Tuesday, July 24th. NOCA, day 1.
Set up in our beautiful pull-through campsite, Loop C, #113 in the woodsy Newhalem Campground. Drove to the Visitor Center to get hike descriptions, maps and recommendations. There are many short hikes in the Newhalem area. As the sun lowered and the air cooled off, we took the River Loop trail, a 1.8 mile loop that starts near our campsite and leads through old growth cedar as well as a more recently logged section of forest to the banks of the Skagit River.
Wednesday, July 25th. NOCA, day 2.
On the recommendation of Zoe, the Visitor Center Park Ranger, who said this forested Trail was likely to be cooler than trails on sunnier more exposed slopes, we decided to take the Thunder Creek Trail to Fourth of July Pass Trail. It is a 10 mile round trip with 2300 foot elevation gain, but we didn’t really expect to go all the way to the Pass. This is what the Park brochure says about this hike: “Thunder Creek is a beautiful old growth forest hike alongside a glacial creek. The trail crosses Thunder Creek on a suspension bridge at approximately 2 miles… For mountain and glacier views, turn off onto the Fourth of July Pass Trail 0.1 miles beyond the bridge…”
We thought we might just go another mile or two past the bridge, only until we saw some of those mountain and glacier views, so we only had 2 liters of water and some pumpkin seeds for snacks. On the trail:
As Scott used to say in his SCUBA diving days, “Plan the dive; Dive the plan.” We did neither.
Somehow the momentum of the hike took over our brains as this cool morning turned into a hot afternoon, and we continued plodding upward, on the steep, winding, rocky, rooty trail, convinced that the Pass would soon reveal spectacular views. We did see many pretty vistas, but the Pass itself was anticlimactic, overlooking a tiny mountain lake. And then we had to wend our way down the steep, winding, rocky, rooty trail, the downhill much harder on the knees and hips than the uphill. Plus, we were by then out of water. Did I mention it was hot and sunny?
Finally, we reached the suspension bridge and the trail continued for the final 2 miles, thankfully in the shade. Scott ran ahead to the parking lot at the trailhead, grabbed my jar of tea, and hoofed it back up the trail to meet me with welcome hydration. We drove the 10 miles back to the campground and spent the rest of the evening gratefully drinking room-temperature beverages – no ice, didn’t care!
Thursday, July 26th. NOCA, day 3.
Miraculously we both could walk this morning. In recovery mode, we decided to take short, road-based walks today.
Diablo Lake Overlook. Making the most spectacular scenery accessible to those in tour buses, or just passing through. Information kiosks all around describe the geology and history of the mountain and lake vistas.
See Scott at the overlook?
North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake. They offer programs and tours. For $65 per person you can stay overnight in bunkhouse accommodations, take a program, 3 meals included. Nice book and gift shop! To get here you have to drive across the bridge spanning Diablo Dam.
Diablo, an old Seattle City Light company town. Not many people live here anymore, but there’s a beautiful Creek.
Gorge Creek Falls and Gorge Dam Interpretive Trail.
Newhalem, a larger and more active Seattle City Light company town, with a store and visitor center. We treated ourselves to ice cream bars at the store, and took a tour of the town co-sponsored by Seattle City Light, the National Park Service, and Skagit Tours. Then, took the short loop Trail of the Cedars and another Newhalem area Loop walk to Ladder Creek Falls starting across the suspension bridge behind the Gorge Powerhouse. We missed the Powerhouse Visitor Center by 5 minutes – it closes at 4 p.m.
Went back to the store, bought a bag of ice, returned to camp and amused ourselves by chilling and drinking various beverages. We are easily amused!
Friday, July 27th. NOCA, day 4.
Again on the recommendation of Ranger Zoe, we decided to take the Cascade River trail to Cascade Pass. She described it as mostly wooded, hence cool. Apparently this is a traditional First Nations Trail, and the nearby mountains were considered sacred. The nps.gov NOCA website says that artifacts associated with ancient campfires reveal that native crossings of the North Cascades began at least 9600 years ago. Cascade Pass is the oldest well dated Alpine archaeological site in the state of Washington!
To get to the trailhead, we drove 13 miles west on WA 20 to Marblemount. We got fuel there and were hoping to make some phone calls, but there’s no cell signal there. Then, we drove 23 more miles up Cascade River Road, the first 10 miles of which are paved, the final 13 miles a rough, steep, dusty winding gravel washboard. It took nearly an hour on this road to get to the trailhead. This is the view from the road, before we even got to the (packed) parking lot:
We pulled into literally the last available spot at the side of the road, not in an actual parking space, and we were on our way.
The Washington Trail Association website (wta.org) has a wonderful, accurate description of this trail: “At Cascade Pass, the wow factor far exceeds the “ow” factor – perhaps no other trail in the state delivers as much reward for the effort. From the high peaks on either side of the pass, verdant meadows curve down to a saddle that offers sweeping views of nearby valleys, glaciers, mountains, and passing wildlife. Sedately climbing a little less than 1,800 feet in 3.6 miles, it is the perfect hike to show new hikers the extraordinary places their feet can take them.
The epic scenery begins before you even hit the trail. The unpaved section of Cascade River Road skirts massive old growth trees on the way to the circular parking lot tucked underneath Johannesburg Mountain, towering more than 4,000 feet overhead.
As you travel through the 30-some switchbacks that define the first 2.7 miles of trail, Johannesburg (a malapropism of the nearby Johnsberg mining claim) continues to make its presence felt, even when barely visible through the trees. On warm days, snow and ice from its hanging glaciers break loose and boom down the mountainside. (Note: we heard that! Also, see that dark, jagged black line on the map below? Those are the switchbacks! You can also see that the Sahale Arm Trail continues 2.2 miles from Cascade Pass, and a hiker we met on the Fourth of July Pass Trail said that the Sahale Glacier hike is her favorite… but we’ll save it for another visit!)
“Once you round the final switchback, you have one mile to go, proceeding more or less straight for the pass. The trees grow steadily thinner as you reach open slopes and the pass comes into view. After crossing a long rockfield, the trail makes a few final bends and arrives at the pass, where a post marked for Stehekin points the way into the lush valley below. But don’t be fooled — the little community of Stehekin lies at the head of Lake Chelan, nearly thirty miles from where you currently stand.
Cascade Pass offers views of several impressive peaks and glaciers. The ridge from Johannesburg Mountain connects to Mixup Peak and Magic Mountain, in between which lies the Cache Glacier. Back the way you came, the horizon is comprised largely of the glacier-dotted lower slopes and snowy summit arête of El Dorado Peak…” Eldorado Peak below, left. Scott dancing under Eldorado, right.
Love this description! More Wow than Ow! So true! The trail was steep but because there are so many switchbacks, not as steep (or rocky or rooty) as the Fourth of July Pass Trail, and only about 7.5 miles roundtrip. Although I had some misgivings about my ability to get to the Pass, and especially back down again, I persevered, unwilling to deprive Scott of the complete experience, and he would not have continued without me. We took hundreds of photos, none of which can do justice to this overpowering landscape.
Trail over the rockfall, above. At the Pass, below:
The way down was relatively benign, certainly less arduous than the descent from Fourth of July Pass 2 days ago. I (H) even had the energy to break into song, “Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City,” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” in contemplation of the “Sawyer Straw,” a contraption that purifies water as you drink through it, so you can drink directly from a mountain stream without fear of Giardiasis! (Someone told us about this the other day… to file under “Miracles of Modern Technology!”)
What a great hike! A fellow hiker told us that this is the overall favorite day hike in North Cascades National Park, and with good reason!