The North Cascades

We had scheduled camping trips to the North Cascades before, but something always seemed to come up to make us cancel.  Not this summer.  We blocked out the week of the 19th of August and were determined to make it happen.  After all, we have lived here in Bellingham for 8 years but have never spent time in what was reported to be one of the most beautiful areas on the planet…the North Cascades.  AND, they are less then 2 hours from our house.  No excuses.

We left shortly after lunch on Monday and were at the Visitor Center at the National Park Headquarters in Newhalem by 2 PM.  There are two campgrounds with running water and flush toilets in the Park…one at Newhalem and one further up Highway 20 at Colonial Creek.  We had done some research on line and with friends ahead of time and had decided we wanted to camp at Colonial Creek.  It was closer to the “action” we were interested in.  This was confirmed by the Ranger we spoke with at the Visitor Center.  We  also got a good area orientation from her and some ideas for hikes we had not considered  and details on ones we had.

Newhalem was built by Seattle City Light in the 1920’s as housing for their workers who constructed the first dam on the Skagit River that formed Gorge Lake.  SCL went on to construct two more dams on the Skagit…one that formed Diablo Lake and the other that formed Ross Lake.  In total, Seattle City Light gets 25% of it’s electrical power from these three dams and 87% in total from hydroelectric sources.  All the Skagit River dams are above the portion of the river that salmon were able to get to, so the dams have not affected salmon spawning.   The Skagit River has 3,000 tributaries fed by over 400 glaciers.  The river provides 30% of all fresh water flowing into Puget Sound and 50% of Puget Sound’s Chinook Salmon population.    It is one of the largest nesting grounds for Bald Eagles in North America.  Pretty impressive watershed!

We left Newhalem headed for Colonial Creek.  We made one stop at the Gorge Dam overlook…

This is the oldest of the three dams, but has been “modernized” from it’s original 1920’s configuration.  The power plant for this dam is actually at Newhalem…about 3 miles down river.

Next stop…Colonial Creek.  A beautiful campground on the Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake. The campground was pretty sparsely populated and we had our choice of many prime spots.  We picked the perfect one, of course!


We had brought along our kitchen/dining room tent this time anticipating that there might be bugs. Deb here (always in italics):  We also were checking to see if we still need or want to keep the dining tent.  It was nice to have it, so it will stay around for a few more seasons.  There were a few bugs in the evening so it was a smart move.  You can see the “bear box” on the left side of the site.  This was a real bonus and made storing the cooler and food much safer.

We thought there might be a burn ban this late in the season, but not so.  We cook as much as possible over an open fire.  Somehow it just tastes better.


More campground pictures here.

Tuesday, the plan was to do the Thunder Knob hike from the campground, visit the “official” Diablo Lake overlook, hike down to Ross Dam, and work in a trip back to Newhalem for firewood.  We woke up at first light when a Pileated Woodpecker began drumming on the trees in the campground.  (A treat for me!)

After breakfast, we headed for Thunder Knob.  


We crossed Colonial Creek, which jumped its banks in 2003 and now is a sprawling, fast running creek.  It takes two long, log bridges and a few portages to get completely across.


And had some great views on the way to the summit…


Once at the top, Diablo Lake was spread out beneath us.


It is a BEAUTIFUL color due to the “glacial flour” contained in the tributaries that feed it.

More Thunder Knob Hike pictures here.

Next stop, the official Diablo Lake overlook just up Highway 20.  We had a different angle on the lake.  Just as beautiful as from Thunder Knob.  While we were watching the lake from the top of Thunder Knob, we noticed a barge being moved across the lake.  The barge was carrying two large dump trucks loaded with dirt.  We watched them dock and unload.  It became obvious that this was a regular ferry service on Diablo Lake.



Then, up Highway 20 to the trailhead to Ross Dam.  This was described for us by a Ranger as “3/4 mile down and 5 miles back up”.  It was rather steep, but we are better “up” than “down” and had the opposite experience.  Also, we were aware that the store in Newhalem closed at 5, so we did a bit of a forced march on the way up.  Good to know we can still hike briskly uphill!




