The Northern Washington Cascades are a fitting conclusion to the Pacific Crest Trail (at least for those who start in the south) with some of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes of the entire route; deep canyons, jagged mountain peaks, dense forests, and enormous glaciers. All of this makes the section of trail between I-90 and the Canadian border, the second-best stretch of the entire trail.
Alpine Lakes Wilderness
The trail climbs from the interstate and into the vast wilderness of the Alpine Lakes. Once up, the scenery is great as it passes above beautiful lakes that rest in hanging valleys below the ridge. Large mountains, cliffs, and glaciers force the trail to more reasonable routes through the lush lowlands and up and over a series of ridges.
Unfortunately, we encountered rain for much of our hike through the Alpine Lakes -- another aspect that one has to accept when hiking through the Cascades of Washington in the fall. We missed some good views I'm sure, but we still enjoyed the tranquil Glacier, Surprise, and Trap, Josephine Lakes on our way to Stevens Pass.
Glacier Peak Wilderness
Due to some pretty nasty trail conditions during our 2007 trip, we detoured to the east side of Glacier Peak, experiencing the Napeequa Valley and Little Giant Pass instead of the real route which stays on the western flanks of Glacier Peak. We were mildly disappointed not to stay on the actual Pacific Crest Trail, but the great thing about the North Cascades is that it's all spectacular -- you really can't go wrong. Our detour was incredibly beautiful, and we experienced areas that I'm sure were much wilder and remote than the usual route. Everyone should experience Little Giant Pass at some point in their hiking careers.
Stehekin, the last bit of civilization before reaching Canada, lies at the end of Lake Chelan. It's a bit off trail, but thanks to a National Park Service shuttle, it's a super easy side trip. There isn't much to Stehekin, but there is a good place to stay, nice views of the lake and mountains, and most importantly, a fantastic bakery. We ate a lot of baked goods during our time off, and loaded up our packs with carbs for the final couple of days on the trail.
The trail beyond Stehekin stays fairly mellow until reaching Highway 20, staying low in the valleys while following the Stehekin River and Bridge Creek, so you can ease back into things after consuming too many cinnamon rolls.
As we reached our final few days on the trail, there was a chill in the air and the sense of the coming fall. We reached the Pasayten wilderness -- a series of rocky ridges, peaks, and valleys where my lasting impressions are of gold. The green meadows that we had experienced for much of the hike had started their turn from green to to shades of yellow, brown, and red. The larch trees that dot the Pasayten had turned a bright yellow, contrasting sharply against a fresh dusting of snow on the surrounding peaks and the looming gray skies.
It's a drier mountain landscape, as compared with the rest of the North Cascades. The starkness and rapidly approaching end of the trail left, at least me, in a more somber and contemplative mood than I had experienced on the rest of the trail.
The mountains through this stretch of Washington are amongst the most impressive in the entire US. It's hard to beat the heavily glaciated peaks and ridges, the towering fir forests in the lowlands, and the variety of mountain peaks -- everything from smooth and polished granite to soaring volcanoes.
For those who start their journey on the Mexico border and hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Cascades of northern Washington can be bittersweet. For those who hike just this section, or smaller pieces of it, it's probably just sweet. It's a formidable and beautiful stretch of trail.