North Cascades National Park, located in Washington State, is one of the most beautiful though least visited parks in the US.
Its beauty is due to the rugged mountains and serrated ridges carpeted in lush green and wildflowers, snow and rock, with waterfalls seemingly around every corner (all depending upon which season you visit.). As for the lack of visitors, the North Cascades National Park is bisected by none other than the North Cascades Highway (locally known as Highway 20) and 90% of all visitors to the park venture no more than a few miles from the road.
Unlike many National Parks, like Arches, Olympic or Yosemite the most impressive sights of the park are only revealed to those willing to strap on a backpack and take to the trail.
I own several trail guides about the North Cascades and spend much time perusing them, looking for cool-sounding hikes, day dreaming about the sounds, smells and views to be had…
In several of the guide books it was written that the hike to North Fork Meadows delivered the best views for the least amount of effort. Generally this would translate to “lots of people” but in this case “low effort” is more targeted to the amount of elevation gain from the car to the destination: about 1,600 feet; and decidedly not taking into account the fact that it’s a 17 mile hike to the meadows!
This was sounding better and better, a spectacular view with little or no company but the clincher was the description of the meadows themselves:
“As the valley makes a great bend to the east, sedge swards of brilliant green offer views of the summit of Mount Logan, with a multitude of cascades tumbling down from its brilliant snow fields. The trail end here, at the foot of converging waterfalls on the facing cliffs and just below a rumbling cataract on the North Fork itself. Above the meadows are the jumbled spires and cliffs of Goode Mountain and Storm King, which soar above the valley in jagged pinnacles.”
I decided to map a route that would take in North Fork Meadow, detour down to Stehekin for a break and then traverse the range via Park Creek Pass and return us to Highway 20 so we could hitchhike back home.
The bear was eating blue berries on the trail, moseyed over to sniff at us, and then moved off the trail for us to get by so she could continue her snack.
The trail was in great shape, little brush and no downed trees. Gently sloping down the first days hike was an easy one, 10 miles to the trail junction and camp site.
We camped the first night at North Fork Camp which occupies a bench at the confluence of Bridge Creek and North Fork.
The next day we hiked up the North Fork Trail. The first 3 miles were uneventful. We were able to ford Grizzly Creek on a series of logs snags and rocks, the creek was high and about 45 feet wide but we didn’t have to resort to wading.
Just before Grizzly Camp there were remains of a very large recent mud slide, maybe 50 yards wide.
At Grizzly Camp we encountered flies, like 900 trillion of them. Very small, about 1/20 the size of a house fly but packing a big bite, these little bastards were horrendous.
Nothing seemed to hinder their appetite, Deet, eucalyptus, etc only seemed to whet their desire to bite us more. The only thing to do was keep walking. A brisk pace kept them at bay. Of course the down side to that was the heat! It was in the mid to high 90’s during the afternoon
The brush became thicker, in many sections the ground was completely obscured it was just like walking in a jungle. Stinging nettles, and other nasty brush was all over. Every so often we would get an enticing view…
We thankfully came out of the brush and the trail skirted alongside the creek. In the mountains it’s often a situation of all or nothing, choose your preferred form of discomfort. In the sun the flies were few, but the heat oppressive. In the shade the flies were ravenously abundant…Hot, thirsty and needing a break we rotated between the two forms of torture, cooking in an oven and having our flesh devoured as we sat…then tiring of this vacillation, we shouldered the packs and continued our trek…
As we continued up the valley we came out of the brush and thankfully caught an occasional breeze as we navigated our way from meadow to meadow…the views improved with our spirits and in relatively short order we reached the end of the trail (it just sort of petered out) and now was time to venture off trail and scout for a camp site.
The park requires a permit for all overnight stays and has designated campsites spaced along each trail. However an off-trail camping permit is available, one has to agree to camp at least half a mile from the nearest trail.
Although the scenery was outstanding we all had one thought: How to find a camping spot, get in the tent and get away from these god-damned flies…But before we could muster the energy to start bushwhacking in search of a spot to pitch our tent, we needed a break.
We located a spot with partial shade on a moderately flat piece of meadow and hurriedly set up the tent (its all screen mesh, we didn’t use the fly) and dove in. We spent the next 10 minutes feverishly swatting flies until the floor of the tent was littered with their tiny bodies. By this time we were drenched in sweat, we had lost our shade and the sun was cooking us. We resorted to holding the sleeping pads over our heads with out legs while we laid on our backs laughing and cursing…
It reminded me of the movie “Madagascar” when the penguins, who have hijacked a huge cargo ship to go home to Antarctica, finally arrive. They are standing there on the ice in the cold and howling wind. One of them is looking around, and finally says to the others Well, this sucks!
Anyway we dragged our selves out of the tent and worked our way up to the valley head and found a suitable but somewhat tenuous camp on a snow field. This turned out to be a great idea, the snow for some reason minimized the flies and the heat at the same time.
