Closer to Home: 3 Unforgettable Stops in East Oahu

So often, I find myself wistful whenever I browse through travel magazines and social media sites. Summit selfies and lakeside camp photos stir a longing in me that makes me wish I was anywhere but here. Thing is, here is a pretty darned great place to be–a fact I too often forget. More importantly, now is the moment I want to be in–and the only one we’re guaranteed. I’ll get back to the Olympic National Park and Seattle portions of our trip soon, but I wanted to pause for a bit to pay tribute to the humble backyard adventure.

To be honest, I guess I’ve been feeling a little burned out. Kids, work, activities–nothing new or out of the ordinary, but lately, it’s all been feeling like a bit much. I thought a little extra sleep might help. Or that maybe I needed to cut back on a weekend activity or two. Still, the feeling persisted. Then I walked past a Crayola-colored worksheet hanging on my son’s door–I am a Bucket Filler!–and it hit me.

I haven’t been filling my bucket.

Oh, I had a million excuses–kids, work, money…life–but the truth was, I’d let my bucket run dry. I count my blessings that we’re able to vacation most years (and these fill my bucket in a big way), but vacations can’t be expected to sustain you indefinitely. In neglecting to tend to my personal happiness, I’d lost sight of the everyday wonder in the here and now. I knew I needed to remedy the situation and was lucky enough to have 4 days off from work this week to do just that.

It didn’t take a lot of money–less than $20 for the entire week–and time was limited, with kids and activities to tend to. But it’s amazing how far you can stretch $20 and a few hours a day with simple pleasures. I sipped coffee and people-watched in a coffeehouse. Lay on the sand and watched the sun rise. Hiked in meditative solitude. Watched a movie (Queen of Katwe, which was excellent!) and shoveled a ridiculous amount of buttered popcorn. Slurped pho on a lunch date with my husband. Most of all, I watched waves crash over and over and released a breath I’d forgotten I’d been holding for months.

My favorite bucket-filling backyard adventure of the week was an excursion along the eastern coast of the island. Should you ever find yourself on Oahu, I highly recommend escaping the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and planning a day trip out east.

Stop 1: Sandy Beach and Makapu’u

Begin the day with sunrise at Sandy Beach, and prepare to be dazzled by early-morning surfers as they put on an electrifying show. img_20130910_132552

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Sunrise at Sandy’s–an unforgettable experience

Drive up the coast a mile or two and hike out to Makapu’u Lighthouse. More of a gentle stroll than a hike, there’s no better view to be had for less effort. Crowds are minimal on weekdays, allowing you to connect with your surroundings. I walked Makapu’u twice this week, meandering down a path toward lava tidepools and taking a spur trail near the entrance toward Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline. I considered hiking Koko Head instead (a monstrosity of 1,000+ railroad track “stairs” that I will post about another time), but there is a time for challenge and a time for being gentle with yourself, and this trip was definitely the latter. Near the top, I scanned the horizon–no whales today, though they will return soon enough–and savored the views of Rabbit Island and Molokai in the distance. At less than two miles, you can easily walk this paved path in under half an hour, but lingering is what truly makes this trail memorable.

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Backside of Koko Crater and the Ka Iwi Coast
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Looking back toward Koko Head
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Makapu’u Lighthouse
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View of Rabbit Island from Makapu’u Lighthouse overlook
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Views of Waimanalo and beyond

Stop 2: Halona Beach Cove

After Makapu’u, I headed back along scenic Kalanianaole Highway toward Halona Blowhole. This lava tube-meets-ocean attraction is on the radar of every tourist and guidebook on the planet, and for good reason: it’s spectacular. I jockeyed for parking with the endless parade of tour buses streaming into the parking lot and then escaped the crowds via a rock “staircase” that leads to the secret beach cove featured in From Here to Eternity and Fifty First Dates. To be sure, this “secret” is not much of a secret at all, as you can certainly see the beach from the overlook. However, in comparison to the number of people at the overlook, relatively few people venture down because of posted danger signs. The danger signs are no joke–the current is powerful here, and diving from lava rocks into rough ocean is not something I would advise. However, from a lone perch high atop the black lava rock, there is no better spot to admire Halona Blowhole as it hurls churning ocean water 30 feet into the air. I sat here for close to an hour, watching green sea turtles drift in and out of the cove. I wandered into a cave tunnel at the foot of the lava wall and felt my bucket overflow with the incoming tide.

