Information about this hike provided in partnership with Mountaineers Books.
Copyright © Craig Romano/The Mountaineers Books
A large information board greets you at the trailhead and it's worth a gander before setting out up the valley. Yes, this is cougar country and necessary precautions should be exercised. But for your first mile or two, you'll probably need to be more concerned with saying hello to the throngs of people who venture out from the campground.
The wide, smooth trail immediately enters an impressive stand of old-growth forest. Hugging the thickly forested shore of Thunder Arm, an aquatic protrusion of Diablo Lake, the trail passes the Thunder Woods Nature Trail, a recommended diversion. On still mornings and evenings, catch glimpses of emerald ridges reflected in the placid turquoise waters of Thunder Arm.
Continue on a near-level course under giant firs and cedars and past big boughs of ferns, reaching Thunder Creek in about 1 mile. Soon new tread is encountered where the trail was rerouted in 2004. The old steel suspension bridge that once crossed Thunder Creek and that many hikers thought was sturdy and reliable evidently wasn't. The destructive floods of 2003 claimed this span along with many others throughout the Cascades and Olympic Mountains.
Continue alongside the west side of the creek, passing several inviting gravel bars. At 2 miles the trail comes to a new bridge. Pass through Thunder Camp, set in a centuries-old grove of behemoth firs.
Leaving the riverside, the trail now travels through a much younger forest and at 2.5 miles comes to a junction with the Fourth of July Pass Trail. Proceed right, cross a creek, and in 2.8 miles come to a junction with a short side trail that drops back to the river, landing in Neve Camp-a nice place to call it quits if you're content not to carry on.
Those inclined to experience more of the Thunder Creek valley can continue following the trail deeper into the wilderness. The thundering waterway is nearby the trail, always audible but not seen. Undulate between old-growth groves and younger forests that are replacing stands scorched by fires over the last few decades. Enjoy periodic openings in the dense canopy and impressive views of the array of towering peaks that line the valley. Their extensive glacial systems help feed the roaring creek beside you.
At 6 miles and only 1900 feet elevation, come to the junction with the side trail to McAllister Camp. This is a good place to call it a day, though you may still want to push the 0.5 mile to the camp to get a good glimpse of the narrow gorge where McAllister Creek roars into Thunder Creek. Savor the wildness. Return when you must.
From Marblemount follow the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) east for 24 miles. Just past milepost 130, turn right into the Colonial Creek Campground and proceed 0.5 mile to the trailhead, near the amphitheater at the day-use area (elev. 1250 ft). Water and restrooms available.
Recent Trip Reports
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Thunder Creek — Sep 06, 2013 — otterbhikin
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My wife and I arrived at the Thunder Creek trailhead later than planned, but then we're out here to ...
My wife and I arrived at the Thunder Creek trailhead later than planned, but then we're out here to have fun. And fun has no schedule. We heard from the ranger station that the area received two inches of rain the night before, so I was a little worried about the trail conditions. Though Thunder Creek was a thundering river, the trail was in terrific shape. We hiked in 7.7 miles to the Tricouni Camp, our home for the next couple of nights, without crossing a single puddle on the trail. The trail was in amazing shape.
We arrived at our camp with the setting of the sun and the return of the rain. Luckily, I brought a tarp along that we tied up above the tent to help diffuse water away from the tent because it rained all night and into the morning. By mid morning, the rain finally stopped.
With the weather apparently on the upswing, we had a leisurely breakfast and started hiking toward Junction Camp. This is when my plan to make it to Park Pass was blind-sided by, of all things, the mushrooms. I was amazed, enthralled even, at the variety of different shapes and sizes of the fungi along every turn of the trail. My camera was working hard all day looking for the best shrooms to immortalize in digital format.
We finally made it to Junction Camp where we were rewarded with some great glaciated peak views. This would surely be a great place to set up camp next time. After lunch, my wife headed back to camp and I continued on my mushroom mission. I knew I didn't have time to make it to Park Pass, where I'm told the views are spectacular, but I was still in the mood for exploration.
More shrooms and more pics. I met the ranger on the way to Skagit Queen Camp. She told me of a mushroom just before the camp that couldn't be missed. Now I had a mission. Hike to Skagit Queen, photograph the great mushroom, and get back to camp by 6:30, after which my wife goes into worry mode.
It wasn't until after Junction Camp that I found trees across the trail. There were several between Junction and Skagit, but all were easily stepped over or under. And though the elevation differentials between camps is very modest, it should be noted that there is a lot of up and down, sometimes quite steeply. I'm an avid hiker and trail runner, and I found this trail to be a great work out.
At any rate, I made it to Skagit, where there is a temporary log bridge in place of a recently washed away bridge, photographed an incredible mushroom, and high-tailed it back to camp where my wife had a great fire going. The entire day, I saw seven people. A group of older ladies on there way to Park Pass, the ranger, and a couple who had just arrived at Junction Camp for the night. This was definitely the right area to get away from everyone.
