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National Parks: North Cascades

Come for the sheer, glaciated peaks, but be mesmerized by rain-fed waterfalls that pour down on all sides.

Scores of mountains that rise 3,000 feet in the last horizontal mile to their summits. At least 77 peaks that tower 6,000 feet or more above adjacent valleys. The highest concentration of glaciers in the Lower 48. These are just a few of the stats cited by those who believe North Cascades is the wildest park in the continental U.S. We only need one to make the case: The combination of vertical relief, remote location, and rugged approaches rebuffed exploration for so long that the heart of the park wasn’t mapped by the USGS until 1989. Think about it: We landed men on the moon two decades before we finished mapping this park.

Still not convinced? Consider the famously stormy weather. As the legendary climber Fred Beckey, who made hundreds of first ascents in the region, once wrote, “Weather in the Cascades is actually highly predictable: Either it is raining, or it will be shortly.” That, plus the wild topography, yields the perfect recipe for life-list scenery and zero crowds. My boyfriend, Matt, and I encountered both last October. Initially, the cold, relentless rain made me feel like an early North Cascades cartographer must have felt: daunted. Up until day three, in fact, I’d believed that any successful backcountry trek required bluebird skies and bright sunshine. But after 30 miles here, I stopped wishing for a string of cloud-free days. Sure, wet weather makes a hard hike harder, but it also transforms these mountains in ways I’d never imagined.

I stopped dreading and started embracing rain when Matt and I were slightly more than halfway through a 51-mile point-to-point in the park’s 293,124-acre North Unit. I chose this route specifically because it offered the chance to traverse the most secluded part of the park, an area completely cocooned by Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and British Columbia. It takes a bit more logistical effort to cross this remote expanse (see Trip Planner, at right), but the payoff is clear: In less than a week, we’ll connect high alpine ridgelines to glacier-scoured river valleys to mossy rainforests guarded by 200-foot-tall western red cedars. And we’ll do it in near total solitude.

Almost immediately after leaving the trailhead, the route runs below nine glaciated peaks that punctuate the Nooksack Ridge. By mile five, we’re ascending Copper Ridge on one of the park’s rare high-elevation trails (most hug valley bottoms). The path climbs to 6,268 feet and arrows northeast roughly eight miles on the open ridge. On the way up, we spot a honey-colored black bear and her two cubs—one is light brown and one is jet black. They ignore us, concentrating instead on the blueberries and huckleberries that will help sustain them through winter. We hike on for two miles, through an intermittent mist that dampens our descent into the basin cupping Egg Lake, our first night’s camp.

The curtain of clouds lifts temporarily the next day, and sporadic sunshine breaks through as we crisscross the exposed back of Copper Ridge. One minute the sky clears to reveal exhilarating, eye-level views of toothy peaks cloaked with hanging glaciers. The next moment, the clouds drop again, draping the ridge in an impenetrable fog.

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