Our turn east was for a stop at one of the preeminent mountain ranges in the United States. The Cascade mountains are sometimes called the American Alps and after our visit there we understand why. Our base was the small town of Rockport, WA at the Howard Miller Steelhead County Park. We came to see mountains and see them we did! We stayed for only a few days but saw as much as we could. Our goal was to see the Cascade Range up close as well as to take in the expanse of the mountain range. We took drives through large passes with expansive viewpoints and walks along trails close enough you could touch the snow still on the mountains. The weather was just wonderful, warm, but wonderful. Unfortunately, our goal of chasing the 70s went out the window for a few days as the temperatures soared into the 80’s. Bright blue skies with visibility that seemed infinite made the increase in temperature not quite such a big deal. Many of you have read and heard of all the smoke here in the western states. We have been so fortunate so far to be ahead of it all.
We had heard and read so much about the mountain views we decided we first needed to get the lay of the land so we drove the main road through the North Cascade National Park to Washington Pass. Highway 20 pretty much bisects the park from east to west. We drove along the highway in search of sights and places we had only read about. The park’s visitor center is in Newhalem and is renowned for its view of the Cascade Range. We made a quick stop for information and the view.
The Skagit River runs through the middle of the park and along Highway 20. Gorge Lake is an artificial lake created by a power plant dam. A beautiful mountain lake, but still artificial. Feeding into the lake is Gorge Creek and Gorge Falls. The falls are really magnificent. Quite the fall with multiple steps and pools with the blue green hue of glacier water.
Further up the road is Diablo Lake. The signature view of North Cascades N.P. The lake is also created by a dam, but it is well out of view creating the illusion of a natural lake. It is not just the lake, but the surrounding mountain peaks and range that really give this viewpoint its luster. The water is a wonderful glacier water hue and the calm surface is like a giant mirror reflecting the entire view of the mountain range.
It was here we decided to have our lunch. What a view!! There are even picnic tables available and we found a great one. While sitting and enjoying our lunch, we heard the all too familiar sound of jet engines. As we looked up, we were treated to our own airshow! A fly-by of an F-18 ridge-hugging above the lake! What a sight! We were both so surprised that neither of us was quick enough with the camera; but we’ll never forget it!
Just prior to our turn around point, Washington Pass, is Rainy Pass. While the views at the pass are great, it was Rainy Lake we went in search of. There is an easy two mile out and back hike to the lake through some nice forest. Once at the lake, we were sure glad we stopped. Rainy Lake is a natural glacier lake surrounded by rocky peaks and green forests.
We made it up to Washington pass and the sky was so blue and clear you could see forever. The pass is at 5477 ft elevation. There is a nice overlook area with lots of trails and viewpoints. We walked around awhile to see as much as we could.
Our campground sits along the Skagit River. During one of our evening walks, we were lucky enough to catch a bald eagle feeding. Amazing birds.
The top priority for our visit was to hike. After doing some homework we decided to tackle Cascade Pass Trail. Cascade Pass is, at least according to the ranger we spoke with in Newhalem, one of the most popular trails in the park. Not because it is easy or short, but because of the views. It is also not your average leisurely stroll. The trail climbs over 1,800 ft in about 3.6 miles with over 30 switchbacks in the first 2.5 miles, then it opens up into ridge-walking until you reach the pass. The road to the trailhead is down a 23-mile gravel road. Because it is so popular, the parking lot fills quickly, so we got an early start to be there by 8:00. When we arrived, the parking lot was already filling up. Fortunately, many of the cars must have belonged to backcountry backpackers and had been there a couple days. We found a spot and got started.
Those first few miles and switchbacks turned out not to be as bad as we had anticipated. Plus, the weather was perfect for mountain hiking. Cool, in the 50’s, with bright sun, perfectly clear skies and no wind. Those first few miles with switchbacks were in the forest with broken, but great views of the range as we climbed.
Once we broke out above the tree line and got to the ridgeline hiking it was like we stepped out into a painting. The views were simply spectacular, and the mountains and glaciers seemed close enough to touch. There were some interesting stretches along the trail including a rock fall with a small trail cut across it. We were sure glad we had gotten our indoctrination along Hurricane Ridge a couple weeks ago. To be honest, had we seen photos of the trail back before we “conquered” Hurricane Ridge we probably would have passed. But now that we are ridge running veterans, insert sarcasm here, this new challenge was just another trail!
The pass was magnificent. There is a small open area at the top that overlooks the opposite side of the pass and has a set of rectangular rocks arranged to sit and take it all in. The perfect place for a snack and rest. We were not the only ones who had that plan but were lucky enough to find a place to sit and enjoy.
The hike back down was probably even more spectacular. Of course, the descending is always a little easier, it was the views that were overwhelming. Besides climbing on the ascent, the mountain range is really behind you. On the descent, you are walking into it the entire time. Wow!
One of the amazing things about the Cascades is the proximity to all the mountains. Even out here, Mt Baker seems like it is in your backyard. We took a couple drives in the area to renew our acquaintance.
Baker Lake is a large reservoir north of the town of Concrete. We drove out to see it and the views of Mt Baker in the distance. It was well worth the drive. Panoramic Point was a great place to see Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan and there is a bridge along Baker Lake Road crossing a creek that sets up an absolutely perfect view of Mt Baker. We even drove across the very tall Upper Baker Dam. One lane narrow!
Looking back on our time in the mountains of Washington state, we catalogued 3 of our top 5 hikes of all time, saw some of the most magnificent mountain scenery ever and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. We were fortunate to be ahead of the smoke and so appreciative of the beautiful weather and thankful for all our adventures in Washington.