After our brief respite at Cascadian Farm, we were back on the road heading towards the North Cascades. We stopped in Marblemount to fuel up, because it is home to the last gas station before entering the park. There wouldn’t be another full service community until we got out the other side of the park and reached Winthrop, almost 88 miles away. While we were there, we stocked up on water and a few supplies for the night, grabbing a hot sandwich at a takeaway place situated in the cabin of a parked train.
We also took the time to check out Wildwood Chapel, a diminutive church that seats a maximum of 9 churchgoers and smacks of pure Americana at its adorable best. You could almost pick it up and put it in your pocket, if you were in need of a mobile place of worship.
The road wound through Newhalem which is the gateway to the North Cascades National Park. It was late in the day so we didn’t bother to stop, as the ranger station would be closed by now. Instead, we kept on driving along State Route 20 which twisted through the mountains beside the Skagit River.
I was confused; we were now officially in the park but massive power lines skirted the roadway and cut ugly gashes across the otherwise stunning landscape. If I had looked at maps of the surrounding area before we set out, it might not have come as such a surprise; near Marblemount there’s a road that runs parallel to the North Cascades Highway called Power Line Road. Riverbeds dotted with ghostly tree stumps bore traces of what lay up ahead.
There are a total of three dams along the river, which have given rise to three major lakes – Ross, Diablo and Gorge reservoirs. They supply Seattle with hydro-electricity and were constructed by Seattle City Light before the area was established as a national park in 1968. The lakes themselves were beautiful, sparkling an iridescent, glacial green against a glorious backdrop of smoky mountains…
…but the power lines really got to me. It is hard to revel in the unspoilt beauty of the wilderness when you’re surrounded by pylons and the hum of electricity. In the 1920s it was all the rage for tourists to come up here to see the mountains but also to visit the hydro-electric works – there are interpretive trails in the Newhalem area that explore the history of the power stations. Nowadays, the lakes serve as a major recreation area with boating and jet ski facilities for water lovers. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track, however, the North Cascades will make you work for it. The park is wedge-shaped, running from the Canadian border in the north all the way down to Lake Chelan in the south, and there’s really only one major road that passes through it, the one we were on. Unlike other parks which have roads that wind you through large portions of the park, the North Cascades taunts you with what might lay beyond the asphalt, if you leave your car behind and go off backpacking into the wilderness. At 684,000 acres, there’s plenty of exploring to be done with hundreds of glaciers, vast subalpine meadows and miles of virgin forest. It also crosses the east-west divide of the Cascades which means you get totally different terrains within the same park; in the west the rain-drenched climes allow hemlock, fir and cedar to flourish; the high desert of the east favours ponderosa pine and sagebrush.
We pushed on further and somewhere along the way the power lines disappeared and it felt like we were finally in the park. Our little car climbed higher and higher towards Washington Pass and then suddenly, dramatically, we got our first sight of Liberty Bell, a cluster of craggy, 7,500 foot high giant peaks that feature prominently in most guides to Washington State.
We gasped in unison. It really is an imposing sight; Mother Nature pulled out all the stops on this hulking massif. Jo glanced over at me as we approached the entrance to a trail head. “Fancy another hike?” she asked tentatively, wondering if I’d recovered from my traumatic struggle up Sauk Mountain earlier in the day. “Oh yeah” I was almost out of the car before it stopped. Jo needn’t have worried; this trail was a doddle compared to the earlier one. Paved and gently inclined, we rambled through rocky outcrops dotted with dwarf pines and marvelled aloud at the dramatic views spreading out before us. The North Cascades are sometimes referred to as the American Alps and looking around, I could see why.
Liberty Bell towered above us as the light began to fade and a thick mist settled, dusting our faces with beads of moisture. The air smelled so fresh it was intoxicating.
