of two days in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, one of the three units of the North Cascades National Park Complex and part of the Stephen Mather Wilderness.

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Todd Arndt backpacking the Fisher Creek Trail, North Cascades National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Fisher Creek Trail, North Cascades National Park.

I’ve backpacked, climbed, and dayhiked in mountains with many more grizzlies than the North Cascades, from Glacier National Park to the Canadian Rockies and Alaska. (I had my closest griz encounter in Glacier, with a sow and two cubs at a distance of about 30 feet—and you don’t want to get between a sow griz and her cubs.) The truth is, we really aren’t likely to see a griz here. Federal managers speculate that fewer than 20 grizzly bears reside in the roughly 10,000-square-mile area that includes North Cascades National Park and adjacent wilderness and national forests, a region with enough food sources, habitat, and rugged backcountry for bears to thrive and follow their best survival strategy: hiding from humans.

While grizzly sightings are rare, they’re out there: In October 2010, a hiker photographed a grizzly from a distance in North Cascades National Park, and federal biologists confirmed it—the first confirmed sighting in the North Cascades since 1996.

I don’t harbor an irrational fear of bears. I know they generally avoid humans. But as Todd and I stroll into chest-high brush where big, vicious apex predators would be lurking if they were anywhere in the neighborhood, I’m reminded how such circumstances tend to focus the mind of even the most rational hikers.

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The Most Rugged and Snowy Mountains

We’ve come in the last week of September, so it was pleasantly cool as we set out this morning on the Easy Pass Trail—a relentless uphill grind of nearly 3,000 vertical feet in 3.5 miles, about which the only “easy” aspect is soaking up the view from the pass while giving your legs and lungs a well-earned rest. Hardly breaking a sweat in the cool temps, we gorged on wild huckleberries growing trailside, a surprise treat so late in the season, and took in the fall color infusing the landscape—the purple of the huckleberry leaves and yellow of the larch trees, a conifer whose needles change color in autumn.

At Easy Pass, we separated our bear canisters from our backpacks and stashed them in a copse of conifers and bushes about a hundred feet apart. (See my tips on that in “The Fine Art of Stashing a Backpack in the Woods.”) Taking just a water bottle and jacket each, we started hiking off-trail uphill over steep heather and grass and loose stones. Several hundred vertical feet above Easy Pass on its north side, at the crest of Ragged Ridge, we stopped to look around. Ghost-like silhouettes of pointed peaks stabbed into the clouds that swirled thickly around us. Several miles to the southwest, the cliffs and glaciers of 9,087-foot Mount Logan, fourth-highest in the park and among the 10 highest non-volcanic peaks in Washington, are lost in the gray gumbo of clouds.

Extreme weather and terrain collaborate to make the North Cascades one of the least-accessible corners of the country. Imagine a remote range in Alaska plunked down within a few hours’ drive of Seattle. Maps of Washington Territory in 1860 labeled these mountains “unexplored.” Not until 1906 was even a small piece of what is now North Cascades National Park mapped. One surveyor’s observation at the time rings true a century later: “The region… is very rough and mountainous; consisting of deep, impassable gorges, lofty divides and snow-capped peaks. … There is not an acre adapted to agriculture.” I’ve read that the North Cascades have more peaks that rise 3,000 feet in the last horizontal mile to their summits than any other mountain range on Earth, and that at least 77 peaks stand more than 6,000 feet above adjacent valleys. Few places on the planet exact as hard a physical toll on hikers and climbers as these mountains.

Today, just one road crosses an area the size of Yellowstone (which has several roads): WA 20, the North Cascades Highway. Completed in 1972—40 years after Trail Ridge Road was built across Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Going-to-the-Sun Road across Montana’s Glacier National Park—the most-direct route from Seattle to east-side towns like Winthrop and Twisp closes each winter because of avalanches.

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Mushrooms growing on a tree, Fisher Creek Trail, North Cascades.
Mushrooms growing on a tree, Fisher Creek Trail, North Cascades.

Despite most summits here falling short of 9,000 feet—less than two-thirds the height of dozens of Rockies and High Sierra peaks—the so-called “American Alps” get snow like Nevada gets smokers carrying rolls of quarters. The ski area at Mount Baker averages 650 inches of white stuff a year and holds the title of Earth’s snowiest locale for the world-record 1,140 inches—that’s 95 feet—that fell during the winter of 1998-1999. Copious snowfall and northerly latitudes nurture 60 percent of all the glaciers in the contiguous United States—more than 700 between Snoqualmie Pass on-I 90 and the Canadian border. That snow feeds about 240 alpine lakes and innumerable waterfalls and, yes, cascades.

Tragically, climate change is rapidly melting the ancient ice formerly known as “permanent.” In interviewing researchers for my book about my family’s adventures in national parks facing the severe impacts of the warming climate, I learned that of 756 glaciers identified in the North Cascades by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1971, 53 had disappeared by 2006. The North Cascades Glacier Climate Project has monitored the health of 47 glaciers since 1967, and the National Park Service watches another four, the most extensive research of its kind in the world.

Their data suggests bleak prospects for rivers of ice that have existed here for possibly more than 16,000 years: 70 percent of North Cascades glaciers will likely be gone by mid-century.

Todd and I follow the Fisher Creek Trail’s gentle downhill angle through a quiet, ancient forest of Douglas fir, hemlock, and Western red cedar trees so tall we can’t see their crowns; some bulge to eight or 10 feet in diameter at the ground level. These trees grow so big that early settlers would sometimes make homes out of hollow stumps just by building roofs over them. A thick wig of moss carpets everything: boulders, rotting trunks of downed trees, even the ground itself on both sides of the path. Lace, maidenhair, bracken, oak and other ferns grow so densely we rarely catch a glimpse of dirt.

