North Cascades, WA

It was a long drive to the North Cascades, arriving in total darkness to my campground to set up my tent. I ate a stupid peanut butter and jelly sandwich like a total goober at the pitch black picnic table. But fortunately, all of this turned out to be worth it, because this was the best hike of my entire trip, bears included. More on that later.

I parked at the Cascade Pass trailhead at around noon, a little late in the day for the long hike that I’d planned (11.5 miles there and back to Sahale Glacier), but still I began to climb the switchbacks. 30 of them to be exact, but that’s the number the REI parks app told me. I counted 32. Dirty liars.

Straight up through the densely wooded Washington woods, the first hike in this state that I’d done so far. Everything was so green. The ferns, the tall, stretching trees, the generously leafy and healthy foliage covering absolutely everything. And nearly up the switchbacks, I took in a clear breath. The trees opened up to give me a view of the mountainside.

Snow-dusted peaks atop steeply carved valleys, a gradient of white to gray to deeper and deeper shades of living green, colors that could never be mixed on a palette.

The snow on the peaks thickened as I ascended, chunks of ice way up the crevices in places. The switchbacks mercifully smoothed out, and I was able to peek my head out over the dense tree line. Cascade Pass, about 4 miles in.

The rocky, boulder-laden mountainside burst into petals of deep pink and delicate white, set in front of fresh, spring-green grass. Huge swaths of the crags up there were still entirely laden with snow, as if the summer had gone unnoticed.

I checked my watch as I looked at the sign that read Sahale Arm, only just enough time to make it there and back before dark if I proceeded. I took a good rest at the pass, tightened my backpack, and decided to climb that remaining two miles up to the glacier.

Those two miles were the steepest part of the nearly 4,000 foot ascent. If I had thought that the 32 switchbacks were murderous, this was even more of a challenge. But it was all worth it to get a glimpse of the deep emerald and sapphire “Doubtful” Lake resting deep in the concave of the slate mountain.

I ran into a family of mountain goats about three times over the course of the day, almost literally one of those times. I came around the side of the hill to see them ambling in my direction. I backed off and let their fuzzy butts pass. So cute, and almost pettable, if not for the sharpened horns and powerful hooves. I certainly wish I could jump up the cliffs and hills as easily as they could.

Finally above the tree line, the wind cut straight into my damp shirt, forcing me to put on my windbreaker. Utterly magnificent, heavenly peaks cascaded in all directions. It was almost too perfect and beautiful, and that’s what makes these places so immeasurably special and irreplaceable.

I stared up the last stretch of the mountain, my feet and legs already shot from all of these previous long hikes. It was a little brown path that struck up the short grass of the upper mountain, through the white and purple flowers. The highest peak I could see, I was determined to finish the climb.

Shuffling and slipping, squinting up into the unbridled sun, the last couple hundred feet were certainly the hardest. Nothing but exposed boulders to climb, my hiking poles constantly getting lodged in their crevices, having to take time to find a steady foothold that wouldn’t send me slipping back down the mountain onto my butt (or worse).

The sheer boulders miraculously leveled out, and Sahale Glacier spread out like a picnic blanket at the foot of the sheer peak. I triumphantly took a seat overlooking the impossible view below.

Sahale Glacier. There is surprisingly a campground at this point as well.

Like sitting up in the clouds, an eye in the sky, the very top of the world. Nothing else existed, except this place. Jagged, gray, snowy, green-touched peaks in the pristine alpine air, the icy wind running into my lungs and freezing my nose and ears. The bowl of Doubtful Lake laid way down beneath my feet, the path I’d struggled up winding back across the ridge into nonexistence. A perfect place, and a perfect seat for a very tired hiker.

Lots of ladybugs up there, actually.

Six miles back down the Cascade Pass trail. But that wasn’t the end of my day. Just before the actual Cascade Pass, someone warned me about yet another bear down the mountain. I thought it was really just another warning, a bear I wouldn’t see, until I peered down there. The black bear was tromping through the grass in the steep meadow, but still far below. I was actually surprised I’d finally seen a bear after all the warnings.

So I waited for two other hikers to come down behind me, warned them too, and then walked down the trail a bit more as we all kept an eye on the bear. It was actually a rather cute black bear, sometimes slipping on the rocks and munching on the plants. Cute, that is, until we saw a man and his kid marching straight toward it on the trail below (unbeknownst to them).

We yelled down to them, far too far away to do anything else. The man finally stopped and spotted the bear just fifteen feet off the trail from him. And. He. Fucking got his camera out.  Kept standing there. With his ten-year-old kid.

I marched down there with my bear spray to try and mitigate this display of dumbassery before something actually happened. The guy was unfazed at the black bear eating grass now ten feet away, and even the couple that had walked down with me got out their big stupid cameras to take pictures too. And they all kept sitting there. So I stood there warily watching the bear, waiting for the dummies to move away from it. I didn’t want to just leave them there, especially being the only one with bear spray. So I broke down and took a couple pictures too as I waited, hating myself. The hikers eventually moved forward, and I booked it back down the trail.

But I kept going, slipping and sliding a bit, giving myself a sore ankle after twisting it more than once on the gravelly decline. Stupidly, I ran out of water the last mile before the trailhead because I hadn’t expected to have enough time to go up to Sahale Glacier (didn’t fill up the hydroback the entire way before I set out). Nevertheless, shin-splints pointedly aching, I made it the last mile back.

No more 12 mile hikes on my agenda for the rest of my trip, fortunately for my joints. Took me about 6 and a half hours total, with all the pictures and rests and the bear, never mind the 4000 foot ascent and descent. But I wore good boots, and you should too if you want to attempt this hike.

The most beautiful and amazing hike on my list, with Glacier a very close second. I would undertake this again, with a hiking buddy, and an earlier start. Very highly recommended place!

2 thoughts on “North Cascades, WA

  1. Pretty amazing wildlife encounters! I’m so glad the bear didn’t attack the idiot hikers, endangering their child and the bear. Some people, ugh. You are awesome to have stood by with bear spray just in case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was really just astounded to be witnessing such stupidity haha. I was just thinking, “THIS is how bear attacks happen (and why we can’t have nice things).” Photography is not worth your life.

      Liked by 1 person

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