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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.