Sahale Glacier Camp, North Cascades National Park



It had been almost 10 years since I had done any serious backpacking. Life has a way of distracting you from what’s important…but now, with my priorities straight, I was packed and ready to hit the trail…if only my friends would show up!

After living overseas for 7 years I moved back to the states and wound up, through a twist of fate, living in New Jersey. There I slowly renewed my love of hiking, the only problem was, where to go? The Delaware Water Gap became my go-to destination in the Garden State, but it didn’t fit my idea of either mountains or wilderness.

Planning a trip back to Washington I found my old, dusty copy of “Hiking the North Cascades” that I had packed away and looked for what sounded like a great, relatively short hike. Part of the trail description read: “…the trail reaches a series of camping spots at the toe of Sahale Glacier, each one atop its own mound of ruble and protected against the winds by a stonework ring. This is the loftiest developed camp in North Cascades National Park and looks out across a sea of jagged peaks. Vistas like these are usually reserved for mountaineers, following demanding and dangerous ascents.”

It sure sounded great! I called Darin, my closest friend, (who had never been backpacking) and read him the text, told him he should come. He said he could probably borrow equipment from his sister and it was set! My wife and I flew out to Seattle and made it to Tim’s place in Sedro-Woolley.

Finally around noon they rolled in, smiling and ready to hit the trail. Well, mostly ready. We piled all the stuff in the pick up and headed up Highway 20, east, towards Marblemount. Stopping for last minute supplies and then for our permit we flew as fast as we could in Tim’s old dilapidated Toyota along the Cascade River Road.

I still have an image blazed in my memory of barreling along the dirt road over a small bridge where I was headed straight for a squirrel in the middle of the road. He was hanging onto an acorn of mammoth proportions, obviously the find of a lifetime. He didn’t budge lest he loose his prize. I swerved madly around him, my friends swearing at me loudly from the back of the truck…

It was almost 3pm when we arrived at the trailhead and hurriedly got started. I knew we would probably wind up hiking in darkness, but what to do? Darin and his girlfriend, Nichol, were game and we hurried through the dense forest up the 30-something switchbacks to Cascade Pass. The weather was perfect, a few puffy clouds adding texture to the azure sky.Cascade Pass

As we sat for a break and late lunch I read out loud the trail description, making special note of the steepness of the trail. Trying to emphasize that we still had a long way to go (mostly up!) I urged that we get going.

My two friends had no idea what any of the details portended, “2,300 feet elevation gain in 1.6 miles” meant nothing to them. My wife, Svetlana, an experienced mountaineer understood what would come next. She got her pack on and helped urge us all on.

The next section of trail, up to the junction with the trail to Doubtful Lake, is steep and rocky. We strung out along the trail, each of us struggling to keep up. Finally arriving at the trail junction we stood gaping at Sahale Peak.

A few hikers passed us, headed back to the pass and I stepped aside to ask how much further was Sahale Glacier Camp. They pointed up (way up!) at the peak and the three small mounds just below its summit, and said “There, on top of those mounds of rock is the camp…” At first I was sure they were joking. I had been hoping that the climb from the pass to the trail junction had taken us at least halfway, but it was clear that we had a very long way to go.

Darin and Nichol, both obviously ready to stop hiking and start camping, joined me then and asked, what did they say? I told them it was still further to go.

Hiking on Sahale Arm is always pure joy. Green tundra, wildflowers;

Lupine on Sahale Arm

Lupine on Sahale Arm

lupine, bistort, paintbrush, heather and many more add color. And the views: Cascade Peak, The Triplets, Magic Mountain, Pelton Peak and Glory Mountain. Nothing beats ridge hiking in the North Cascades. The splendid scenery provided much needed distraction to our suffering as we plodded along.

The trail climbed the lower Arm, passing the old mine and started on a straight line up the mountain. Svetlana and I reached the point where a creek runs along side of the trail, just before the last steep pitch up to the camp. Darkness was not far off. My friends arrived, both looking exhausted, and I finally let them in on the deal: the camp is atop those mounds, just head straight up!

That last section of trail is pretty brutal. We strung out along the way, Svetlana in the lead, followed by me, then Darin and Nichol.

As I crested the top I looked back and could see those two struggling in the twilight to find the trail, slowly trudging along…As most of the camp sites were full, Svetlana and I started scouting east along the camp ridge looking to see if there was one vacant spot left…finally finding one I got busy setting up the tent and getting the stove going while Svetlana went back to look for our friends.
Morning at Sahale Glacier Camp
They finally arrived loudly cursing me, smiling, tired, cold, hungry and relieved. They later told me that the only reason that they didn’t turn back was that I had the car keys and the only reason they didn’t kill me as soon as they arrived in camp was because they were too exhausted. A hot meal and warm tent soon improved their spirits, along with the views and we were all soon having a great time and I was (mostly) forgiven.

