Did you know that North Cascades National Park is one of the few parks in the United States with packs of wolves? Washington reintroduced them after near extinction a few years ago and there are three packs that inhabit some of the deepest, most remote parts of the park.
Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any wolves… or bears for that matter. The other good news was that North Cascades was a fantastic place to start our Washington road trip. We flew into Seattle in the early evening on a Tuesday and immediately went to REI to get some dehydrated meals and bear spray before they closed. Mary asked the staff about any recent bear encounters and the woman indicated that most of the recent carnivore encounters were with mountain lions. That came as a bit of a shock to us as mountain lion encounters are typically rare. After hearing that news, we kept moving north to our hotel for the night and to load up on some additional groceries.
Getting to Seattle was a smooth process. On the flights, the girls did great and each had a window seat to watch all of the activity at the airport. We flew on Southwest and grabbed seats in the last two rows so we could be near the bathroom in case Quincy or Leona had to go potty. They both did a good job alerting us when they had to use the restroom. Later into the trip, they realized they could use the bathroom as an excuse to get our attention and make us stop what we were doing. Driving… hiking… cooking… cleaning dishes…. they knew just what buttons to push. As much as Mary and I got frustrated with it, the girls did great with alerting us. In the end, we had only one accident on the entire trip. That was a huge victory.
Now onto the main recap of North Cascades. Because of it’s layout and the way it is located with some national recreation areas, there are no entrance fees to explore North Cascades. Of the three parks we visited, North Cascades receives the fewest amount of visitors with just over 30,000 in 2017 to the 3 million+ that Olympic got in 2017. One of the reasons is that the park goes into a bit of hibernation during the winter. It’s still open, but many of the campgrounds, services, and some roads are shut down in the winter months.
Our first stop had us tackling the Hidden Lake Lookout Tower Trail, a 7 mile roundtrip hike with a 3,000+ feet of elevation gain. We learned about this trail from Mary’s co-worker. Getting to the trailhead was even exciting as we had to do 4 miles of driving on “primitive roads” in our rental SUV to get there. Once there, we loaded up the girls in the kid carriers with water, snacks, extra layers, and of course, the portable toilet. Our first observation: mosquitoes. We’re lucky that we don’t get many mosquitoes in San Diego, but recall how fond we were of them when we lived in the northeast. They really fancied Quincy and Leona and left a ring of bites around Leona’s eye for a few days.
The trail started off in a dense forest with tons of streams and creeks flowing down the mountains. Constantly being reminded by Quincy about where all the “agua” was coming from, it was funny to see how quickly they immerse themselves in the environment. We were there early enough to see some beautiful light shining through the canopy of trees. For a family that sees a lot of desert landscapes, this place was so green and lush and we were just scratching the surface. As we exited the forest, we came into a meadow with growth three feet high. It was like we were walking through cornfields of wildflowers. There were a few other people on the trail, but we kept our chatter up to let the bears know we were around. As we continued to increase our elevation, the vegetation got shorter and shorter, until it was short grasses poking out of the remaining snow pack. Just short of the real snowpack, we had our first potty break on the trail. Quincy told us she had to pee. This was the beginning of many photos capturing “when nature calls”. After that break, we loaded the girls up and started hiking into the snow pack. The trail disappeared, but we tracked our progress using the AllTrails app and the PRO version I purchased before our trip. It used our GPS to let us know if we were on trail. It came in handy a few times on the trip and was worth the one time investment.
Less than a quarter mile into the snow, we encountered a steep slope. We were expected to walk across a side-slopping ridge trail that slid right down to a cliff. We had some decent hiking gear, but no ice axes, which we soon found out was a staple of the Washington hiker. We slipped a bit and took a break to collect ourselves. After a quick conversation, we made the call to turn around and seek drier ground. We knew we would encounter snow on this hike, but didn’t know the conditions would be this rough even though we were tracking trail reports. Safety was the top priority and we never wavered from that. Once we got back to the trailhead, we snacked and relaxed for a few minutes. A few other hikers came back from their hike and alerted us they also had to turn around before the summit due to poor conditions.
After that adventure, we drove an hour to our campsite at Newhalem Campground within North Cascades National Park. The campground was a great site with recently remodeled facilities and an awesome group picnic pavilion which was helpful when we needed to make breakfast in a drizzle. It also had a designated flat area for our tent, which isn’t always the case at some campgrounds. The campground was 2 miles from the town of Newhalem with a general store. A half-mile away was the visitor center with some great exhibits as the park is 50 years old this year. They also had some grizzly bears and black bears on display that got the girls excited.
Day 2 at North Cascades had us hiking the Cascade Pass Trail, which is a 15 mile hike. We planned to only hike 4-6 miles of depending on how we felt. We made the drive to the west end of the park to start the hike and ran into a glitch. The final three miles from the road to the trailhead was closed due to construction. We had no idea of this closure and probably would have picked a different spot to hike, but since we were there, we started the walk. That final three miles of dirt road was a constant incline that started in the trees with a creek running parallel. The water rushed as the 70 degree temperatures melted the snow high in the mountains. We cleared the forest and walked along the side of a valley gazing across to steep mountains with waterfalls gushing water down and sheets of snow hanging by a thread.
