They’re easy to spot this time of year in the North Cascades: lean, fast-moving hiking machines in their trail-running shoes, ultralightweight backpacks and a look in the eyes that says they have places to go.
It’s the annual migration of thousands of northbound hikers traveling the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexico border to Canada. Most of them began the journey in late spring, which means to reach their destination before the snow falls, they’ll need to average at least 18 to 22 miles per day.
Hence the look you get as they whoosh! past you on this well-traveled highway to heaven, their eyes clearly on the prize ahead.
“We call it the 10,000-yard stare,” said Katie, a spokesperson with the Skykomish Ranger Station. “And that’s kinda sad, because they’re coming into the most beautiful part of the Cascades.”
And that is the reason my two backpacking companions and I chose to hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail just south of Stevens Pass, in early August before the wildfires in British Columbia and Washington turned the Cascade Range into the Smoky Mountains.
At this point, long-distance PCT travelers, or “thru-hikers” as they’re more often called, are just beginning to experience classic North Cascades hiking, with its signature glacier peaks and glistening, high-Alpine lakes.
Our original plan was to begin on the PCT at the ski resort at Stevens Pass and hike to Trap Lake and possibly Surprise Lake and back. But by beginning at the Surprise Creek trailhead near Scenic, just southwest of Stevens Pass, we would shave off about 9 miles each way, reaching Surprise Lake rather easily and still spending a good amount of time on the PCT.
The nearly 5-mile trail to Surprise Lake traverses sturdy stairs and a large log bridge over Surprise Creek, all along a well-maintained trail through a majestic forest of ancient cedars and hemlocks. The trail, which begins at 2,200 feet and climbs to 4,500 at Surprise Lake, is gaining in popularity, especially with day hikers. It attracts between 75 and 100 people on weekends, according to the Skykomish Ranger Station.
We swam in the cold-but-tolerable waters of Surprise Lake at our rocky, shoreline campsite, where we would stay two nights, a customary practice on our annual three-day trips. Leaving the heavy equipment in the tent freed us to explore even higher ground with our daypacks on day two.
Our ascent to nearby Glacier Lake and beyond the second day would put us on the well-traveled PCT, where we hoped to cruise at a higher altitude and meet some thru-hikers.
We weren’t disappointed, though few had time for chitchat. The first couple, earbuds in place and eyes fixed straight ahead, blew past us with nary a hello. We would meet six other thru-hikers in the morning hours, including a brother-and-sister team, John Michael and Sarah, who went by the trail name “Himalaya.” Coincidentally, one of my hiking partners had met the pair a few weeks earlier on the PCT near Mount Jefferson in Oregon.
We also met a young man from Sweden, and another from Denmark, who said he began at the Mexico border on April 29 and was hoping to reach Canada in a week.
The two Scandinavians are among a recent surge of PCT hikers. Five years ago, 988 northbound permits were issued. In 2017 that count more than tripled to 3,496 permits for hikers and horseback riders from all 50 states and 46 countries.
Why the spike in popularity? According to Mark Larabee, associate director of communications and marketing for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the 2014 movie “Wild” (Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of author Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike on the PCT to recover from a personal tragedy) kick-started the increased interest. A growing sense among young people to “get outdoors” and an explosion of industry supplies for backpacking have also been factors, he said.
“It’s a collision of a lot of different forces for what amounts to a world-class experience,” Larabee said. “It’s life-changing. A five-month walk is a difficult journey, and it takes a lot of mental grit to do the whole thing.”
According to the Skykomish Ranger Station, thru-hikers come in waves in August and September, but average 10 to 20 a day on the section of trail we were on.
But not all long-distance hikers we met on the PCT were going the entire distance.
Toby, a professor of gender studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, had originally started the summer in the California Sierras but was chased away by the wildfires there. He rejoined the PCT in the Northwest and said he was ahead of schedule on his quest to reach Canada. I wonder, however, if the wildfires in Washington, which closed down the PCT at Harts Pass less than a week after we met, kept him from reaching his goal.
Yet another northbound hiker was on day four of traveling the 75-mile section between Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Pass. He was planning to finish that day.
We traveled the PCT as far south as Pieper Pass, getting better and better views of Surprise and Glacier lakes behind us every step of the way up to the 5,900-foot summit.
The return to Surprise Lake that night and the trailhead the following day meant we had traveled 16 miles and climbed 3,700 feet. We accomplished our goal of backpacking this classic section of the PCT, even if it was just a small segment.
And we’re not the only ones who have discovered this piece of the North Cascades.
“We’re seeing an explosion of use here,” said Katie. “Backpackers really need to adhere to the ‘no trace left behind.’ We’re seeing people leave behind garbage, creating new campsites and improper disposal of human waste.”
She then paused, and excluded one group of backpackers.
“Except for the ‘thru-hikers,’ ” Katie said. “They’re a different breed.”