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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.