When we stop for a moment, drinking up the silence, I tell Todd, quite sincerely, “I feel so relaxed here.” He responds: “It’s incredibly peaceful.”

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Good Eats We had good meals at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery (good beer, too), at 155 Riverside Ave., and East 20 Pizza, at 720 Highway 20 South, both in Winthrop.

Lodging We spent the nights before and after our hike in a two-bedroom suite at the Freestone Inn at Wilson Ranch in Mazama, with very comfortable rooms and excellent food.

Contact North Cascades National Park, (360) 854-7200, Wilderness Information Center, (360) 854-7245. Cascade Loop Scenic Highway,

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20 thoughts on “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades”

  1. This is a fantastic taste of what the North Cascades has to offer. I just wanted to offer a couple tweaks — it’s the official position of the F.S. and NPS that the North Cascades doesn’t currently have any population of grizzly bears (meaning that the famed 2010 photo is thought to be of a large black bear with a distinct hump). I am not personally certain as to whether I believe them or the panel of wildlife biologists that decided it probably was a grizzly, but it’s useful context.

    Also, I’d love for more coverage of the Baker annual snowfall record to mention that it is likely far from the snowiest locale on Earth; there are dozens of incredibly remote spots around the world that may have annual snowfall multiple times that of Mt. Baker. It would be more accurate to say that Baker has the record for the “Earth’s snowiest weather station.” This is definitely a nitpick, as it’s an extremely common mistake, just a pet peeve of mine 🙂

    Either way, you have me raring to visit every possible site in the North Cascades.

    • Hi Maxwell,

      You make two good points. Yes, the presence of grizzlies in the North Cascades is debatable and we might reasonably expect that there would be credible, verifiable sightings periodically if that were the case. But as has been the case with the extirpation of grizzlies and other species in mountain ranges around the U.S. for a century or more, the final word often cannot be issued for years. The jury seems to still be out on that, even though the fate of the grizzly in the North Cascades seems grim without governmental action to reintroduce it.

      Yes, it’s true that Mount Baker’s record is for a competition between weather stations and there are many points on Earth where we do not know the annual snowfall. However, weather data is sufficiently prevalent around the globe that we have a very good idea of snowfall totals in most of the world and there seem to be very few regions, if any, that compare for annual snowfall totals over long periods of time with the Sierra and Cascade ranges of the U.S. West Coast and the Coast Mountains of western Canada and Southeast Alaska, thanks to the combination of an enormous ocean carrying large volumes of moisture to those mountains, the effects of orographic lift, and sufficiently cold temperatures for long winters (at least, for now, although that’s obviously changing rapidly). Many of the coldest parts of the world—the Arctic and Antarctic and many of the highest mountain ranges—are deserts or arid regions without huge snowfall amounts.

      The real question is whether Mount Baker deserves specific recognition as the epicenter of huge snowfalls or another specific location somewhere in that long divide of mountain ranges stretching along the west coast of North America. But the data does tell us to expect a lot of snow throughout those mountains at higher elevations—for as long as it lasts at the rate that climate change is reshaping the planet.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Hey Michael,

        Thanks for getting back to me here and via email, I really appreciate it.

        I have to say, you know your stuff vis-a-vis conditions for maximal snowfall! I’ve done a lot of research on exactly this subject, and based off of the most detailed gridded snowfall models we have (the best is PRISM, a product of the NW Allliance for Computational Science and Engineering out of OSU) the snowiest single spot in North America is probably the south Saint Elias range. PRISM specifically identifies Mt. Crillon, but I suspect it’s Mt. Fairweather — either way, estimates for annual snowfall here are in the range of 3-4x that of Mt. Baker.
        There are other good candidates, including high on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Each of these locations gets much stronger prevailing winds and has significantly more available moisture to fuel massive orographic lift. I’d love to get a weather station out to each of these areas someday.
        Keep on keeping on,

        • And you have clearly done your research, Maxwell! The St. Elias Range is no surprise to me and the specific location must simply have greater orographic lift favorability than neighboring spots. The Southern Patagonian ice cap seems another obvious location for abundant snowfall. It’s interesting to contemplate this data, I think, but I tend to geek out on this stuff. Thanks for sharing all of it.

  2. I was 100% going pre-read. I’m now 1,000% headed there. Look forward to possibly hiring the custom planning/ brainstorm service:)

  3. Thanks! This brings back a lot of memories. I was in a NOLS class that hiked 32 days crossing a very long stretch of the same area you went through in the North Cascades. Greatest trip in my life.

    • Yes, Doug, I agree that’s a beautiful road. I’ve always felt the North Cascades is one of those mountain ranges that can be difficult to fully see and appreciate from the road, so dayhiking or backpacking into it really gives you a more complete experience. Do it. Thanks for the comment.

        • Thanks for asking, Doug, but I don’t have plans to publish an e-guide to this specific backpacking trip. However, with a subscription to The Big Outside, you get full access to all of my blog’s stories, including the trip planner section at the bottom of stories like this one, where I share details of the itinerary and other logistics and tips on planning this trip. I also offer Custom Trip Planning, where I’ll help you plan this or any trip you read about at my blog.

          I hope one of those options is helpful to you. Keep in touch.

  4. I really enjoyed your story. I’m actually sitting in a hotel in Estes Park Colorado and just finished reading it. Thanks for the great description of North Cascades NP. It’s been on my bucket list from the time first stepped foot in the mountains.

  5. Thanks for writing, I really enjoy your posts and especially the longer-form ones. The Cascades are so lush, and what incredible views – I can see why it’s one of your favorite parks! I didn’t realize how remote and rugged they were. Quite the challenging itinerary for backpacking!