Cascade Pass / Sahale Glacier Camp Overnighter (August 21-23)

This is an overnighter I’ve wanted to do for years, but with so much to discover in the Mt. Baker area I kinda focused my attention there with my day and overnight hikes, but this year felt like the year it was finally time to take on the Cascade Pass / Sahale Glacier trail. It’s not an easy one – it’s 6 miles each direction, with 4000 feet of elevation gain, but wow, it’s definitely worth the effort! Camping at the Sahale Glacier camp requires a backcountry permit from the North Cascades National Park, so I did some research, found the window for applying for a permit and selected the days that would work best, and patiently waited a few weeks before the approval email arrived in my inbox.

The days and months passed, and I did quite a few local hikes, as well as the Welcome Pass trail near Mt. Baker – all great training hikes for the Sahale Glacier camp climb. I found a friend to join me (Jason) and we put together a plan – we’d go the day before, pick up our permit from the Marblemount Ranger Station, and camp in a National Forest campground near the trailhead so we could get an early start the next day.

We were packed and ready to go, but the Northwest has been hit with intense, thick smoke from wildfires in BC and WA state, with air quality hitting dangerous levels – exertion outdoors was not recommended. Visibility was shot as well – you could see less than a mile in Bellingham, and it was supposedly worse in the mountains. So we waffled a little bit about going or pulling the plug, but we decided to go for it, and if either of us felt like it wasn’t worth it we’d turn around and try again some other day.

We drove up, go our camping permit, and then met a friend of his who works at the North Cascades Institute for dinner in Marblemount (I won’t say where we went, but it was not good). We then headed up the Cascade River Road and, with little daylight left, stopped at the first campground, the Marble Creek campground, which is about 10-12 miles from Marblemount and about 10-12 miles from the Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm trailhead. It’s a nice National Forest campground, with about the cleanest smelling pit toilet I’ve ever experienced, but it was surprising that a couple of people had campfires going – I’m pretty sure there’s a statewide burn ban, and even if campfires in fire pits are allowed, why would you have one when the air quality is in the hazardous range? We found a great spot in a quiet corner of the campground and called it a night.

The next day we drove up to the trailhead – the road is in decent shape overall. From Marblemount the first half is paved, and the second half is gravel. There are a few intense sections of washboard road, but very few potholes and there’s even a few short sections of paved road as you approach the trailhead. Once we got there we found the lot was about half-full, definitely due to the smoke. You could kinda make out the outlines of the nearby mountains, and could even kinda see Cascade Pass, but it was pretty thick. What gave us optimism was the fact that it seemed like it might be possible to hike above the smoke – this definitely became a possibility once we made it to Cascade Pass, the halfway point, as we could see a slight blueish tint to the smoky sky above us.

We threw our packs on and started to make our ascent up the trail – I’m the slower of the two of us, so I took the lead, both of us in agreement that we’d take it slow and steady to avoid huffing and puffing as we made our way up a seemingly endless stretch of switchbacks. They actually aren’t that bad, especially since we’d both done the Welcome Pass trail not too long ago. It was fairly cool in the trees, and after an hour or so we broke out of the trees and looked ahead to the long traverse to Cascade Pass, which included a great water source (the only one between the trailhead and midway up Sahale Arm), and a long stretch across a talus field. The snow field that was reported on WTA back in July was long gone, so that wasn’t a water option. I filtered at the small waterfall next to the trail (Jason drank it unfiltered) and we continued on to Cascade Pass, where we rested and ate lunch. Over the half hour or so we were there, we saw people who made it their final destination, while others were planning to continue up Sahale Arm. A few coming down said they saw a black bear about 45 minutes up that was hanging out near the trail, but wasn’t bothering anyone. We were also able to look up and see more blue in the sky, and could see a bit further up the mountains that surrounded us.

