The park is not easy to access under the best of conditions. Located in far northwestern Washington, it’s an untamed landscape of high jagged glacial peaks and deep, thickly forested valleys. One road—North Cascades Scenic Highway—crosses the park, and it’s closed for about six months of the year.
Exploring The North Cascades
Unlike many other national parks, North Cascades isn’t particularly drive-by friendly, except for the highly photogenic Diablo Lake, featured in the photo above. To really appreciate the magnificence of the park, you need to get out and hike the trails. And that was our intention. But things didn’t turn out exactly the way we planned.
We set up camp for three nights at lovely Pearrygin Lake State Park, just outside the little town of Winthrop near the eastern slope of the national park. Bright and early the next morning we headed to the Forest Service office to pick up a trail map. What we neglected to consider is that most of the trails are still buried in snow until sometime in July.
Fortunately, the ranger was knowledgeable and helpful and she steered us toward several lower elevation hikes off of State Route 20 (AKA North Cascades Scenic Highway). Although the hikes aren’t within the boundaries of the national park, they offered a wonderful introduction to the beauty of the North Cascades.
Hiking In The North Cascades
Our hikes off of Highway 20 (a 3.5-mile round trip meander along Cedar Creek to Cedar Falls, and a four-mile round-trip hike to Cutthroat Lake) were the quintessential Pacific Northwest forest hikes. We knocked out both of those in a day. If we had it to do again, we would go straight to the Cutthroat Lake Trail and hike all the way to Cutthroat Pass for a 10-mile hike. The Cutthroat Lake Trail is more interesting, more challenging, and more spectacular than the Cedar Creek Trail.
Click on any photo in the gallery for a larger image
Hiking Pipestone Canyon: Wildflower Heaven In June
For something entirely different, we drove about 12 miles from Lake Pearrygin to the Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to the national park. This is high desert, and the perfect place to explore in spring and early summer when there’s still snow at higher elevations. (Not so good when the weather heats up and the rattlesnakes emerge—we talked with several people who told us that the canyon is popular for rattlesnake hunting.)
We chose the Pipestone Canyon Rim Trail, another ranger-recommended hike; she told us that there might still be wildflowers in mid-June. That was an understatement. This was one of the most spectacular wildflower displays we’ve yet seen. For long stretches of the trail, we found ourselves wading through thick stands of purple lupine, white yarrow, and bright yellow balsamroot.
We started our hike on a chilly morning, perfect for keeping rattlers at bay. Clouds scudded across the sky, threatening, and then delivering a rainstorm that almost made us turn back. But we unfurled our umbrellas and persevered. (I know, hiking with an umbrella seems ridiculous—but even though we have good raingear, there’s nothing like an umbrella for keeping dry in a storm.)
The 9-mile loop hike starts off as a flat, easy trail that quickly leads to a stunning canyon of cathedral-like rock columns (“pipestones”) rising 1500 feet above the canyon floor. After the first mile, the trail opens up into grassy meadows with a sprinkling of wildflowers and a few pieces of vintage farm equipment abandoned long ago. Three miles in, a narrow path heads up a steep trail to the ridge.
As soon as we crested the ridge, the skies cleared, and we found ourselves in wildflower heaven. I’ve never seen wildflowers this tall and this lush. The backdrop was equally breathtaking, with sweeping vistas of the dramatic peaks of the North Cascades rising above velvety green foothills, and the pretty Methow Valley sprawling far below. Every bit of this trail is gorgeous. It’s worth a trip to the Cascades in the spring just to experience Pipestone Canyon.
The beauty of the North Cascades captured our hearts, and there’s no question that we’ll return. Next time, we’ll try a bit later in the year to that we can get to the higher elevation hikes. But had we not been there in mid-June, we would have certainly missed the spectacular Pipestone Canyon hike—it’s far too hot in summer, and of course, there’s the issue of rattlers.
The Cool Little Western Town Of Winthrop
For our adventures in civilization, we enjoyed a couple of forays into the little town of Winthrop (population 393). Once an aging little mining town, Winthrop reinvented itself in the mid-70s as a Western-themed town, replete with false Western storefronts, wooden sidewalks, and hitching posts. This is ordinarily the kind of place we avoid (assuming it to be a prime tourist trap), but somehow, Winthrop has managed to skirt tackiness, and comes off as charming.
We enjoyed a stroll through town one evening, followed by a delicious tapas-style dinner and cocktails at the cozy Copper Glance. And we stopped by the Rocking Horse Bakery and coffee shop on the morning we set out to hike Pipestone Canyon for delicious gluten-free lemon curd muffins and espresso.
About The Campground
Pearrygin Lake State Park was the perfect location for our explorations of the North Cascades and the Methow Valley. It’s a pretty park on the shores of Pearrygin Lake, with plenty of shade for hot days and an interesting 3-mile trail that traverses the hillside and a picturesque old homestead.
There are two campgrounds here: the east campground is further along the access road and is the nicer of the two, with larger, more level, shady sites. The west campground was apparently originally an old RV park and the sites are much closer together. The campground offers full hookups and Verizon coverage was good. Our positive experience was probably because we camped there mid-week in mid-June. We’ve heard that weekends and summer are crazy.
We felt the same way about Winthrop when we visited a couple of years ago. It has an interesting history with the western reconstruction of the town. The flowers looked great.
