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Late Season at Cascade Pass

A panorama of Doubtful Lake in the North Cascades, surrounded by meadows of fall colored berry bushes, western hemlock, and the Sahale Arm trickling waterfalls from the glacier.

A photo of Doubtful Lake under Sahale Mountain on a sunny autumn day.

Wildflowers soak in sun during summer, warm from glacial and granite reflection. Snow blankets the range in winter, dividing the state of Washington. Every season in the Cascades is lush, and the wildlife thrive along ridges with abundance. Cascade Pass is the classic route taken to cross the northern range, originally inhabited by indigenous locals and traversed as a way to avoid the narrower channels of the Skagit River. On my own trek to the pass, I found bears and marmots enjoying the berry buffet autumn offers, undisturbed by the masses of enthusiastic hikers drawn to the colorful fall meadows on a sunny Saturday.

This hike is for anyone who seeks amazing views for minimal effort, because there’s a long, steep dirt road doing most the work to the high trailhead. This is a great place just to take a drive really, under Johannesberg The trail ascent is 1,800’ in 3.6 miles and provides any alpinist access to a basin of infinite possibilities and amazing views. Several peaks await. Already high in the Cascade River valley, the trail begins with switchbacks through coniferous forests, and finally opens into a 5,392’ glacial cirque surrounded by peaks.

My dad is in amazing shape for anyone, but now seventy years old, he would be arrogant if not cautious. He chose the Cascade Pass hike for the easy grade, but a striking late season rainbow of plants along the trail, the immortal glaciers and cliffs lining the valley, and the animals enjoying the same area, amazed me.

We set out on a 70 degree day in September and tramped up to the fields of berries and vine maples. Beginning the hike, the trail winds for 2.7 miles through forests of hemlock, redcedar, and Douglas fir, gradually ascending through gaps in the trees and teasers of the landscape to come -- granite peaks towering above and the valley as it turns out of sight below. Finally passing through the tree line, we emerged into wildflower blooms and berry bushes, surrounded by a show of alpine fall colors as the plants braced for early snow. Now traversing the rim of the deep valley, we continued towards the saddle, skirting rock slides and crossing the wildflower fields. A couple large marmots basked untroubled on the warm rocks, whistling and enjoying the sun and berries growing along the slopes. Emerging into vibrant warmth and the clean air of the mountains, I spun in wonderous circles at the clear ridges and inversion of colors, though I quickly became focused when we turned and the pass finally came into sight.

Pushing quickly to the top, I was met with a decision. On the right is an idyllic stone staircase ascending into peaks, Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak, and the rugged Triplets overhead. This route ultimately takes you across the mountains to the east. The adjacent slope is the Sahale Arm leading up to the glacier and peak. Taking a left towards the glacier, we hiked another mile up to eat lunch overlooking the icy waters of Doubtful Lake, fed by waterfalls descending steeply from the Sahale Glacier above -- the headwaters of Lake Chelan and the Stehekin River Valley.

A photo of the Cascade Pass trail crossing a multi-colored meadow in the North Cascades.
A photo of a sloping meadow covered in pyrola and saxifrage, with the Triads granite ridgeline in the distance, on the Cascade Pass trail.
A photo of the stone staircase at Cascade Pass in the North Cascades, ascending towards Mix-It-Up Peak along a ridge covered in colorful fall berry patches and western hemlock.

Top: A photo of the trail cutting across a meadow colorful in fall. Middle: A photo of some of the alpine flowers and foliage near Cascade Pass. Bottom: A photo of the stone staircase leading up towards the ridge to Mix-Up Peak, in a multi-colored fall meadow.

Along the Sahale arm, the glacier spread out in front of us, we hiked through a sea of red leaves and mountains beyond mountains. The switchbacks cutting along the hillside rose steeply to a plateau with a fork to the clear glacial waters of Doubtful Lake, several waterfalls spilling down the side of the peak above. Bear rummaged in the meadows descending down, almost as steeply as cliffs. Toasting with classic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we called it our daily destination, overlooking the cliffs falling into the lake. It was a perfectly picturesque place to rest, and we headed back towards the pass inspired and sad to leave. Downwards we faced Mix-Up Peak, the Triplets, and Cascade Peak again. Trekking during one of the last beautiful weekends of the season, the crowd of admirers must have spooked a few bears in the berries, and we saw a couple young black bears and a mom bound down the hillside and into the opposing forest out of sight. We hiked back down as the light faded behind the heights we left.

Cascade Pass is definitely a hike I would recommend for anyone, a must-see for those hoping to experience the North Cascades. On the trail down into the Stehekin Valley and Lake Chelan, the landscape goes through 37 different ecosystems. How lucky the natives were to spend so much time there! I've revisited on numerous occasions, and will keep coming back for area peak ascents!

A photo of a trail through fall color and alpine hemlock, on the Sahale Arm of the Cascade Pass trail, looking down a steep valley at the Park Creek Ridge.

A photo of the Stehekin River valley from the Sahale arm, the Park Creek Ridge along the left, Glory Mountain on the right, and McGregor Mountain in the center.

For more detailed information on the Cascade Pass trail, click here to visit the Washington Trails Association website.


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