I will put a disclaimer in here that I truthfully don't know what the current snow level is in the North and Central Cascades. However, each trail listing includes a contact number and/or website where you can find that information.
So please, enjoy!
After a snow-melting summer, try one of these 5 high-Cascade hikes
By Mike McQuaide
On a forested rocky hillside below Boston Basin, the angry flames of an orange hotspot flare and fall. Its billowy smoke plume drifts skyward where it lingers against the icy-white backdrop of glacier-draped Eldorado Peak. Forest fire. Granted, a tiny forest fire—about two acres, according to North Cascades National Park officials—but to Bellingham’s Jim Robbins and I, descending Sahale Arm one ridge over, a tad freaky nonetheless. A forest fire here, in the heart of the rugged North Cascades—one of the most glaciated and waterfall-laden spots in the Lower 48—confirms something we’ve known for months now: it’s been a hot, dry summer.
There’s proof everywhere. Scorched lawns, shriveled gardens, the unusual abundance of SUVs and mini-vans with “WASH ME” traced in filth on their rear windows. But hey, look on the bright side. All this sun and record-setting heat means that upper elevation trails were not only snow-free earlier than usual but now are snow-free higher than normal. A few weeks ago, Robbins and I hiked all the way to 7,500 feet, to the edge of Sahale Glacier, without having to cross so much as a smidgen of snow. So if it’s high hikes you’re looking for—with their jaw-dropping vistas where row upon row of spires, crags, pinnacles and peaks extend as far as the eye can see, like wave upon wave in a choppy sea—now’s the time to head up.
As for where to go, here are five trails that top out at 7,000 feet or above and that are guaranteed to sate your mountain yearnings.
Cascade Pass-Sahale Arm
With its stunning views of Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak and more—easily had without even taking a step from the trailhead parking lot—the Cascade Pass Trail is justifiably one of the most popular trails in Western Washington. And with views far down into the Stehekin Valley and of surrounding mountains that seem to multiply with every step, Cascade Pass itself isn’t any slouch either. But the pass is only 5,400 feet and in terms of true mountain manna from heaven, the views there are only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. For the whole iceberg, and views of even more North Cascade glaciers, head up, up, and up to Sahale Arm, about 2,200 feet higher.
Well-marked and easy to find, the trail to Sahale Arm climbs seemingly straight up from Cascade Pass for a little less than a mile until it attains the Sahale Arm ridgeline. This perfect lunch spot rewards with epic views of peaks near and far, the nearest one being the arm’s namesake, Sahale Mountain. At 8,680 feet, it’s a rocky pyramid draped in glaciers that requires glacier travel experience as well as ropes and climbing gear. But there’s still plenty on Sahale for hikers to enjoy. All along the ridgeline stunning views west include Eldorado Peak, and the cheerily named Mount Torment and Forbidden Peak. To the east and down, way down, are the jade-colored waters of dubiously named Doubtful Lake.
“This is an astoundingly beautiful trail,” Robbins and I said in one form or another to each about a hundred times during our recent ridgeline wander.
Eventually, the trail runs out of meadow and from 7,000 feet and up, cairns and a sometimes hard-to-follow boot trail lead the way up a scree slope. At 7,600 feet (according to my altimeter, though the Green Trails Map says 7,200 feet) we reached Sahale Glacier Camp, which holds a high place in that category of most glorious spots in the Cascades in which to pitch a tent.
IF YOU GO:
Distance: 12 miles.
Elevation Gain: 4,200 feet.
Highpoint: 7,600 feet.
Getting there: From Marblemount in Skagit County, follow Cascade River Road for 23 miles to the road-end parking lot. Elevation: 3,600 feet. Northwest Forest Pass required. For the latest conditions, call North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center 360-854-7245, or go to www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/trail-conditions.htm.
Just outside Leavenworth, this high plateau of crystalline lakes, cloud-piercing peaks, and gushing waterfalls is oft-regarded as the state’s crème de la crème of alpine hikes. Thing is, there’s no easy way to get up there. The Colchuck Lake-Aasgard Pass approach is the shorter of the two routes—about six miles one-way—but requires ascending (and descending) ultra-steep Aasgard Pass, which climbs 2,000 feet (up to an elevation of 7,800 feet) in about a mile.
The Snow Lakes approach climbs more gently but is longer (10 miles one-way to Perfection Lake at 7,100 feet) and, since it starts at a lower elevation, requires more elevation gain—5,800 feet versus 4,500 feet for the Colchuck-Aasgard route. But if it’s high you’re looking for, and you’ve got quads of steel, you can’t go wrong with the Enchantments.
Certainly, both of these are burly day hikes which can be turned into overnight trips. As long as you have an Enchantment Area Wilderness Permit, most of which as long gone by now. However, every day except Sunday, a small number of permits are issued to interested parties at the Leavenworth Ranger Station. For more information, go to www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee/passes/enchantments or call 509-548-2550.