We then got our healthy reminder that our daughters have very different personalities. As we hiked, we asked them about seeing waterfalls. Quincy wanted to see BIG waterfalls, while Leona wanted to see LITTLE waterfalls. Leona also found a love of wildflowers on this trip and always wanted to hold one and often asked for a second to give to her sister.
After three miles of straight incline, we finally hit the trailhead of our intended hike. It was lunchtime and we found a picnic table in a small grassy area that we had to ourselves. We were sitting in the middle of a valley surrounded by a beautiful mountain range covered in snow and wildflowers with not a single person around us. It was an amazing moment to soak in the beauty of the country and to let the girls show us their hiking skills while we devoured peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Soon we realized Quincy lost her toy ladybug on the hike up and we had our eyes peeled on the way down the road for it. We got it back when one of the construction workers spotted it when driving his frontloader and saved it for our return down. What a relief!
We made great time down the mountain and realized that even though we were unable to achieve our original hike, we had a great hike up to the trailhead and really took advantage of the picnic area up there.
The rest of North Cascades was spent exploring shorter hikes and roadside views. It gave the girls some time to run and explore, letting them pick up sticks and act like all the other hikers using their trekking poles. We saw some huge water falls and some tall douglas firs and cedars leaving our necks sore as we gazed up into the sky. We also drove to a beautiful lookout point over Lake Diablo, a lake that was created from damming the Skagit River to generate hydroelectric power. The lake was a vibrant blue from glacial runoff. The unique, intense turquoise hue of the lake’s water is attributed to the surrounding glaciers that grind rocks into a fine powder that is carried into the lake through creeks. That fine powder stays suspended in the lake, giving the water its brilliant color. It looked fake to be honest.
Our final stop in North Cascades was Washington Pass, the dividing line between eastern (dry and grassy) and western (wet and rocky) Washington. It could be done as a quick stop for a bathroom break and photos or you can hike around and explore. We took a short hike and enjoyed some snacks before the long drive to Ellensburg where a hotel room awaited us to do some laundry, bathe the children, and get some more food.
The quintessence according to…
Each person’s favorite part of the park –
Sean: I had no idea what to expect when we started the Hidden Lake trail. It was lush and pretty noisy from all the creeks and streams running down the mountains. A mile or so in, we cleared the trees and entered the meadow and I was shocked at the view in front of me. A huge green meadow with ragged granite peaks in the distance covered in snow. It literally stopped me in my tracks. I joked with Mary when I said, “If we had to turn back now because of bad trail conditions, I would still be satisfied because this is so damn impressive.”
Mary: Lunch at Cascade Pass. Everywhere you looked there was something incredible. From skyhigh snow-packed peaks to half a dozen waterfalls. The best part was that it was just the four of us, playing in the meadow…not another soul around.
Quincy and Leona: They probably have two. The first is an afternoon trip to Goodell Creek on the other side of our campground. It gets it water from the Picket Range in the North Cascades and it was running pretty strong. However, there were some small quiet areas used for boat launches where the girls got to splash around and play. The water was around 50 degrees and Mary and I had a hard time standing any deeper than ankle depth for more than a minute. Quincy and Leona were going in and out for 30 minutes with no concerns about the cold. They threw rocks and sticks and filled cups with mud.
The second was the butterflies that seemed to follow us on our hikes around the park. They would often be fluttering around in pairs as well, so it really gave the girls something to watch while we hiked.
Some pleasant surprises that we encountered included:
-Finding out that there were no grizzly bears in the park. They were hunted to extinction a long time ago. There were some black bears in the park, but rarely seen.
-A major concern of ours before the trip was the potty training situation and a potential accident in a sleeping bag. To reduce our anxiety, we had both girls wear special camping underwear (nighttime diapers) and it was a huge success. For Leona, it was a normal experience since she is still wearing sleep diapers. For Quincy, she wore them and didn’t regress in her potty training. When we stayed in a hotel during some of our travels between parks, Quincy wore normal underwear and did great. No pee soaked sleeping bags made us all happy.
-Our SUV had all-wheel drive and was useful on some of our dirt road excursions to trailheads. The higher clearance also helped.
-With the girls being just over two years old, they were able to understand and take direction from us when needed. They knew when we were serious and had to focus and when we could play.
-Dinner times were pretty good because they could sit straddled on the picnic table and have their food in front of them and do a decent job of not making a mess. It was a relief to not lug around the booster seats like we did for last year’s trip.
Some unpleasant surprises:
-For some reason, the girls thought we were leaving them when we put them to bed and zipped up the tent at night. They must have been a bit scared, but this was the first time it had happened. It took about 30 minutes to settle them and get them to rest.
-The sun is up late in Washington in July. We had some daylight lingering around until 9:30p. This wasn’t helpful in getting the girls to consider going to bed… at all.
Overall, North Cascades was a real back-country paradise. It was relatively quiet and could keep people busy on the hiking trails for miles.