On our way out we ran into a ranger and learned to our surprise we were no longer in the national park. Somewhere around where the power lines had disappeared, we had entered the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “So this trail is maintained by the national forest?” Jo asked. “Yhup” grinned the forest ranger. “Hats off to you guys” we both agreed it was a gorgeous trail, immaculately maintained. “Come back soon” he waved goodbye as we pulled out of the parking lot and dipped down into a misty valley on the other side of the pass.
In the rear view mirror Liberty Bell watched over our departure. We decided we should come back the following day to take in the views during daylight. Our little campground, Lone Fir, was just a few miles along the road, a picture perfect forested site with a babbling brook in the background. We drove around the loops twice before settling upon our site for the night. Jo announced she wanted to try setting up the tent single-handed – she’s been dreaming of doing the John Muir Trail on her own for a while so solo tent pitching would be a must. She got almost all the way to the end, but got stuck at the last hurdle so I gave her a hand with the final step. For my part, I managed single-handed to unfurl my sleeping bag and lay it out on the back seat of the car, which, as we had established on our Great Volcano Road Trip, was the most sensible place for me sleep. Jo congratulated me on my achievement, then retired to her tent as I snuggled up in the back seat of the car and gazed up at the stars as I drifted blissfully off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that an entire car lay between me and the bears and cougars I imagined lurking behind every clump of trees.
Here’s some footage of our trip today
What wonderful scenery….it reminds me of Scotland 🙂
It’s just extraordinary countryside, Seonaid, and yes, very reminiscent of Scotland (at least the little I’ve seen of it.) Which reminds me, I must make a point of exploring your amazing part of the world more when I get a chance. xxx Ailsa
Amazing footage and the opening cello into the chapel was perfect! Clambering over those rocks and on the edge of the path ….BRAVO! More please!
That trail over the rocks was my favourite part of the trip, it was worth the drive just to do that. The views were beyond beautiful. xxx
I would do it in a heartbeat too!
What a fabulous hike, I can’t blame you for practically jumping out of the car to get started.
It was so much fun, and wow, what scenery! 🙂
Even in the gloomy weather, the photos (and video) are alluring. We were there when my two children were young; enjoying the remarkable color of the lakes, the easy hike to Rainy Pass Lake and waterfall, and even the Lake Diablo dam. BUT we found that starvation and crankiness can dilute the experience if you forgo the food availability at the dam tour. Heading west on Rt. 20 it would be hours before starving children’s faces could be fed! Always enjoy your posts! M
Oh no, hungry kids are not to be trifled with, and yes, it’s a long ride to the next food stop. I can imagine the heartache! xxx Ailsa
I love the North Cascades and the whole Cascade Loop. Thanks for bringing back great memories from when I was a tour guide and took groups on this loop. Still remember stopping to check out beautiful Liberty Bell one September when the snow season started early! I didn’t even have a jacket.
Ooh how wonderful, I bet it’s stunning in the snow. I didn’t realize you worked as a tour guide in that area, how much fun. I bet you have some interesting stories to tell! 🙂
Yes, in the snow Liberty Bell is amazing. I used to run 3 tours that started in Seattle. The San Juan Islands and Olympic Peninsula, the Cascade Loop, and a Seattle to San Francisco coastal trip. Even managed to go up to Victoria and Vancouver for one tour. My favorite memories are of a whale specialist that would come on the charter boat and talk about the beautiful Orcas playing in front of us, visiting Lake Quanault and hiking in the rain forest, and there’s something about Port Townsend that I love which always made it a fun spot to visit. I had friends living in Seattle at the time so I always enjoyed catching up with them too. Now I have family out by Snoqualmie Falls and hope to make the trek up North to show my family all my favorite spots. When you post about Washington it brings back great memories and I always want to visit spots I missed during my tour guide days. On my old blog I did quite a few posts on the tours I used to lead… Some definite funny and memorable moments that will last for a lifetime.
