Hiking in the North Cascades: Sahale Glacier Camp


It’s about time I got another post up! The weather has been absolutely fantastic here for the past several weeks now; long days, sunny blue skies, warm temps, and hardly a drop of rain since June. I’ve been wanting to go on a good hike for a while now, but since I work weekends, it hasn’t been easy making arrangements with friends. So the other day I decided on a whim to take the initiative and just go solo. So off I went, on August 8th, venturing off into the wild North Cascades on my own.

I had read an article in Backpacker magazine featuring the Sahale Glacier Camp and Sahale Arm Trail. Perched at 7,686 feet (2343 meters), it is the highest designated campsite in the park and overlooks a seemingly endless sea of rugged snow-capped peaks. Now, a few of my friends and I have categorized hikers into two groups: people who like lakes and people who like peaks. I’m definitely a “peaks” person and this definitely sounded like my kind of place. I originally planned on spending the night up there, but it ended up turning into a day hike after I discovered that all the backcountry permits had been issued for the day by the time I got to the ranger station in Marblemount (around 10:00 am). I was somewhat surprised to hear that, given that it was a weekday. Although knowing that it’s a popular destination I should have known better. Oh well.

The scenic drive up the 23-mile Cascade River Road to the trailhead took around 45 minutes. The road is one of the nicer gravel roads (and also partially paved) I’ve been on, but there were a few steeper parts where I wondered if my old ’89 Toyota Camry was going to make it or not. Fortunately it did and I pulled into the nearly full parking lot around 11:00 am, taking off on the trail at 11:15 am.

The hike itself actually began on the Cascade Pass Trail, which I had previously done almost a year ago to the day. It’s an easy hike up to Cascade Pass (elev. 5392 feet), which starts steadily by switchbacking through forested slopes for the first two miles before eventually leveling out. Once out of the trees, it’s a simple traverse over to the pass.

Cascade Pass Trail

It took me a little over an hour to reach the pass, where I met up with the crowds of people eating lunch, taking pictures, and talking with the NP rangers who had also hiked up. I ate a quick snack before continuing on to the Sahale Arm Trail. This is where the trail difficulty got more intense. The first mile ascends steeply up the hillside right away. It got slow going at some parts where the trail was loose dirt and rocks. Once that was done and over with, the path leveled out into open green meadows just before reaching the junction for the Doubtful Lake Trail. I could see trail make its way back downhill towards the cobalt blue lake far below. I also had my first glimpse of the glacier camp across the basin high above me. The sight was slightly disheartening, knowing that I still had quite a ways to go before I reached my destination. For the most part though, hiking up Sahale Arm itself was pretty steady. It wasn’t until the last last half mile where it got really steep again, requiring an ascent up loose rock & dirt. In some spots, rock cairns were the only markers indicating where the trail was and it was practically going straight up to the top. I’ll admit, I was pretty exhausted by the time I reached the camp, taking deep breaths in the thin air.

Forbidden Peak Looking back down Sahale Arm Looking up toward the last stretch of the trail

It took a little over three hours to walk from the car to the top: a 5.9 mile hike with an elevation gain just shy of 4000 feet. I found a spot near the toe of the glacier and literally sat down for hours; waiting for the lighting to get better for taking photos, snacking on the dried cranberries and granola bars I brought, watching the other hikers make it to the top, and of course taking in the endless views of the jagged snow-capped peaks all around me. Occasionally, I would hear a loud crack followed by a low rumble echoing through the valley below as chunks of ice fell off the surrounding glaciers.

Sahale Glacier CampA few climbers went up the glacier to the top The Heart of the Cascades

I think it was around 5:30 pm before I finally started heading back down. I took my time taking pictures now that the lighting was way better at that point. The wildlife seemed to be more active during this time of day, after the afternoon heat had passed and the crowds of people had already gone home. There were tons of hoary marmots and ptarmigans running around. Either one or the other would cross my path every few hundred feet all the way back to Cascade Pass.

There be critters in them hills! Ptarmigan! Cascade Pass Cascade Pass

Another hike crossed off my Washington State bucket list! I’m really glad I went when I did and didn’t wait around to do it. Just two days later, I found out that unusually heavy rains washed out a portion of the road, stranding 65 people and most likely making the trailhead inaccessible by car for the rest of the season. A good lesson in life–take advantage of opportunities as they come to you. You never know when they’ll come your way again!


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