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

Touching Lives ~ Final Thoughts on Lopez Island

Our time on Lopez Island has passed, giving me time to reflect on this magical little island. Being camp hosts at Spencer Spit State Park for the past six weeks gave us time to get to know the island at a leisurely pace.  This is unlike what many of us are faced with when we pull into a new destination, having only a few days or a week to explore, and a list a page long of all we want to see.

Volunteering has given us that luxury, for which we are grateful.  For us it is not just about having more leisure time to explore or getting a free site in exchange for work, although that is pretty sweet.  It is important for us to give back in some way while on the road, as we feel so blessed to have the time and resources to travel this beautiful country of ours.  Lopez Island has been a wonderful place to give back, and staff and park visitors alike often expressed their appreciation for the work we did.

As I perused photos capturing the wonderful memories we made on Lopez, I felt compelled to write this short post.  Time and again we saw how one couple touched lives here on the island, both with the locals and park visitors alike.  That couple was Laurel and Eric, two people who we are pleased to call our friends.

Laurel and Eric acted as the park’s Interpretive Hosts, planning and facilitating the Junior Ranger Program and a program they developed called Coffee with the Birds, geared towards adults.  For those who have seen a child being sworn in as a Junior Ranger or watched as they ran around a park completing their workbooks, you know what a heartwarming experience it is.  They are fully engaged, serious about their assignment.

As I watched Laurel and Eric conducting their weekly programs, pure delight is what I saw on the faces.  These two touched lives each time they gathered visitors together around the tables.

And we saw first-hand the connection they’ve made with the local community as well, when we sat in on some of the jam sessions they had with other musicians on the island.  They have touched many lives, ours as well. We are so grateful our paths have crossed.

Discovering Lopez Island

Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I believe that the heartbeat of a community can be found in the values embodied by the locals and how well they nurture their land.  Lopez Island’s heartbeat is strong, pure, vibrant.

There is a distinctive chill to the air, signaling the approach of a new season.  Dusk creeps in early and brings the darkness with it.  Summer is waning, and with it our time on Lopez Island.  I can only imagine how lovely this island looks with her landscape splashed with reds and golds – perhaps another time.

For the past six weeks we’ve been camp hosting at Spencer Spit State Park, and an amazing six weeks it has been, from the moment we drove off the ferry. The staff here has been so welcoming, and we feel blessed to have spent time with each and every one of them.   And the opportunity to co-host with our friends Laurel and Eric made this experience darn near perfect.

Lopez Island is the least hilly of the four main islands comprising the San Juans.  Its high cliffs, beautiful coastline, and rolling farmland make it very popular with both kayakers and cyclists.  We have enjoyed both while here.

Countless farms dot the landscape, a dream for painters and landscape photographers. The wonderful pastured meats and organic fruits and vegetables they produce for the local groceries, restaurants and farmstands on the island are incredible.  There has even been a seed library created to further strengthen the local food system.  These folks know a thing or two about land stewardship.  With all this delicious, healthy food being lovingly raised, it is no wonder Lopez has a wonderful little farmers’ market each week.

Lopez Village, no more than a few blocks square, contains at least four farm-to-table restaurants, a phenomenal bakery, gourmet ice cream produced from their local creamery, bookstore, shops, and galleries.  And this small community sports two grocery stores, both focused on organic fare.

The library, once the old red schoolhouse, carries an amazing variety of books and DVD’s. They have an online learning center and even rent out musical instruments. When being presented with my library card, I was warmly greeted with “consider this your second home”.

Lopez Island is filled with a talented array of musicians and artists, encompassing many genres.  Thanks to an invite by Laurel and Eric, we sat in on a rehearsal for one local group, Super Wide Groove, whose members have become close friends of theirs. These are some seriously talented musicians.  Along with the many musicians on the island, there are an equal number of artists.  We were on Lopez to attend the annual Studio Tour, featuring 28 of these creative souls, and I’m sure there is much more talent out there.  After what we had seen, I was beginning to wonder if anyone is allowed to live here if they are not artistically inclined…unbelievable.

