The American Alps

We went exploring for Scott’s birthday, and found someplace new to us.

There’s an old joke that says Americans think 100 years is a long time while British think 100 miles is a long way. We find in our little pocket of Utopia that people don’t get out much – Portlandia has a very British opinion of leaving town. We scoff at that, and yet, hadn’t done a road trip in a while, and then only to places we’ve done before. A new orbit for Scott should mean new worlds to explore, new mountains to climb.

And there’s a national park we have never visited only 4 hours away. Well, 5 if you get stuck in Seattle traffic.

North Cascades was suggested as a national park in 1902 by none other than Portland’s Mazamas hiking club, but it was more than 60 years before it got signed into one, and by that point, logging, mining, and dam building had taken place, but no major highways had really cut into the area. It’s actually a huge patch of roadlessness, and though the dams with in the park power about 25% of Seattle, there are little in the way of front country amenities, which probably discourages the average vacationer.

We did a quick drive by – hwy 20 now cuts through the park at its waist, but doesn’t really give much of a taste of it. You can stop at overlooks and see the long reservoirs, but only get to Diablo, where there is a nice camp, a boat launch, and an Art Deco styled dam you can drive or walk across, with a Learning Center on the far side. If we want to say, spend time kayaking on Ross with our own boats, we’d need to launch them at the camp, paddle across Diablo, pay $20/boat to have them trucked to Ross (there used to be a portage route, but it got avalanched), then head off to our reserved (but free) campsites anywhere up the 30 mile lake. Just an idea.

Having seen all there is to see in the front country, we drove out of the park, through the tiny burg of Marblemount (which does have cell coverage, but only if you have Verizon) and down Cascade River road, which quickly turns in to a narrow paved strip twisting through old growth forest, with no features to stop and look at nor any pullout to stop on at all. We turned off the pavement to check out the first state forest campground: a 20ish site loop along a river, down a dirt road, and did not seem to be packed like sardines or full of rowdy kids. Still, we continued on. The pavement ended, and for the next 12 miles we endured the washboard rattling at slower speeds, knowing that only the fact that we had bigger tires made it possible to make time at all. “That’s not a breaking bump, that’s a mogul”

Mineral creek campground seems about the same as the previous state park site, except that it’s closer to the national park boundary and had an open site. Having been frustrated by the road and the heat, we parked, paid, and struggled to get packs prepped, meals pre-made, and us relaxed to get to sleep early. Normally we read outside, but the bugs drove us in to the van.

Saturday morning we woke at 6, ate and put the van into driving configuration, and heading on up more of the washboard road. Shortly, we crossed from state park to national park, and lo, the road has been graded from here on up. Whew! We climbed up to the parking lot and quickly got ourselves, our packs, and our hiking poles onto the trail by 7:30.

The parking lot, btw, was spectacularly surrounded by peaks and glaciers. We headed into the dense woods and immediately lost the view.

It was supposed to be another scorcher of a day, and we planned our hike accordingly. I’m a morning person, but Scott is not. Luckily, we compromise, and the early start means comfortably hiking up hill in long pants and lightweight long sleeved shirts. Ok, several switchbacks up, and we were de-layering to light weight tech t’s, but that was wholly from exertion, not ambient temperature. We stopped at a lovely cascade, and stopped counting switchbacks, as the first 3 miles was nothing but. However, they were pretty gentle, as switchbacks go, and while we climbed 2500 feet, we were barely winded. We certainly weren’t feeling crowded – we played leapfrog with a nice pair of Korean-Canadian ladies, and didn’t see anyone else.

The trail had a quarter mile of level track across the loose shifting rocks of a scree slope, followed by sweet wild blueberries, after which we topped Cascade Pass, and could look down the long view of the valley on the other side. Many hikers turn around here, but we were looking for a trail that headed up the mountain to our left, which was part meadow and part scree and all up. Just as we got started, we ran across a pair of bushwackers who’d gone off trail below, looking for the Pass overlook, and one of them hiking with his arm in a sling – just had some plates installed, but had a backpacking trip planned soon and was curious if he could do it. They sat down for a break, and we headed up the mile long steep scree climb.

