5 Best North Cascades Hikes You've Never Heard Of
Maybe you just moved to Washington, and are looking to get out and see it properly. Maybe you’ve lived here a long time, and just haven’t gotten round to seeing the sights. Maybe you’re not even from the US, and you want to see a side of America they don’t show you in the movies.
Here’s a short list of some hikes (bordering on scrambles in a few cases) to places you don’t see listed in The Lonely Planet, or the Travel Channel. You may not see these in the tourist brochures, but rest assured, if adventure and beauty is what you seek, these trails will offer you unparalleled views, minimal crowds, and a chance to escape civilization and see sights like nothing you’ve ever witnessed before.
Colonial Glacier via Pyramid Lake Trail
Start: Pyramid Lake Trailhead, Hwy 20, near Diablo, WA
Difficulty: Strenuous, Nontechnical (some low grade scrambling on loose talus near basin)
Start at the Pyramid Lake Trailhead, and walk through easy forest on a well-maintained (and recently upgraded) trail through woods, following the Pyramid Creek to the lake. At the lake, follow the right-bearing boot path up and over a rock outcropping overlooking the lake. This is the last easy section before a few miles of steep boot path directly up the ridge arm. Some low-grade dirt and forest scrambles are to be had here, until you get to the first flat section on the ridge. Follow the trail through areas with some decent campsites, and one boulder field marked with cairns. Follow the cairns to an even steeper section of scrambling (no exposure or airy areas), before you finally open up onto the top of the ridge arm. The views open up on top of the ridge, and you have level, easy trail and rock to wander leisurely over, at the base of Pyramid Peak. If you choose to, follow the left-bearing path that deviates off toward the Colonial Basic area, and traverse the heather ledge to the open meadow area. A few cairns dot the rock fields a bit, but generally you want to aim for the spot just immediately right of the waterfall, and choose your own adventure through this section. Once on the rock lip where the waterfall empties over, it’s an easy stroll into the lake and glacier basin, and your miles of slogging are rewarded with commanding views of Colonial Peak, Pyramid Peak, Paul Bunyan’s Stump, Pinnacle Peak, and Colonial Glacier. DO NOT ATTEMPT THE GLACIER without a rope, crampons, ice axe, and minimum 3 person team (at least in late season). There are numerous crevasses and moulins and serac fields, and the glacier is active (and noisy).
Bonus treat: You can see one of the only lakes in WA that has large, actual icebergs floating in it, which is quite uncommon, and may not be around for long.
2. Crater Mountain
Start: Canyon Creek Trailhead
Difficulty: Strenuous, Nontechnical (unless you attempt the gully at the summit block)
Start out at the Canyon Creek Trailhead just a few miles east of the Ross Dam Trail Parking Area, and cross the bridge, and follow the trail for Jackita Ridge. Wind your way up over 53 switchbacks before you reach the junction for Crater Lake and Jackita Ridge. Veer left and follow the trail through brush and meadows until you arrive at a small campsite area that has space for 2-3 tents. Continue following the trail up to Crater Lake, and follow the boot path around the edge of the lake, and follow it up the ridge. It’s significantly easier along the ridge than earlier up the switchbacks, and after walking through a couple brushy sections and some forests, you’ll find yourself on wide open ridge territory, with expansive views of western and eastern Washington in all directions. You can continue following the trail up the ridge onto the rocky section, and there you can follow the trail to a gully that leads up toward the rest of the trail, and the summit. The Beckey Guide describes this section as “follow the yellow painted rocks to the summit”, but it’s really a steep, wide gully full of loose rock, with a significant amount of exposure. The early sections of the gully are easy enough, and there are even bolts in the rock that a rope could be threaded through, but what starts as easy class 3 escalates within a couple hundred feet to class 4, and the gully ends at what could be argued are class 5 sections over a smooth slabby slope. It would not be advised to explore this section if you don’t have adequate rock climbing gear and experience. The main ridge area is plenty spectacular on its own, and because of the (somewhat inexplicable) height of the peak in general, you’ll be higher on the ridge arm than many of the regional peaks.