Our last little adventure on Lopez was a visit to the island’s winery, Lopez Island Winery, where we enjoyed a glass of their Madeleine Angevine in a garden overflowing with flowers.  This is also where we met  Dante and Lisa, a lovely couple from Fort Collins, CO who had ferried over from Anacortes, then biked to the winery.

A special thanks to Z and Tom, our newfound friends we met earlier this year, who ferried over from Anacortes to join us for lunch.  We look forward to seeing them again this winter.

We have been enriched by our time on Lopez, thanks to the locals and the beauty we found in nature.  I see return trips in our future. 🙂

Watch the slideshow below for a tour of this magical little island.

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The Emerald Isle ~ Orcas Island, WA

Commonly called the Emerald Isle, with its lush forested hillsides, Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands.   Looking like two saddlebags or some might say a horseshoe, with the most populated village of Eastsound connecting the two, it has the largest mountain in the islands, rugged coastline, and rural countryside.  Old apple orchards and remnants of turn-of-the-century prune-drying barns could be seen as we wound our way around the island.

Biking is said to be a big sport with locals and tourists alike, but its steep hills and winding roads did not call out to us.  We much preferred the rolling hills on Lopez Island for our two-wheeled adventures.

If you were looking to take to the trails, this would be the island for you.  These hikes may not be of the same caliber as those we enjoy in the national parks and other well-known western trails, but a girl can only be without her hiking boots for so long.  We had read that Turtleback Mountain Preserve near Deer Harbor offered some nice trails so we decided to investigate.  The lovely 3-mile Turtleback Mountain south hike didn’t necessarily take our breath away with only an 830’ elevation gain, but the views from the lookout most certainly did.

And of course, after a hike it is important to replenish fluids, right? 😉  How could we turn down the opportunity to taste test a flight of craft beer from the only brewery on the island – Island Hoppin’ Brewery?  It seemed many others felt the same way, as it was rockin’ when we arrived.  Our favorite, no surprise, was the Oatmeal Stout.

The highest point on Orcas, at 2409’, Mt. Constitution, can also be hiked and is where you will find the tower.  Climb to the top and you are looking out over island-studded waters and snow-capped Mt. Baker, provided the stars are aligned and you are blessed with clear views  We had neither a clear day nor anyone manning the Learning Center, but luckily we had seen some beautiful images atop Mt. Constitution already, thanks to Nina of Wheelingit.

We were nearby the historic Rosario Resort, and thanks to a friend’s recommendation, we decided to tour the property. Shipbuilder Robert Moran, who held a deep respect for nature, hand craftsmanship and the arts, constructed this striking resort.  His meticulous eye could be seen throughout as we walked the resort and grounds. A presentation of the history of this unique building, via film and music, rounded out our time there.

Eastsound, one of a few of the little villages dotting the island, was a great place to grab a meal and wander the shops.  We enjoyed a great farm-to-table salmon salad at an Asian café, The Kitchen.

Like other islands in the San Juans, the arts play a big role in the culture of this island as well, with local artists’ work featured in many of the shops and galleries.  If you enjoy pottery, a visit to Orcas Island Pottery should be on your list.  For more than 60 years it has been a destination for those visiting the San Juans, being the oldest pottery studio in the Northwest.  Just a few miles from Eastsound this quaint cottage studio is tucked into a forest of old-growth cedar and Douglas fir, overlooking the President’s Channel.  The cottage, outbuildings, and the yards are filled with colorful, creatively designed pottery in all shapes and sizes.  And a grey whale graced us with an appearance in the channel off the back of the property.

Confined by the ferry schedule, we had to leave exploration of the south end of the island for another visit.  I am confident that will happen. 🙂

Ferry leaving Orcas Island
Ferry leaving Orcas Island

It All Began With a Pig ~ San Juan Island, WA

San Juan Island, second largest in the San Juan Island Archipelago, is the most populated of all the islands.  At high tide over 400 islands and rocks dot these waters, 128 of which are named.  San Juan Island is one of four accessible by ferry.

One wouldn’t know it now, but this quiet little island was once on the brink of an international conflict between two world super powers, the British and the U.S.