Oh wow, I’ve always wanted to see the Orcas, how great that you got to see them on your tours. Are they as majestic as I imagine them to be? I love the rain forest too, there’s something so otherworldly about it. Is your old blog still active? I’d love to have a peep at it if it’s still online. xxx
Whenever people talk about whale watching I flash back to the days when I looked at the Orcas with the experts near the San Juan Islands. I was so spoiled. They knew them by name after looking at their tags. They were so playful and so big! They were always jumping around and so close to the ship. Yes, they are quite majestic.. if I had to do it over I would probably be a marine biologist to study them and some of the other amazing creatures out there.
I’d suggest going up near the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands in the summer to check them out… you are very likely to see them there- in a smaller craft.
I still have my old blog up.. At the time I was blogging for a year straight! You can imagine I wrote about a lot of stuff.. including travel posts since travelling is one of my favorite things to do. Now that I’m older and a mom we don’t get around as much, but since my husband is Italian we go to Italy and France every once in awhile besides making our way around California & Louisiana where my parents live. Have a great weekend.
Here is a post on Washington that I did awhile back: http://jardinluxembourg.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/seattle-the-cascade-loop-and-all-that-washington-state-has-to-offer/
Thanks for doing the video Ailsa as it makes one feel as though one was there watching for the beats and cougars. 🙂 Amazing scenery! Any black flies this time?
Sue, I am very happy to report the black flies stayed back at Sauk Mountain, hurrah, I slept in peace. 🙂
No bears or black flies. There’s a blog post waiting to be written 🙂
Haha, sounds like a plan 🙂
So enjoyed your video, and your clambering over those rocks to the edge was incredibly impressive! Made me feel a bit acrophobic 😉 I’m not a camper (give me running water and a soft cozy bed), but I can certainly appreciate why the experience draws so many to it. Looking forward to more of your journey!
I have to admit to being an absolutely wussy camper, I don’t mind the lack of water (for a day or two) but I’m with you on the cosy bed, and the slightest rustle in the bushes has me shaking like jello. That’s why I slept in the back seat of the car – upholstered seats and no rustling bushes. 🙂
Thanks so much for the laugh out loud moment I just had 😀
I aim to please 😉
Great trip, Ailsa. That teeny tiny chapel is so cute. 🙂 The misty valley pic is my favourite. Love the music. 🙂
I couldn’t get over the multiple shades of blue in that misty valley, Sylvia, it was mesmerizing. 🙂
Gosh how fabulous!
You would have loved it, Gilly, it was such a beautiful trail. xxx
Gorgeous photography and wonderful post Ailsa! You’re making my homesick for the Pacific Northwest … and I’m from New England, So that’s really saying something!! LoL
Haha that really is saying something, 🙂 I haven’t explored New England very much at all, but I hear it’s THE place for leaf peeping! 🙂
I cycled along this same road about 10 years ago. Still as beautiful now as then. I wasn’t quite as distracted with the power lines as you were – perhaps due to the fact that I was gasping for breath most of the time. Great photos. You are such an able storyteller.
Wow, you CYCLED that route? Judy, my hat is off to you, my friend, that is quite an accomplishment. I need to lie down for a bit just thinking about cycling it. 🙂
What a lovely trip. Your photos are wonderful.
Thank you so much, yes, it’s been a wonderful trip so far. xxx Ailsa
Lovely video and pictures, Ailsa! I was in Seatle and Tacoma only once and for a short time… these huge mountains looks impressive (and Mount Rainer remember me of our Matterhorn!)
Thank you for posting 🙂
Oh boy, the Matterhorn is amazing. I’ve only seen it from a distance but I’ve always wanted to get up close. xxx Ailsa
I’m a sucker for misty, brooding mountain vistas, love your photos!
Me too, what would life be without mountains? I have to escape to the mountains at least a couple of times a year, it’s good for the soul. xxx
Great post with really interesting pictures! I love the little Wildwood Chapel. And I agree about the power lines — shouldn’t there be some kind of “let nature be” law when putting those up?
I agree, Rusha. However, all of those power lines and dams were put up before legislation turned the area into a National Park. Sadly, they got there too late and the damage was already done. xxx