Exploring The Trails of the North Cascades

They're known as America's Alps. A national park that sees nearly a fraction of the visitors in Yosemite, but features a wonderland of jagged, remote peaks that bred a dynasty of legendary alpinists.

The North Cascades are a playground of Himalayan-esque mountains, granite towers, and classic volcanoes that enthrall climbers and hikers alike. Some of Washington's most beloved trails traverse a landscape of wildflower-carpeted hills, historic watchtowers and glimmering alpine lakes. From easy day-hikes to challenging multi-day snowshoe excursions, there are miles of trails for families and seasoned backpackers.

From the I-5 interstate, the road turns east onto North Cascades Highway 20, which traverses the length of the park. Past the entrance sign, a turnoff leads to the town of Marblemount, the gateway to the Boston Basin and two of the state's best trails: Sahale Arm and Cascade Pass. There's a common characteristic of the footpaths here; They're left largely wild and unmaintained to retain their wilderness ambiance. While the hiking starts off with simple switchbacks, it quickly deteriorates into uneven, muddy steps, crumbling dirt paths, and tricky crossings on raging streams. The trailhead starts in a lush fir-lined forest and quickly ascends into a rocky alpine wilderness surrounded by a serrated skyline. Picking up a wilderness permit at the ranger station in town allows hikers to pitch a tent on dramatic perches overlooking the basin.

Past Marblemount, the North Cascades Highway twists through breathtaking snow-capped peaks, woody forests, and emerald glacial lakes. Suddenly the road takes a sharp hairpin turn under a group of free-standing towers known as the Liberty Group. This Patagonia-like massif, rising high above Washington Pass, is well loved by climbers but also features outstanding hiking. Starting just off the highway, the two-mile family friendly trail to Blue Lake treks between the monolithic granite spires leading to a pristine blue valley just under Liberty Bell Mountain. Bears and mountain goats frequently forage in the fields, especially during the summer. One should be mindful of their cubs and babies who explore the forests in the high season. Among the classic trails of the North Cascades is Maple Pass, a seven-mile loop which treads over high ridges, with views of seemingly endless mountains and an explosion of color in the fall. Set between four major peaks, hikers quickly ascend an exposed path above dense forests, which are filled with wildflowers in spring and explode into fiery red and orange hues in the later year.

North Cascades

Of the most colorful residents of the North Cascades were three poets of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac, Phillip Whalen, and Gary Snyder, who served as volunteer park fire lookouts. Today these historical fire-huts are still standing and open to visitors. Phillip's was on Sauk and Sourdough Mountain, Jack's hut is on Desolation Peak, and Gary lived on Crater Mountain. Living for long months during the summer, the time spent in the huts spurred their best known writing and poetry. Today, thousands of fans make a pilgrimage to the towers, enduring steep, exposed, and strenuous trails to look meditatively over the forests as the poets did.

One of the most remote districts of North Cascades National Park is the Glacier Peak Wilderness, over 500,000-acres of wild land, with no roads and primitive trails. Capped by the eponymous volcano, with its glaciated slopes sharply rising above the forest, the Wilderness is home to deer, elk, gray wolves, and grizzly bears. Designated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, much of the hiking requires off-trail navigation, glacier travel skills, and a sound sense of route finding. Many of the routes are unmapped, as are the campsites, which require a wilderness permit from the Ranger Station in Darrington. Those who have the skills to traverse this vast northern district will find total solitude, hidden alpine lakes, and a plethora of diverse wildlife.

While the North Cascades are one of America's least visited parks, they are not without threat. Receding glaciers, invasive species, and wildfires are dramatically changing the face of this magnificent landscape. While the park is taking steps to mitigate the effect of changes, take special consideration when hiking here and enjoy one of America's most spectacular mountain ranges responsibly.

posted by
Michael Restivo
Blogger at Mike Off the Map
Michael is a climber and writer from Seattle, Washington. He has traveled extensively worldwide, working in Italy and Nepal. When he's not out climbing, looking for snow, or planning his next trip, Michael works in a ski shop and shares his adventures through his blog, Mike Off The Map. Team Sierra bloggers receive promotional consideration from Sierra Trading Post.
Join the Conversation