WA 20 runs east-west across the North Cascades. It is the only road to do so. The highway never enters the Park proper, but for most, the 133 mile road will be their only experience with the Northern Cascades. It is grand experience, but even at that, it is only a taste of what can come. You will see mountains galore from this highway; the Skagit River rumbles alongside for half the journey; its dams and reservoirs, at Diablo and Ross. The North Cascades National Park visitor center is just off the highway in the little town of Newhalem. The highpoint of the highway experience - both literally and figuratively - is the five or so miles involved in crossing Rainy and Washington Passes. An overlook at Washington Pass allows you to gaze in wonder at the high peaks of Liberty Bell and Early Winter Spires rising high above the road's south side as the road makes its long switchback into the valley floor to the east.
Along WA20, the largest Park campground is at Colonial Creek on the south shores of Diablo Lake, one of the Skagit reservoirs - about halfway on the journey. If you do this highway in one day from Seattle or Vancouver, BC, be prepared for a long day.
Another 5-star dayhike from the people who wrote 'Don't Waste Your time in the Northern Cascades' (Kathy and Craig Copeland's 'opinated hiking guide') is the loop around Heather and Maple Passes. The trail is about 7-8 miles long and gains around 2000 feet. Coming directly off WA 20, it is a popular trail. You gain ground fairly easily from the 4855 foot high trailhead until you reach the spur trail leading to Lake Ann at 1.5 miles/5400 feet. Then you ascend quicker above the lake til at 3 miles/6200 feet you reach Heather Pass. As far as passes go, it is not as dramatic as you will find later up at Maple, but by wandering off to the right on a way trail to the west, you can get into some fine tarns and small lakes beneath the north walls of Corteo and Black Peaks. From Heather Pass, the trail now contours 1000 feet above Lake Ann over to Maple Pass at 4 miles/6600 feet. Corteo Peak rises high above you to the west. Southwards, you have a glacial valley framing Glacier Peak and many others. From the pass, the trail winds down a ridge under Frisco Peak along a shoulder high above Rainy Lake, eventually returning to the trailhead far below.
A seven mile round trip and 1800 foot/545 meter gain, this trail is as easy as North Cascade trails come. The worst part of the whole trail is the 33 different switchback to be encountered - which means 66 when you return - as the trail takes its time in gaining altitude. The scenery can take your mind off of the slow going though with most of your early attention being centered upon the mountain wall to the immediate south - Johannesburg Mountain. This colossal peak tops out at 8200 feet/2485 meters and rises over 5000 feet straight above the Cascade River below. Avalanches are constantly roaring off of its hanging glacier in dramatic fashion. Up higher, Eldorado Peak comes more into the limelight, with the Eldorado Glacier hanging below the summit pyramid.
From the pass, the trail continues on over the other side towards Stehekin. Atthe pass, two bootpaths go off - one to the south, an unmarked affair going along the meadowed crest of one of the arms of Mixup Peak. This is the start of one of the greatest alpine journeys in the US: the Ptarmigan Traverse. This is a 5-7 day affair going from Cascade Pass southwards to Sulphur Creek. The ground covered is unbelievable, but is strictly the terrain of the alpinist - ropes, crampons, ice axes, crevasse rescue technique training and plenty of backcountry experience. It should not be your first should trip. You go through country that is unbelieaveably beautiful, but it can also be unremittingly lethal.
Less forbidding, but very rewarding is the other option you have at the pass - the trail going north up Sahale Arm. The siren calls.
One 25 mile gravel/dirt road penetrates into the west side of the Park's South Unit - the Cascade Pass Road. The road follows an old Native American route over the pass, en route to Lake Chelan on the other side. Towards the end, the road can get a little rough depending upon the winter before. There are three US Forest Service camps on the way up. You turn off WA 20 at the little town of Marblemount - keeping an eye out for "Good Eats', a place that has a special place in the heart of many North Cascades alpinists. Monogram Lake and Hidden Lake trails are accessed off this road, but most people will continue up the road to the deadend where the trailhead for the Cascade Pass trail begins, with its interminable switchbacks. The view is at the roadend is already dramatic - mountain walls loom all around.
As incredible as the views are on the Sahale Arm, they get even better further up on a climb of Sahale Peak, itself. The trail on the Arm peters out among the rocks of the terminal moraine of Sahale Glacier, a fairly flat-lying glacier just south of the summit. Wander through the rocks and out across the glacier - there are some crevasses, but you have to look hard to find them. Every few steps, the views enlarge further.
Off the glacier you have a short third class rock scramble on easy rock slabs to the 8680 foot/2646 meter top - about four hours up from Cascade Pass. eIncredible views is an understatement. The oft-used simile of being in an ocean of peaks is apropos. The view to the northeast - Boston Peak over the Ripsaw Ridge to Buckner - is the same view as you find on the NPS's Park brochure. This peak is far lower than Washington's highest peak - and it is easier to get up here - but the alpine experience here is light years beyond what Rainier and its endless slog can give you. This is what alpinism is all about.
This is a strenuous dayhike out of the little company town of Diablo - a town devoted to the upkeep of dams and powerhouses of Seattle City Light at both Diablo and Ross Dams of the Skagit River. There are lots of switchbacks on this trail - a lot more than the 33 you have at Cascade Pass - and unlike the trail at Cascade Pass, the switchbacks here never seem to flatten out. You gain 3000 feet/909 meters in 2.5 miles. Then the trail ameliorates a bit, only gaining an additional 2000 feet/606 meters in the final four miles. What is worse is that there is nothing really to see as you grind your way up through the switchbacks deep in forest - until you finally reach the ridge after 2.5 miles. Then the party begins. You have grand views over the Skagit Valley below and straight up the vallye of Thunder Creek with its glacial seas up high, surrounded by peaks like Logan, Sahale and Forbidden. Much of the South Unit of the Park can be seen from here.
