Planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) for the first time or the thousandth is probably one of the most overwhelming, yet exciting, outdoor tasks one could have the pleasure of taking on. It’s also one of the most diverse areas for trekking, climbing, mountain biking, alpine climbing, and kayaking. Not to mention the unparalleled coastal-alpine vistas, unique climate, and all the benefits of these two when combined. The PNW is like all the best things in nature nicely packaged and wrapped under your Christmas tree, just waiting for you on that glorious surprise and gift-filled morning. You have numerous wilderness areas to pick from, national parks, summits, coastlines, rivers, valleys, forests, and rain forests the list could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
If there were one place however, to kick off a great PNW trip, it should be the Crown Jewel, the North Cascades. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Why a National Park?” “Why would I follow the crowd to a regulated National Park, when I have endless wilderness at my boot soles?” My answer is simple; you will see. And I never said that in order to gain this premium experience you must step foot through the gates of the “official, crowd filled, park.”
Here’s a bit of insider and unadvertised info.
There’s a lesser known backdoor to this mountain paradise, a backdoor that will set you at the trailhead of a short three-mile incline of switchbacks, then plant you right in the beating heart of the North Cascade's beautiful jagged peaks. We’re of course talking about the Cascade Pass Trail.
It’s completely free; no permits required unless, of course, you plan to stay overnight or use this as the entrance for an extended multi-day trek.
The trailhead offers plenty of parking, pit restrooms, and a picnic area near Cascade River fed by distant falls. You will also find placards on the edges of the parking loop that explain and discuss geographical and geological features seen from the placard's location and along the trails. The main event however, rests on the east side of the parking loop, the Cascade Pass Trailhead. Once your accent begins you will be immersed in thick evergreen trees that allow intermittent and ever-changing vantages of the peaks that surround. Suddenly the trail bursts out into the open and continues on a high aw-inducing military crest. It’s from this crest that you realize how far and high you’ve traveled, probably without much notice, this is where you will get your first glimpse of the pass. From this point the pass is not far, nor is the reward for your efforts. Once you reach the pass, however, you will definitely want to allow for a moment or two, as if you could even help it anyway, for the overpowering views all around. From the pass you can either continue to the left up to Shale Glacier, near the Shale Summit, down the opposite side from which you came into the basin or back to the parking loop, the world is your Oyster. Enjoy!
So how do you get there?
From Seattle, head north on the I-5 all the way up to Burlington where you’ll hit the Highway 20 east. The 20, after traveling through beautiful rural Washington, will eventually intersect at a bridge in Marblemount; this is the beginning of Cascade Road, cross this bridge. Travel Cascade Road, which turns into Cascade River Road, until it ends at the trailhead parking lot loop.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated #223