Backcountry Sights

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Sahale Glacier via Cascade Pass

I joined Josh and three of his friends, Kirsten, Katie, and Carson, for a weekend of car camping and incredible day hikes in North Cascades National Park. Carson gets all the credit for planning this hike – I just showed up when and where I was supposed to!

Trip Planning

Specs: 11.0 mi | +/- 4300 ft

Difficulty: Mostly class 1 with a little class 2 scrambling just below the glacier. You’ll likely need traction devices and/or an ice axe early in the season.

Location: North Cascades National Park | View on Map

Route: Begin at the Cascade Pass parking lot and follow the Cascade Pass Trail to the pass where you can take off in several different directions. Follow the Sahale Arm Trail north toward the prominent Sahale Peak, eventually reaching the base of the glacier. Return by the same route.

Note: the road to the trailhead is not paved the entire way; at least the last five or 10 miles are a well-packed gravel road.

Permits & Regulations: No permits or parking fees are required for this hike, though if you’re planning other hikes in the area (e.g., on USFS land) it would be helpful to have an interagency or a northwest forest pass.

Resources: North Cascades National Park maintains a page specifically for this hike due to its popularity; the general park website also contains tons of useful information you can use to plan your visit!

Trip Report

01 Aug. 2020 | 11.0 mi | +/- 4300 ft | View on Map

I wake up bright and early in my tent at the Mineral Park Campground. After a quick breakfast, I pile into the car with Kirsten, Carson, Katie, and Josh. It’s a quick drive up the gravel road to the trailhead, and we parallel park on the side of the road; the trailhead parking lot is already full!

The first two and a half miles of the trail climb 1500 feet through cool, shaded woods via a seemingly endless string of switchbacks. I’m meeting everyone besides Josh for the first time and enjoy chatting with them as we wind back and forth up the mountain.

cascade pass sahale glacier
After many, many switchbacks, the trail break free from the woods

The trail eventually leaves the woods and begins a long, gently sloping traverse to Cascade Pass. The traverse gives us our first glimpses of the incredible, snow-clad mountains. I count at least a dozen waterfalls roaring over cliffs, carrying glacial melt to the river below. Wildflowers line the path in a few places; the mountain heather catches my eye with its bright magenta blossoms.

Several trails meet at Cascade Pass, a small, forested saddle between The Triplets and Sahale (pronounced suh-HAH-lee) Mountain. We take a brief break there and attempt to use the pit latrine but are thwarted by a small family of mountain goats that have claimed the area. They might not have sharp claws or teeth, but I don’t fancy being charged by a goat.

After a short rest we continue hiking, now on the Sahale Arm Trail. Wildflowers cover practically every inch of the mountainside here and I stop many, many times to take pictures of them. What a beautiful area! A few switchbacks bring us to the top of a long ridge, the Sahale Arm, that leads all the way to the mountain. The views from up here are incredible! Sahale Mountain itself is covered in a crisscross pattern of snow that shines brightly in the morning sun. Wildflowers blanket the ground around us, and sharp mountain peaks extend as far as the eye can see in every direction.

About one and a half miles past Cascade Pass, the Sahale Arm Trail steepens considerably. We depart the lovely wildflower-strewn hillsides and begin a slippery ascent through dirt, gravel, and scree. We take a few extra breaks during this more difficult section and soon reach the Sahale Glacier Campsite and the toe of the glacier itself.

sahale glacier cascade pass
Just below the glacier, the trail steepens dramatically

Although it’s terribly tempting to push onward to the summit, we listen to our better judgement (we are not equipped for glacier travel) and admire the icy giant from below. Perhaps we’ll return in the future to bag this peak! I certainly wouldn’t mind hiking up here again.

It’s high time for lunch, so we plop down in one of the rock-walled campsites and munch on sandwiches, fruit, and chocolate. This seems like an incredible campsite and I’m sure the permits disappear quickly. After relaxing for an hour or so, we begin the return journey. The loose rocks are more treacherous on the descent, but we’re soon past them, back onto the idyllic Sahale Arm.

sahale glacier cascade pass
I will never get tired of walking through wildflowers like this

On our way back to Cascade Pass we see a small herd of mountain goats quietly munching on the plants. They don’t seem to mind our passage at all. A helicopter flies by and we wonder if its going to rescue an injured hiker. As we descend closer to the pass, the helicopter flies by again, and again, once or twice just barely skimming the treetops beside us. Just before we reach the pass, a park ranger waves us down and tells us to stay back: the helicopter is landing! So we wait from a safe distance and watch as the helicopter slowly descends and, in a cloud of dust, touches down. The pilot shuts down the rotors and the EMTs leave with the ranger to meet the hiker in need of rescue.

The rest of the hike passes uneventfully. We descend the endless switchbacks, through the now sunnier woods to the parking lot. A short drive delivers us back to our campsite where we open up some cold beers, start a fire, and relax for the rest of the evening.

cascade pass sahale glacier
A mountain goat stares down into Pelton Basin

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