Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm

Doubtful Lake and the North Cascades from Sahale Arm
12 miles round trip, 4100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

The view of endless peaks and glaciers from atop the Sahale Arm in Washington State's North Cascades is usually reserved for only mountaineers, goats, birds, and deities. This trail, though a bit of a workout, provides the rest of us with a rare opportunity to hike to the rarefied air at nearly 8000 feet on one of the tallest peaks in the range and gaze out at a spectacular panorama. This is one of my favorite hikes in Washington State and the Pacific Northwest and it is among the best day hikes in a national park in the United States. Hikers looking for a less taxing hike may choose to turn around at Cascade Pass, still a scenic destination, but doing so means missing out on some of the most stunning mountain views imaginable.

I hiked up to Sahale Arm on a nice September weekend. From Seattle, it was just under a three hour drive: I took I-5 north to Arlington, then followed Highway 530 east through Arlington and Darrington to Rockport. Upon meeting Highway 20, I turned right and followed Highway 20 east to Marblemount, where I made the right turn for Cascade River Road at the spot where Highway 20 made a sharp bend to the left. I followed Cascade River Road to its end at the Cascade Pass Trailhead. After crossing the North Fork Cascade River, the Cascade River Road became a bumpy gravel road for the rest of the way to the trailhead.

The trailhead was situated at the foot of the massive north face of Johannesburg Mountain. Once I hit the trail, the views disappeared as I hiked into the forest. The first 2.5 miles of the hike were straightforward: a long ascent via constant switchbacks up the forested slopes on the north side of the valley. The climb was long but the grade was steady, spreading out 1500 feet of elevation gain over the 2.5 miles. At the conclusion of the switchbacks, the trail flattened out as it followed the contours of the mountain south towards Cascade Pass. As I left the forest, views opened up of the great North Cascade Peaks around me. Mixup Peak and Magic Mountain rose above Cascade Pass ahead of me while the sharp teeth of the Triplets rose above some small snowfields and glaciers across the valley. The short days and cool weather of September had gifted colorful fall foliage to the shrubs of this alpine zone.

Approaching Cascade Pass
Fall colors near Cascade Pass
As the trail crossed an open scree slope, views widened even more: mighty Eldorado Peak towered above the Middle Fork Cascade valley, its summit ridge coated with the snows that formed its dramatic Knife Edge and fed the Inspiration Glacier. The great rock wall of Johannesburg remained impressive from this angle.

Eldorado rising over Cascade River Valley
The north face of Johannesburg Mountain
At 3.5 miles, the trail rolled up to Cascade Pass, one of the easiest mountain passes over the North Cascades and a route frequented by Native Americans crossing between the Skagit lowlands and Stehekin. Views back down the Middle Fork Cascade Valley encompassed Eldorao and the ridges of Forbidden Peak, while the view down Stehekin Valley featured Magic Mountain and faraway McGregor Mountain. Dayhikers wishing for a moderate hike can turn around here, but they'll miss the true scenic highlights of this hike.

Eldorado and Forbidden from Cascade Pass
The pass featured a four-way junction. The trail continuing straight from the pass led down to Stehekin and Lake Chelan, while the trails to the left and right led to the Sahale Arm and Mixup Arm, respectively. While my hike took me up the Sahale Arm, the trail heading towards the Mixup Arm is interesting as the start of one of Washington State's most famous and beautiful alpine routes. The Ptarmigan Traverse starts here and follows the glaciated crest of the North Cascades to Dome Peak, where it ends with a descent to the Suiattle River Road. This alpine high route requires glacier-travel experience and equipment.

Cascade Pass
Taking the fork for the Sahale Arm, I followed the trail as it climbed fairly aggressively through a series of switchbacks, providing continuously nice views of the wall of peaks bounding Cascade Pass to the south: Johannesburg, Triplets, Mixup, Magic, and Pelton.

Johannesburg Mountain from trail up Sahale Arm
The trail continued an aggressive climb until it gained the ridgeline of the Sahale Arm. Here, it flattened out a bit as it started to follow the wide backbone of this major ridge and a mile after leaving Cascade Pass it arrived at a series of beautiful viewpoints over Doubtful Lake. This lake was nestled in a bowl formed by the encircling Sahale Arm on the slopes of Sahale Peak; the peak itself rose across the lake above the small Sahale Glacier. The terminus of the Sahale Glacier ahead was the destination of this hike.

Sahale Peak rising over Doubtful Lake
From here, the trail made a constant and continuous ascent along the backbone of the Sahale Arm. This was pure hiking bliss: even though the trail climbed quite steeply at times, the path was winding through open huckleberry and heather meadows with stunning views of massive mountains all around. Glory Mountain and McGregor Mountain towered over Stehekin Valley to the east while Mixup Peak, Magic Mountain, and Pelton Peak rose to the south, and soon, Mount Formidable began peeking through cuts in the mountain wall behind me.