After a leisurely dinner in total solitude and a good night's sleep, we somewhat sadly headed back toward civilization. We will be back. It's difficult to find solitude like what we found here, plus I still need to got to the pass.
Thunder Creek, McAlester Trail, Rainbow Creek, Park Creek Pass — Jul 28, 2013 — Magzy
Issues: Overgrown | Water on trail
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2 day trail run/hike. Took McAlester Pass/Rainbow creek to Stehekin, just about 20miles, with a det...
2 day trail run/hike.
Took McAlester Pass/Rainbow creek to Stehekin, just about 20miles, with a detour up Copper Pass, total 30miles that day. McAlester was a beautiful tidy trail, enjoyed the meadow at the top quite pretty with lots of wildflowers. Rainbow Creek very enjoyable until you come to the fire stricken area, trail sandy and not very enjoyable to run through burnt trees. However views of Lake Chelan quite beautiful. You pop out just a half mile to the Bakery! AWESOME! Another 2 miles to get to the landing.
Ate delicious bakery food and spent the night at the lodge.
Next day took the shuttle to High Bridge.
Followed Stehekin River Road to Park Creek, then took it back to Colonial Campground where we left our car. Difficult 40 mile day. Park Creek Pass very steep, beautiful views, we were so close to the glaciers it was distracting! Clear of snow. After descending the pass it was quite over grown and difficult to run through. Very prickly. After several miles soft open forest floor again which was very nice. Thunder basin is gorgeous and eerie, loved it. Enjoyed the creek crossing and cool log bridges. Very long hike to get here though, 20 miles from Colonial Creek. We were going through at the right time for water, walked over many small creeks, did not treat the water, tasted SO good, water bottles and packs always full.
Thunder Creek — Jul 12, 2013 — hikinglindsay
Issues: Blowdowns | Bugs
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Trip Overview: Day 1: Thunder Creek trail from Colonial Creek Campground to Junction Camp (about...
Day 1: Thunder Creek trail from Colonial Creek Campground to Junction Camp (about 9 miles)
Day 2: Dayhikes from Junction Camp to Rock Cabin (about 2 miles round trip) on the Fisher Creek Trail and from Junction Camp to Skagit Queen on the Thunder Creek Trail (about 7.5 miles round trip)
Day 3: Return to Colonial Creek Campground from Junction Camp.
Thunder Creek Trail from the trailhead to Junction camp is free of blowdowns and water was low at all unbridged creek crossings. Between Junction Camp and Skagit Queen there are a number of blowdowns, but all are easy enough to climb over, duck under, or walk around.
From Junction Camp to Rock Cabin via the Fisher Creek Trail the trail is clear. To reach Rock Cabin, look for the two parallel logs on the left side of the trail and walk around to the far side of the huge boulder. There was quite a bit of bear scat on Fisher Creek Trail.
On our return to the trailhead, we saw a bear on the other side of the river from our lunch spot at Tricouni Camp. Bugs, especially biting flies, were abundant on Saturday and Sunday.
Thunder Creek — Jul 06, 2013 — Trippin66
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Incredible day for a hike. Mid day start but not crowded. I was a little hot about half way up. T...
Incredible day for a hike. Mid day start but not crowded. I was a little hot about half way up. The beginning trail was not spectacular, but the views at the view points were spectacular. Really enjoyed this hike.
Thunder Creek, Ladder Creek Falls — Jul 05, 2013 — Hiker Mama
Features: Wildflowers blooming
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My kids and I were looking for a hike to do after the Fourth of July. We had some time to make a lon...
My kids and I were looking for a hike to do after the Fourth of July. We had some time to make a longer drive the Friday after the Fourth, so we were able to get up to the North Cascades and explore a new (to us) trail. Hubby worked from home Friday to see us off, and suggested that since we were getting a bit of a late start and it was a long drive, perhaps we should take our camping gear along in case we were too tired to drive home. That turned out to be a good idea, and I was grateful to have his blessing for the possibility.
We drove Hwy 20 in warm sunshine, stopping at the ranger station in Sedro-Woolley and at the picnic area at the Newhalem Campground. We had a very quick lunch there; unfortunately it was just long enough for both my kids to step in dog poo. We did appreciate the running water available to clean them off.
It was only a bit farther to the Thunder Creek trailhead from there. We pulled all the way to the back of the South Loop of the Colonial Creek Campground to the trailhead parking – it was full, but there was a car pulling out, so we were lucky to get a spot. It was 2:00 by the time we got on the trail. The lowest energy time for my kids when we hike. Annika wanted a snack before we were 10 minutes along. I made her wait till we had walked for half an hour. We enjoyed the dark shade and the huge trees, the lush growth and the sound of Thunder Creek nearby.
After a snack of trail mix and jelly beans, the kids picked up the pace, and we made good time to our planned stopping point, Thunder Creek Camp, 1.8 miles from the trailhead. We had to take a minute to try to figure things out, because the map showed the bridge crossing a bit earlier, and this bridge was right at the Thunder Creek camp. We figured that’s what the guidebook was talking about when it explained about the new section of trail and the new bridge, and then I remembered seeing concrete pilings in the river a ways back, and it all made sense.
