Washington's Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness

You'll find North Cascades beauty minus the rain in Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness.
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You'll find North Cascades beauty minus the rain in Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness.

There's a saying in these parts that the North Cascades-aptly referred to as America's Alps-are on the verge of discovery, just as soon as it stops raining. In the meantime, their relative anonymity is just fine with the water-logged backpackers who tramp the forests and alpine zones.

But why molder in the wet when a few extra miles of driving will plunk you on the region's dry eastern slopes, where the scenery is every bit as stellar and the skies sunny? The 21-mile Eagle Creek-Oval Lakes loop is a fine introduction to rain shadow hiking and has everything you could want in a Northwest hike, except a volcano. On a clear day, though, you may catch a glimpse of Mt. Baker's volcanic mass shimmering in the distance.

The Oval Lakes Trail takes off at a breathtaking clip up its namesake drainage, contours around 6,536-foot Duckbill Mountain, and meanders streamside through pine forests to a poorly marked trail junction. A right turn takes you to jade-colored West Oval Lake, which seems like a beautiful spot to camp. Several generations of hikers before you had the same idea, which is why Forest Service officials ask hikers to give West Oval a breather. Instead, they want you to hike another 11/2 miles and 1,000 vertical feet up and over to Middle Oval Lake, a none-too-shabby substitute.

Things get adventuresome on the second day as you make your way up Oval Pass. Once above treeline the trail becomes faint and can be buried under snow in late June. The harshness of the alpine environment is evident as you breach the pass and drop toward Tuckaway Lake. The descending route gives way to the heavily used Summit Trail (#1259), which rides the crest of Sawtooth Ridge for nearly 30 miles. Hang a right and in a couple of miles you'll come to a trail junction smack in the middle of a beautiful meadow complete with a gurgling mountain stream. This is the way to Eagle Pass and the trailhead at trip's end. If you're in no hurry to return home, consider spending an extra night by Silver Lake. Its beauty has been known to inspire lame Monday morning excuses to the boss. "Uh, sorry I'm late...car trouble."

QUICK TAKE: Lake Chelan-Sawtooth, WA

DRIVE TIME: The wilderness is 200 miles (4 hours) east of Seattle and 150 miles (3 hours) west of Spokane.

THE WAY: Follow WA 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, into the town of Twisp, where you turn right onto Twisp River Road (across from the Chevron station). Just past War Creek Campground, which is on the left side of the road, turn left onto War Creek (Road 4430) to cross the Twisp River. Once across the bridge, turn left onto FR 4420 for 1/4 mile, then right on FR 080 until the dead end at Eagle Creek trailhead.

TRAILS: The Eagle Creek/Oval Lakes loop is just 21 of the 160 total miles of trail within the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness.

ELEVATION: The trailhead is at 3,000 feet, Oval Pass at 7,700 feet is the high point. Total elevation gain for the loop: 5,400 feet.

CAN'T MISS: The Oval lakes are alpine beauties, each occupying a niche beneath rugged cliffs along the north face of Sawtooth Ridge.

CROWD CONTROL: Summer can be crowded and buggy. Autumn, when the Western larch and aspen are golden yellow and the crowds are elsewhere, is the best time to go.

MAPS AND GUIDES: USGS Oval Peak 7.5-minute topographic map covers the Eagle Creek-Oval Lakes loop. Green Trails (206-546-6277) sells a 15-minute topographic map to the area, Buttermilk Butte (#83) for $3.30. Eagle Creek and numerous other hikes are detailed in 100 Hikes in Washington's North Cascades National Park Region ($14.95, The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453).

PIT STOP: The Cinnamon Twisp Bakery in Twisp shouldn't be missed. In the nearby Western theme town of Winthrop, the Duck Brand located on the main drag is an excellent place to wet your whistle or get a meal.

WALK SOFTLY: West Oval Lake has felt heavy impact over the years and a revegetation project is hampered by continued high use. Middle Oval Lake makes a nice alternative.

MORE INFORMATION: Methow Valley Ranger District, Okanogan National Forest, P.O. Box 188, Twisp, WA 98856; (509) 997-2131. An overnight trailhead parking permit is required April 15 to November 15.