The next section of trail up the arm gains altitude with switchbacks and traverses, and is mostly exposed. It was warm, but there was a bit of breeze which definitely helped. The views of the Stehekin River valley were great from here, and the breeze and altitude seemed to work together to open up views of some of the nearby mountaintops. We approached the area where the bear was spotted, but he was long gone – I generally look to avoid seeing or dealing with bears, while Jason, having seen several bears while living in Vermont, is a bit more comfortable with them and was slightly disappointed not to have seen one on the hike. His disappointment faded quickly as views of Sahale Mountain and Doubtful Lake below opened up – we were both surprised and happy that we could clearly see the mountain, Sahale Glacier and what we thought was the camp from here. We still had quite a ways to go though, so after a brief pause we continued on.

This section of the trail was my favorite section – we were still gaining altitude, but gradually and the views were mindblowing. I was really enjoying this section of nice, comfortable trail through high meadows with the camp getting closer with each step. While we were still too far away to see the actual camp we speculated how high up the mountain it would be. We did see a long, steep talus field below the glacier and from trip reports we knew we’d be going up at least part of it – we later found out we’d be going all the way up it! It wasn’t bad, we just had to take it slow – there are sections of “trail”, but there was also sections where you had to follow cairns, and there were even some sections where you had to “choose your own adventure”. We met a couple who were ahead of us, who went up, and were on their way back down, saying it was too windy up there and they just weren’t into it. At this point we definitely felt a strong breeze as we went up the arm, but knowing that the camp sites were protected by rock walls, we felt that we’d be fine with our small, one person tents. We thanked them for the report, but continued on up.

We finally reached the camp at about 7pm – our hiking time was about 5 hours, with nearly 2 hours of total rest time on the way up. If it wasn’t so smokey and warm we probably could have done with an hour of rest, but I was pretty happy with our pace overall. Just as the couple we talked to said, it was fairly windy – maybe about 15-25 mph, but it wasn’t really that bad and we started the process of setting up camp, careful not to let anything blow out of our hands and down the mountain. The air was quite a bit clearer, but it wasn’t any easier to breath as we were now at close to 8000 feet and the altitude definitely made it more difficult to breath. We just had to take it slow, and over time we adjusted to it.

We made a quick dinner, then enjoyed trail beer (or should I say, Trail Beer, as we were literally drinking 10 Barrel’s Trail Beer – Northwest Pale Ale) and a couple of nips of bourbon, then called it a night around 10:30 or so. I didn’t get much sleep, as the wind whipped at the sides of my tent continuously, but knowing that it would help blow the smoke away it was a small price to pay. Overall I probably got about 5 hours of sleep, which wasn’t too bad.

We woke up just before 7am and saw that while the smoke was still there, views of the surrounding mountain peaks had opened up considerably. We couldn’t stop taking photos – it was truly amazing up there. I walked over the mounds of rock to the composting toilet – I can guarantee you won’t find a toilet with a more breathtaking view than this one! We then had breakfast of oatmeal, Pop Tarts and coffee, then packed up and made the trip back down the mountain. We made much better time on the way down, as is usually the case, and made it back to the car with 3.5 hours of hiking and just 30 minutes of rest. Along the way we saw marmots and chipmunks, but no bears or goats. As we passed day hikers and overnighters, we gave reports of the trail and conditions/visibility up top.

Overall I can’t recommend this trip enough – it is definitely a challenge with it’s elevation gain of 4000+ feet, nearly a quarter of which is up a steep talus field towards the end. It would be pretty easy to slip and fall, gashing an arm or a leg or even twisting/breaking something. The key was to just take it slow, pick out a good route, and make sure each step was onto a secure rock. Permits to camp are pretty hard to get, but if you aren’t able to get one in advance, it seems like there are usually one or two permits available the day-of – you just want to be at the Marblemount Ranger Station before they open. It was great to finally do this hike, and while there are others that I’m anxious to check off my list, I have no doubt I’ll do this one again some day.