The American Alps ~ North Cascades National Park

“Wilderness is a human concept…an idea about a place and its effect on us.  It is a state of mind devoted to an experience and the contemplation of natural places.”  ~ Unknown

As we headed northeast towards our next destination, I was reminded of how we once scoffed at tourists who would pull up to the visitor center at Yellowstone NP, saying they had three or four hours to spare, so what should they see.  Although we had three or four days to tour North Cascades National Park, I was feeling like one of those tourists trying to see the highlights in such a short time.  Smoke from the many fires devastating eastern Washington had moved back our visit so our available days to enjoy this park were shrinking and now we had rain moving into the picture as well…ugh!  But we knew that if time and weather permitted only one hike, a special trek was in our future.

With her spectacular craggy peaks, sheer-walled cliffs, spires, and pinnacles, many know North Cascades National Park as the “American Alps”.   Few roads lead into the park, so much of the beauty is best seen on her 400 miles of mountain and meadow trails, which could be why she is one of the least visited National Parks, receiving only 21,000 visitors in 2013.   The North Cascades National Park Service Complex consists of the National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area to the east and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area to the south.  Both of the Rec Areas receive more visitors.

As we neared the Visitor Center we were hit with the devastation caused by one of the Washington fires.  Had it not been for the road acting as a firebreak and the actions of the brave firefighters, the Visitor Center would have been lost.

After being mesmerized by the glaciers hugging Mt. Rainier’s peaks I was anxious to lay eyes on some in this park.  I learned that the North Cascades is home to a whopping 318 moving ice masses.  More than 1/3 of all glaciers in the U.S. call this land home.  It’s no wonder the streams and creeks are crystal clear, and the rivers and lakes are beautifully colored with glacial runoff.

Although we loved our time in the San Juans, we sorely missed long mountain hikes.  A warm-up seemed to be logical before our grand adventure so I chose the 7.5-mile Diablo Lake Trail.  With not too much elevation gain, it seemed like a great precursor hike.  However, a very narrow, winding road stood between the trailhead and us so we parked further away and elected to hike the Diablo Dam Trail to our trailhead.

As we came off the final switchback, on our way back to the truck, my “finance hubby” started to add up the numbers.  It seems our warm-up hike topped off at over 10 miles and Terry is now thinking I have adopted our friend Pam’s approach to hiking.  I wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉

If I had one complaint about North Cascades National Park, this would be it.  I struggle with the many dams that have been carved out of the wild rivers and bedrock.  When the dams turned Skagit River into tamer lakes, it dramatically altered the life of the gorge, wildlife in both water and on land bearing the greatest suffering.  It is difficult to take a photo without capturing many power lines running across the frame.  I reflected on something I had read recently – “if the wilderness disappears, will the wildness remain”?

The next day the dreaded storm front arrived.  Although we basked in early autumn sun at the Lone Fir Campground, the mountains towering above us told a different tale, shrouded with gray clouds.  A road trip to Mazama was added to the agenda as we waited out the mountain storm.  This teeny little village is a cross-country skier haven, with many already taking to the roads on roller blades and poles in hand, practicing for a much-anticipated winter of groomed trails.

Unfortunately the storm refused to move on quickly so we were faced with another day of rain and cloud cover.  Although hiking in the rain is never out of the question, the cloud cover was worrisome as mountain views could be obliterated.  We opted to hang back one more day.  Another road trip took us to Diablo Lake Overlook, where many brochure photos I had seen were taken, as well as Washington Pass, a must-see in our opinion for gorgeous mountain peak views.  Winthrop, a quaint little mountain town, became our lunch stop at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery.

Diablo Lake Overlook
Washington Pass
Washington Pass

Thank goodness we woke to blue skies the next day, as our time in the North Cascades was dwindling.  We arrived at the trailhead by 8:00 am to a brisk 38º for our much-anticipated hike on the Maple Pass trail . With so few roads in the park, many of the mountain passes much be seen and traversed on foot, and Maple Pass is one of those.

If time limits you to one hike in the North Cascades Complex, this should be the one. We’d heard this from friends Jim and Gayle and had it reinforced by many since then.

The views are drop-dead gorgeous, with low clouds draping the mountains, stunning views of glaciers from just above the pass, glacier-kissed mountain lakes, and brilliant fall colors that took my breath away.  Well, maybe the 7.5 miles and 2100’ elevation gain had a bit to do with that.

I'm in awe at the glorious vistas before me.
I’m in awe at the glorious vistas before me.
Rainy Lake
Rainy Lake
Heading back down the trail
Heading back down the trail

Standing looking out over the glorious mountain peaks, I couldn’t help but feel a connectedness with the entire Universe.  What a remarkable feeling!

Next Up: Idaho Visit with Friends

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