My trip to North Cascades almost didn't happen. It is 2020, and in a world of pandemic, it is best to not travel at all. But we'd been itching to go somewhere after staying put for 6 months – and our research suggested that camping is a low-risk option. Given we didn't live with elderly people and could not infect them, we chose to take the risk and go camping.
Our first choice was to go to Glacier NP, but they were out of camping spots when we looked in late June. We then turned west, and thought Olympic NP might be a good idea, and booked a campground there. But then, Chakri bought up North Cascades, and I remembered seeing pictures of a blue-colored lake, and I was hooked. We canceled our Olympic reservation and booked a campground in North Cascades for 5 nights! Quite eventful, just the choosing and the booking.
But after spending time there, I now realize I was foolish to want to go to North Cascades for a blue-colored lake. North Cascades is much more than that - mountains and glaciers, hikes and panoramic views, wildlife and wildflowers, rivers and meadows. Blue-colored lakes are just a cherry on top of the cake.
Another interesting fact, did you know that North Cascades has the most glaciers in contiguous United States. Yep, you have better chances of seeing a glacier in North Cascades NP than Glacier NP. Don't ask me why Glacier NP was named after glaciers though. 🤷🏽♀️
With that introduction, let's now get into the details of North Cascades National Park.
The park has three sections - Ross Lake Recreation Area, Lake Chelan Area and North Cascades National Park (which is more than 95% wilderness known as Stephen Mather Wilderness). There is no entrance fee to any of these areas, and most of the hikes are free too!
Most visitors spend majority of their time in the Ross Lake Recreation Area. It is very accessible and family-friendly. The biggest attraction of this area is the Skagit river which gets filled in the summer by the glacial melt of 300+ surrounding glaciers in the mountains around it. The river is dammed, and hydro-electric power generated from the dams is used to power cities nearby. The three dams on the river have forced the evolution of the three lakes - Ross, Diablo and Gorge. Ross Dam is the oldest and Ross Lake is the largest among the three lakes, extending to Canada as well. Diablo Lake is the next one, and is the most turquoise of them all. Gorge Lake is the last and the smallest of the three.
The construction of dams is both a blessing and a curse. Clean hydro-electric energy provides power and electricity to millions of people nearby, but dams also obstruct the passage of glacial sediment and other debris which provide nutrition to the salmon habitat. This has led to a decrease in salmon population, which is also a lifeline to the local communities.
We didn't visit Lake Chelan Area (also known as Stehekin) since it is not very accessible. The easiest way to get there is via a ferry, and the fastest ferry ride takes about 90 mins one-way from Chelan. There were a few reasons we opted against visiting Stehekin. Firstly, the whole ferry access and mountains felt very Norwegian to me, and given we spent two weeks in Norway – we didn't see the need to re-live the experience. Secondly, the place to catch a ferry, Chelan, was almost 150 miles away from where we were camping, and it didn't seem worthwhile to drive so long for a day trip to Stehekin. Lastly, the ranger at visitor center advised us against going to Stehekin given covid and uncertainty around ferry schedules. If none of these are applicable to you when you're visiting the park – it might be a good option to still go to Stehekin.
The third section, i.e. the North Cascades National Park Area – this is the largest area of the three, and is more than 95% wilderness – which means most of it is only accessible via hikes. I have to say that despite being least accessible, it was the most beautiful part of our trip. The views that we got to see from the couple of hikes in this wilderness were stunning.
This might not be a favorite, but the best way to see North Cascades is to camp there. There are multiple campgrounds to choose from - Colonial Creek campground which is right next to Diablo Lake, to the Newhalem or Goodell Group Campgrounds which are closer to the flowing Skagit river (i.e. past the Gorge Dam). These three campgrounds are located in the Ross Lake Recreation Area, and were open during our stay in Aug 2020.
You could also opt to camp at Marble Creek or Mineral Park campgrounds, which are outside Ross Lake Recreation Area – but closer to Cascade Pass hike. Back-country campers have a lot more options, the most popular one being camping at Sahale Arm Glacier Camp.
We found a campsite in Newhalem campground which was a 10 minute walk to the river. The campsite was spacious - ample car parking space (or even a small trailer), bench, bear container, fire pit for camp fire and even a separate section for the tent. It was very wooded, and therefore provided a lot of privacy. The only gotcha was if you had more than one medium tent, it would have been hard to accommodate, since the tent section was good for one medium or large tent, but not more than that. The restrooms were neat, and there was space for drinking water and for washing dishes – but there are no showers or laundromats available here. The best way to cleanse yourself is to get a dip in the river. 😄
We also saw some cabins and inns in the Marblemount area, if that is more to your liking. There are cabins in the Ross Lake Resort within the Ross Lake Recreation Area, but they're not accessible via a car. You would have to get there via a small hike or a combination of boat and truck service that they provide.
With that, I'm out of words for this post! It sure feels nice to write about mountains and lakes again 🙂. I'll be talking about hikes and other things to do in North Cascades National Park in a future post.
What trip of yours didn't almost happen, and then completely surprised you when it did happen?