This past weekend my buddy and I headed out for an end-of-summer backpacking trip on the east side of the North Cascades. The short story is that it was a 3 day, 27 mile, extremely hot and extremely buggy trip that crossed 3 mountain passes while providing fantastic views and lots of varied terrain. Also, it pretty much beat the hell out of myself and my buddy (who has what has to be a world record number of mosquito bites).
We started out on Thursday by visiting the Marblemount Ranger Station to get backcountry permits before driving over the North Cascades Highway (which is the most beautiful stretch of road I've ever experienced). At Twisp we turned up the Twisp River Road and camped for the night at the South Creek Campground in preparation for an early Friday start. The loop eventually would wind through Okanogan National Forest, Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and North Cascades National Park.
The next series of photos shows the 7.3 mile trail from the South Creek Campground to South Pass. We spotted three deer on the trail. Also, the trail was really dry (much different that I'm used to on the west side of the Cascades) and it seemed as if we kicked up a huge cloud of dust with every step. Over that distance we climbed from about 3200 feet elevation to a high of 6300 feet elevation. The climb was gradual until we departed the tree line for the last mile or so. This section of the trail was a true bitch along exposed rock with the sun absolutely beating down on us in the afternoon. The sun made the climb brutal and we really had to dig deep for the last 600 feet or so of climbing.
At the top of South Pass and beyond we were rewarded with fantastic views of McAlester Mountain, Bowan Mountain, and all the way down the south valley towards Stehekin. Beyond South Pass we crossed over the much easier McAlester pass through slopes of gorgeous wildflowers before descending into a meadow. In this meadow there is a high camp and also the option to descend to McAlester Lake to camp. Instead, we chose to climb up another 400 feet elevation to Hidden Meadows - a fantastic quiet and secluded stock camp in a bowl defined by the ridge between Hock Mountain to the north and South Pass to the south. We were the only people at the camp and we both got the heebie jeebies late at night as we heard a lot of animals bouncing around outside. Around midnight nature was calling me in such a way that it could not be ignored and I was forced to make my way down a several hundred foot trail to a composting toilet. With only my headlamp I did my business as I imagined hungry black bears in the darkness just waiting to make a meal out of me. In the morning we found a lot of deer tracks but no bear tracks. The last three photos in this series are the view from the campsite.
The next morning we departed along the northwesterly McAlester Trail towards the Fireweed Camps. We encountered very heavy brush and more brutal sun along portions of the trail. We did stop to grab a few photos of McAlester Lake along the way. As we'd pushed ourselves way too hard on Friday, we decided to take a one hour break at Fireweed along the creek before moving on. This camp is just 0.4 miles from the Pacific Crest Trail to its west, but after breaking we climbed the Twisp Pass Trail to the right. After the leg and back crushing climb the day before, this 1600 foot climb up towards Dagger Lake seemed even more brutal. The trail comes in and out of the sun and alternates between forest and heavy brush. We saw bear scat on this trail but no bears.
About one half our before reaching Dagger Lake, we crossed an awesome and massive avalanche field. It would have been amazing to witness the avalanche, but its power was evident. There was a huge gap in the trees along the hillside and literally thousands of twisted dead trees piled all over each other. It was fantastic! Mother nature can be so powerful. Lucky for us the National Park Service had at some point brought in enough crews and equipment to reclaim a bit of a trail through the rubble.
Around 4 PM, after almost 9 miles of hiking, we reached Dagger Lake (where for the second night in a row we would get eaten alive by bugs despite coating on the deet and layers). Again we were alone however we found a nice place to pitch the tent and over 100 feet away we found an established cooking area with bear wire. It was nice to be able to high line our packs that night without having to search for suitable trees (we did find more bear scat in close proximity to the cooking area). Across the lake we could see the northwest side of Twisp Mountain and the north side of Hock Mountain which we had spent the day hiking around. After two days of hard hiking with heavy packs, we began to question our own sanity. Luckily, we were so tired we both passed out right at dusk and slept hard through any animal noises.
On Sunday morning we got up before 5 AM, built a fire, and ate a good breakfast before eventually leaving camp at 6:30. We had just one mile and 600 feet of climbing to the top of Twisp Pass. With renewed purpose after a good meal and a good night of sleep, we powered up the hill to the pass in record time. We were rewarded with breaks in the trees back towards Stiletto Peak and views back down the western valley towards Fireweed. At the top of the pass we were rewarded with more fantastic views of Twisp Mountain, Lincoln Butte, Hock Mountain, South Creek Butte, Crescent Mountain, and the eastern valley which we'd have to descend into to get back to the car.
The final push down the valley was rough but fast. We spent a considerable time exposed and getting beat up by the sun (again!) and thick brush, but we also were rewarded with every more fantastic views the eastern side of Hock Mountain as we descended far enough to see it around Twisp Mountain. The trail here is right along the south slope of Lincoln Butte and can be very rocky and the brush can be very dense. Also, the slope immediately off the trail is very steep so careful steps were required. Wildflowers were abundant as they were elsewhere. Eventually we reached the Trail 432 trailhead along the forest road. As it was extremely hot and we were exhausted (we'd just practically run down the mountain), we ditched our packs in some bushes and hoofed it the final 3 miles or so down the forest road to the car before driving back to get them. This was by far our fastest day of travel as we'd hiked the 8.5 miles from Dagger Lake over Twisp Pass and down the South Creek trailhead in just over 4 hours. On the way back to the Seattle area we rewarded ourselves with a super greasy pepperoni pizza and a couple beers in Winthrop at East 20 Pizza (highly recommended).
All in all in was a fantastic trip. I'm really glad to have done it. We got views that simply cannot be had in a car. However, we both realized that we may be getting just a little old to be pushing ourselves this hard. We also made what we feel are a few mistakes (like carrying waaaaay too much food and not taking enough breaks). I think that next summer we'll look for a trip that covers 5-6 miles a day and allows us plenty of time to relax. This trip almost felt like constant work. That said, I am really very happy to have experienced the North Cascades and the dry hot east side of the mountains. The North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20) is absolutely fantastic and well worth the drive. If you are thinking you'd like to do this trip, it can be found in Craig Romano's book "Backpacking Washington: Overnight and Multiday Routes". It's trip #60.