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The steps down to Halona Beach Cove
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Beautiful blue-green water…be sure to admire from a distance
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There she blows! Halona Blowhole
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From inside the cave tunnel

Stop 3: Lanai Lookout

From Halona, I drove less than a mile to Lanai Lookout. A favorite of fishermen and tourists alike, Lanai Lookout doesn’t draw quite the same crowds as Blowhole, or maybe it’s that it draws a different type of crowd–quieter, more contemplative. Whenever I’ve found myself in need of quiet reflection, Lanai Lookout has always delivered. This trip was no different. I sat alone along the sea cliff and listened to the roaring surf pummel the coast. Tracked not one, but two ‘iwa (great frigatebirds) overhead, giant wings splayed a magnificent seven feet wide. Soon enough, it would be Monday. Soon enough, it’d be back to work and the familiar grind. But for now, I’ll savor the sun on my shoulders and the hot Kona coffee in my belly. Breathe in the salty ocean air and trace the smooth lava rock beneath my feet. Refill my bucket with the thunder of every crashing wave. Because this moment–the one before me right now? This moment is everything.

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The ocean is mesmerizing here
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My favorite view of Koko Head and Kalanianaole Highway
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Pounding surf at Lanai Lookout
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Oahu’s eastern shore, as seen from Lanai Lookout
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North Cascades: Ross Dam/Big Beaver Trail & Ladder Creek Falls

We fell asleep to the darkness of rain (read part one of our North Cascades adventure here) and awoke to the most glorious sight: light! Not sunlight, exactly, but something mercifully close. It illuminated the tent walls and warmed the ground beneath us. We clambered out of our tent, hoping to glimpse the sun, but in the thick of the forest, all we could see was canopy.

Correction: canopy and the tiniest speck of blue.

We were torn: our backcountry permit guaranteed us a second night along Thunder Creek Trail–a permit so coveted in rainy conditions for its natural protection from the elements that we were lucky to have snagged the last one. It was foolish to abandon a sure thing…and yet. The forest had been good to us, yes, but there was a promising patch of blue sky and a whole lot of National Park we had yet to explore.

Put to a family vote, the decision was unanimous: chase that sun!

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Thunder Creek Trail: a whole different animal in the sun!

We quickly broke camp and headed back, relieved to see the distant blue growing ever larger the farther we hiked. Light filtered through the trees and danced across the water, casting the forest anew; all that was wild and untamed yesterday was now docile and aglow. By the time we reached the trailhead, it was clear the sliver of blue we’d seen from camp was a mighty swath that stretched across the sky. We were in for a beautiful day!

We unloaded our packs and drove to Newhalem Visitor Center to return our bear canisters and Junior Ranger booklets. Not all Junior Ranger programs are created equal, and North Cascades’ was among the best we’ve ever participated in. From a kids’ corner with educational books, puppets, and board games to a swearing-in ceremony complete with special ranger hats and a stuffed grizzly, the park does an excellent job of fostering conservation ideals and a love of the outdoors in children.

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Turning in Junior Ranger booklets at Newhalem Visitor Center

With equal parts trepidation and exhilaration, we surrendered our Thunder Creek permit and left Newhalem without a backup itinerary. We were officially winging it: no plan for the day–and no campsite for the night. Whatever adventure North Cascades had to throw our way, we were eager and ready!

Diablo Lake

Our first stop after the Visitor Center was Diablo Lake Overlook, located just past Colonial Creek Campground on Highway 20. I’m certain we must have passed this turnoff on our way into the park, but with all of the fog and rain shrouding the road that day, we had no inkling that the lake even existed. Ironic, seeing as “missable” is the last word I’d use to describe Diablo Lake. Unparalleled. Sublime. These are the words that come to mind. From its exquisite aquamarine hue to the majestic glaciated peaks gracing its backdrop, this lake absolutely mesmerized us.

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Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park
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Quite possibly my favorite lake ever
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We had no idea that the rain and fog were hiding those glorious peaks!
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Panorama, Diablo Lake Overlook
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Glacial silt gives the lake its amazing hue
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After all the rain, we felt blessed to have such beautiful weather our last day in the Cascades

The best part about Diablo Lake is that it’s accessible to all. There’s no need to backpack or dayhike dozens of miles to see this extraordinary beauty; honestly, you barely even need to park your car! With visitation to North Cascades National Park topping out at less than 30,000 people a year, the overlook never feels crowded, even at the height of summer. Diablo Lake boasts backcountry beauty with frontcountry access–a rare and wonderful mix. I could have gladly lingered here all day, but the sun beckoned us on to Ross Lake and the unfinished business we had left to settle.

