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.
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—although 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 Western themed 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.
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; although 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.
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. And then, things start to get really interesting.
As soon as we crested the ridge, the skies cleared, and we found ourselves in wildflower heaven. Seriously, I’ve never seen wildflowers this tall and this lush. The backdrop was equally breathtaking—sweeping vistas of the dramatic peaks of the North Cascades rise above velvety green foothills, and the pretty Methow Valley sprawls 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.
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-70’s as a Western themed town, replete with false Western storefronts, wooden sidewalks, and hitching posts. This is ordinarily the kind of place we would 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.
Note that 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; the sites are much closer together. Electric/water/sewer hookups available; Verizon was decent. Our positive experience was probably because we camped there mid-week in mid-June. We’ve heard that weekends and summer are crazy.
Next Up: Heading To The Islands