It was a moderately unpleasant mile. No worse than Dog Mountain for steepness, but I’m coming off a foot injury, and the scree crossing still hurt. The one armed guy passed us half way up.

Over the saddle, we had another view down to a feature signed as Lake Doubtful, leading to bad humor like “Is that a moraine lake?” “Doubtful.” (It was). The blue of the lake’s depths was bordered by lighter greens and browns of its shallows, and one deep spot clearly rested at the foot of a chute coming off the mountain. My theory is that a large chuck of ice calved off a glacier and furrowed into the lakebed, creating the shallows with its terminal moraine, and then melted. Pretty, though.

It’s cooler up here, with the breeze coming off Sahale glacier above us. We’re now above the tree line, and have been thankful for the morning’s cloud cover. I have sun issues, and need to ration my time in full exposure, even with hats and sunscreen. So far this hike, it’s barely been an issue, but now the clouds are breaking up. Still, the trail is supposed to be easy from this point, as it skirts the ridge.


Well, easier than that last mile scramble, but it was still up & occasionally rocky. Luckily there were views to enjoy and tempt us onward. The lake below us. The glacier hanging above. The mountain peaks like the molars of the world. The alpine flowers. The various un-shy marmots. The Korean-Canadian ladies leap frog us, we pass them, and then are passed by other hikers who started later but were faster climbers than us. We’re getting old.


Every two hours, we stop and refuel a little – half a PB& J, split an apple, etc. as the day warms up, these rest breaks are increasingly inhabited by horseflies. Are they normally up here and we’re invading, or are they following the hikers up to the alpine country?


As we pass along a ridge (showing us the valley we originally came up on one side and the moraine on the other), we note that the end of trail, which is supposed to be at the backpack camp at the foot of the glacier, is still 500 feet above us and a half mile distant through yet another scree slope. There is not a lick of shade for miles in any direction and the sun is directly overhead. We’ve already done 6 miles. Time to turn back.


Downhill is a bit more difficult for Scott, since his knee is no longer OEM. So we take it slightly slower, and more cautiously, particularly as we are seeing a steady stream of hikers still heading up. I found some shade under a small bush while Scott re-took some photos that didn’t work out on the first pass. Chatting with an uphill traveling family, we hear that goats have been spotted near Cascade Pass – apparently the designated pee-spot is to the ungulates a freshly laid salt lick, and it freaked the family out. Then we start down that rocky scree mile.


Half way down the mile, our one-armed hiker and companion come up behind us and we chat about the trail – they made it up to the camp, which he described as ‘tent city’ – later, we asked a ranger, who said they allow 6 groups of up to 4 tents each up there any night, so it can look a little more crowded than it is. The 2-armed companion, upon hearing about the goats, was enraptured. She hikes every weekend, never seen a goat. How do you do that in the mountains?


They took off ahead of us and we did our cautious descent, but did get to see them in 2 switchbacks below us, pointing at the mama, juvenile, and baby mountain goat as they were heading up that slope. Cutting the trail switchbacks. Directly towards us. We stepped aside and watched them pass.


Upon reaching the Pass overlook, we kept trucking. There were about 20 too many people for our tastes, milling around & having their trail mix. It was hot and sunny here (but instead of biting horse flies, we now had annoying deer flies, that just wanted to land on us. A lot).


Across the flat scree (still not making my foot injury happy), and into the woods. The deer flies stayed with us, as the intermittent shade turned into intermittent sun patches, and we descended the multitude of switchbacks, trying to guess how much further our poor tired feet had to go. A mile? Two?


Finally we break from the woods and see the parking lot, bustling with people who are just coming down or just going up (at 4 in the afternoon? Well, it is light until 9). We are so happy we have our camper rig, with a refrigerator stocked with water bottles. Time to take off the hiking boots, a cause for celebration all on its own.


Then, that 12 miles of washboard road.