Ross Dam/Big Beaver Trail

Our backpacking excursion along Ross Lake was not to be, but we had time and sunshine to spare–the perfect excuse to explore Ross Dam and Big Beaver Trail, if only for the day. We parked at milepost 134 on Highway 20 and set off along a dusty gravel trail that wove through dense forest before dropping a steep mile toward Ross Dam. Charming creeks and magnificent peaks were the order of the day, and we were able to experience plenty of both in blissful solitude. With the sun beating down our backs, we even found ourselves stripping off our fleece pullovers, and dare I say it–perspiring!–for the first time since we’d arrived in Washington. Teaser glimpses of Ross Lake enticed us on.

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Ross Lake Trail, Take Two!
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This steep drop was not quite as fun on the return trip 😀

Standing 540 feet high and 1,300 feet long, Ross Dam spans the Skagit River in an impressive display of concrete and engineering. The views from the top are dizzying: on one side, the Skagit River–wild and green; on the other, Ross Lake–a well of vivid blue rivaling only the sky. We continued another mile and a half along Big Beaver Trail, contouring Ross Lake and daydreaming about the backpacking trip that wasn’t. Like all good dreams, coming so close only to miss was bittersweet. Still. When the Cascades hand you sunshine, you don’t squander it on regret–you take it it and hike like there’s no tomorrow! We savored those last two miles back and were even lucky enough to spot a pine marten on our return trip.

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The dusty gravel trail to the dam
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Walking across Ross Dam
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Ross Dam–540 feet high. The view from the top was mind-boggling!
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Skagit River, Ross Dam
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Ross Lake, North Cascades National Park
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Ross Lake was impossibly blue
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How amazing would it be to wake up to this view?
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Still can’t decide whether this little guy is cute or scary. A little bit of both, maybe?

Gorge Lake Campground

In spite of our newfound “embracing the moment” credo, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we experienced a moment of panic when we realized that our beloved site 82 in Colonial Creek was unavailable for the night. There were other sites to be had at Colonial Creek, but nothing compared to #82. Looking back, I’m so grateful for the way things worked out. Because if #82 hadn’t been occupied, we might never have discovered Gorge Lake Campground–and what may very well be my favorite campsite in any park, ever!

Gorge Lake is a primitive campground with a vault toilet and no potable water. Don’t let that deter you, though; it’s easy to stock up on water in Newhalem. (Tip: it’s a good idea to stock up on firewood, too; North Cascades doesn’t permit the collection of dead and downed trees except in the backcountry) There are only six sites, first come, first served at $10 each, but if you’re lucky enough to score one of three sites directly on the water, you are in for a treat. Quiet and spacious with unrivaled views of glassy Gorge Lake and distant peaks, these shaded sites are sure to set the gold standard for all future car camping trips.

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Gorge Lake, my favorite campground ever–the lake view from our tent was incredible
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Taking a break to sketch the scene

After pitching our tent, we sketched in our journals and enjoyed some late afternoon hot chocolate and ramen around the roaring fire. It was still broad daylight, but we had plans for the evening and knew we wouldn’t get back in time to build a fire later. We were drunk on sunshine and giddy with laughter. Those precious hours spent around our early evening campfire are among my favorite family memories ever.

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Coming from Hawaii, we’re probably unduly obsessed with campfires…this one borders on obnoxious, I know. 😀

Ladder Creek Falls Light Show

We capped off our time at North Cascades National Park with a short trek to Ladder Creek Falls to experience Seattle City Light’s nightly light show. Located behind Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem, the half mile trail to Ladder Creek Falls led us over a bridge and through several impeccably groomed flower gardens at sunset.

From there, we climbed to the top of the falls and waited patiently for what seemed like hours for the sky to darken. When at last the cotton candy hues of sunset had faded to dusk, all was awash in light–brilliant pinks and purples and blues. It felt like a nod from the Cascades, a proverbial wink. Because sunshine may be fickle around these parts, but if you’re willing and patient enough to wait, North Cascades National Park might just dazzle you with the most brilliant show of them all.

