North Cascades, Trip reports

Return to Cascade Pass

Yesterday I got the chance to revisit a little personal history. Twelve years and 364 days after my first hike to Cascade Pass, I repeated it.

Thirteen years ago, I was early in the research and writing of my book about the creation of North Cascades National Park. And although I knew the story well, I didn’t know the park in person. It would help, I thought, if I could see some of what the conservationists who fought for the park were so passionate about. So I loaded my car with pack and boots and left Olympia before dawn for Cascade Pass.

North Cascades National Park entry sign
Park entry sign. This is the only road that goes into the park proper. (Lauren Danner photo)

The Cascade River Road is the only road that penetrates the park proper; all the others are in the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas. So if you want able to say you’ve stood in North Cascades National Park, you either hike in or drive this road.

A few salient details from that day are burned onto my memory.

It was freshman orientation day at UW, so when I got to Seattle I sat in traffic for an hour, with three hours still to drive.

The view from the Cascade Pass trailhead parking lot. Seriously wow.
The view from the Cascade Pass trailhead parking lot. Seriously wow.

When I parked at the trailhead — with arguably the most spectacular views of any parking lot in the national park system — I opened the trunk to discover I’d grabbed my husband’s boots. My curses echoed off Johannesburg Mountain in the clear morning air. I ransacked my car for tissues, newspaper, and anything else that could be crumpled, stuffed them into the toe of the boots, and set off up the trail.

It was the first solo hike of my life and I was a little nervous.

When I reached Cascade Pass two hours later, the views seared onto my memory. I hiked up another 3/4 mile to views of Doubtful Lake and Sahale Arm. The weather was perfect. Fall colors cascaded down the slopes below the mountains, mountains, mountains all around. It was stunning. The pictures I took (with an early generation digital camera) have been my screen saver ever since.

Flash forward 13 years. I’m a creative resident at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center and have spent the last two weeks hiking to places important in the park’s story and writing about them (see previous posts about the Big Beaver valley cedars and the last grizzly in the North Cascades). And I’ll do the same for Cascade Pass, which has a lot of stories to tell.

But for now, compare my photos of 2003 with those from 2016. The weather yesterday was cloudy, but that made the hike even more interesting. I watched clouds surge up the Cascade River valley and roll over the pass, where they got caught on the ridges and trees like cotton balls on a whiskered face, slowly dissipating on their way to the Stehekin valley far below. And there were a lot more people, probably at least 100. But we were pretty spread out along the trail system, and everyone was friendly. Cascade Pass is crowded for all the right reasons: it’s accessible by road (much of it gravel), and for relatively little work, you get staggeringly gorgeous views.

The funny thing is, I didn’t go to Cascade Pass with a then-and-now photo essay in mind. But when I got back and was browsing the photos, I was struck by how familiar they looked. Sure enough, when I compared them to those I took in 2003, many were surprisingly similar. Perhaps I’ll make a point of going again in September 2029.

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