We camped that night on Bacon Creek Road, in a dispersed camping pullout. We slept late (ish), then in honor of our location, cooked up a breakfast of pancakes and bacon before heading back into the park. Some van based photography, then a short hike at Ruby Creek, made shorter as the trail more or less disappeared on us. There were a couple good bridges and decaying log cabins before we lost track, but in the valley it was hot, so we did what most people do on vacation: siesta by the water with food and drink and books. Our water was a burbling alpine stream, we were just off a hiking trail in the mountains, the food and drink were picnic goods we had carried in and the books were electronic (Scott is re-reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files about a wizard in Chicago & I’ve got Neil Stephanson’s Quicksilver about Isaac Newton) I’m not sure we quite have the hang of this ‘rest day’ notion.

We took a drive onto the dry side, viewing Washington Overlook (which had a really interesting (architecturally) building that looks to have gotten water damage or was attached by raging bears), and spent enough time to confirm that the dry side looks like Bend. We found a back county pull off and did van chores and made dinner – salads, chicken and potatoes, eaten al fresco under the awning – then went back to a forest service trailhead to settle in for the night.

Monday morning, and while my co-workers are still commuting to the office, Scott and I are clicking our hiking poles up the rocky path towards Maple Pass. The guide book says they normally recommend doing the steep section first on a loop, but due to how the views play out, they recommend this one the other way – the long gradual climb at the beginning, and returning on the steep switchbacks. We followed this advice, but next time we do this trail, we’ll reverse it, for Scott’s knees sake.

As we start out, we play a shell game with a pair of Germans who had pulled up in a huge travel rig – I called it the Unimog, but Scott says it was something else. But one of the nice byproducts of early morning hikes is the quietude. It’s a pretty climb, gradually getting above a hanging valley and into sparse trees. Large swaths of wildflowers tempt bees and my photographer along the route.

Eventually we see a turn off for Heather Pass, and follow it over the ridge to see what the next valley over looks like. We returned to our trail, which climbed a little, and then wended over that same ridge line for the same scree and forest view before returning to the intended direction.

Deep below us is Lake Ann, with its own wizard island analog. I’m beginning to think the offset island is a feature on all PNW lakes. Our route continues to climb as we loop the lake, aiming for the ridge high above it.

We top out at 7000 feet today, lunching in a shady patch beside a cliff face, identifying the snowfields on peaks 15 miles distant. If I calculated it right, we were staring at Boston Glacier, who shares a peak with Sahale Arm that we’d nearly reached two days before.

Scott had been stopping to shoot anything that captured his interest, but up here with the long views, he was working with infrared to make detailed panoramas, which get great resolution on the distant peaks, cutting through any haze, but taking something like 15 second shutter times, and a lot of them to make a pano. While he does this, I meander off to find shade, and watch other hikers climbing around the bowl, tiny as ants.

Then, we descend. Many of the switchback legs were only 10 meters long. Zig zag zig, we tromped down a nose, trapped between the circe of Rainy Lake and the cliff and rubble field. We could see the highway a thousand feet below us. We were descending fast, according to our knees. Ow.

Eventually, we made it to the valley floor and the van. First things first: the shoes come off. Then we reconfigure for travel.

The North Cascade Loop driving tour includes hwys 20, 97, and 2, and is more than 119 miles long. It seemed to be popular for motorcycles, but I can’t see doing it that way myself. It’s mostly through the high desert area of Washington, and while Scott drove and listened to 99% Invisible episodes, I hid in the of the van to escape the bright light reflecting off yellow rock and grasses. We crossed Columbia river near Wenatchee, and found peach orchards breaking up the landscape.

Bought some.

Nothing else happened for hours.

When we re-entered the cascades range and saw more mountainous terrain, which was more interesting to me. The big peaks are not quite as impressive as the northern items, but it’s certainly closer to home. We’ll have to see if there are any good trails on them.

Lessons learned:

  • It’s not far to the alps, and they are lower than we think.
  • Eastern Washington is bright, and dull. But has good peaches. Still, drive the I5 corridor. Time it to miss Seattle traffic.
  • Horse flies seem to come out at about 2pm.
  • Always start the hikes before 7:30am. Try to be off trail by 2, because flies.
  • It’s cooler in the high country
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