Happy Hike-a-Thon Month!
This trip report covers a nine day traverse through North Cascades National Park Complex, starting in Stehekin, WA and ending at the Hannegan Pass trailhead off the Mt. Baker Highway (Hwy 542) that my partner, Todd, and I did for our annual August backpacking trip. It involves going over five mountain passes, along 10 named creeks and rivers,12 different trails and all three units of the park complex -- Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and North Cascades National Park. Oh and throw in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest for good measure at the end of the trip.
The logistics for this traverse were challenging in two primary ways: one, the travel to Stehekin and from the Hannegan Pass trailhead and two, our ability to get 8 nights of permitted campsites as a walk-up permit (we didn't do the early season reservation period). The hiking was the easy part!
To get to Stehekin, we decided to use public transportation the entire way. This was fun to figure out (really). If you want to do this traverse (and I recommend it!) then figure in an extra day for travel on the front end of your trip as it'll take as much to get to Chelan, WA. Here's what we did:
Friday, August 3rd
We booked tickets for the 8:30am Amtrack/Greyhound bus (actually operated by Northwestern Trailways -- a fitting name for this adventure) out of King Street Station in Seattle to Wenatchee. You could opt for a train from Seattle to Wenatchee, but it leaves later in the day, which means getting into Wenatchee later. We wanted to have ample time to make our way to Chelan.
A little over four hours later, we emerged in Wenatchee. We grabbed lunch at The Depot (at the bus station), which has great sandwiches and the nicest folks. About an hour or so later, we walked half a block to local transit buses - Link Transit - and took a bus to Chelan ($2.50 per person, cash and change only). Note: we learned that the bus also makes a pick up / drop off stop at Stevens Pass. You could also hike the PCT to Stehekin using all public transportation this way -- bus to Stevens Pass and then reserve the way we got to Stehekin! Which would be a great hike too.
Once in Chelan we settled into our hotel room for the night.
Saturday, August 4th
We had booked tickets for the Lady of the Lake Express boat to Stehekin. Our hotel was located in downtown Chelan. We walked the one mile to the boat. Our boat was at 8:30am and arrived in Stehekin at 11:30am. This is the fastest boat to Stehekin.
Once in Stehekin, we ran up the hill to the Golden West Visitor's Center to get our backcountry camp permits. We were able to get 5 out of 8 campsites that we had wanted and adjusted our itinerary for the other 3 campsites. Our itinerary was a go!
We ran out of the visitor's center and grabbed the 11:30am red bus ($8/each) to High Bridge. It makes a 10-minute stop at the Stehekin Bakery so if you need lunch food for the first day, this is a good option. All said, we were in Stehekin for a whopping 30 minutes.
At High Bridge, we got off the bus and started our hike! We opted to walk the old Stehekin River Rd to its end and then hop on the PCT (Old Wagon Trail). The trail was in good shape.
Five miles or so later, we reached Bridge Creek and the turn off for the PCT (to head east toward Hwy 20). We headed a bit further north up the old Stehekin River Road, turning west on the road (which is now much narrower and trail like and known as the Upper Stehekin Valley Trail) to the junction with the Park Creek Pass trail.
Turning onto the Park Creek Pass trail we quickly began a steep uphill ascent to our camp for the night - Two Mile (aptly named for being at the two mile marker). A nice big footlog about 10 ft up in the air from the creek now crosses Park Creek.
That night we were treated to a thunderstorm, thankfully with some rain to go with it.
Sunday, August 5th
The Park Creek Pass trail continues to meander its way upwards, opening up in a few spots due to avalanche slopes. It also heads through the 2015 Goode Ridge Fire. The trail was cleared of downed trees all the way to Park Creek Pass. The trail is a bit brushy before the pass, but nothing too serious. It is seriously steep in some spots though, which stretched our achilles tendons a bit. By lunch time we were sitting at Park Creek Pass, which is quite the pass -- a honest-to-goodness "V" notch pass. Also interesting is that the trail actually continues UP from the pass as it rises/traverses above the pass.
While sitting at the pass we were buzzed by what we assume was a park helicopter, likely looking for new fire starts after the thunderstorm the night before. Given the hot, dry weather we've been having, we were nervous about new fire starts, but the helicopter kept heading north, which was a great sign for us.
After lunch we took the long descent down into Thunder Basin and on to our campsite at Skagit Queen. Upper Thunder Basin is brushy at times (I got zapped by some stinging nettle a couple times too). But never terrible. We stopped to look at the remains of the mining site just above from the camp. Pretty great display of a still-standing wooden ore cart, old engine, wheels, etc.
