136 Hours in North Cascades National Park
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We built our whole summer road trip around hitting North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. We’re closing in on visiting all of the continental National Parks but we hadn’t made it to this remote park. So last August, we sat down with a map and figured out that we could find one AirBnB close to the park that would give us reliable internet access (necessary for summer work). We booked the place for 8 nights at a remarkably good price and set up our entire trip around staying in Marblemount at end of July.

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The park loomed over us metaphorically all summer. Our hiking book for the park indicated that the average hike would require ~4000 feet of vertical elevation gain. That seemed insurmountable even before Kelly got the flu back in late February. But slow and steadily, we worked on our training. In April, we started hiking regularly, slowly increasing our elevation gain and distance. In May, we returned to running and walking 7 miles every other day (with 4.5 mile walks on other days). By June, we had hiked 16+ miles with 3600 feet of elevation gain. The rest of the training would have to come on the fly.

And then ‘on the fly’ took on new meaning. Two days before we were set to leave for the trip, I got an E-mail that the AirBnB—the only one that would have worked for us in inventory a year prior—had flooded. It was a devastating loss for the owners who would be out all of their income for the summer but, of course, also for us. I searched and searched and nothing was available within 45 minutes of the park. Eventually, I found a place for three times the price about 75 minutes from the park with 6 available nights.

And so when we left Mount Rainier, that’s where we headed. We sat through miserable Seattle/Tacoma traffic for five hours to get from one park to the other. I couldn’t bring myself to count those hours in this tally. After dinner and picking up groceries for the week, we finally made it to the small town of Concrete and a neighborhood street along a glistening aquamarine river. Our rental sat directly on the river that was the same color as many of the lakes in the park. We might not have been close to the park but we had a view that felt like we were. Here’s how we spent our six nights in North Cascades:

July 26: We both had too much work to do to consider heading out to the park the night we arrived. We set up our laptops overlooking the river and cranked it out.

July 27: We had not made any firm plans for the park. I had some ideas but we wanted to hit up a visitor center first. And this morning we woke up to a rainy mist. We drove up to the park and were surprised to find relatively few scenic overlooks. The turquoise lake we had seen pictures of was actually not in the park and is controlled by a Seattle power company. Accordingly, it is surrounded by power lines. The park boundary itself sits three miles away from this lake, often requiring steep climbing just to enter a pass. We learned all of this during our morning drive and eventually tried a short hike up Diablo Lake overlook. With work still unfinished back at the place, we decided this was all we had for the day. We did stop by the visitor center on our way bad to our rental and got some good hiking recommendations.

July 28: One of the hikes on our list was Sourdough Mountain. This hike would require 5100 feet of elevation gain in just over 5 miles. The rangers suggested we should try some other hikes and then do this one if we thought we were up for it. Kelly and I both had opposite reactions—if we were going to do this hike, it had better be first. So we set out with plenty of water, a water filter (which would turn out to be broken), and positive attitudes before 7 am. The climb was ridiculous. Just trudging steeply uphill. After the first two miles, the grade loosened slightly, and then the last mile winded up switchbacks through an open field with wildflowers and lake views. The difficulty was laughable, really. At times, the trail went through trees instead of around them. We maintained our positive attitudes as long as we could and then sheer stubbornness got us up the rest. The views were spectacular. We set up a time lapse, covered as much bare skin as we could to fend off mosquitoes, ate lunch, and took a short nap. The hike down was long and hot. I struggled more than Kelly but we made it back in one piece, stopped by a delicious farmers market for ice cream, and enjoyed tacos back at the rental. After a shower, we the enjoyed the riverside hot tub, deciding quickly that it would be a nightly affair.

July 29: After Sourdough, we knew we would do anything. But we still wanted an easier hike for a recovery day. Recommendations were stellar for the Maple/Heather Pass loop and so we headed up for that one. This was a fabulous hike. Just under 10 miles (we added side hikes to both Lake Ann & Rainy Lake) and a little over 2000 feet of elevation gain. Open views of mountains for miles. We spotted and smelled a bit of forest fire coming in over the slopes in the distance but otherwise the views were untainted. This quickly jumped to one of our top hikes of all time. We celebrated with a burger, pie, and a milkshake, at the Marblemount Diner.

July 30: My mom’s birthday! We had another relatively easy hike planned for this day—just about 3000 feet to see Thornton Lakes. The hike was the closest to our rental so we slept in until the ripe hour of 5:30. It was a fairly straightforward hike and despite a rumor we might have an elusive cougar sighting, we saw no wildlife. The lake was beautiful from an overlook and so we got tempted to hike down to it. The lakeside view may not have been worth the climb back up but we took advantage of some sun and clouds to shoot another time lapse and take a short lakeside nap. We tried to snag another milkshake at the Marblemount Diner but it was closed. So farmers stand it was. Kelly had strawberry shortcake but I couldn’t turn down more of their fresh caramel sauce.

July 31: On deck today would be a long drive on a dirt road to Cascade Pass. We had heard that the views from this trailhead were among the best in the park so we set the alarm for 3:45 to catch sunrise. The views were indeed the best roadside views we had seen, but they still paled in comparison to what we knew we would see on the ridge. So we chose to start the hike instead of shooting, taking off before 6 am. The hike to Cascade Pass and then to Sahale Arm would require 4000 feet of elevation gain. We knew we could do it because of Sourdough. And we heard that the views would be expansive and amazing. They did not disappoint. We picked up a hiking friend Zach on the way up the climb and spent most of the day with him chatting about parks, photography, social media, wildlife, and who knows what else. Some people feel like instant friends and that was definitely him. We stalled at a boulder field to try to catch some pika. We did but we also spotted this little ermine hunting mouse. We had never seen a little critter like this and we enjoyed watching him dart around with his fresh kill, moving it from the mouse nest to his own.

The rest of the climb was long, slow, and beautiful. The last half mile or so were nearly straight up over loose rock. We knew we could do it but it was tough. The views and sense of accomplishment from the top were definitely work it. Clouds were coming in and so another time lapse was warranted. Then we started the long slow climb down. Cameras were out and we captured mountain goats, black bears, wildflowers, scenery, and more. Kelly doesn’t like to rank hikes nearly as much as I do but I think this one would emerge as an all time winner. We saved this one for our last full day in the park and it ended up being the perfect icing on the cake of the park we had come to love. That night we finished up our work, I submitted grades for my summer course, and we finished up our tacos before one more soak in the hot tub.

August 1: With a decent day of driving ahead of us to Spokane, we wanted a short hike and we found one on our way out of the park to Blue Lake. The hike was about 4.5 miles and had only 1000 or so feet of elevation gain. It felt so easy! The lake was pretty enough but we had come to love the park for its mountain views not the lakes.

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They call the North Cascades the American Alps. Having never been to the Alps, I can’t fully vouch for this comparison but it sure seems likely. The park is relatively unvisited, especially compared to the busier Rainier and Olympic parks nearby. We can see why—its less accessible and requires a lot of tough climbing and hiking. But the views are definitely worth the effort. It might take a little more planning but we can strongly recommend you put North Cascades on your bucket list.