Glory Mountain and Stehekin Valley from Sahale Arm 
Magic Mountain and Mixup Peaks with Sahale Arm fall colors
The views to the west were also incredible. Forbidden Peak and Eldorado Peak- two of the most impressive and rugged mountains of the North Cascades- towered over the Middle Fork Cascade valley. Eldorado, also known as the Queen of the Cascade River, certainly appeared regal with the great ice masses of the Eldorado and Inspiration Glaciers spread out on its east-facing aspects.

Eldorado and Forbidden from Sahale Arm
I also spotted Hidden Lake to the west, nestled in a high cirque beneath the ciffs of the Hidden Lake Peaks. Hidden Lake Lookout sat atop a sharp peak to the left of the lake, while the serrated profile of Sauk Mountain, which rises above the confluence of the Sauk and Skagit Rivers, was visible just beyond Hidden Lake Lookout.

Hidden Lake and Hidden Lake Peaks, Sauk Mountain in the distance
The trail grew steeper as I hiked higher up the Sahale Arm; I soldiered on, my efforts rewarded with ever-better views. The trail climbs 2200 feet in 2.5 miles from Cascade Pass to Sahale Glacier Camp; I reminded myself on the ascent that every additional step was going to allow me to see an additional peak on the horizon. When I took a break and turned around, I received my reward: a magnificent view of the North Cascades, with jewel-like Doubtful Lake reflecting the partly cloudy skies in the cirque below. Massive Spider Mountain and Mount Formidable rose above Magic Mountain, which was now just a lowly ridge, and the horizon was dominated by a newcomer: Bonanza Peak, the state's highest nonvolcanic mountain. Sightings of Bonanza Peak from day hikes are rare: although it's a very tall mountain, Bonanza is buried in one of the most remote parts of the North Cascades.

Bonanza Peak and the mighty peaks of the North Cascades rise over Doubtful Lake
The final ascent was the most brutal, a steep and direct climb up a small ridge to Sahale Glacier Camp. The camp area was spread out on a small bench on Sahale's southern slopes, just below the snout of the Sahale Glacier; the slightly elevated bench and some of the nearby mounds that housed campsites seemed like they might be a former terminal moraine of the Sahale Glacier. Camping up here requires permits through North Cascades National Park and is quite popular due to Sahale Arm's incomparable views.

I scrambled beyond the bench to reach the snout of the Sahale Glacier; this was the end of the hike. The glacier terminates at about 7700 feet above sea level, still a thousand feet short of Sahale Peak's summit pinnacle but nearly 4100 feet above the trailhead parking lot. The glacier itself was not particularly large though a number of crevasses on its surface indicated that it was clearly still active. I saw a couple of climbers descending the glacier after summiting Sahale Peak.

Sahale Peak and Sahale Glacier
What can I say that photos cannot? Before me were many of the highest mountains of the North Cascades. Ice and rocky pinnacles rose and crowded every inch of the horizon. The first row of ridges were the peaks that had accompanied me through the hike: Mixup, Magic, Johannesburg. Beyond that rose Spider Mountain and Mount Formidable, their high rocky faces towering over their glaciers and dusted with fresh snow. Beyond that- continuing along the crest traveled by the Ptarmigan Traverse- lay Sentinel Peak, its north facade draped with the great LeConte Glacier. The next layer: Gunsight Peak, near mighty Dome Peak. In the distance, Bonanza held up the sky and Dumbell and Chiwawa Mountains were formidable courtiers. To the west, Buckindy Peak formed a jagged profile behind Johannesburg Mountain with White Chuck, Pugh, Sloan, and the Monte Cristo massif on the horizon. The spires and peaks visible from here were innumerable, the vastness of the wilderness beyond comprehension.

Bonanza Peak
Sloan, Pugh, and White Chuck rise behind Buckindy
Formidable and Spider and Doubtful Lake 
There are so many glaciers visible in this view. At least 50 glaciers are visible in full or part from the top of Sahale Arm- an extraordinary number considering that Montana's Glacier National Park has only 25 glaciers. The North Cascades are the most densely glaciated region of the country outside Alaska and the Sahale Arm is one of the places where that statistic can be truly appreciated.

Peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse
I made a leisurely descent back to Cascade Pass to enjoy the spectacular alpine scenery in evening light, figuring on making my final descent back to the parking area after sunset. At Cascade Pass, I discovered that my headlamp had run out of battery- I was without a light source for the downhill. Luckily, I could move fast and was able to start zipping down the switchbacks. Even so, it was dark before I returned to the parking lot; I pulled out my phone for the last stretch and used my dying phone battery to light the way for the final five minutes of the downhill. While I got back to the trailhead with no problems, it was a reminder to me that I should always bring spare batteries and to double check my essentials before heading out!
This is an absolutely extraordinary hike and a must for anyone who loves the outdoors. In many ways, it's the signature dayhike of North Cascades National Park and it is surely one of the great jewels preserved in America's storied history of national parks and land preservation.

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