Debbie, we were happily surprised by Winthrop and would definitely return. And we were more than thrilled with the wildflowers on our hikes!
Although you missed the high elevations you didn’t miss the beauty. What perfect timing for the wildflowers!
Next time later in the summer be sure to hike the Maple Pass trail. One of my favorites.
Funny, we had the same experience in Winthrop. We stayed at Pine Near RV park just because it was an inexpensive Passport America park, but we really enjoyed being right in town. Not tacky at all, and a great brewery there we could walk to. Now I want to go back!
LuAnn and Terry had recommended the Maple Pass trail to us, and I think you guys had recommended it to them. :-) We were disappointed to discover that the trail was buried in snow, but we were delighted with our wildflower hikes, so it all turned out great. We’ll definitely return for Maple Pass, probably in early September for the fall colors.
It sounds like fun staying in Winthrop! Thanks for the tip on the RV park.
Gorgeous gorgeous photographs as usual. Northern Cascades has been on my list but now you’ve put it into June. But as you say, it appears one really should go every month to take full advantage. Those wildflowers are just spectacular and I love your captions “lalala”. It’s just the place for you in your purple/lavender/violet. You blend right in. Your view of Campbell Lake looks as though there is a castle on the right bank. Great shot! And great post! Thanks so much for being further behind in posting than I am. When you mentioned this was June I rejoiced. Love being in your company in this and all else.
Thanks, Sherry. :-)) I really hope you guys can get to the North Cascades. It immediately became one of our favorite national parks—actually, one of our favorite places we’ve visited. We can’t wait to return.
Ha, yes, I am VERY far behind in posting. In addition to my usual tardy self, we had terrible internet for two-and-a-half months on Lopez Island. But I’m going to catch up soon. I’m happy to be in your company, too.
Love the pics of you by the waterfall and looking across the valley to the beautiful mountains. Not the Eric-on-a-log though – looks so high!!! The early summer colors are spectacular. It looks like paradise.
Paradise is a good description, Jodee. It is an astonishingly beautiful landscape. Yeah, you probably wouldn’t like crossing that log bridge, especially because it was tilted at a weird angle. :-)
I have this on my list for next year, but as we will only be in the USA from April to the end of June, you have me worried. What date were you there? I really would like to see the wildflowers. Gorgeous lake, it looks like the Canadian Rockies lakes.
Jane, we were there mid-June, and it was perfect timing for the wildflowers. You might even plan to be there a bit earlier. You won’t be able to hike the higher elevation trails, but the Pipestone Canyon Trail in the Methow Valley is one of the most beautiful we’ve seen anywhere.
This and the previous post had me reading twice for I thought we are just nearby. But then this was June :(
I thought you would be doing a Fred Astaire dance with your umbrella singing in the rain. I also once hiked with an umbrella but only for a very short trail.
I could barely see you in that pic with the tall grass!
The wildflowers are wild and really amazing.
ML, we don’t usually hike in the rain (deliberately) but we didn’t want to miss Pipestone Canyon. It was worth it! We’re a bit behind in posting but I know we’ll be in the same area in late October! Can’t wait to see you guys. :-)
We loved North Cascades NP. You will have to go back later in the summer and hike Maple Pass. We felt the same about the wildflower display when we hiked in Mt Rainier NP. Great photos again Laurel and Eric.
Thanks, LuAnn. :-) We can’t wait to return to hike Maple Pass—but I think we’ll wait until September so that we can enjoy the fall colors, as you did. I remember your gorgeous photos from that trip.
What beautiful hikes:) I love when we come upon fields of wildflowers…so pretty! We did the Scenic Road on a motorcycle trip. It was perfect! We went through in mid June. A bit chilly but the snow fields were gorgeous.
Pam, you guys would love hiking in the North Cascades, even though there isn’t a red rock in sight. The Pipestone Canyon Trail was one of the most beautiful we’ve ever hiked—the views were fantastic! And of course, the wildflowers made it extra special (I wouldn’t hike there any other time than spring because of heat and rattlesnakes).
I love that area. Did you get to the emerald-colored Ross Lake? It has a certain mineral in it that turns it a spectacular color of green. We caught many Kokanee salmon there a few years back.
Thanks for the recommendation, Thalia—we’ll add Ross Lake to our list. There are so many places we would love to explore in the national park and surrounding area. We’ll have to find out more of your favorites. Would be fun to see you while we’re in Ashland!
Diablo Lake is stunning, you certainly find all
the gorgeous places, and cute quirky little towns.
You should make a list of the sweet little towns
and write a book.
Peggy, you would love taking a road trip along the scenic highway through the Cascades and visiting Winthrop and the Methow Valley. There are some other really cute little towns in the area, too (we’re saving them for another trip). Can’t wait to see you in Portland next week! oxoxo
So gorgeous! I love wildflowers but can’t remember seeing or being in such exquisite fields so full, such as in your stunning photos! Definitely makes me want to go there next June! Your photos transported me to a feeling of tranquility, heaven really…. Bright blue lake, wildflowers, waterfalls, trees all in one hike.
Happy to have stumbled on your blog. Do swing by ours….:)
If you find yourselves in this part of the world, it’s a wonderful place to be in June. Glad you enjoyed the photos, Peta. Thanks for the lovely comment.
Wow…will have to put that on our list.
Brenda, you most definitely need to put the North Cascades on your list!