The reward for committing to big hikes in North Cascades National Park: lonely alpine lakes, colossal peaks frosted with glaciers, far-flung valleys hiding bears and wolverines, and some of the best views.
The North Cascades are Katie Roloson’s backyard—literally (in-park lodging is a perk of her job as manager of educational programs at the nonprofit North Cascades Institute). In her eight years on the job, she’s made it a goal to climb all the peaks she can see from her house—she’s down to the last three.
Best backcountry campsite
The shelf cradling Tapto Lakes sits in an off-trail camping zone just under 7,174-foot Red Face Mountain, with tent-door views of hulking, 7,574-foot Whatcom Peak and other forbidding Picket Range summits. And because the two teacup lakes don’t show up as a campsite on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated park map, expect to have them to yourself, Roloson says. Best approach: a five-day, 47-mile loop from the Hannegan Pass trailhead. Hike 12 miles on the Hannegan Pass and Chilliwack Trails (spend night one at Copper Creek), then continue 5.2 miles on Brush Creek Trail to Whatcom Pass. Take the obvious spur trail about a mile north from the pass to reach the lakes. To return, backtrack on Brush Creek Trail and swing north on Chilliwack Trail, then west on Copper Ridge Trail for nonstop views of huge peaks and hanging glaciers (primo campsites: Copper Lake and Egg Lake).
A booming, 30-foot cascade tumbles just a quarter-mile southwest of the Big Beaver backcountry campsite—but for 10 months of the year, you’d never know it. High
water in the dammed Ross Lake covers the waterfall until spring, when engineers draw down the lake and the gusher reemerges for its big annual show. “The lower falls are really impressive from mid-March to mid-April, and there are often otters, loons, and peregrine falcons in the area,” Roloson says. You could hike there (6 miles from the Ross Dam trailhead), but Roloson favors putting in a canoe at the Colonial Creek launch. Paddle 4 miles to the park service dock on Haul Road and portage a mile to Ross Lake (canoe wheels help), then paddle another 5 miles to Big Beaver.
The charming town of Stehekin (population 112), which sits on Lake Chelan in the park’s southeast corner, offers hikers the chance to refuel on farm-fresh goat cheese from roadside stands, steaks at Stehekin Valley Ranch, and “anything they make” at the Stehekin Pastry Company, Roloson says. You can take a boat or float plane in, but Roloson’s favorite way to visit is to stop off midway through a five- or six-day, 58-mile shuttle backpacking trip from Cascade Pass to Thunder Creek trailhead. (Ride the $7 park shuttle 11 miles to Stehekin from High Bridge Campground and back.)
“Easy” is a relative term in the North Cascades, where vertical topography and summit glaciers are standard (it’s the most heavily glaciated park in the Lower 48).
But 7,182-foot Pyramid Peak is a great training ground for practicing snowfield skills, Roloson says. “You do cross steep remnants of the Colonial Glacier, but it’s mellow, without any crazy crevasses,” she says. Pack crampons and an ice axe and target June or July for the 5-mile push from the Pyramid Lake Trail up an obvious (but unsigned) climber’s trail that leads from the south side of the lake up the peak’s northeastern ridge. Navigation and self-arrest skills are a must; overnight at one of the established campsites on the rocky north ridge leading to Pyramid Peak (free permit required).
The park’s remote valleys host plenty of charismatic megafauna like black bears, moose, wolverines, cougars, lynx, bobcats, and the rare wolf. But for the most,
er, singular wildlife-watching experience, head to Willow Lake, just north of Ross Lake. “It’s Sasquatch central—at least, that’s what I’ve heard,” Roloson says. Rumors of giant footprints and an eerie feeling of being watched swirl around the marshy lake. Grab the campsite on the lake’s west side and keep your camera at the ready: The area is prime habitat for moose, coyotes, and gray wolves, just in case Bigfoot misses his appointment.