Mt Shuksan is the highest peak, 9131 feet/2783 meters, within the NCNP and it is its most recognizable peak. I have seen pictures of this peak on walls around the world - though most would have no idea as the peak's name. The awesome western and northern sides of the peak are maybe best seen from outside the Park, from a vantage point known as Picture Lake - near the Mt Baker Ski Area and the end of WA 542 which comes west from the city of Bellingham up the Nooksack River valley. It is from this road at Austin Pass, a pretty trail takes off to Lake Ann, which lies at the feet of a climbing classic - the Fisher Chimneys, a long and complicated route up through the rocks, hanging glaciers and finally to the peak itself.
Gorge Creek falls is very easily viewed. From the parking area for Gorge Creek viewpoint one must simply find their way across the crosswalk and down the sidewalk to the bridge.
The Canyon beneath the bridge is very deep and only a grate separates you from the long fall below. It’s one of those strange feelings to walk this bridge while looking down.
The short trail that leads to the viewpoint of Gorge Lake Dam also allows you a view of a much smaller waterfall that descends into Gorge Creek.
The falls themselves are no less than 242 feet (73 m) from top to bottom and generate quite a large amount of noise. The upper tier is difficult to see from the road since it is blocked by trees and then by a rock face. The falls are certainly worth a stop though.
An 'arm' is a ridge of a mountain, in this case, the southwestern ridge off Sahale Peak. The old prospector's trail leading north out of Cascade Pass is a little more serious about gaining elevation - 2200 feet/667 meters being gained in four miles. The pain is allieviated by the alpine grandeur that continues to build as you ascend. The grand sweep of the glacial Cascade River valley to the west and the Stehekin valley to the southeast; the mountain wall of Mixup Peak and Johannesburg Mountain to the south; the awesome ridge extending from Eldorado peak over to Forbidden and Boston in the norhtwest; and Sahale rising dramatically high above Doubtful Lake, right in front of you.
What make Sahale Arm so special, is that besides the classic long views are the grassy, flower-filled meadows you find yourself walking through now that you are above the timberline. Marmots frolic throughout the Arm. You can camp up atop the Arm next to the Sahale Glacier - there is an open-air outhouse among the rocks up here - but you need a backcountry permit from the visitors center in Newhalem.
There are many wonderous dayhikes in the North Cascades National Park - none very easy. This is no exception. The hike climbs to three lakes lying in a basin at the foot of Mt Triumph. To camp at the lakes, you need to get a backcountry permit from the National Park headquarters in nearby Newhalem. The trail is 9.5 miles roundtrip and gains almost 5000 feet. It is a rugged trail that will have you sweating. When you gain the 4900 foot level, you cross over a small ridge where you can look down on the lakes and across to Mt Triumph. The lakes begin 400 feet lower. Camping and fishing are reputed to be poor. Ice still remains on the middle lake until mid-July; the upper lake til mid-August.
Instead of dropping down to the Thornton Lakes, turn right at the 4900 foot ridge on the Thornton Lakes trail, onto an unmarked, but very visible trail that goes steeply up the ridge to the top of the 5964 foot summit of Trapper Peak. It is a steep trail and you will have added another 600 feet of elevation to a possible Thornton Lake trek (the gain there is 4900 feet), but it is worth every foot of elevation gain. Atop, you are atop a world of true wild, alpine glory. Nearby are the twin peaks of Mt Triumph and Mt Despair - the first climbers of Triumph followed five mountain goats up towards the top, enduring moments of bombardment by the goats as they rolled rocks down on the climbers from above. To the east, is the incredible ripsawed crags of the Pickett Range separated from Trapper Peak by the great gulf of the canyon of Goodall Creek.
Ketchum Creek Falls descend about 200 feet (60 m) in a staggering rock hopping path. It is a very graceful waterfall but does not see much attention.
Nearby Gorge Creek Falls steals most of the attention since it is labeled on park maps and also has many road signs directing visitors to take a look.
Ketchum Creek Falls is actually the more visually appealing waterfall. It can be seen from the road and the most common picture taking location is actually from the road.
Ladder Creek Falls only drops about 100 feet (30 m) which by the comparison of the other falls in the area isn't a very large drop. It does however make up for it with its accessability and scenic setting.
The falls are surronded by a very green moss covered canyon and is located in a fairly dense forest which prevents light from coming through the trees.
The falls are also lighted in the evening or at least claim to be. The area was used to show off the beauty of the area while the dam was being introduced to the public and their acessability has remained quite easy.
Having been to Yoho National Park in Canada I found this peak to be the Washington State equivalent of Cathedral Mountain. In the same way, each mountain has a very steep glacially carved face and capture much more attention than the surrounding peaks.
The mountain is primarily a solid slab of granite 7720 feet (2353 m) tall and has class 5 rock near its summit. It is very easily seen as you will have to basically go around it in driving over Washington Pass. Cathedral Mountain in Canada my be taller 10,462 ft (3189 m) but this Liberty Bell Mountain is certainly the more photogenic in my opinion.