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.
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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.
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.
The North Cascades is a wet place. See my reviews of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
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.”
Thunder Creek and Park Creek Pass
It seems absurd that a trail that exists to lead you uphill would first take you on a long downhill. But that’s exactly what the Thunder Creek Trail does heading south from Junction camp, where we spent our first night. We drop steeply about 1,000 vertical feet—and then start climbing again, reversing all that elevation loss and much more on an uphill grind that will gain about 4,000 vertical feet en route to Park Creek Pass. In the shade of giant trees, even at mid-morning, the dim, ambient light resembles pre-dawn as we labor steadily uphill, hypnotized once again by the primeval woods.
Thunder Creek’s name speaks true. For miles, it’s essentially one unbroken cascade, occasionally pouring over a cliff in a pounding waterfall. Its tectonic rumbles must be audible for a quarter-mile in every direction. Physical evidence of its power at peak melt-off litters the creek gorge and banks. Hundred-foot-tall tree trunks five feet thick lie piled up like matchsticks, and boulders the size of pickup trucks fill the creek bed. At Skagit Queen camp, we follow a side path to a two-tier waterfall.
In early afternoon, as we’re getting close to Thunder Basin, we hear a loud crack in the forest to our right. Todd and I both turn in that direction—but see only an absurdly steep mountainside and a solid wall of green and brown vegetation. “That may be our first mammal on this trip bigger than a squirrel,” Todd says.
“Or bigger than us,” I respond. We’ll never know for sure. But a little while later, nearing Park Creek Pass, we step over a pile of berry-filled bear scat larger than Todd’s size 13 shoe.
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At 3 p.m.—nine miles and it seems like hundreds of switchbacks uphill from the campsite we departed six hours ago—we reach 6,100-foot Park Creek Pass, a notch chopped between soaring cliffs. The trail clings to a talus slope on the east wall, some 50 feet above the actual floor of the pass, because the latter is a scene of violence, strewn with boulders piled up in a train wreck of granite that has rained down off the cliffs.
Rocky, glaciated peaks tower above the Thunder Creek Valley; on the other side, a horizon of jagged arrowheads pokes the cobalt sky beyond the Park Creek Valley. Larches burn golden in the bright sunshine, and the ground gives off a burgundy glow from the leaves of bushes offering us more ripe huckleberries.
“This is one of the most spectacular mountain passes I’ve ever been over,” Todd says. I agree.
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“It’s not bad. For ice water.”
Todd issues this report while dipping his fingers in a still pool in Bridge Creek that’s some 40 feet across, at least 15 feet deep in its center, and almost as clear as air but with an emerald color when viewed from above. It swirls calmly below a small waterfall before the creek narrows again and spills over cascades downstream.
I sink bare feet in and the frigid cold seems to instantly conduct through my bones to my brain, temporarily freezing thought. This water was snow just a few hours ago. Warm sunshine filters through the forest on our third morning, but this pool sits in the hard shadow of tall trees. I love a good mountain swimming hole. But I decide to pass on this one.
Todd stands at the brink of a ledge about 15 feet above the pool and leaps off. Surfacing, he swims rapidly to the rocky shore—where I’m guffawing—shivers and mutters something barely intelligible about being cold, and then scrambles back up to the ledge and jumps in again. And then a third time.
By the middle of a glorious afternoon, we reach Grizzly Creek, three miles up the North Fork of Bridge Creek—the preferred digs, according to that backcountry ranger, of “lots of bears.” After pitching our tent and briefly icing tired feet in the creek—which feels painfully frigid when they’re in the water and soothingly therapeutic as soon as they’re out—we explore farther up the North Fork valley.
A bit more than a mile up, the rough trail through the jungle-like brush terminates abruptly. We cannot continue without heinous bushwhacking. Across the valley, 8,520-foot Storm King Mountain bares cliffs and a small glacier, and yet another row of pinnacles marches northward to the hulking mass of Mount Logan.
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Seeing the vertiginous North Cascades backcountry that I love comes at a, um, steep price: the long slogs to its mountain passes.
On our fourth afternoon, following our night at Grizzly Creek, Todd and I find ourselves immersed in another endless climb: a seven-mile-long, 3,500-vertical-foot march up the Rainbow Trail to 6,200-foot Rainbow Pass. Lucky for us, it’s another sunny and mercifully cool day, and we’re mostly protected in shade—although we’ve crossed the Cascade Crest to the drier side of the mountains. Here, lodgepole and ponderosa pines and Douglas firs predominate, and more sunlight penetrates this thinner tree cover.
In the rocky cirque before Rainbow Pass, more larches blaze in the sunshine. At the pass, we stand at ledges overlooking Rainbow Lake tucked in a stone bowl with forest creeping up to its shore on two sides. We walk downhill to a campsite at the lake, once again stuffing fistfuls of huckleberries into our mouths. At the lake, we harvest more berries to save for morning oatmeal; then, haggard from a 14-mile day and that long climb, we both take a bone-chilling swim.
In early evening, we get one of the best views of the trip. Low-angle sunlight slashing across the cirque seems to set fire to the larch trees across the lake, their brilliantly yellow needles glowing, and the entire scene reflected upside-down in the water.
Tomorrow, we’ll hike about 17 miles, much of it downhill, without it feeling difficult; even the steady climb to 6,000-foot McAlester Pass isn’t as hard as the three we’ve already done. Our 80-mile tour of one of America’s loneliest and most rugged national parks will prove to be everything I expected and then some: enchanting ancient forest, thunderous waterfalls, spectacular views from mountain passes, and fortuitously timed autumn color and berries. In five days, we will see no bears—grizzly or black—probably because while they were likely around us, they didn’t want anything to do with us.
And as much as we appreciate that they’re out there, that’s just fine by us.
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See all of my stories about North Cascades National Park, including “Exploring the American Alps: The North Cascades,” and all of my Ask Me posts about the North Cascades, plus all of my stories about national park adventures at The Big Outside.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit, intermediate to experienced backpackers. The major challenges are the possibility of wet, cold weather and the physical toll of significant elevation gain and loss going over mountain passes. The trail generally is well-marked, so route-finding won’t be a problem for anyone with solid compass and map-reading skills.
Make It Happen
Season Lower-elevation trails are often snow-free by June, while snow can cover higher-elevation trails until late July or August, with great variability depending on snowfall and temperatures the previous winter and spring. Access to some trailheads, including the starting and ending trailheads for this hike, depends on the North Cascades Highway (WA 20) being open; generally closed in winter, it reopens by early April some years, or as late as the end of May. Check the park website (see Contact, below).
The Itinerary We backpacked about 80 miles from the Easy Pass Trailhead to the Bridge Creek Trailhead, including the Rainbow Pass/McAlester Pass Loop, which adds 19 miles; skipping the latter, the hike distance is about 60 miles. We also added an off-trail side hike of a little over a mile round-trip and 700 vertical feet from Easy Pass up Kittling Peak on Ragged Ridge.
• Day one: 14.8 miles (not including the off-trail side hike up onto Ragged Ridge), with 3,500 feet of elevation gain and 3,400 feet of elevation loss, from Easy Pass Trailhead to Junction camp on the Thunder Creek Trail.
• Day two: 14.6 miles, with 4,000 feet of elevation gain and 3,800 feet of elevation loss, to Two-Mile camp in the lower Park Creek Valley.
• Day three: about 11 miles, with 1,000 feet of elevation gain and 1,100 feet of elevation loss, to Grizzly Creek camp in the North Fork Bridge Creek Valley, plus a nearly flat, out-and-back hike of about 2.5 miles to the end of the valley.
• Day four: 14.5 miles, with 3,400 feet of elevation gain and 600 feet of elevation loss, to Rainbow Lake camp.
• Day five: 17.6 miles, with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain and 4,300 feet of elevation loss, to Bridge Creek Trailhead.
Getting There While the hike could be done in either direction, we started at the Easy Pass Trailhead, on WA 20 between mileposts 151 and 152, and finished at the Bridge Creek Trailhead, on WA 20 at milepost 159. It’s often easy to catch a ride between trailheads from other hikers or locals driving the highway.
Permit A backcountry permit is required for all overnight camping in North Cascades National Park and the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas. The park offers advance reservations for up to 60 percent of campsites in popular backcountry areas, while permits for other areas are still issued only on a first-come basis no more than one day in advance. Advance permit reservations are accepted from March 15 through May 15 for the coming season. Wilderness trip planner: http://ift.tt/2xV1sML.
While permits are normally picked up in person, the North Cascades National Park Wilderness Center (see Contact, below) issued us a permit over the phone because we were not going to drive past a ranger district office during business hours before starting our hike.
A Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annually, $5/day) is required for parking at national forest trailheads, including Easy Pass and Bridge Creek, which are outside the national park. Purchase one at regional U.S. Forest Service ranger district offices or at local retailers; we got one at Winthrop Mountain Sports. See http://ift.tt/2fAcqz5.
Maps Trails Illustrated North Cascades map no. 223, $11.95; natgeomaps.com. Green Trails Diablo Dam no. 48, Mt. Logan no. 49, Washington Pass no. 50 (which shows only the Bridge Creek Trailhead and isn’t really needed), McGregor Mtn no. 81, and Stehekin no. 82, $8 each, greentrailsmaps.com.
• The North Cascades has black bears and a small population of grizzlies. We each carried a bear canister for food storage and a piercingly loud air horn.
• While we had mostly good weather, and summer is the driest time of year, the North Cascades region west of the Cascade Crest is known for heavy precipitation. Rain and even snow may fall in late summer and early fall, and vegetation may be wet and soak your boots even if it doesn’t rain. See my review of favorite backpacking accessories, including the Outdoor Research Flex-Tex II Gaiters.
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, with very comfortable rooms and excellent food, 31 Early Winters Drive, Mazama, (509) 996-3906, freestoneinn.com.
Contact North Cascades National Park, (360) 854-7200, nps.gov/noca. Wilderness Information Center, (360) 854-7245.
Cascade Loop Scenic Highway, cascadeloop.com.
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