Touching the Sky in Washington’s North Cascades

We will remember our visit to the North Cascades as one of formidable hikes, breathtaking vistas and mind-numbing commutes to trailheads.

Known as the American Alps, the mountains are steep and heavily forested. Some 300 glaciers embrace the peaks. North Cascades National Park was the draw. But we did most of our hiking just outside the park in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Finding trails that approximate our preferred metrics – 8-10 miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain – was a challenge. So we had to push ourselves. We were glad we did, and departed wondering why the park is the least visited in the contiguous 48 states.

Park accessibility could be a factor. With few rooms within 60 miles of the park entrance and summertime chip-seal road crews fanned out across the region, the roundtrip commute for each hike took up to five hours. We eased the pain of the commute by stopping for milk shakes each evening.

Here’s our North Cascades trail sampler:

Diablo Lake Trail

(Aug. 11, 2022) – 7.2 miles, out and back

Six miles of chip seal road work and a bout of laziness got us to the trail later than anticipated. We were grateful to find parking after creeping across the narrow roadway atop the 92-year-old Diablo Dam to the lot on the north side of the lake. Maybe it was the late start. Maybe it was the heat. But we weren’t feeling it. The wooded trail offered few views of the glacial blue water below. At the 2.5 mile walk, we turned around and called it a day. Better views of Diablo Lake can be had at the turnout on Highway 20.

Chain Lakes Loop Trail

(Aug. 13, 2022) 7.1 miles, 1,886 feet of elevation gain

We hiked counter clockwise from the Heather Meadows visitor center, Our lunch spot was the highlight. After a 1,200-foot climb through the moraine field above Bagley Lakes, we perched on a rock at a crest in the trail with views of neighboring valleys to the east and west. The spot was special enough that we texted a picture to buddies from our 2019 hiking trip in Patagonia. The lightly wooded trail to and across the isthmus between Hayes and Iceberg lake was pretty nice, too. This was a great warmup for the Maple Pass Trail.

Maple Pass Trail

(Aug. 16, 2022) 7.4 miles, 2,194 feet of elevation gain

We added 1.5 miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain by opening the hike in the wrong direction and then, after righting ourselves, having to turn back again to retrieve our lunch from the car. This is a tough hike. Lunch is required. The steady, four-mile slog up to Maple Pass put Dan’s recently retooled cardiac electrical system to the test. His heart performed magnificently. The even steeper, three-mile descent to the car tested our knees, hips and ankles. The picture-perfect view of Lake Ann on the way up made it all worthwhile.

Bridal Veil Falls Trail

(Aug. 15, 2022) 4.2 miles, out and back, 1043 feet of elevation gain

After surviving our adventure at Maple Pass, we chose to close out our visit to the North Cascades with a more moderate hike. Even so, the trail surface posed a challenge. The last mile or so to the base of the multi-tiered fall is an ankle-tweaking, toe-stubbing climb over rocks and thick, twisted roots and up a series of precarious staircases pitched at odd angles. The payoff was as unique as the trail surface, as we reached a thick sheen of water sheeting down a 150-foot wide slab of smooth granite. Much of the 1,328-foot cascade is not visible from the trail. We lunched in the mist.

Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. Dan Page/CoastsideSlacking

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