Adventures mountains United States Washington

Backpacking North Cascades National Park – Sahale Arm

By on July 26, 2016

How many of you have heard of North Cascades National Park? If you haven’t, don’t feel bad. North Cascades is the most rugged and remote national park in the lower 48 and one of the least visited, which is saying a lot since it’s only 2 hours from the major metropolis of Seattle. Looking at the park map is a little intimidating, partially because there are places named Mt Formidable, Deadman Creek, Damnation Peak, and Mt Despair, but also because there is a serious lack of established  trails. The people who visit this park are mostly seasoned mountaineers who don’t mind going days without a shower (there are no public showers in the park or in any of the surrounding towns).


All photos are courtesy of NinetySeventy Photography

We flew in to Seattle in the middle of the afternoon on Wednesday and met up with our friends Wade and Kate, who had flown in earlier and picked up our rental car – a little Toyota Yaris that was so small I had sit in the middle seat so our backpacks could fit in the car! We stopped along the way for some food and wine before rolling into our front-country campsite around 10 pm. We quickly set up camp and crawled into our sleeping bags, trying to get as much sleep as we could before an early morning wake up to get backpacking permits. One of the challenges of North Cascades is that you need permits for backcountry camping, but you can only get them in the backcountry office in Marblemount, WA in person up to one day in advance. Needless to say we were up bright and early to get in line for our permits!

When we arrived at the backcountry office I was worried we wouldn’t get our first choice since there were quite a few groups in front of us. Luckily they were all “backcountry camping” along Ross Lake and were taking all the spots that had a boat dock for motorboats. When I told the ranger our plans (including getting a permit for a third night at Trapper Lake, which is no longer a maintained campsite), she was impressed and told us to be aware of thigh-high creek crossings and snow. Boy was she right!

Sahale Arm

After returning to camp to organize and pack our gear we headed up the road to the trailhead. The reports I read said the road was closed at mile 21. Luckily that wasn’t correct and we were able to drive all the way up to the trailhead. We started our hike around 10 under partially clouded skies. I had picked the hike because Jason and I both really wanted to camp on Sahale Arm and also so that we had something a little different each day, with day 1 being all uphill, day 2 being all downhill, and day 3 being a combination of both. With that in mind we started the long climb up to campsite number 1 at Sahale Glacier, but first we had to make it up Cascade Pass (probably the most photographed location in the park). The trail follows well worn switchbacks, I think I read there were 33 of them, from the trailhead, through thick forests, and finally up into the high alpine zone.

Cascade Pass

After a quick snack at Cascade Pass and a couple photos, we started the real climb up to Sahale Glacier. The trail was mostly solid but there were still some sections that were covered in sketchy snow, including one snow bridge over a small waterfall that was rapidly deteriorating. Despite my hip, I was having a grand time and was really thankful I had spent so much time practicing my uphill climbing while training for San Juan Solstice. Having my new Gregory pack that fits correct didn’t hurt either!

mama and baby

Look at that sweet baby!

Once we made it up to Sahale Arm we encountered our first group of mountain goats! They didn’t seem interested in moving off the trail, and since they had babies with them we didn’t really feel like trying too hard to encourage them. Eventually we gave up trying to get them to move and hiked off trail around them. At that point my hip was really starting to hurt from the relentless uphill. I knew everyone else was struggling but I just couldn’t stop anymore and wanted to make it to camp. I left the other three behind as I beelined it the remaining 1300 feet uphill to Sahale Glacier and dropped my pack at the first decent campsite I could find. After a little snack I walked back to the start of the glacier to wait for everyone else. Once we all made it up to the glacier I did a little exploring and found the best campsite.

nemo tent

We did a couple camp chores, like setting up our tents, moving scented items to a third, unoccupied rockwalled enclosed campsite, and filtering water while clouds closed in and the wind really started howling. According to Wade’s watch, which he left outside their tent, the temperature dropped 20 degrees within a matter of 20ish minutes! We huddled in the third campsite while we cooked and early dinner and were asleep before the sun truly set. I woke up once in the middle of the night to pee and realized the clouds had lifted and the sky was alight with the milky way and countless twinkling stars. I didn’t realize, until the next morning, that the clouds hadn’t lifted, they had sunk down into the valley. I woke up slightly before sunrise to see our campsite surrounded by mountain goats (thanks to me peeing too close to our tent) and the most perfect inversion I have ever seen. I snapped close to 100 pictures of the goats and the sunrise from the safety of our tent since Jason was worried the goats would attack.

Mtn goat

And…you’ll have to wait for part 2 to hear about the next part of our trip! Here’s the Strava information for Part 1!

All of us

All bundled up!