If you’re in search of a stunning day hike in North Cascades National Park, the trip to Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm has got to be one of the most beautiful. A longer, more challenging outing, the route clocks in at 12 miles with around 4,000 feet of elevation gain.
This trail was near the top of my list when we stayed in Seattle for three months during 2021. However, we never got the chance to hike it. Cascade River Road, the notoriously fragile service road that climbs up to the trailhead, was open for just ten days before becoming impassible.
After a record-setting snowpack that year, Cascade River Road didn’t open until July 24th, considerably later than usual. When we heard about the road’s opening two days later, we planned to head up that next weekend of the 30th. However, the weather turned out to be garbage. Just three days later, following said bout of shit weather, the upper portion of the road washed out. Then just days after that, a wildfire sparked nearby, closing the road indefinitely. Needless to say, we were kind of stunned, and certainly disappointed, that we missed our absurdly narrow window.
Fast-forward to 2023, and we found ourselves back in Snohomish. This time around, knowing just how tenuous the situation in the North Cascades can be, we promised we’d be up there the first available day after the road opened. On June 30th, park personnel unlocked the gate. Four days later and good to our word, we were in the car cruising up Highway 20 toward Marblemount.
The North Cascades is a remote and rugged wilderness. It’s one of the snowiest places on Earth, and inhospitable in both climate and landscape. Consequently, it’s hard to imagine that this forbidding mountain environment has been occupied for nearly 10,000 years. Native Americans have used Cascade Pass for millennia to cross the rugged mountain terrain. The high pass was previously known as Stehekin, a Salish word that means ‘the way through.’ Importantly, Stehekin served as a conduit for trade between native tribes living on either side of the mountains. Much later, beginning in the 19th century, the pass was used by fur traders and gold prospectors who learned the route from native guides. Fur trader Alexander Ross, who made the first non-indigenous crossing in 1814, wrote of his journey: ‘A more difficult route to travel never fell to man’s lot.’
Today, the route is much less formidable than centuries prior. Skillful navigation by expert tribespeople during hostile winters has been replaced by a well-maintained, signed trail that now guides contemporary hikers over the obvious saddle during the mild the months of summer. However, one thing here remains the same – the gorgeous montane scenery that has been captivating wanderers for ten thousand years.
Beginning from the trailhead at the end of Cascade River Road, the trail switchbacks through the forest for 3.5 miles until it reaches Cascade Pass, a broad saddle at 5,400 feet in elevation. At around 3 miles the views open up, and are nothing short of breathtaking as they approach the pass. Above fields of glacier lilies, the craggy crests of Magic Mountain, Mix-up Peak, The Triplets, Cascade Peak and Johannesburg Mountain dominate the scene.
After cresting the pass, the trail continues to climb moderately for another two miles as it winds 1,000 feet above jewel-toned Doubtful Lake. The lake is spectacular, and as the trail winds to the north, Sahale Mountain and its eponymous glacier come into view.
In the meadows above the lake, families of mountain goats roam through heather-laden alpine meadows, pausing to graze as playful kids scamper across lingering snow patches. Mount Formidable comes into view beyond Mix-up Peak, with Eldorado and Forbidden Peaks now visible to the northwest above Boston Basin.
A signed junction points left toward Sahale Arm. As you make your way up the final rocky ridge from the meadows toward the base of Sahale Glacier, the trail steepens significantly, gaining about 900 feet of vertical over the last half mile. Six miles after departing the trailhead, the path terminates at Sahale Glacier Camp, a small campground perched at 7,600 feet in elevation along the glacier’s edge. While the views are pretty epic the whole way up, they’re even more so from this scenic moraine.
For those with experience scrambling as well as with glacial traverse, it’s possible to continue on to summit Sahale Mountain (8,680’). From camp, it’s another mile (one-way) with an additional 1,000 feet of vertical gain. While the glacier is pretty tame, it has been to known to have hidden crevasses, with more opening up later in the summer season. We hadn’t researched Sahale Mountain or planned an attempt, but figured we’d head up and at least check it out. Since we didn’t have our helmets, and there was significant loose rock and exposure, we stopped about 200 vertical feet shy of the summit. The summit block turns into a class 4 (some say 3+) scramble with a decent amount of exposure. So for those new to scrambling, this is not the place to start. Instead, enjoy a picnic lunch at Sahale Glacier Camp and head back the way you came.
While we didn’t make the final summit push, we did enjoy one hell of a lunch spot, overlooking Sahale Glacier and the same incredible peaks that greeted us atop Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm. We were also treated to a killer view of neighboring Buckner Mountain and its sharply serrated western ridgeline – aptly appointed Ripsaw Ridge.
Although a bit of wildfire smoke from the Olympic Peninsula had started to move in the day we hiked, it was still a gorgeous outing. After a two-year delay, I was stoked that we were able to return to Washington and finally explore this trail.
Total distance: 13.3 miles
Elevation gain: 4,670 feet
Know before you go
- Dogs are not allowed at Cascade Pass. Because this trail is within the boundary of North Cascades National Park, pets are not allowed on any trails here.
- Roundtrip hiking routes:
- Cascade Pass: 7 miles, 1,700’ vertical (moderate)
- Sahale Arm: 12 miles, 4,000′ vertical (strenuous)
- Sahale Mountain: 14 miles, 5,000′ vertical (experienced scramblers only)
- Respect the fragile alpine vegetation. It can takes years, even decades, for delicate flora to recover from being trampled by careless hikers. Always stay on the trail. If you do need to step off for a passing goat or such, be very careful and mindful of where you walk and tread lightly.
- Keep wildlife wild. The general rule is to maintain a distance of 25 to 30 yards from large herbivores (goats, sheep, elk, deer) and 100 yards from bears and other carnivores. This is for your own safety as well as the safety of the animals. Animals that become habituated to humans lose their fear of approaching. This means that, in future encounters, they may get too close and/or become aggressive. The risk to human safety can then lead to animals being euthanized. If you want to photograph wildlife, you need to invest in some actual telephoto gear. The consequences to you and to the animals is not worth what’s going to amount to a shitty cell phone snap.
- Snow can linger here well into July. Always check trail conditions before heading out, and come prepared with poles and traction as needed. Unsure? Carry the gear with you just to be safe.
- Cascade River Road closes during the winter season, typically reopening around late June or early July. However, opening dates can change dramatically based on snowpack. This year (2023), the road opened on 6/30. In 2021, a record-setting snowfall year, the road didn’t open until 7/24. Before visiting, consult the national park page for updates on road and trail status, as well as any other alerts and closures. Cascade River Road is 23 miles long, 13 of which are dirt. The road was in good condition when we drove it, but be prepared for it to take about an hour total.
- Be bear aware. Store food and dispose of all waste properly. This summer, there were a number of incidents where bears obtained food at the picnic area. Consequently, the picnic tables around the parking lot as well as Johannesburg Camp were closed indefinitely. As such, the park has also asked that you not stop and eat along Cascade River Road, as human food and waste is becoming a major problem. Remember to pack it in, pack out (every freaking scrap), and leave the wilderness wild.
- If you want to camp, Sahale Glacier Camp requires a backcountry camping permit. Permits can be purchased online, 48 hours in advance, at recreation.gov or in person at one of the park’s few issuing stations (first come, first served). Permits are limited, cost $26 ($20 plus a $6 non-refundable processing fee), and must be paid for by card. Read the park’s guidelines thoroughly before trying to secure a reservation.