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

Hiking Extravaganza~ Mt. Rainier National Park

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ~ John Muir

He could be the perfect specimen, this “King of the Cascades”, with those chiseled features, that steely cold gaze, and that red-hot core. Seeing him clearly for the first time, I was smitten! And we were blessed with several clear days where Mt. Rainier’s imposing form rose above the surrounding peaks. Our hikes found me time and again under his spell, as Terry left me trailing far behind, taking photos.

With a total of six days to experience Mt. Rainier National Park, we managed to squeeze in four good hikes and a couple of shorter treks. Hikes were chosen to allow us views of glaciers, some of the park’s most sought after waterfalls, and subalpine meadows bursting with color.  Here are our top four ranked hikes:

1) Skyline Loop, via the High Skyline Trail

Length: 5.5 miles   Elevation gain: 1700′   Rating:  Strenuous

Prepare to get your heart pounding the moment your feet touch the trail. Even if the elevation didn’t take your breath away, the views certainly would.  Hiking up to Panorama Point, you can hear the mountain groan as you pass by constantly shifting glaciers.  Bring binoculars and you may glimpse climbers at the overnight camp preparing for an early morning summit or a group making their final ascent.  We saw both and silently cheered them on.

And at the end of the trail one final surprise as a beautiful bouquet is strewn beneath the glacier-shrouded throne of Mt. Rainier, like a Monet canvas.

The trailhead begins at Paradise, known for its grand views and wildflower meadows. An average of 680” of snow falls here each winter and it typically lingers until July. The National Park Service says that this is the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is regularly measured. A world record snowfall of 1122″ was set here during the winter of 1971/72.  This exceptionally warm winter changed the landscape, leaving Paradise with less than 5 feet of snow in March instead of its normal 14 feet.

Paradise Visitor Center is the most popular destination for visitors to Mt. Rainier and the only center open when we visited the park.  The orientation film was great and the exhibits very informative.

On the same grounds is the historic Paradise Inn, built in 1916 and opened for business in 1917. The timber used for the interior décor of the inn and the furniture was cut within the park.

2) Comet Falls/Van Trump Park Trail

Length: 5.6 miles, out and back   Elevation Gain: 2200’   Rating: Strenuous

Located near Longmire in the southwestern part of the park, this trail takes you by one of the tallest waterfalls in the park – Comet Falls, plunging 320’ into Van Trump Creek. We sat along the Nisqually River on the return trip, basking in the glow of summer sun and serenaded by rushing water. Boots were off and feet plunged into the icy water…heavenly!

3) Sunrise Rim Trail/Burroughs Mountain

Length: 6.5 miles   Elevation Gain: 2000’   Rating: Strenuous

Located at Sunrise, the highest point accessible by vehicle at 6400’, this was a recommendation by a Park Ranger.  I must admit that sections of this hike left me a bit weak in the knees as the trail became narrow on the side of Burroughs Mountain, steep and sloping precariously towards a 2000’ drop-off down a shale strewn cliff.  It is one of those hikes where it is wise to focus on every step, but it was oh so exhilarating.  Clear views of glaciers and glacial-fed lakes obliterated all other thoughts.  When we were stopped from going any further due to snow and ice, we took a side tour past Frozen Lake and onto Sourdough Ridge for our return back to Sunrise.

Sunrise Point, on the way to Sunrise, offering 360° views of snow-capped peaks.

4) Glacier Basin Trail

Length: 7.5 miles, hiking part of the unmaintained trail   Elevation Gain: 1700’   Rating: Strenuous

Trailhead located at the White River Campground, south of Sunrise. Beautiful wildflowers waved in the breeze as we hiked the trail, with views of White River, and on this day, shrouded views of Mt. Rainier.

All trails we hiked were rated strenuous as the elevation gain occurred within  a short distance, which made the trek back sweet!

Those that didn’t make the cut:

Silver Falls Trail – From the Ohanapecosh Campground, where we stayed, this 2.5 mile hike takes you to Silver Falls and past a small hot springs area.

Wonderland Trail – 93 mile trail encircling Mt. Rainier.   We hiked 3 miles of it while staying at Cougar Rock Campground to visit a small NPS museum at Longmire.  On our return trip we met a woman who had one mile of the Wonderland Trail left to hike. To say she was on a high is an understatement as she shared her near accomplishment with us, Terry got a high-five from her.

Next up:  The colors and sounds of Mt. Rainier National Park