Saturday, September 23, 2023

Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm (North Cascades)

For a number of years now, when I go on the hunt for beautiful scenic nature wallpapers I would inevitably be directed to shots from the Sahale Arm in the North Cascades of Washington. This was especially true if I was searching for fall colors and I would be enamored by the reds, yellows, greens, and mountain scenery of the Sahale Arm. It seemed like a pipe dream to somehow find a way there in the fall when my person and family calendars are always so busy. So it was quite fortuitous when my brother invited me to join him in Washington after he was finishing with a conference. It would be late September and there was hope that we might hit the colors and scenery just right.

Trip Info:
Cascade Pass Trail to Sahale Arm Trail

Trailhead Elevation: 3,716 ft.
Cascade Pass Elevation: 5,392 ft.
Glacier Camp Elevation: 7,580ft.
Distance: 12.74 mi. 
Elevation Gain: 4,207 ft.
Start Time: 6:38am
End Time: 1:08pm
Ascent: 3:30
On Top: 0:28
Descent: 2:31

Trip Report:
We camped the night before off the Cascade River Road in the National Forest. We had spent the previous day hiking up to Camp Muir in Mt. Rainier National Park and then a very long drive put us into the North Cascades well after dark. It was a pleasant evening leading into a slightly less pleasant morning. We woke up to modest temps in the upper 50s but we could hear the winds rushing along the upper stretches of the valley. The clouds were socked in but thankfully no rain was falling, not yet.

Early switchbacks

We were up to the trailhead for Cascade Pass a little after 6 and probably saw 20 cars there. Some were still parked along the road out of the parking lot. We figured most of these were overnight hikers. There were just a couple of other dayhike groups getting ready when we arrived. The toilets were nice to have at the trailhead, but be wary, the toilet paper was almost all out so you might want to come prepared.

The cloud deck would sometimes lift
high enough for us to see area peaks

After a few minutes of GPS issues and waiting for a good lock we hit the trail just after 6:30am. This began the long trek of many, many, many switchbacks. None are steep and so it means a lot of distance to gain the elevation up towards the pass. The tree cover is fairly thick and so the views are limited through here. You kinda hope to get the body going on autopilot to make the miles cruise by. We were hoping along the way that the clouds would at least clear some for us so we could take in the bigger views today.

Things getting excited when you're up to about 5200ft and the last switchback leads into a nearly mile long traverse over to the pass. The views of the surrounding area open up a bit and you also get to see some of the beautiful colored vegetation along the slopes. At some point you'll finally see the pass ahead. As we approached we could see the winds and the fog blowing through the pass.

On the traverse to the Pass

The Pass is in sight

At Cascade Pass

At Cascade Pass you can tell they have prepared the area for the masses of people. Lots of stone blocks serving like pavement made the area good for lots of traffic. We saw small dirt pathways heading off in several directions. One heads up to a mountain toilet which is somewhat of a pit toilet minus the building and privacy around it. Others seemed to lead to higher up views.

Money shot from Cascade Pass

Looking down on Cascade Pass

We followed the signage to continue to the Sahale Arm trail and followed this til we continued the climb. The cloud deck settled in deeper on us as we did. The first half mile is more switchbacks and climbing and we couldn't hardly see a thing in this section. It eventually takes you up to a higher meadow, not unlike Cascade Pass. Here the trail down to Doubtful Lake breaks off but we never were able to see the Lake today.

Beyond the junction meadow, the trail begins it simple winding way up the Sahale Arm. The clouds were continuously about us and so we could never quite see the ultimate objective or where we were going. We were just glad to be on good trail and so the route-finding was unnecessary. We began to bump into backpackers coming down the trail. We had forgotten there was a campground up just before the Sahale Glacier. This was nice for us to know. Up to this point we didn't know for sure what our turnaround would be. I had pulled a GPX from but I didn't really know at what landmark it would stop. I figure it was certainly before the glacier but that was about it. Talking to the backpackers made it clear the main trail heads up to the campground and that makes for a great destination. This was encouraging for us to have a clear objective in mind now.

The trail remained solid while the views were mixed at best. Every once in awhile the clouds would shift enough to give us extended views, and then it would disappear. The last 500 feet of the climb up to the camp was increasingly in the rocks and increasingly steep. This section became braided but we were able to make out our route eventually topping out at the camp. Here we found another mountain toilet and we found several obvious campsites in the rocks. We wandered around a bit seeking out good views of the glacier and then sat to take on some food and drink. By now all the previous night's campers were gone and we had the place to ourselves for awhile. I would love to come back to the Sahale Glacier camp for a night but one definitely would want to be prepared for full on alpine camping. There's no shade or shelter from the elements other than a little bit of wind block from the rocks around each site.

Sahale Glacier Campground

Sahale Glacier

Sahale Glacier

We spent an enjoyable half hour at the camp and then began our hike down. Once more the clouds were sometimes shift enough to give us various views of the Sahale Arm. It was still unfortunate we never got full sun to bring out the vibrant colors or that the clouds would lift enough to give us complete and expansive views of the area. Just not meant to be today and a bit of a theme on our trip. We had similar experiences on Mt. St. Helens and Mount Adams in the preceding days.

Hiking down the Arm

Looking back up to the objective.  The camp and glacier
are just below the peak in the flat plateau area

The remaining hike out mostly involved greeting other hikers still heading upwards. We met five or so different parties heading to backpack at the camp. We met countless numbers of dayhikers, most of whom were heading up the Sahale Arm. It had to have been over a hundred people. When we returned to the switchbacks below the pass it began to lightly rain again. We wondered how the weather was going for everyone still well above the pass and if things had deteriorated worse for them.

Despite the weather not fully cooperating, we still had a most amazing hike in a spectacularly beautiful area. Its evident why this is so popular for hiking that the trail would be so full of people even on a day when the weather report is so relatively poor. I hope to be fortunate to come back again to see this area more in its full glory.

I have a track and waypoints from the activity all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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