From Portland we ventured further north than I’ve ever been on the West Coast – almost all the way to the Canadian border. We got an overview of the City of Seattle as we sat in traffic on Interstate 5 and gazed out at the Puget Sound, the Space Needle, and the buildings of downtown. If we were on vacation from work with a rental car and money to burn, we would eat our way around Seattle and get up close to the city sights. On our current budget and with our 30-foot home behind us, a glimpse of the city was all that was on the agenda. Past Seattle we turned east on State Route 530 and began to see the jagged peaks of the North Cascades. Another turn north brought us to State Route 20, which is the only road through North Cascades National Park. Our destination was Marblemount, west of the park boundary. We pulled into Alpine RV Park just as dusk closed in. The camp host, who described himself as “an old Indian,” checked us in and directed us to a pull-thru site in the grass. He informed us that tomorrow morning’s cup of coffee was going to be especially delicious with the local glacial water. He suggested that we may even want to take some of the water with us when we leave. A light rain started to fall, so we set up camp quickly by flashlight and ate some dinner.
We only gave ourselves three full days in North Cascades National Park since we were trying to fit this park and Olympic National Park into the remainder of the warm season before the winds, rains, and snow hit the Pacific Northwest. On our first day, we took a driving tour along Route 20, and hit the visitor center and other sights along the road. Within the first few miles along the Skagit River, we saw a bald eagle fly over and land on a branch, looking for its next meal from the river. We stopped off at the Gorge Lake overlook and walked along the metal-grate bridge to view Gorge Creek Falls. Gorge Dam is one of three hydroelectric projects along the Skagit River that power Seattle. Diablo Lake and Ross Lake, located further inside the park, are also formed by dams that power Seattle. Aside from these dams and the power lines that run along the Skagit River, the North Cascades are rugged, remote, and beautiful. The view from Route 20 is composed of jagged, often snow-capped peaks regularly shrouded by clouds, steep mountainsides dominated by firs, spruces, pines, and larches, and the opaque, sea-foam green waters of the glacier-fed Skagit River snaking along the bottom of these steep mountains. Although the lakes along the river are man-made, their vivid green color and reflections of the imposing Cascades create some spectacular views.
We finished our first day in the park with a hike on the Happy Creek Forest Walk trail, which we followed for another 1.8 miles of steep switchbacks from the bottom of the creek to see Happy Creek Falls. The forest was dark and damp and full of old-growth firs and spruces, mosses, and mushrooms, and the sounds of the creek bubbling along. We had to pick up the pace on our way back down from the falls as the sun was setting and a light rain began. We paused just long enough to catch a glimpse (our first ever) of a varied thrush perched on the tip top of a fir tree in the last of the daylight. I grabbed my binoculars and looked up and managed to stammer out, “it’s…it’s that bird…that bird on the Sibley Guide!”
We made it back to our truck at dusk, jumped in, and headed back along the winding Route 20 to our campsite. Michael pulled over at a viewpoint to let some speed demon behind him pass, and as we started to take off again, we heard a rhythmic thump, thump, thump, thump. “What is that? A rock?” Michael pulled over again, and I hopped out to inspect the tire. Right there on the top of the passenger side front tire was the head of a screw sticking out. Great! Just great! We carefully continued, hoping to make it back to camp, but we remembered that metal-grate bridge we had to cross. That bridge could loosen the screw.
Sure enough, not long after we crossed the bridge, we heard a loud clank against the bottom of the truck, and immediately after, the warning light came on informing us that the tire was deflating rapidly. The sky was pitch black by now, and there was nowhere to pull over. Finally, there was an entrance to a gravel road, and we pulled over just before the last of the air whistled out of the tire. We were both tired and hungry, and the light rain had started again. Oh well, now it was time to learn how to change the tire on our new truck! I pulled out the owner’s manual, and Michael retrieved the jack and wrench. My boy scout also pulled out his knee-pads, gloves, and a towel to lie on the ground to reach the correct jack point identified in the owner’s manual. About 45 minutes later, the spare tire was on, and we resumed our trip home. We ate dinner at 10 pm that night, what my mom used to call “Madrid style.”
We had planned to try a couple of different hikes in the park over our next two days there, but we couldn’t risk getting another flat tire with no spare. There are few services near North Cascades National Park, and another flat would mean a long wait for help. We had no choice but to spend Day 2 traveling an hour west to Burlington, Washington to a tire repair shop, not a happy realization.
Luckily the shop was able to patch the hole in our tire, saving us the cost of a new tire. We took advantage of being in town without the trailer attached to us and ran some errands and enjoyed a late lunch of Thai food. We were still down about losing a day in the North Cascades when we were rewarded with a double rainbow arching over the road on our return trip and a dramatic pink sunset behind the peaks of the North Cascades. We pulled off at a park along the Skagit River as we neared Marblemount and watched bald eagles and belted kingfishers fly along the river in search of food as the pink in the sky intensified. As we stood there next to the river, quietly becoming one with the scenery, we felt satisfied by a day we previously had viewed as wasted.
With one day left in the park it was tough to choose among so many appealing hikes. Many hikes were easily ruled out as far too long and too steep for day hikes. With just one road and many steep mountains, the North Cascades are full of opportunities for strenuous backpacking trips. We finally decided on the trail to Blue Lake. On the eastern side of the park and surrounded by pointy-topped mountains with names like Early Winter Spires, Stiletto Peak, and Cutthroat Peak, this trail is about 2.3 miles to Blue Lake with a total ascent of 875 feet. Blue Lake is a stunning destination, a little gem reflecting various shades of blue depending on the angle of the sun, bounded by the sheer wall of a snow-dusted mountain and its glaciers, and a colorful forest of green firs and spruces and yellow larches.
We hiked through varied habitats on the way to the lake. The lower portion of the trail was wet, green, and mossy. Then we climbed out of the wet forest and into an open meadow with colorful shrubs, where we could view the surrounding peaks, including Early Winter Spires. Higher on the trail, we walked through patches of slushy snow, and the loud whistle of a marmot made us jump and got our hearts racing as he warned his friends and scurried through the underbrush. As we approached the lake, we crossed a small bridge over the creek flowing out of the lake, and from there, the first glimpse of the lake is breathtaking. We wandered along the edges of the lake and sat on some rocks soaking up the scene. As we sat, a curious Steller’s jay hopped among the firs and larches nearest the rocks, and one crazy young man stripped down to his shorts and jumped into the icy cold waters. He immediately jumped out, shivering, and began piling on the warm layers again. Just before we got up to head back down the mountain, we witnessed the creaking sounds of an avalanche from the glacier and watched as a portion slid down the mountainside. On our return trip, we enjoyed the glow of the golden yellow larches in the late afternoon sun. If you can only fit in one hike on your trip to the North Cascades, Blue Lake is a good choice.
Our time in the North Cascades was brief. If we had stayed longer, we would have hiked the Cascade Pass Trail on the west side of the park and checked out the Baker Lake and Mount Baker area. Nevertheless, I’m happy that we got a taste of the northern Cascades region. It is rugged and remote with stunningly beautiful landscapes. We heard that mosquitoes can be a problem in the summer months, but mid-September was perfect. It was cool and crisp, and the larches were turning a golden yellow – the perfect season for some hiking! We will definitely be exploring more of the North Cascades in the future.
Note: More photos from the North Cascades and all of our other travel stories can be viewed on our Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/brakefornature/.