Crossing the North Cascades

The hike from Skagit Valley, over Cascade Pass and down to the remote village of Stehekin on the shores of Lake Chelan is one of the classic hiking routes in Washington State.

Driving up the North Cascades Highway to Marblemount and up along the Cascade River my heart always revs up with excitement. We made an early start and made it up the 40-something switchbacks to Cascade Pass.

The day promised to be a hot one and after a short rest we hoisted our packs and headed down, down, down…

I have hiked most of the trails in North Cascades National Park with the notable exception of the section we would cover today: From Cascades Pass east to Cotton wood Camp (and Horseshoe Basin!)

Dropping from Cascade Pass the trail navigates around the upper basin and soon passes the Pelton Basin campground. It’s not long before the switchbacks start. Whereas the trail up to the pass from the Skagit side is completely in forest, here the trail is exposed to the hot sun. Hiking down here I am already dreading the trip back up!

One nice surprise was the waterfall along Doubtful Creek as it bisects the trail on the east side of Cascade Pass, where there are small pools providing a much needed break and swim.

Waterfall on the Trail!

We made it to the trail junction with the spur to Horseshoe Basin, dropped our packs and headed up for a look-see. Having scoured many route guides about the North Cascades I had read about the amazing beauty of Horseshoe basin, but honestly was not prepared for what we saw there…

The trail follows the stream up into the valley; it follows a course along the stream, across the stream and in the stream, brushy and wet. Shortly the trail emerges into a clearing where boulders dot the basin floor. Climbing up on the largest, the view is transfixing. The green bowl is surrounded with grandeur, full of color and drama.

Horseshoe Basin

The basin was aglow in the afternoon light, orange granite spires surrounding the lip like fangs, too-numerous-to-count waterfalls glistening, their sparkling waters plunging down into the valley. There were wildflowers popping out everywhere, yellows and purples, reds and blues, all accenting the deep green of the basin floor.

Trail with Wildflowers

We hurried on, racing the sun, heading up the valley, climbing across boulders and scree, on to a snow field, up to the gaping hole of the Black Warrior Mine.

Entrance to the Black Warrior Mine

The North Cascades are full of old mining claims; piles of colorful tailings and rusted remains of sluices and Pelton wheels littered about. But I had never visited a mine that I could enter and explore. The Black Warrior Mine operated until the mid-1950′s and is a National Historic Place. There is a sign at the entrance giving a brief history of the mine, the names of the prospectors and misled investors who poured their mostly futile efforts into this hole. There are two main cavernous rooms blasted into the mountain side which make the opening of the mine. One of these “rooms” served as a kitchen while the other was used for workbenches and tools. Wooden supports and floor boards are flooded with water. Old tables and remains of habitation litter the floor. The shaft of the mine runs deep; several miles of tunnel remain, open for any brave person to explore.

Sign at Black Warrior Mine

The wonder of the place is still with me. Maybe its the history, all of the people who worked so long and hard here, digging and scraping for naught. Here, as in many of the North Cascade valleys, it was miners who blazed the trails that we now use to visit the high country. The road from Stehekin, long ago, came all the way to the mine entrance. Over time nature has reclaimed the road, now vehicles can only go as far as High Bridge, 17 miles downstream.

Em in the Black Warrior Mine

The falling sun chased us out of the valley, we camped at Basin Creek camp that night and then next day headed down the valley, east, towards Cotton Wood Camp.

The allure of fresh pastry made us alter course, and instead of heading up Park Creek Pass, we opted for a trip to Stehekin. Our timing was perfect; we made it to High Bridge (On the Stehekin River Road) the next morning at 9am and caught the North Cascades National Park shuttle down the valley.
North Cascades Bus

Along the way our jam-packed tourist bus passed a huge black bear and her two cubs foraging for berries; I was disappointed to miss the chance to visit and capture a few images, but my chance would come soon enough!
The Stehekin Pastry Company is rightfully famous. Delicious, fresh treats, ice cream, espresso, friendly staff and a comfortable place to relax…

The Stehekin Pastry Company

It was a hot day in Stehekin. So we took shelter at the local restaurant and then took the bus back up the valley to visit Rainbow Falls. The 300 foot cataract provided lots of cooling!

Rainbow Falls

Next we visited the old Stehekin School house and then the local organic farm. Now we needed to await the last shuttle bus back up the valley, and what better place to while away the time than at the Stehekin Pastry Company!

The last shuttle was full when we boarded and headed back towards High Bridge. But after the bus stop at Courtney Ranch we were the only ones left for the rest of the trip.

The hike along the Stehekin River Road is in itself fantastic. The river cuts a deep cleft through the cliffs at High Bridge and the confluence with Bridge Creek creates a wondrous series of cataracts and islands.

