An alpine landscape of high mountains and deep forests hides just a few hours from Seattle. Here you will find, among other things North Cascades National Park, the national park in the United States with the most glaciers. As many as 312 icy glaciers top the sharp mountain peaks. We visited the area for two days during a heat wave in the month of July a few years ago. One day was spent in the area around Mount Baker and one day we drove straight through the North Cascade wilderness along Highway 20. It was a really beautiful drive, right into a curtain of waterfalls and beautiful views. And of course, some glaciers.
Day 1 - Mount Baker Wilderness
Far to the west of the North Cascades lies Mount Baker Wilderness, an area within contiguous Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The most famous mountain peak in the area is Mount Baker (3300 m), a majestic mountain whose profile is visible from long distances. We even saw Mount Baker's peak above the clouds before landing in Seattle. But the calm and glacier-covered mountain hides a hot interior. Mount Baker is actually an active stratovolcano. The volcano has not had a real volcanic eruption for many thousands of years, but the area is nevertheless one of the most active in the entire Cascade Mountains. There is smoke and puffing at regular intervals along the slopes of the volcano, and the people living nearby keep a daily eye on whether they see any change. If it hits here, a large area with large cities will be affected.
Our first stop in the park was supposed to be at the beautiful alpine flower meadows at Heather Meadows. However, the season up here at the alpine flower meadows is short, some years just a few weeks. So we stopped by the park information center to get the latest news. A large sign greeted us with road status. The plowing of the road could not have started until July 6, because there had been too much snow to be able to plow up the road earlier. Now it was the 9th of July... We continued to read the sign. The plowing was therefore not complete all the way to the top, so it was not possible to drive all the way up… 🙁
No Heather Meadows then. Instead, we drove up another really bad single-lane asphalt road Mount Baker vista point. The air was still, it was at least 30 degrees up here. The contrasts were truly extreme. The road could not be plowed all the way up to the top, even though there was a heat wave. I probably can't even imagine the amount of snow that falls here every year, in one of the world's snowiest regions.
We found a picnic table and sat down and munched on our roast beef sandwiches, mini carrots, blueberries and sunflower seeds and looked out over the white mountain peaks and flowering hedge. It was an impressive scenery that surrounded us. The snow really dazzled us.
On the way back down we stopped at a waterfall – Nooksack falls – which was both large and thunderous. The 27 meter drop really roared under our feet. Rainbows were created in the water droplets before the green water continued down towards the Noosack Falls hydroelectric plant.
We got back in the car and started driving up towards Heather Meadows, the road would still be plowed all the way up Picture Lake. And that was it, but certainly not many more meters. Here it really was a dead end. We jumped out of the car to walk around the lake and enjoy the beautiful view Mount Shuksan. Picture lake is usually known for its clear and fine mirror reflections of Mount Shuksan, but on this day the lake was covered with waves. The melting water hit the lake in all directions, creating ripples as if it were blowing.
After only a few hundred meters of walking, however, the walk stopped. The snow was still deep under our feet. Really absurd. 30 degree heat and snow. I've never experienced that before in my entire life. None of us appreciated getting snow in our hiking sandals (in which we were of course barefoot), so we unfortunately had to return to the car again with cold and wet toes.
The trip to Mount Baker took all day. Although there were many beautiful stops along the way, there were also many re-plannings and a bit of disappointment in not being able to get to the hiking trails we planned. But it was hard to know that the snow would be deep in July, when the plane tickets were booked in March.
Day 2 – Highway 20 through North Cascades National Park
Day 2 was the plan to drive Highway 20 more than North Cascades National Park. The journey's longest distance of just over 35 miles in one day. Highway 20 is a seasonal highway that is only plowed between May and November, but each year has different dates. During the winter, the dangers of avalanches are too great to keep the road open.
All the technical gadgets were fully charged, the petrol was full, the lunch bag was bought, we had a kettle and coffee powder in the car and the candy store was replenished. We were ready!
We stopped at the park's visitor center and joined a national park guided tour by a ranger to get an overview of the park. An incredible service to have all this information served to you by a knowledgeable forest ranger.
North Cascades National Park is named after all the waterfalls (waterfalls) which violently rushes along the mountain sides during spring and summer. There are so many waterfalls in the area that not all have names yet and spontaneous waterfalls are easily created on hot days. It is said that wherever you are in the park, you will see at least one waterfall if you look closely in 360 degrees.
The daughter took the opportunity to join the "junior ranger" program and had to perform a lot of tasks and learn even more about the national park. After picking up litter and answering questions, she received a gold junior ranger "ranger badge" and a cloth badge. Today's happiness!
We took a break from driving and went on a short hiking loop of another kilometer Gorge Creek Falls. No spectacular waterfall, but no long hike either. Good to move your legs a little when you have to ride so far in one day.
We stopped briefly to look at one of the hydroelectric plants that lie beyond Skagit River. Almost 90% of all electricity used in Seattle is from hydropower and 20% of that hydropower comes from Skagit. I don't know if we missed a giant hydroelectric plant along the way, but I'm amazed that this string of smaller plants can produce so much electricity. What a thing!
The next stop was the most beautiful of the National Parks. Diablo Lake. A reservoir for the hydroelectric plants, but at the same time a popular place for both canoeists and fishermen. There are plenty of fish in the lake, mainly some kind of rainbow.
The turquoise color of Diablo lake is absolutely magnificent. As a glacier melts and moves, the ice grinds surrounding rocks and mountains into fine powder. This stone powder, also called glacier flour, follows the meltwater down to the lake and gives the lake its incredible color. A beautiful pollution of the water.
It was incredibly difficult not to stop all the time along the road. Signs for parking lots and hiking trails greeted us at every turn. But 35 miles takes a long time when you stop everywhere. So some of the water cascades that flowed over, beside and under the road we simply had to admire through the car window.
We stopped for a while for a break at a hiking trail up to a viewpoint. It was not a difficult hike and the daughter had no problem keeping up. From the viewpoint on kullen we got a real panoramic view of the mountain range. We could see the glaciers and how the road below meandered in the valley and all the waterfalls that flowed everywhere down the mountains.
Sometimes along the road, the waterfalls came quite close to the car and even if the amount of water was not large, you are easily caught off guard when the windshield is suddenly washed over by a small waterfall. Like a downpour from a clear sky.
The 35 miles took us nearly 8 hours to drive, so we were pretty sore by the time we got to Winthrop, the first sensible town east of the North Cascades. A really nice stretch of road through a real wilderness. Absolutely wonderful driving for us who love car holidays!
Do you want to read more?
I've written about our 16-day road trip through Washington in tons of posts. You can find all my posts here, but some tidbits are:
- 16 day road trip in Washington state
- Hiking in the trail of the eruption on Mount St Helens
- Olympic National Park: Misty beaches and alpine meadows
- Battle of the killer whales at the San Juan Islands
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