Monday, August 6th
Now on the lower Thunder Creek trail, had a clear (and even brushed!) trail and made for good time to the last camp on Thunder Creek for us - Neve. Thunder Creek rolls up, down, close to and away from the creek itself. The terrain is also interesting in that you go from a wetter forest type ecology to a drier eastside ecology and then back again, all in a few hours' span. A waterfall or two also dot the trail.
Tuesday, August 7th
Today we turned off the Thunder Creek trail onto the Panther Creek trail. Well, first we took the Fourth of July trail up to the pass (some limited views of the surrounding peaks at the junction for the Fourth of July camp, but nothing at the pass itself, all trees). The trail today was mostly forested after the pass, winding down a narrow ridge in one spot that was pretty neat. Like Thunder Creek, this trail has been cleared to Fourth of July Pass and then there's a gap in clearing at the most remote spot on the trail. Trail maintenance resumed more toward Panther Camp.
Wednesday, August 8th
We started out early this morning as it was going to be a hot, hot, HOT day. Right after Panther Camp there's an avalanche clearing that provides a lovely view of a waterfall. You travel along Panther Creek for much of the 4 or so miles to Highway 20. About 1.5 miles from the highway, the switchback (steeply!) uphill. It doesn't look like much on the map, but it ended up being a nice little calf burner. From there we headed down to Highway 20. Right before meeting the road we saw our one and only deer of the trip.
After crossing Highway 20, we walked behind the guard rail to the road bridge right before the East Bank trailhead. We hopped back on to the shoulder of the road to cross the bridge. At the East Bank trailhead, we unloaded the first few days' worth of garbage from our packs and then picked up the Happy Panther trail (also part of the Pacific Northwest Trail), which pops out right at the edge of the East Bank parking lot.
The Happy Panther trail is almost flat. It's a wonderful, fast five mile hike along Ruby Arm (although you're high above the water, you do get peek-a-boo views of the water from time to time). About a half a mile from Ross Lake, there's a fun benchmarker embedded in a rock sideways (usually they are on top of rock slabs, not on the side). Try to find it! There's also two nice creeks on this trail with substantial bridges.
At Ross Lake, with temperatures soaring near 100 degrees, Todd and I opted to hail a boat from the Ross Lake Resort water taxi and do five miles of our hike by boat. This skipped the portion of trail that travels across the top of Ross Dam and along the lakeshore (also very exposed in the afternoon sun) to the outlet of the Big Beaver River. We had hike Ross Dam to the resort before as well. Once at the Big Beaver boat launch, we picked up the trail across the Big Beaver River (a very nice suspension type bridge!) and on to our campsite at Pumpkin Mountain. You could opt to stay at the more luxury (Picnic tables! Bear lockers! Nice toilets!) Big Beaver camp, but we wanted a quieter experience (Big Beaver has more campsites with a boat-in option). Pumpkin Mountain has exactly two campsites. Given how hot the day was, we took multiple swims in Ross Lake that day and watched the Gilbert / Crescent Mountain Fire explode in the distance (huge smoke plume).
Thursday, August 9th
We had a 16-mile plus day ahead of us, so we started out early along the Big Beaver trail this morning. The Big Beaver River is beautiful -- deep, emerald green and slow moving through the first half of the trail. You are never too far from the river, but the trail mostly winds through the forest about a tenth of a mile from the river. There's a few spots where the trail comes down to the river though, with good views toward the surrounding ridge. Within 30 minutes of the start of our day, we realized upon looking down at our feet that tiny frogs (toads?) were jumping all over the trail! This lasted for a few miles and caused us to hike awkwardly as we tried to miss squishing the babies with our feet.
The Big Beaver Trail has some amazingly large cedar trees -- make sure to take note of the size of these trees, deep in North Cascades National Park. We also saw signs of a very, very old forest fire.
Eventually we headed up towards Beaver Pass, which is another unnotable pass in the trees. Although the Beaver Pass camp has a historic shelter (now only used for emergencies) that was fun to look at. After the long and gentle ascent to Beaver Pass, we switchbacked down to our camp at Stillwell.
Big Beaver has been cleared for its entire length.
Friday, August 10th
We were excited to see Whatcom Pass today as it had been handful of days since we had been above 5,000 feet in elevation. The hike up the Little Beaver Trail to Whatcom Pass felt more rugged and wild -- the valley opened up and greeted us with a wall of waterfalls and views of Mt. Challenger, the Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak. There's a few spots along this trail where the river has taken eroded the bank and the trail with it. A reroute through some alder and brush was pretty straightforward. Eventually we began to ascend, quiet steeply, up Whatcom Pass. The development of this trail up to the pass is quite impressive with wooden crib walls providing the structure for a handful of switchbacks. Once at the top of the switchbacks, we had a more gentle ascent through subalpine forest and meadows to Whatcom Pass. We had hoped to see a bear here, but...nothing.
