North Cascades National Park (NP #28), Washington

I entered North Cascades National Park (map / wiki) light on information and expectations.


This was partly because in my mind it was dwarfed by the bookends of Glacier National Park and my two week trip to Alaska, and partly because I’ve driven through the park before without stopping, and I don’t remember it making a serious impression. However, as has been the theme so far, I was pleasantly surprised, and, just to confuse things, I’m not sure what was more surprising – the grandeur of the park, or the fact that even after visiting so many national parks I could possibly set my expectations so low as to be surprised once again.


The park is split horizontally in to two halves by the Ross Lake National Recreation Area.


The area includes three major dams: Gorge Dam (completed in 1924), Diablo Dam (1930), Ross Dam (1949). The dams have heavily impacted the Skagit River habitat, and they supply approximately 70% of Seattle’s electricity demand*. As you can imagine, everyone isn’t on the same page concerning their environmental cost and industrial utility. The North Cascades National Park was established long after the dams were built, and it seeks to preserve the surrounding wilderness from further development.


I headed to the park’s only visitor center and arranged a 5.4 mile in-and-out overnighter at Thornton Lake.


The hike-in started out easy enough. For the first two miles it was a well beaten gradual incline strafing the mountainside and bending through chest-high bush thickets and berry plants. This was the first hike I remembered to bring the battered ski poles I found while hiking Jay Peak in Vermont, and I couldn’t have picked a better trail to debut them.


The trail turned up the mountain, and began a pattern of switchbacks. The dry packed dirt became soft moist earth, rich with blackened decomposing tree shards, heavily peppered with tan and yellow pine leaves, and textured with quarter-sized pine cones, their shingles splayed and interlocking. The steel tips of my poles make a “pomp” sound on the soil which matched the noise made when they landed on sprawling exposed roots the size of my forearm or larger.


The structure of the roots come in many varieties, and cursing or praising their personifications kept me entertained. Some mischievously loop up and catch my low-flying boot. Others, in repentance of their neighbors, retain level soil and frame stairs. They splash out over rocks and braid with each other, sometimes creating a network so strong that they hold boulders in place that have been completely undermined on their downslope side.


As the trail crested there were fewer trees, and the view south opened up.


The Skagit River runs through the valley between those mountains and where I’m standing.


Not much further up the trail leveled out, and I had a view overlooking Thornton Lake backed by an amphitheater of peaks.


Thornton Lake, North Cascades National Park.


The way down to the lakeside campsite was treacherously steep.


There were times earlier on the trail where I felt like an Octopus trying to keep track of where each of my four appendages landed, but down that final 1/8th mile, my poles were absolutely indispensable in keeping my top-heavy pack balanced. Blueberries lined the trail for that final descent, and I picked and ate as I struggled and savored my way down.


Wild blueberries, sharply tart and juicy sweet.


There were two other pairs camping there that night.


A couple (early 30’s) who had ridden by motorcycle from Denver to Kentucky down to Florida where they split for a few weeks. He drove up to North Carolina and over to Illinois, where they met up again, then over through the same route I took from Montana to Wyoming then Idaho to end up in Washington. And the other pair were early 50’s (?) women who explained that it was tradition for them to go for a wilderness excursion every now and again. We had a dinner-time pow-wow on the log jam leading out of the lake.


The next morning I grabbed a handful of blueberries to add to my freeze dried blueberry oatmeal, and it occurred to me that by chance I had brought a blueberry Clif Bar to match. A picture was necessary.


I rented the bear canister from the visitor center.


There is a lushness I associate with the Pacific Northwest. I lived in Oregon for three years while going to school at OSU, and it felt good to be back in that type of forest again.



1) Seattle City Light –

2) Skagit River Hydroelectric –

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