IF YOU GO:
Distance: 12.2 miles for Colchuck Lake approach; 20 miles for Snow Lakes approach.
Elevation Gain: 4,500 feet for Colchuck Lake; 5,800 feet for Snow Lakes.
Highpoint: 7,800 feet for Aasgard Pass; 7,100 feet for Perfection Lake.
Getting there: For the Snow Lakes Trail, take the Stevens Pass highway (Highway 2) to Leavenworth. Just west of town, go right on Icicle Road and continue 4.3 miles to the Snow Lakes Trailhead on your left. Elevation: 1,300 feet.
For the Stuart Lake Trailhead (which offers access to Colchuck Lake trail and Aasgard Pass), continue on Icicle Road 4.2 more miles. Turn left on Forest Service Road 7601. Drive 3.7 miles to the road-end trailhead parking lot. Elevation 3,400 feet.
Northwest Forest Pass required for parking at both trailheads. For the latest conditions, call the Leavenworth Ranger District at 509-548-2550.
Goat Peak Lookout
Not all hikes to that 7,000-foot mark require Herculean efforts. Despite towering over the Mazama end of the Methow Valley, Goat Peak Lookout is attainable after only about two-and-a-half miles (one-way) of hiking and 1,600 feet of climbing. As with just about all fire lookout sites, the views are stunning, far-reaching and panoramic (in that order) with views down into seemingly every nook and cranny of the Methow Valley. One of only two staffed fire lookouts in the Methow Valley, Goat Peak is staffed by Lightning Bill Austin, the poet laureate of fire lookouts who’s been featured on TV shows such as “Evening” magazine and who even has his own website: www.lightningbill.org.
IF YOU GO:
Distance: 5 miles.
Elevation Gain:1,600 feet.
Highpoint: 7,000 feet.
Getting there: Head east on Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway) to just past milepost 179 and turn left at the sign for Mazama. Just ahead, after crossing the Methow River, turn right onto Lost River Road and in about 2 miles, left onto Forest Road 52. Follow it for 2.7 miles, then turn left on FR 5225 and continue for about 3.5 miles. Turn right on FR 200 and reach the trailhead parking lot in 3 miles. Elevation: 5,600 feet. Northwest Forest Pass required. For the latest conditions, call 509-996-4000 or go to www.fs.fed.us/r6/oka/recreation/mvtrailn.shtml.
Panorama Point/Skyline Loop
No mention of high hikes in Western Washington State would be complete without including one on the flanks of Mount Rainier. This stunner heads up from Paradise on the mountain’s south side to 7,100 feet just below the Muir Snowfield. If you’re in the mood for exploring, there are lots of options to turn this excursion into a longer loop. Head over to the foot of Paradise Glacier or up to McClure Rock. Views south to the Tatoosh Range, Mount Adams and more are pure mountain magic.
IF YOU GO:
Distance: 6 miles.
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet.
Highpoint: 7,100 feet.
Getting there: Head to Paradise area in Mount Rainier National Park. Elevation: 5,400 feet. From the parking lot, find the Skyline Trail and begin heading up following the appropriate signs. Visiting Mount Rainier National Park requires a $15 entry fee. For the latest conditions, call 360-569-4453 or go to www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/trails-and-backcountry-camp-conditions.htm.
Admittedly, this trail is a bit of a grunt, but if it’s privacy you’re looking for—as well as some serious elevation—go ahead and get Windy. With the nearby Enchantments and Colchuck and Stuart Lakes luring the lion’s share of alpine lovers, you could have 7,200-foot Windy Pass to yourself. And the views here—far down into the Columbia River basin up to nearby Cashmere Mountain—are almost as good. An added plus: no Aasgard Pass to tilt at; just a steep, multi-switchbacked climb above Little Eightmile Lake and a long meandering meadow- and bowl-contouring climb to the pass.
IF YOU GO:
Distance: 15.6 miles.
Elevation Gain: 4,200 feet.
Highpoint: 7,200 feet.
Getting there: Take the Stevens Pass highway (Highway 2) to Leavenworth. Just west of town, go right on Icicle Road and continue for 8.5 miles to Forest Road 7601. Turn left and follow for 3 miles to the Eightmile Lake Trailhead. Elevation 3,300 feet. Northwest Forest Pass required. For the latest conditions, call the Leavenworth Ranger District at 509-548-2550.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books).
Find descriptions for these and other high-altitude hikes in the following books:
• “Day Hiking Central Cascades” and “Day Hiking North Cascades” (Mountaineers Books), by Craig Romano.
• “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books), by Mike McQuaide.
• “Day Hike!” Mount Rainier” (Sasquatch Books), by Ron C. Judd.
Along with being extremely strenuous, these hikes are potentially dangerous. At 7,000 feet and above, the weather can quickly change for the worse. Wear sturdy boots, carry the 10 essentials and watch the weather. Do not hike beyond your abilities.