July brought lots of high-powered storms (including lightning!) and a surprisingly heavy monsoon season to the desert. The true relief from the blistering heat and dry air was a visit to North Cascades National Park. I have been to many parks in Washington but have not yet had the pleasure of visiting this gorgeous land. When we were there, we were treated to wonderful, sunny, beautiful weather. We were able to visit Stehekin – meaning we got to ride on a boat on Lake Chelan! – and see parts of the park that would have taken days of driving to do on my own. Sometime, working for the park service pays off!
There are many different hikes and trails throughout North Cascades, and I highly recommend driving through as much of the park as you can even if you don’t plan to hike. We ended up taking Highway 20 to the east of the park – it was a scenic byway and worth the extra time it took to go around! We stopped at various forest service viewpoints and overlooks, some which required a short hike. Overall, it was a less-busy and extremely cool way to see this part of Washington state. Living in Spokane for a year with Clinton, and of course, Clinton is from Spokane, I’ve really only seen the far east and far west. Family members and work have brought us frequently to Seattle. The middle of the state is still a beautiful place to visit! The drive took about 4 hours, including our various stops, but did not seem difficult or annoying due to traffic or various road factors. As an aside – if you do find yourself in the Wenatchee area, check out a small town nearby named Leavenworth. It is a cute German town that is worth the parking fee to be able to walk through their entertainment square (they frequently have festivals and performers in the giant white tents) and their various shops. The fudge is amazing, and the bratwurst is a must-try!
While we weren’t able to take the time to go on a long hike while in Stehekin, there are many beautiful places to walk for a short hike. Rainbow Falls was one of those hikes. As you get closer, the sheer volume of water falling creates a wind that showers you as you walk. It is huge – the picture simply does not do its power justice. Getting to Stehekin did involve a boat ride on Lake Chelan. The boat ride was awesome! It was a simple aluminum boat that could fit around 45-60 visitors and their luggage, but it was perfect for the lake. The seating was basic chairs that could be moved about the two stories, and most people ended up finding their spot right away and claiming it for the rest of the trip. They did not sell food or drink, so bring your own! Sitting outside is wonderful for the wind and even in the sun, the weather was perfect for our visit! I think we were lucky! If you are able to get to Stehekin, try to make it part of your North Cascades trip. There is a small lodge when you arrive across (literally) from the dock. No AC and no TV, like most lodges in the National Park, but since the weather was so nice we kept the windows open anyway. It was the middle of summer, so I can’t imagine that it gets much hotter later in the year! Stehekin is still open during the winter to those that hike the Pacific Crest Trail, as much of the park is part of that trail system. There are year round residents and a wonderful baker that I highly recommend. You can miss it – it is the only one in the area. Sit around and watch the boats from the deck along the lakeside. You can visit for just the day on the boat! The Lady of the Lake stops at multiple places before their final stop at Stehekin, with one at Lucerne that has a retreat/lodge but is also the start of multiple backcountry hikes and campsites.
One of the coolest parts of North Cascade we were able to visit during our trip was the Buckner Orchard. The NPS still maintains the orchard today, with its unique irrigation system that relies on the constant snow melt during the summer. Apples are so numerous; they have trouble using all of them during the year and end up giving away to the locals of Stehekin. They harvest the apples not just to eat, but to press into cider. You can pick any fruit you want on the NPS land – it is yours to try! This area was serene, with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.
Camping is huge in North Cascades, and I could see why as we continued our trip from Stehekin back to Wenatchee to start our drive on Highway 20. There are multiple places in the National Forest to stop off and snatch a campsite, and depending on how adventurous you are, many dispersed/backcountry campsites.
I learned during this trip that North Cascades National Park includes Lake Ross National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. All under the umbrella of North Cascades, I had no idea they were considered recreation areas around the lakes. It is apparent as you get closer, as the rules for recreation are definitely different between a ‘National Park’ and ‘National Recreation Area’. There were many campsites near Lake Ross and Lake Chelan, as well as multiple trails. A backpackers dream, make sure to take a few days to really explore the area when you visit! Marblemount is a small town in the mountains, close to the northern park of North Cascades. If you are unable to find lodging in the town, Burlington and Sedro-Woolly are not too far away. We stayed in Burlington and did not have any issues. There are multiple restaurants in these towns, but on highway 20 it is pretty remote. Plan to bring your own snacks and drinks, and fuel up before starting the drive around. I don’t think you’ll get stuck, it isn’t that far or that remote (it is a highway!), but best to be prepared.
Remember that North Cascades are at a higher elevation and it starts to snow around September/October. There are multiple mountain passes, such as Snoqualmie Pass, so be aware if you travel during winter months that there will be possible delays or chain requirements for your tires. I have to recommend the summer for North Cascades, but I bet if you came during late Spring or early Fall it would still be easy to transition through the large park while keeping simple. Bring a jacket!