The last few miles we flew up the trail and made it back to camp in the complete dark.

The next day we again left before sunrise, hoping to beat the heat on our way up to the pass. We reached Basin Creek with its flown-in foot bridge and were greeted by a nice breeze and perfect skies.

Bridge over Basin Creek

It was early in the morning when we came back to the trail junction with the Horseshoe Basin trail. I wanted to have another view, this time with different light. So we stopped and were having a snack before heading up the valley when we had a visitor.

The main trail coming down from Cascade Pass makes a long traverse of the mountainside, descending towards the valley floor. At the elbow of a switchback the spur trail heads up the Basin Creek draw to Horseshoe Basin. We were sitting at the junction, relaxing, when I saw a black bear heading down the trail towards us. My camera was nearby and I ran for it, got the settings adjusted and started shooting. As the bear approached she spied us and slowed her pace. My pulse was pumping with excitement as she got closer and the images clearer. I was viewing the entire scene from my view finder and suddenly had the realization that the bear was getting pretty close!

Black Bear at Horseshoe Basin

I lowered the camera and considered what to do. The bear was now at the trail junction, about 15 feet from me, she paused, considering her options. My friend and I both realized that she was wanting to pass up the spur trail to the basin, right past us!

Black Bear at Horseshoe Basin Junction

We sort of backed up, along the hillside, and spoke soft words to the bear. She gave us a look of resignation and then headed further down the main trail, cutting across the hillside just below our spot traversing below us for about 50 feet, then popped up through the brush and back onto the spur trail. She gave us a last look, and continued her way on the trail up to, we assumed, good foraging grounds in Horseshoe Basin.

Exulting in our good fortune, excited and energized, we finished our snack and followed her up the valley to the basin.

Horseshoe Basin

Tracing our earlier steps from a few days ago, we hiked up into the valley, but this time not all the way to the mine entrance. I worked on my mostly futile efforts to capture the grandeur of the flowers, spires and waterfalls, and then we headed back down to our packs and continued the slog to Cascade Pass and Sahale Glacier Camp.

The change in flora as I trudged up the switch backs was enormous. The lower basin on the east side of Cascade Pass is filled with cotton wood trees and Douglas-fir. A few miles above the trail traverses the mountain side and is bereft of any plants, just crushed rocks and boulders. Then the trail swings south and starts its zigzagging route upwards. Here the trail is choked with slide alder.

As the trail approaches the upper basin just below cascade pass the temperature dropped considerably. From sunny to misty, the forest was now populated with tall sub-alpine fir, a carpet of evergreen needles covered the trail. It was like we had been transported into a new landscape.

Camping at Pelton Basin was a cold, damp affair. We broke camp on a gray, cold morning and quickly arrived at Cascade Pass and headed up towards Doubtful Lake and Sahale Arm. The fog filled the pass, now below us. Myriad wildflowers were everywhere. It was so early there was no one else on the trail, only several deer.

Deer at Cascade Pass

There is no way to describe the hike along the Arm. The trail is up, almost every step. There are no switch backs, just steep and steeper. Lush greener-than green meadows sprinkled with colorful flowers abound.


Views of the surrounding peaks are astounding.

Wildflowers on Sahale Arm

Sahale Glacier Camp is located on three mounds of rock and scree at the base of Sahale Glacier. As you hike up the Arm it seems at times that the mounds are not getting closer but seem inaccessible, like a mirage, they seem to float above.

The last pitch of the hike is the steepest; the trail climbs straight up the mountainside. Finally reaching the lip of the central mound there is a wooden sign post directing you to the compost toilet which sits on the ridge to the west of camp. Without a doubt the best view I have ever had from a toilet!

View from Sahale Toilet

The campsites themselves sit either atop the mounds of rubble or on the slopes behind. Someone has painstakingly built turret-like windbreaks around each tent pad.

The camp provides a birds-eye view of Mix-up Peak, The Triplets and Magic Mountain as well as a whole host of too-numerous-to-count peaks, filling up the horizon. On a clear day Mount Rainier is clearly visible. It’s common to see goats there near the camp, looking for anything salty.

Mountain Goat at Sahale Camp

We arrived and set camp early in the afternoon then sat watching the battle between sun and clouds. To the east the sky was mostly clear while to the west the valley was filled in with white. When the sun was out it created a roasting heat and as soon as the clouds obscured its rays the temperature dropped by 20 degrees.

I kept on hoping that the sun would win, I had brought my tripod just so I could capture some images of the Milky Way over the Cascades. About an hour before sunset it became clear that cloudy was going to win and we almost packed up and left, but opted for staying the night. The white out was complete; we could only see 2 or 3 meters. The wind howled and the tent flapped all night…we arose before sunrise and made it back to the car by 9:30.

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