Almost any Pacific Northwesterner knows that the Cascade Range stretches from Northern California north to the Fraser River in British Columbia. There are two sides to the North Cascades south of the Canadian border. The west Cascades start in the Chuckanut mountains near Bellingham on the Pacific Ocean. The marine climate creates a temperate rainforest on the west side of the Cascade Crest. As the elevation climbs, snow covers the trails from November until late April. Once the trails are accessible, the North Cascades is home to more glaciers (over 300) than any other park outside Alaska. The glacier melts from the peaks to aqua blue creeks forming hundreds of waterfalls as they flow among forests of western red cedar, western hemlock, Douglas fir, and silver firs. The east side of the North Cascades is drier, with access a little earlier to the trails than the west side. Ponderosa pine, spruce, and larches are the most common trees in this half of the North Cascades. The Skagit River flows from Allison Pass in British Columbia and through the North Cascades until it reaches the Pacific near Mt. Vernon, WA.
The North Cascades comprises three sections: The North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The park area can be confusing as the trails in the North Cascades meander through all of these sections. Established in 1968, the half-million acres of North Cascades National Park is surrounded by the National Forests of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanagan-Wenatchee. The park is free to use; however, a Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at all trailheads. Due to its remoteness, the North Cascades is the least visited National Park of the lower 48 states.
Ross Lake National Recreation Area is the most accessible part of the North Cascades National Park because of the North Cascades Highway, which hemisects the Ross Lake area east to west. In addition, the damming of the Skagit River forms three different reservoirs, Diablo, Ross, and Gorge Lakes. Each lake contains several trailheads with hundreds of miles of trails in and out of the national park.
Colonial Creek Campground is located on Diablo Lake and close to the Ross Lake National Recreation Area trails. It’s a great place to make a base camp for a long weekend of trail running. