The jumbled landscape of Washington’s North Cascades National Park, one of the wildest corners of America, can be intimidating even to experienced hikers and backpackers.
The park embraces the most rugged peaks in the Cascade Range, which stretches north from Northern California to British Columbia. Drenched by Pacific storms, the western slopes nurture a dense, eerily dark forest dripping with moss. Bears and mountain lions prowl this often damp and chilly mountain realm, most of which has been officially declared a wilderness area.
My wife, Sandy, and I — city dwellers with only modest outdoors credentials — decided this untamed preserve was where we wanted to spend four days of our summer vacation last year. The big lure was the park’s abundance of cascading waterfalls, which gave North Cascades its name. And we hoped to spend time exploring a trio of fiord-like lakes we had glimpsed on a quick drive-through trip six years ago. The lakes — emerald green Gorge and Diablo and deep blue Ross — are tucked into a winding, sheer-walled gorge traversed by the scenic North Cascades Highway, or State Route 20.
“This is like Norway,” we had said on the earlier trip. We hoped our return look would confirm it.
Our strategy was to nibble at the park’s edges on a series of mini-hikes, because neither of us had the inclination or the gear to plunge unguided into its awesome interior. Splashed with countless falls, lakes and streams, the periphery proved spectacular.
To reach the park, we flew into Spokane, then drove four hours. (We chose Spokane over Seattle, also four hours, to avoid city congestion.) Crossing the desert-like Columbia River Plateau, we found the Spokane route was nearly free of traffic.
We booked accommodations on the Cascades’ drier, sunnier eastern slopes near the town of Winthrop, a one-time frontier outpost that looks like a set for a Hollywood western. As the park’s eastern gateway, Winthrop is the staging area for outdoor recreation of all kinds: hiking, rafting, mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, rock climbing, trail riding.
We checked into Sun Mountain Lodge, a 102-room stone and wood lodge perched atop a high ridge overlooking Winthrop and the Methow Valley. Contemporary in style, the main building appears crafted with the care once lavished on the grand old national park lodges. At night, the lights of farmhouses twinkled below.
Our visit coincided with Methow Valley’s annual Lavender Festival in mid-July. Fragrant fields of fresh lavender thrive in the dry climate (as they do in the south of France). To celebrate the burgeoning industry, four sponsoring nurseries welcomed visitors to their farms to view the gorgeous display and pick fresh bouquets.
In Twisp, which neighbors Winthrop, the growers set up stalls at the Saturday Methow Valley Farmer’s Market to sell fresh lavender, lavender soap and other lavender products. We sipped lavender-flavored lemonade and ate lavender cookies while browsing fresh fruit and produce stands. That night, Sun Mountain’s restaurant featured roasted rack of lamb with a lavender mustard crust.
The water in the mountainsWe were eager to explore the Cascades, so we stopped by the Winthrop visitors center and picked up a map and brochure. It listed day hikes accessible from the North Cascades Highway. I realized none of the trails we planned to hike reached into the park, although it all but surrounded us. Only a geographer would quibble.
At 5,477-foot Washington Pass, the highway’s highest point, we climbed to a panoramic overlook — first doubling back to the car for sweatshirts to protect against a chilly wind. Below we could see a part of the highway we had just traveled. In the foreground, rock climbers inched up 7,740-foot Liberty Bell, a distinctive rock face. A ranger kept an eye on them through her telescope. Nearby, the granite fingers of Early Winter Spires, another soaring landmark, demanded to be photographed. At its base, Early Winter Creek glistened silver in the sun.
Our next stop was at Rainy Pass, where we pulled off the highway at the trailhead to Rainy Lake. The hike, a mile long and mostly level and paved, suited us. The reward was a lovely lake. From the parking lot, the path quickly plunged into a dense forest of spruce, fir and mountain hemlock, and I felt I was in the deep woods.
Bridges crossed two streams that splashed down the steep mountainside. Suddenly, trees gave way to a small, turquoise-tinted lake. Evergreens ringed its shores, and above, a protective wall of rock formed a nearly circular bowl. Below the summit, Lyall Glacier seemed no more than a pocket of snow. Three threadlike waterfalls cascaded down the rocks into the lake. We sat on a bench for a long time, reveling in the beauty and, I hope, implanting the view in our memory.
We were back on the road the next day, driving beyond Rainy Pass, entering the damp side of the Cascades and, yes, encountering a brief squall.
Glacier-fed waterfalls tumbled everywhere, and we crossed a creek nearly every mile. Ahead was the Norway-like fiord we remembered, where three slender lakes (actually dammed reservoirs) were linked one to the other. Above them rose the high walls of Skagit Gorge, thick with evergreens. We stopped at overlooks to savor the views.
On this day, our goal was Newhalem, at the western end of the gorge. About 70 miles from Winthrop, Newhalem is the site of the National Park Service visitor center. At a ranger’s suggestion, we climbed stone steps alongside nearby Ladder Creek Falls. It gushed in whitewater frenzy through a narrow cut in the rocks, sending up a cooling spray.
We next ventured onto the easy Trail of the Cedars nearby, reached by crossing the Skagit River on a bouncing suspension bridge. The path wanders among giant Douglas firs and western red cedars, the latter a tree that rivals California redwoods in size and beauty. We picnicked at the trailhead, picking up supplies in the Skagit General Store.
One afternoon after a hike, we relaxed in Winthrop over glasses of Outlaw Pale Ale made and served at the Winthrop Brewing Co. It occupies the old Little Red Schoolhouse on Main Street. The town has vigorously preserved its frontier look: After the North Cascades Highway opened in 1972, merchants banded together to give the place an 1890s face-lift. Utility lines were buried and concrete sidewalks replaced with wooden boardwalks. Balconies extend from false storefronts that might have served as a “Gunsmoke” set.
The result borders on fake, but I think it works, perhaps because there really is a frontier town beneath the facades. For historical truth, climb the wood stairs from Main Street to the Shafer Museum — a cluster of 19th century Methow Valley structures detailing the gold-mining and cattle-raising past.
The day we arrived, we’d seen a fire burning in the distance and later learned it had been caused by a lightning strike about 15 miles away. As the days passed, and it continued to burn, I became concerned, so I stopped at the North Cascades Smokejumpers Base at the town airport. It is one of nine such bases in the West and is the “birthplace of smoke jumping.” Impromptu 60-minute tours are offered daily.
I learned from Simon Friedman, a 30-year-old jumper from New York’s Long Island, that his crew didn’t expect to be sent to the fire that was burning at Farewell Creek. That fire was too large, he said. The goal of the smoke jumper corps is to hit remote outbreaks quickly before they spread. When an alarm sounds, a team of eight can be aboard a plane in 10 minutes. With Friedman leading the way, I visited the parachute-rigging room, checked out the standard gear (displayed on a dummy) and climbed into the plane.
The North Cascades base typically makes 10 to 15 jumps into remote areas during fire season. Once a fire is out, Friedman said, crew members stuff their equipment in 100- to 110-pound backpacks and “walk to the nearest road.” It is a rough job, and I was embarrassed that I hadn’t taken on tougher North Cascades trails. Back at Sun Mountain, I pondered the thought.
Sandy and I swam in the heated pool, soaked in the hot tub with a Cascades view and on our final day indulged our not-overly taxed muscles with his-and-her “hot rock” massages. The rocks had been tumbled smooth by a stream, and the attendant dipped them in a fragrant lotion before applying them.
North Cascades country may be a rugged land, but it does have its gentler side.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX to Seattle, United and Alaska offer nonstop flights, Southwest has a direct flight (stop, no change of plane) and America West and Northwest offer connecting (change of plane) flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $280.
From the airport, take Interstate 5 north to Burlington, connecting to State Route 20 east on the North Cascades Highway to Winthrop, about four hours.
From LAX to Spokane, Alaska offers nonstop flights, Southwest has direct flights and America West, United and Frontier offer connecting flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $225.
From Spokane, take U.S. 2 west from the airport to Wilbur, connecting to State Route 174 north to Grand Coulee Dam. Continue north on State Route 155 to Omak, picking up State Route 20 west to Twisp and Winthrop. About four hours.
WHERE TO STAY:
Sun Mountain Lodge, nine miles west of Winthrop; P.O. Box 1000, Winthrop, WA. 98862; (800) 572-0493, https://www.sunmountainlodge.com . We stayed in the newer Mt. Robinson wing with a Cascades view, gas fireplace and whirlpool tub for two for $285. We ate nightly at the dining room, which has panoramic views of the Methow Valley. Doubles start at $140.
Freestone Inn, 31 Early Winters Drive, Mazama, WA 98833; (800) 639-3809, https://www.freestoneinn.com . This highly rated new resort — with cabins, lodge and inn rooms — is 13 miles northwest of Winthrop. Fireplaces, restaurant. Doubles $105-$485.
Hotel Rio Vista, P.O. Box 815, Winthrop, WA 98862; (800) 398-0911 and (509) 996-3535, https://www.hotelriovista.com . Rebuilt after a fire in 2002, this facility is at the confluence of the Methow and Chewuch rivers. Private balconies overlook the rivers. Doubles $75-$115.
WHERE TO EAT:
Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon, 176 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, WA 98862; (509) 996-2411. Steaks, pizza, burgers in an Old West atmosphere. Dinner entrees from $12.95.
Winthrop Brewing Co., 155 Riverside Drive, Winthrop, WA 98862; (509) 996-3183. Pub grub, freshly brewed ale on tap and river-view seating. Entrees from $7.
Duck Brand Restaurant, 248 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, WA 98862; (509) 996-2192. Steaks, pasta, Mexican dishes with Old West flavor. Entrees from $10.
TO LEARN MORE:
Winthrop Visitors Information, (888) 4METHOW (463-8469), https://www.winthropwashington.com
North Cascades Visitor Center, (206) 386-4495, https://www.nps.gov/noca .
— James T. Yenckel