3. Little Devil Peak Arm via Monogram Lake
Start: Lookout Mountain Trailhead, 6 mi east of Marblemount WA on Cascade River Road
Difficulty: Strenuous, Nontechnical
Starting at the Lookout Mountain Trailhead, you’re in for two and a half miles up pure uphill slog. This trail is only moderately steep, but the endless switchbacks and rapid altitude gain make this a sweat-dripper of a track. At the split in the trail after the creek crossings, go right for the Monogram Lake Trail, and steel yourself for more long uphill stretches, before the trail levels off in a meadow, then continues uphill onto the side of the ridgeline. It’s nice and easy and level with a slight downgrade to Monogram Lake. Stop for pictures, food, and water, before crossing the stream south of the lake across the logs. The way is a little hard to find at first, but it opens up on the ridgeline. Beware up here - the trail fades in and out in the heather patches. Take pictures of your position periodically here, for the return leg of the hike. After the heather, the trail reappears at the base of the main ridgeline. Here you can see views of El Dorado Peak (that can’t be seen from anywhere else), and the entire Cascade River Valley, with more sights of Sahale, Johannesburg, and countless others. The return leg of the journey can be a little hairy, since the trail is indistinct further down the ridge, so try and be off the ridge before sundown.
4. Ruth Mountain Arm via Hannegan Pass
Start: Hannegan Pass Trailhead, National Forest Road 2 off Highway 542
Difficulty: Mostly Easy, Moderate Nontechnical Scrambling for short distance at base of ridge arm
Start at the Hannegan Pass Trailhead, and follow the easy trail up to Hannegan Pass (only 2 switchbacks). Follow the south-bearing boot path up toward the ridge, and begin some steep, but nontechnical forest and dirt scrambles up onto a large bench with a scree and snow deposit. The trail bears left along the side of the ridge, and the trail becomes slightly indistinct, but follow the faint tread across the screen slopes back onto the main ridgeline, and follow it as far as you like toward Ruth Mountain. There’s plenty of excellent spots for camping, with incomparable views of Mount Shuksan, Baker, Sefrit, Seapho, the Nooksack Ridge, and peaks up in Canada.
There are additional trails to explore up here as well - on the return leg of your journey, a trail winds up the knob you walk under while crossing the scree fields, and if you take this trail instead of the trail you approached from, you can walk up onto a knob that looks out across multiple valleys, and take in views of Hannegan Peak, Copper Ridge, the Chilliwack River valley, and Goat Mountain and other peaks further west. And there’s even a convenient trail that traverses down the knob, so you don’t have to backtrack.
5. Mount Watson/ Upper Anderson Lakes
Start: Anderson/Watson Lakes Trailhead. Follow Baker Lake Road to the turn off for the Baker Dam, then follow the road 8 or 9 miles to a junction marked for Anderson/ Watson Lakes.
Difficulty: Easy, Nontechnical
Starting at the Anderson/ Watson Lakes Trailhead, a moderate uphill stretch will put you down in a wide meadowed area, and after the short catwalks over some of the meadows, a split with a sign directs you to either the lower Anderson lakes, or the Watson Lakes. Take the left trail, for Watson Lakes, and strike uphill towards a saddle between the Mount Watson ridge, and Anderson Butte. After you reach the saddle, you’ll cross down into the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness, and very shortly after the sign, a small, almost-indistinct bootpath veers right, up into the heather. Take this bootpath, and follow the brushy trail up onto the ridge crest, and then up onto a small plateau. Here, you’ll be presented with 2 boot paths that split in opposite directions - the left trail goes up and over onto rock slopes and the small Watson Glacier, and the other, the right-bearing path, takes you to the lakes. There’s plenty of nice camping, and the lakes are gorgeous, so you can stop and relax here, or investigate the area more, for more picturesque sights. If more adventure is what you seek, at the first lake, at the point where you first arrive at the lake, take the left bearing tread that meanders along the lake shore towards a forested gully. The tread becomes slightly less distinct, but you can follow it up the side of a mostly dry creekbed onto the Watson ridge, and then you can explore around the slopes of Mount Watson. There are a couple approach points for the summit, but it’s exposed class 3 on the summit blocks, so climbing the peak is not recommended without rock climbing gear, and experience with loose rock.
Dawnchaser is a Skagit-based electronic music producer, mountaineer, documenter of all things adventure, mountain, and travel-related, and manager of Kulshan Recordings. If he’s not in the studio writing music about adventures, he’s out on one.