Waking up first I made it out of the tent with camera in hand to see where things were. The view was unsurpassed. To the west I could see Puget Sound glinting in the sun. South I could make out the massive hulk of Mount Rainier, 150 miles away. Exploring the camp I made my way to the official camp toilet, perched on a narrow ridge with a view not be beat!

The days plan was simple: do nothing! We lazed around camp, recuperating. In the early afternoon we moved camp back to the top of the ridge, just where the trail crests the top, to the well established spots with rings of stone stacked for protection from the wind. From higher up on the slopes of Sahale peak these camping spots looked like little turrets, guard posts for the castle keep.

At lunch time we got together and emptied our packs to see what food there was and what to eat. We’re all pulling out the regular stuff, nuts and protein bars, except Darin. He opens his pack and pulls out a bag full of apples. I look over and say, “Hey, any more fruit in there?” he goes on to unload 8 pears, 4 oranges, an entire bunch of bananas and several huge cans of beef stew. By this time I am doubled over with laughter. “So, THAT”S why you were so dead yesterday, you had more than 30 pounds of fruit in the pack!”. He smiled and pulled out his last prize: a medium sized honeydew melon!!!

We had a good time making fun of him…and eating all the fruit.

Now that I live nearby I make a trip to Sahale every year. Each time is different. It’s always thrilling to reach the pass and get started hiking along Sahale Arm. One year I was almost swept away by a huge avalanche of mud and snow after a freak thunder storm. On three trips I’ve been visited at camp by several mountain goats, happy to pose for pictures.

Four years after that first trip I went back up to Sahale camp with Darin. Between these visits we had logged hundreds of miles on trails through out the North Cascades and the Pasayten Wilderness. Darin stopped packing fresh fruit in his pack but I never let him live down the 30+ pounds of fruit from that first trip.

We set up camp, had dinner and as I started to set up my tripod for pictures Darin mentioned he’d brought along a surprise. I was turned away for a moment, and when I looked up Darin was there with a wide grin and a whole watermelon.

I can’t recall having more fun eating watermelon…

11 thoughts on “Sahale Glacier Camp, North Cascades National Park

  1. Ciao, really great blog, enjoyed the ‘trip’ wonderful landscape and so much color, loved the shot of poppies on hillside and the glacier. 🙂 Lynne PS. well done Darin for lugging the watermelon around, what a guy!

  2. Great adventures are awesome and never soon to be forgot. Thanks for the great story and laugh all that fruit killed me. And then he whips out a watermelon , dying from laughter!!! Your pictures are wonderful !

  3. Once, I would have compared your Cascades fotos favorably to my beloved Sierra Nevada, now it’s the other way around. (Who knew?) Must get my butt to Washington for some incredible views. Thanks!

  4. Beautiful pictures. Hopefully that will motivate my “Big Ass.” Just Joshin. She moved out along time ago.
    What a great story. You had me at, “and then” lol Really, thank you for sharing.

  5. Hi there! Loved the pictures! Sounds like quite an experience! I was wondering can people with no mountaineering experience climb up this trail? If so what kind of mountaineering gear do we need and what month is the best time to go?

    • Hello! Yes, you can make it to Sahale Camp with no mountaineering experience. You only need trekking poles and no other special equipment. The trip is about 6 miles, one way. the first 3.7 miles is through the forest, up 47 switchbacks and 1,700 feet. Its pretty easy. Then you arrive at Cascade Pass. From there its another 2.3 miles and about 2,100 feet to the camp. There are two parts of this section that are steep and strenuous.
      If you plan to camp at the top, you must have a permit. They are available on a first come, first serve basis at the Wilderness Info Center in Marblemount. They are limited in number each day and so if you want to snag one, be sure to be at the wilderness office before they open at 7am. There will be a line! Get there at 6:30am latest. Weekends are more difficult for the permit, weekdays better. You will not be alone on the trail, on a weekend in the summer there may be 50 or more people on the trail with you, so you will not get lost!
      Best months are July, Aug and Sept. Call the park or look at their web site for trail conditions and you can see when the snow has melted to open the trail. Check the weather and don’t go if the weather is forecast for rain or a storm. The camp is open and exposed, it is no fun to be there in a storm. There is always water available at the camp, it sits at the toe of a glacier and there is also a reliable water source on the way up, about 1/4 mile before Cascade Pass. I hope that answers most of your questions, maybe I’ll see you there this next summer!

      • Tht sounds great Andy! Thanks for all the details. We are planning on heading there July. If all goes as planned, maybe will see you there 😊 . Will get those trekking poles!

  6. Love this post! My husband and I are planning a 3 week PNW camping trip this August 2017 (driving from Indiana). I would love to do this hike and camp here! Thanks for the info! Hoping we can snag a permit and have good weather!

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