The camp was vacant, so we plopped our stuff down and took a little rest. We had carried our sandals in the hopes of playing in the water there, but the “creek” was filling the entire bed, a powerful slate grey river that had no safe spots to wade.
So we sat and ate and had our water. Gabe got out his knife to whittle, and Annika pretended in that fantastical imaginary way of hers.
We saw one little chipmunk, but otherwise the forest was pretty quiet as the afternoon sun sunk behind the towering gorge walls. We all felt pretty good and could have hiked up to the next camp if it had been earlier in the day, but with our late start, we thought it best to call it good.
Two gals came up with overnight packs, and we let them have the camp to themselves. It was a quick trip back down the trail.
The kids have good speed when they put their minds to it. They played a game like the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, taking turns inventing adventures for the other to take. This kept them happy and uncomplaining for the hike back. Mosquitos were out on this hike, but not too bad.
After our hike we went up to the Diablo Lookout. It was super windy up there – the wind made an eerie howling noise, and blew the squawking ravens off course. One of the ravens was banded – we wondered who was banding them and what they are researching. At that point we had a decision to make. Did we make the long drive home that evening, or find a spot to stay for the night at Newhalem? It was dinner time and I knew it would be an hour for me to get the stove out and cook us up some grub, my eyes were drooping, and I was running low on gumption. So my kids were thrilled that I decided to go back down to the Newhalem Campground and find a spot for the night.
On our way back down we stopped briefly at the overlook for the waterfall that comes off the side of the road. It's a long way down under that bridge!
When we drove through earlier in the day I was really surprised to see that only about half the spots were taken on this long holiday weekend. They were nicer and more private than I expected, too. A few more folks had pulled in while we were hiking, but we had no problem snagging a nice spot in the B Loop. The kids helped me set up the tent on the sandy tent pad and I hooked the stove up for heating water for dinner.
Unfortunately, in my last-minute haste to add the camping gear, I had forgotten the Coleman 2-burner stove at home. All I had was my little Pocket Rocket and a half-used small isopro canister. I hoped it would be enough fuel to cook dinner and the next morning’s breakfast.
We managed to cobble together a dinner from the random food I had tossed in the food bin, and Gabe helped me clean up quickly while Annika tried to set things out in the tent. Then we went down to the amphitheater in Loop A for a ranger program that evening. It was about wolves in the North Cascades, and was interesting and thought-provoking. While the ranger was talking, nighthawks began making their weird ‘cheeping’ noise above us as they hunted the dusky sky. We also saw bats flitting above, though they didn’t seem to be making much of a dent in the mosquito population!
On our way back to camp, Annika alerted us to an owl that swooped down to our level and flew along the road right in front of us. What a thrill that was! We went straight to bed, as it was getting pretty late and we were all tired. It was so warm we were almost too hot in our sleeping bags.
The next morning we had breakfast (there was just enough fuel for coffee and cocoa!) and packed up in time to hit another ranger program in camp.
This one was about all kinds of forest ecology topics – skulls and types of teeth on mammals, trees and other woodland plants, birds and bugs, and a bit of history and Native American tales.
We walked a little way on the trail near the amphitheater. There are several loops and nature trails you can take in and around the campground, making for multiple options for a sweet little stroll if you’re staying there. The kids all got their Jr. Ranger badges for participating.
Then we drove up to the Ranger Station (you can also walk there on trails, but we were going to be heading out after that) to check out the interpretive displays. We didn’t go in there last time we were here to hike.
I was pleasantly surprised, there was lots to see inside, cleverly presented. We had fun finding animal foot prints, discovering all kinds of creatures that live in the park, and learning a bit about history. My kids were excited to find out that flying squirrels live in the park.
The last thing we did before we headed home was to make a visit to Ladder Falls. We parked in front of the Gorge Powerhouse, just as the road makes the curve and heads out of town.
There are signs marking the trail. We didn’t see those at first, though, and followed some other folks across the left bridge over to the Powerhouse. There was a lovely garden behind it, and steps and a trail meandering up the hillside. We could see people over on the other side, so we kept walking and eventually met up with the main trail that most people take to see the falls.
They were loud and misty, and lowered the temperatures nicely in the hot afternoon air. It was neat to see the glacial water tumbling down through the narrow clefts in the hillside.
The main path is paved and there are several benches to rest on. The trail we had come in on went through gardens that the original guy who oversaw the building of the dam and powerhouse put in when everything was built. He apparently used to have heated the ground somehow, so he could grow tropical plants. You can still see speakers on trees from his project of bringing in music and lights for people viewing the falls. There were signs around the Newhalem area saying they refurbished and upgraded the colored lights that shine at night on the falls, but we didn’t have the energy to see them Friday night. Well, we always have to have something to come back and see next time!
We enjoyed the falls, and walked the short distance back to the car over the smaller suspension bridge. That is the more direct route. Then it was a long drive home. Thankfully the weather was beautiful, and we made good time and had no problems on the way home to my husband who was happy to see us.