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Top Ten Things to do in the North Cascades

Saul Weisberg North Cascades Institute | 06/01/2018 | National Parks, Forests & Recreation Areas, North Cascades, The Great Outdoors

The North Cascades’ 13 million acre ecosystem includes 7 million acres of protected public lands on both sides of the border – and endless opportunities for recreation, exploration, naturalizing and recharging one’s soul. Here are some of my favorite places from the northern end of the range, where I’ve lived, worked and taught for more than three decades. Other lists could be created focused on other regions of the North Cascades: Alpine Lakes, Wild Sky, Glacier Peak and the Provincial Parks of British Columbia. 

  1. Canoe the Skagit River:The Skagit is one of the great rivers of the west, supplying nearly 40% of the fresh water (and wild salmon) entering Puget Sound.  A multi-day trip down the Skagit River is a real gem. Designated as a Wild & Scenic River in 1978, the Skagit drains an area of 1.7 million acres, including the most glaciated region in the Lower 48. I like to put my canoe in at Copper Creek in North Cascades National Park and paddle all the way to the mouth where it empties in to the Salish Sea. This trip takes 3-4 days and involves camping on gravel bars and beaches. The river gains momentum after the Cascade, Baker and Sauk rivers add to its flow, and you can finish a great journey by paddling up the Swinomish Channel for dinner in La Conner. Shorter day-trips can be made by paddling from Marblemount to Rockport or Rasar State Park.
  2. Backpack Hannegan to Ross Lake:There are several long backpacking routes in the North Cascades. One of my favorite begins from the Mount Baker Highway, climbing Hannegan Pass and then north along Copper Ridge before descending to the Chilliwack River, climbing over Whatcom Pass and finally over Beaver Pass and down Big Beaver Valley to Ross Lake. A fire lookout, incredible views of the Pickett Range and one of the best old-growth cedar forests in the range: this trip is hard to beat. Other great long hikes include the Devils Dome circumnavigation of Jack Mountain, or dropping into Stehekin via Bridge Creek from Rainy Pass.
  3. Explore the Methow Valley:There are many different ways to explore this remote valley flowing off of the east slope of the Cascades. You can naturalize in Pipestone Canyon for great birds and butterflies, cross-country ski in the winter, or mountain bike on dozens of backcountry roads in the summer (try Sun Mountain for beginners, Buck Mountain for more challenge). My favorite time in the Methow is early spring when the wildflowers are at the peak in the Valley. The balsalmroot and lupine are usually amazing at Patterson Mountain in May.
  4. Paddle Ross Lake and Climb Desolation Peak:Perhaps the most famous literary spot in the North Cascades is the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. This is where writer Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956working for the U.S. Forest Service, an experience he later recounted in Desolation Angelsand The Dharma Bums, cult-classic novels from the Beat Generation. The lookout is still there, perched atop the 6,102 foot peak and commanding one of the best views in Washington. The Desolation trailhead on Ross Lake can be reached by canoe, by renting a small powerboat from Ross Lake Resort or by hiking the East Bank Trail from Highway 20. The lookout trail is steep (carry plenty of water) with views around every corner. (I am leading a literary excursion  to Desolation with North Cascades Institute August 4-7;
  5. Explore around Mount Baker:There are many ways to explore Komo Kulshan, the northernmost Cascade volcano that looms ever-white over Bellingham and the San Juan Islands. Great trails start from Heather Meadows, but to avoid the crowds I suggest you explore the Noisy-Diobsud wilderness or hike the lowland old-growth forest on the East Bank Trail of Baker Lake. Drive a bit further to access Railroad Grade, the Scott Paul trail and Park Butte. From this alpine wonderland, you’ll see the Easton Glacier and the Black Buttes up close and personal as the summit looms overhead.
  6. Hike to Hidden Lakes Peak:I was a backcountry ranger at Cascade Pass in 1979, and that trail (and the view from Sahale Arm) are close to my heart. However to avoid the crowds, I like to turn off the Cascade River Road before you reach the Cascade Pass trail, at the short spur to the trailhead to Hidden Lakes Peak. It’s a beautiful trail to an old fire lookout, which is open to the public, and fabulous views of Cascade Pass and Boston Basin looking east across the valley. Hidden Lakes themselves are surrounded by a veritable rock garden of giant talus boulders. Sibley Pass, accessible by a short scramble from the trail, is an amazing place to watch the fall migration of raptors flying overhead by the hundreds.
  7. Climb Cascadian Rock:The North Cascades are sometimes called “the American Alps” and they offer a mind-blowing array of mountaineering opportunities that have challenged and inspired the world’s best climbers for decades. The legendary Fred Beckey pioneered many first ascents here and wrote three volumes of Cascade Alpine Guide, still used by countless climbers today. There are too many great climbs to recommend just one, but several of my favorites include the aptly named Forbidden, Fury, Triumph, Torment, Terror and Eldorado.
  8. Naturalize Harts Pass: The highest road in Washington State will take you up to the alpine zone on the very crest of the range, one of my favorite places to explore the land above treeline. Time your trip to coincide with the wildflower bloom, usually peaking in late July – early August. The wildfires that burned through in 2003changed this area dramatically. Silver fir forests have been replaced by meadows, and bluebirds, woodpeckers and raptors are everywhere. The Meadows Campground is one of my favorite places to basecamp, with incredible opportunities to roam in all directions, including the Pacific Crest Trail north to Canada, or sound to Grasshopper Pass.
  9. Visit North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake:North Cascades Institute operates the Environmental Learning Center in partnership with North Cascades National Park and Seattle City Light. This wilderness campus in the heart of the National Park is home to many of the Institute’s programs – Mountain School, Family Getaways, Skagit Tours – and a wide array of classes on natural and cultural history. We’re throwing a free Anniversary Picnic on July 17to celebrate our 30thbirthday and the National Park Service’s Centennial and hope to see you there for locally-sourced BBQ, guided canoeing and hiking adventures, family fun and boat tours of Diablo Lake ( The Learning Center is also a great place from which to “explore the neighborhood,” on local hikes up Thunder Creek, Sourdough Mountain, Pyramid Lake, Diablo Lake to Ross Dam and the North Cascades National Park Visitors Center in Newhalem.
  10. Find your own place: “Top ten lists” make me a little crazy. What I really like to do is leave the trail behind at some point, find a secluded spot where I can set up a good Leave No Trace camp, and use this as a base camp to explore, poke around, read a book, follow birds and bugs, or just remember why I fell in love with this special part of the world over 30 years ago.

Co-written with Christian Martin; originally published in the Seattle Times 5/25/16.

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