This is the biggest of the three Seattle City Light dams and pretty impressive up close.  I was thinking that in the spring, when the snow melts, the spillways would be completely transformed by the flowing water.



From the dam, we could see Ross Lake Resort, which is a private resort in the National Park.  Semi-deluxe cabins that are actually floating on Ross Lake. I think ‘semi-deluxe’ means shared bathrooms.  Possibly next year?


We scrambled back up the hill and headed for Newhalem.  Our goal was firewood, but somehow we also ended up with strawberry ice cream.  Go figure.  A fitting reward for our fast hiking up from Ross Dam.  Do you think I really ate two ice cream cones?  Delish!


More overlook/Ross Dam pictures here.

Back at camp that evening, we determined that we weren’t going to let the lack of shower facilities turn us in to smelly campers.  We figured out we could wash our hair at the water tap down the road and ourselves in the dining tent after dark.  It actually worked quite well and opens up a whole new set of campgrounds for us since we have previously limited our camping to only those campgrounds that had hot showers.

Wednesday was “big hike” day.  We were going to do the 7+ mile Maple Pass loop that starts at Rainy Pass on Highway 20 about 25 miles up the road.  Rainy Pass is at 4,800 feet and Maple Pass is at 6,800 feet.  We were looking forward to some REAL altitude.

Before the hike, we went further east past Rainy Pass to Washington Pass.  Washington Pass is 5,300′ with some fantastic vistas from the rest stop there.  At the Washington Pass Overlook, we met a young couple from Duluth, MN and swapped stories and photo taking services with them.  The overlook is like a park and some of the view points are marked not only with place descriptions and names but also by poems and short essays.  There is also a plaque commemorating the men who had the vision for a northern cross-state highway and brought it to reality.  We cheered for them!


More Washington Pass pictures here.

Back to Rainy Pass and THE HIKE.

It is real tough to describe this beautiful hike.  You start in a fir and cedar forest, climb through every other “zone” to the tree line and beyond.  Around every turn is something new and beautiful.  The hike centers around Lake Ann.  We climbed around the north side of the lake, arrived at Maple Pass on the west side, then descended on the south side between Lake Ann and Rainy Lake.  There are two passes: first, Heather Pass (6200 ft) and then Maple Pass (6600 ft.).  The trail tops out at 7000 ft.  Between these two passes is a sort of saddle.   The higher we went on this hike, the more wild flowers we saw: columbine, Indian paint brush, pearly everlasting, phlox, etc.  The meadows were bright with flowers! On the way down, we saw several Clark’s Nutcrackers, a yellow warbler, a few yellow-rumped warblers and one little brown bird.


This was not the only place on our hike when it looked like the trail was taking us out into thin air.  I often reminded myself to ‘trust the trail’.  The trail always continued along a safe and doable path.  There were times it took my breath away – like on this ridge – but that is part of the adventure.


More Maple Pass Hike pictures here.

Thursday we packed up camp in a leisurely sort of way and hiked the campground’s nature walk.  Another beautiful walk through the woods and across several types of terrain, including a boulder field.  We saw a Northern Goshawk fly in and perch on a brushy log, looking for good things to eat.  A local chipmunk sent out the alarm, chipping loud and long.  Satisfied we’d done what we came to do, we headed for Diablo Dam (which happened to be on the way home).  You can actually drive on Diablo Dam and the road across the dam leads to the North Cascades Institute.


Check out the link above to the Institute.  Pretty cool!  We knew about the Institute because our grandchildren each got to attend Mountain School there for a week during 4th  grade.  They came home with stories.  We plan to participate in some of their programs next year.  Food, lodging, SHOWERS, and an education.  Hard to beat.

More Diablo Dam pictures here.

We had a picnic lunch in Newhalem and reluctantly headed home.  We are so stoked to have the San Juan Islands at our doorstep and the North Cascades a short drive away.  Hard to beat!  True!

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3 Responses to The North Cascades

  1. bluecorduroy says:

    fantastic! i love the shared story telling, great hikes, lush campground, and the color of the water! sounds like a great vacation, it’s about time you made it there! reminds me it may be time to watch “evan almighty” again (the movie about the modern day noah and the dam bursting) great job!

  2. Spectacular! Can we go next time we’re up there?

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