As we dropped down to our camp at Graybeal, we had more impressive walls with waterfalls to gawk at and views out to the nearby peaks. At Graybeal, make sure you head out to the creek, which at some point had burst its seams -- the creek bed is wide, even flowing into the Graybeal camps. Right now, the creek is just a skip, hop and a jump. The views back toward Whatcom Pass will provide a glimpse at a waterfall and alpenglow off some snowfields higher up.
The trail coming down from Whatcom Pass has a few careful footing spots across streamlets and a few trees to clamber over.
Saturday, August 11th
Today we continued down Brush Creek to its junction with the Copper Ridge Loop / Chilliwack Trail. The trail has been cleared from Graybeal to the junction. When we reached the junction we had a decision to make -- turn right and up 4,000+ ft and a little over 18 miles to Egg Lake (our permitted camp for the night) or take the "low" route up the Chilliwack to the junction with the Copper Ridge trail. Today's forecast was iffy -- even calling for thunderstorms at some point in the day. Having been in a ridgetop thunderstorm (and one of the worst thunderstorms we've been in ever), we opted for the "low" route to save the ridgetop walking for another, hopefully sunnier, day.
While we were bummed to not see some of the greatest portions of the Copper Ridge Loop, we were excited to cross the Chilliwack on the famed cable car. The cable car is a treat! While the water level of the river is definitely fordable by foot right now (although it didn't rain the night before either), we wanted to experience the cable car. It was a lot tougher to pull with two people in the basket than I expected. We thank the kind people who left the gloves behind in the basket as they sure made it nicer for our hands.
After the cable car, we eventually began our ascent up, up, up through the clouds, mist and drizzle to Egg Lake, our little home away from home for the night.
The Chilliwack and Copper Ridge trails have been cleared from the junction with Brush Creek. The Chilliwack even had a good amount of recently brushed trail (thanks for the NPS crew who we met along the way!).
I did an overnight trip to Egg Lake with my Dad a number of years ago and it was fun to return. Egg Lake sits at 5,200 ft with a tremendous view down the valley. The lake itself does resemble its name and is one of the most turquoise-blue lakes we've seen. We only wish the weather had changed a day later as it was too cold to swim the day we were there.
It rained all evening and into the night...
Sunday, August 12th
This morning we saw a momma bear and cub from our campsite -- and at the perfect, safe distance. They were eating berries on the opposing ridge from our camp. Given all of the miles we had traveled and only one large creature (a deer) seen, to be treated to bears the morning we were heading out made us feel like we had hit the hiker lottery!
Our friends met us at Hannegan Pass (coordinated with the use of my Garmin InReach -- very handy!) and we hiked out the Hannegan Pass trail. We met a WTA Volunteer Vacation and day work party on the way out, which was a lot of fun. We thanked all for the great work!
The Hannegan Pass trail makes for a pretty fantastic day hike with views to Mt. Ruth, surrounding ridges with waterfalls...you have views for most of the way, which you can't say for many day hikes.
On the drive back to Seattle, we hit up the bakery in Glacier for some 'real' food too!
This was a great trip that had a little of everything. It was the longest trip we had ever done in North Cascades National Park by far! It basically tackles all of the longer, major trails in the park and gives you a good feeling for a park that has some sublimely remote and rugged areas within it. I'm looking forward to heading back for the full Copper Ridge Loop and revisiting the greater Whatcom Pass area!
Some tips if you'd like to do this traverse:
- Public transportation to Stehekin is very doable - it's a long day, but worth it, especially if you don't want to trouble friends by asking for a ride.
- Book a hotel room in Chelan months before you go...Chelan hotels are fully booked in the summer. We lucked out and got a "walk up" hotel room the day we arrived, but it was a long, long shot.
- Take cash for the Link bus to Chelan and the red bus to High Bridge in Stehekin...also for the Stehekin Bakery!
- Be flexible with your itinerary -- have back up camps in mind if your ideal itinerary doesn't work. Oh and make sure to bring a complete itinerary with you to get your permits -- have it figured out in advance. It makes the permitting process much, much faster.
- If you don't want to carry 9 days worth of food, consider asking a friend to meet you at Ross Lake the day you cross Highway 20 -- you could break up the pack weight that way.
- One thing I read on the North Cascades NP website...every camp has access to water. So you know by looking at your map where guaranteed water is. You might have to hike down to it (in the case of Silesia Camp on Copper Ridge) but it's there. There was plenty of water along most of the trails we took, but it was nice knowing the camps had water (also toilets at every camp!).