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Traversing the footbridge at dusk, Ladder Creek Falls
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Ladder Creek Falls, Seattle City Lights

 

North Cascades: Backpacking Thunder Creek Trail

Closed.

Definitely not the sign I wanted to see hanging in the Methow Valley Ranger Station window. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise; after all, it was July 4th, a federal holiday, and Methow Station operates as an outpost of the US Forest Service, a federal agency.

Only, it was a surprise. After 500 miles and 10 hours of driving in a cramped Mitsubishi Lancer, we didn’t expect to find ourselves an hour away from North Cascades National Park with no way to secure a permit to backpack Ross Dam Trail–and no backup plan.

Fortunately, the scrapping-the-itinerary routine had become old hat by now.

Let the chips fall where they may–we were going to roll the dice and hope for a walk-in campsite. It was a gamble, especially for a three-day holiday weekend that normally saw North Cascades campgrounds at max capacity, but we had faith. So maybe we wouldn’t be waking up dockside along Big Beaver Creek in the backcountry as previously planned. That was okay. After all, we still had the best part of our long drive from Glacier ahead of us: North Cascades Highway, aka Highway 20, dubbed “one of the most memorable drives in the United States” by Fodor’s. After Googling images of North Cascades online, we couldn’t wait to take this beautiful and scenic route into the park!

Then down came the rain.

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This was our view of North Cascades NP for over 48 hours

And not the pitter-patter, warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart kind of rain, either. Torrential, holy-crow-the-dashboard-is-registering-40-degrees kind of rain. At 12 noon. In July!

I flipped the windshield wipers to high and slowed the car to a crawl. I could barely make out the winding road, much less the picturesque alpine scenery North Cascades is famed for. Fog shrouded the road and clung to the mountainside like some physical thing. Sitting here in my warm and dry kitchen, I’m tempted to label the drive as atmospheric–moody, even. My trusty travel journal, however, reminds me that in fact (and I quote), it SUCKED. No revisionist history here!

Thankfully, we pulled into Colonial Creek campground safe and sound, albeit a little cold. Here is where our luck started to turn: the ranger at the campground office mentioned that the campground had been full just two hours ago, but that the turn in weather and end of the holiday weekend had heralded a mass exodus. Only 13 of the 142 sites were left occupied. Not only were we now guaranteed a campsite, we had our pick of whatever site we wanted! It was the figurative break in the clouds we needed. Straightaway, we snagged Site 82. Whereas other drive-up spots housed three to four smaller sites each, Site 82 was a single drive-up site, providing maximum privacy and quadruple the space of other sites. Situated directly on the lake with a potable water spigot, we couldn’t have asked for a better spot. We set up camp in record time, relieved to take shelter from the cold and rain.

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Site 82, Colonial Creek campground. Secluded and just steps from the water, this site was beautiful even in the rain. I can only imagine how gorgeous it would be on a sunny day!
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The best site in Colonial Creek and our shelter from the storm

An hour later, the world beyond our tent was still a wall of gray, but it had stopped raining, if only for a second, and we had three hungry kids to feed. We rifled through our bear box for the packaged food we’d intended to take backpacking with us that night: mashed potatoes, stuffing, and sliced deli turkey with dried cranberries. It might have been the 4th of July everywhere else, but it seemed fitting to celebrate Thanksgiving after the events of the day. Something about the cold made us savor that hearty meal like no other.

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Processed Thanksgiving food never tasted so delicious
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Admiring the view from the edge of our campsite
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Colonial Creek, North Cascades National Park
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4th of July sparklers
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Celebrating a quiet but happy 4th

It’s amazing how a little perspective makes you grateful for the simplest of pleasures. A hot meal. Not being rained on during dinner. Cookware washed and returned to the bear box before a downpour. A peaceful after-dinner stroll along Colonial Creek and its vibrant pop of turquoise beyond the brown from the heavy rain. We watched a family of geese drift by, content to ride out the pocket of good weather they’d come by–no expectations, no disappointment. We’d seen nothing of the park and likely wouldn’t for at least another day, but something about that moment stands out as being one of my North Cascades favorites. We curled up beside the fire, alternately toasting our frozen fingers and wool-clad feet and laughing at our youngest’s antics as he burned and waved sticks, calling them homemade sparklers. Happiness truly is a thousand little things.