The Pig War, a confrontation in 1859, spurred by the shooting of a pig, escalated to a boundary dispute between these two countries, both claiming rights to the island. Luckily no blood was shed.  Well, not exactly true…there was the pig.  Today remnants of both the American and British camps are available for touring.

Homesteaders moved in after this conflict, taking to the sea.  Salmon fishing and harvesting clams and oysters was big business until the 20th century when the island vibe shifted to a gentler pace, focusing on nature and wildlife.  Today the island draws those seeking outdoor adventures, kayaking, fishing, whale watching, and boating.

As the ferry docked at Friday Harbor, a vibrant seaport lay before us, filled with boutique shops, cafes, museums, and galleries, many honoring the natives, first inhabitants of the island.  It is a town devoted to art, with festivals scattered throughout the year showcasing the unique talents of the local artists.

We made Demeter Bakery our first stop for great coffee and delicious pastry and when hunger pangs announced lunchtime, we headed to Market Chef for a yummy sandwich and salad.

A few of our favorite stops were the Arctic Raven Gallery, featuring intricate Indian carvings and colorful Arctic and coastal native art, wonderful little Griffin Bay Bookstore, and the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, where we were treated to a rare glimpse of Susan Middleton’s fascinating exhibit, Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life, and a unique installation called Liminal Currents.

As we lie on the floor, looking up at the swaying branches we experienced the dancing underwater world as perceived by an animal such as the orca, who uses sound to understand spatial relationships within its environment.  Orca generated sounds, from the residents pods in the San Juans, have been added to enhance the experience.

I spent a few moments writing an intention, which I tied with ribbon to part of the linear sculpture.  At the wrap-up of the exhibit, the contents, branches, and messages will be gathered and burned, “transforming the scribed energy into light”.

As we moved beyond Friday Harbor, a diverse landscape opened before us – pastoral farmland, driftwood-strewn beaches, and bluffs overlooking island-dotted shimmering water.

The hike up Mt. Finlayson, a lovely walk through Douglas fir and red-barked madrona trees, provided us a birds-eye view of Cattle Point Lighthouse from the top.

Lime Kiln Point, a day use park, is considered one of the première places in the world to view whales from land.  Orcas are often spotted here but on our visit, gulls, terns, and an occasional oystercatcher were the only wildlife.  This is where the little sentinel Lime Kiln Lighthouse stands watch, a navigational aid still today for ships traversing Haro Strait.

We passed on a whale-watching trip while in Port Townsend, joining Laurel and Eric (Raven & Chickadee) instead on a tour booked through Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, where we grabbed the last remaining seats.  Caption Jim uses a smaller boat for a more intimate experience, sprinkling in some history of the area as well.  We had heard that it was the best tour around, and being two of only seven on the boat, we had to admit it was pretty special.

Captain Jim & some of his crew
Captain Jim & some of his crew

A quick stop to Roche Harbor, a charming marina harboring some of the most beautiful yachts in the world, and we took to sea in search of orca.

Before long a resident pod sighting was confirmed in an area they are seldom found, off the shore of Spencer Spit State Park, right where we are volunteering.  It seems we needed to board a ferry to San Juan, hop on a whale-watching boat, and return back to the very spit we have walked most days since arriving on Lopez, just to see these beautiful creatures. Go figure!

(Not very clear shots but gives a perspective of how close these amazing creatures were to the spit.)

For their safety, we had to stay within 200 yards of the orcas, so my camera could not do these beauties justice.  Captain Jim graciously allowed me to share some of his stunning photos.

The above images are photo courtesy of Captain Jim of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching.  If you plan a whale-watching trip on San Juan Island, we highly recommend this tour company for a more intimate experience. You won’t be disappointed. 🙂

A visit to the Sculpture Garden near Roche Harbor rounded out our visits to San Juan Island.   We know there is much more to see, giving us reason to return.

We are most grateful to Laurel and Eric, for introducing us to the islands that have become their second home, providing us great recommendations, and including us on the whale-watching adventure.  You two are the best!

Next Up: Orcas Island