I had read a description in one of the guide books that said that there was once a camp site at the valley head called “Many Waterfalls Camp”. The camp is no more, but the spot is well named. There were more than 30 waterfalls coursing down from the many glaciers and snow fields above.
With out a doubt the trail guide was correct: an absolutely unbelievably beautiful valley…as a side comment the guide book: “Hiking the North Cascades” by Erik Molvar; Falcon Press, is a great guide. Mr. Molvar is a gifted writer and his descriptions are vivid and accurate, a combination one does not always find! (The quote above is from his guide.)
We stayed there only one night (I think the flies drove us out!) and headed back to North Fork Camp.
Here are some more random images from the head of the valley:
Here are a few views from the trip down the valley.
Once back down the valley we came to our camp site from the night before last and after a long relaxing lunch continued our trip further down the valley to the Bridge Creek Camp along the Stehekin Road.
The plan for the next day was to hike a quick 5 miles down the now abandoned road, making certain to arrive at High Bridge in time to catch the Park shuttle bus heading south to the small village of Stehekin.
While perusing maps and planning the route is was clear that this little detour would enable us to not only resupply mid way through our trip, but also give us the opportunity to score a couple of good meals and most importantly visit the Stehekin Pastry Company once or twice before continuing our hike over Park Creek Pass!
And camped near the village for a night.
The route from Bridge Creek to High Bridge is covered by two separate trails, one is the Stehekin Road, which is no longer open to vehicles) and the Old Wagon Trail, (also know as the Pacific Crest Trail), which is actually a foot trail.
And we (being geniuses) or I should say that I, being an idiot, assumed that the Stehekin Road, while being closed to vehicles would certainly be open to hikers all the way to Stehekin.
Actually there are Park Service signs at Bridge Creek Camp saying that it is “highly advisable” to follow the PCT and NOT the Stehekin Road from Bridge Creek Camp to High Bridge. I decided that meant it could be hiked, and so we ignored the detour signs and hiked a few miles south on the old road. It soon became clear why the road was closed to vehicles! The road is completely washed out in many places. As we continued we came to a spot where what was left of the road was entirely covered by water! The water came to the edge of a cliff. We some how climbed the cliff with our packs and made it over the spot. We continued, hoping that we had passed the worst and came to yet another spot which for us (not being basically spiders) was not possible to cross. Now we were faced with the prospect of hiking back 3 miles (and most likely missing the bus and having to hike an extra 10 miles to Stehekin.) or swimming… so we decided to go cross country!
We backtracked a ways and then scrambled up the steep ridge and bushwhacked about half a mile until we finally made it over to the Old Wagon Trail (PCT), and hurried along to High Bridge. We were late in arriving and so missed the bus but were lucky to bum a ride from a few lovely ladies who were up for a short day hike. They were staying at a cabin down in Stehekin and they gratefully gave us a lift down the valley. So we arrived finally at Stehekin!
If you’re interested in reading more about Stehekin or locating links to sites regarding visiting, Here is the Wikipedia page
We made it to town, had lunch, got a camp site, visited the bakery, lazed around, picked up our supplies at the post office, explored, spent the night and early the next morning caught the shuttle bus (with one more stop at the bakery) back up to High Bridge.
One note: if you ever do visit Stehekin, plan to make several trips to the bakery!
When the shuttle bus dropped us off we re-traced our path along the Old Wagon Trail back to Bridge Creek, and then headed west along the Stehekin Road to the trail head for the Park Creek Trail.
The trail from the road to the top of the pass is 8 miles and 3,850 feet elevation gain. Most of the climbing is in the last two miles up to the top of the pass. This is one of the most remote parts of the park which is accessible by trail. I would guess that during an entire summer that no more than 50-75 people pass this way. A few pics on the way up:
As the trail nears the pass it winds its way through a hanging cirque. There are meadows and great views all around. The entire area of Park Creek Pass is unbelievable. One of the very coolest parts of the NP. Just before gaining the pass there is an extensive network of trails on the west side of the trail offering many opportunities for roaming.
When I was above the pass I spied a bear crossing the upper snow filed at the top of the pass, heading south:
We camped near the top of the pass, close to Buckner Mountain, about a mile off the trail.
The next morning was cold and cloudy, we crested the Pass and headed down the trail, north, towards Highway 20. The trail changed names at the top of the pass, and is now known as the Thunder Creek Trail.
Just below the pass the trail was covered with winter avalanche debris.
The trail down from Park Creek pass to Skagit Queen Camp was rough and brushy. Lots of nettles, downed trees and yellow jackets!
Just beyond the camp lie the ruins of the Skagit Queen generator house, which dates from 1905. water was piped downhill from Thunder Creek to run a Pelton wheel, which used the flow of water to generate electricity for the mill which served the Skagit Queen Mine.
From Skagit Queen Camp to the highway and Diablo Lake the trail is in beautiful shape.
Even on a short trip like this one its always funny to me how quickly I lose the friendly social skills!