North Cascades, Day 2

The next morning dawned grayer and colder than the one before, but waking up without an alarm for the first time in almost a week felt more luxurious than any electric blanket (though one of those would’ve been nice, too :-D). We cooked up a hot trail breakfast of freezer bag omelettes and pan-fried dehydrated hash browns. With coffee and hot chocolate coursing through our system, we felt energized to explore the park come rain or come shine.

Mostly, come rain.

Still, we were excited to finally pull into the Newhalem Visitor Center, a surprisingly spacious and modern facility given that North Cascades is the third least visited National Park in the US.

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Newhalem Visitor Center, completing Junior Ranger assignment to interview a ranger

We picked up Junior Ranger booklets and spoke with a wonderful ranger (thank you, Tyler!) about our backpacking options. With the weather slated to remain unstable for the next 24 hours, she advised us to avoid Ross Lake altogether and opt for a forest route that would offer better protection from the elements. Since we still wanted to be on the water, she suggested we backpack Thunder Creek towards Fourth of July Pass and camp along the creek. We left the Visitor Center with a two-night backcountry permit and bear canisters, which the NPS loans out for free.

Packing food and all scented items for five people for two nights into two bear canisters proved something of an impossible Tetris challenge, but somehow, we managed to snap those tricky lids shut. We pack fairly minimally, though we’re not ultralighters by any means, and darn it, those packs were heavy! My husband and I opted to split the majority of the weight between ourselves to prevent the kids from having to shoulder too heavy a load. Thankfully, the rain had slowed to a drizzle by the time we left Thunder Creek trailhead.

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At Thunder Creek Trailhead
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Our next Christmas card photo, maybe? 😀
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Clear eyes, full packs, can’t lose (any other FNL fans out there?) 

Ranger Tyler did not steer us wrong–Thunder Creek Trail was every bit as dry as could be reasonably hoped for in such wet conditions. A soft dirt path led us through a forest of old cedars and Douglas firs; the dense canopy above us heavy-laden with hanging moss and seaweed-like lichen. Waist-high ferns glistened with rain, and everywhere we turned, the forest teemed with life–slick green moss, fungi in warm golds and reds. If we were under the delusion that the forest was quiet and tame, we had only to look toward the upturned giant tree roots and roped-off rockfall areas to know that the Pacific Northwest was alive and wild indeed.

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Thunder Creek Trail, North Cascades National Park
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Every shade of green, Thunder Creek Trail
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Huckleberry patch just past our campsite…a little unsettling given all the bear scat we’d passed earlier!
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No grizzlies, but we saw signs of recent black bear activity along the trail.

Though the trail paralleled Thunder Creek, it wasn’t until two miles in that we got a clear view of the creek. Swollen with rain, the creek echoed the forest’s wild sentiment. Less turquoise and more green/aquamarine than Glacier’s streams, North Cascades’ waters are also colored by glacial silt. In fact, a display at the Visitor Center informed us that North Cascades Park boasts over 300 glaciers!

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Thunder Creek as seen from the bridge
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Break time under the bridge

We’d hoped to break for lunch at the bridge here, but a heavy downpour dictated we press on and set up camp sooner than later. We pitched our tent and hunkered down to ride out the weather, passing the time with Crazy Eights and Liar (our PG version of BS) card games.

Hunger eventually drove us out of our cozy tent and down to the creek, where we filtered water and dined on cold, soggy trail mix, which was actually far more appetizing than it probably sounds.

We wandered back to our tent in search of a campfire to warm our frozen limbs. Our resident Boy Scout had his work cut out for him with the forest so damp, but he succeeded in building a blazing fire. We must have sat there for hours, toasting our fingers and talking about anything and everything under the sun–or rain clouds, as it were. Before long, dinner beckoned, and we devoured pita pizza pockets of tomato paste, pepperoni, and mini Babybels (two thumbs-up from the kids on this one!) by the creek. With no itinerary or sunshine to goad us further, our time at camp felt more relaxing than any other I can remember. Quiet joy. Simple pleasures. Heartfelt connection. That day in the North Cascades, happiness looked an awful lot to me like thunder clouds and heavy backpacks worth their weight in gold.

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Just before the rain; enjoying lunch by the creek
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The greenest latrine we’ve ever seen! So grateful we didn’t have to dig catholes in the rain.
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Our cozy campfire; I think our oldest felt as triumphant as Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’ when he finally got that fire going!
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Fireside with loved ones–no place better in the world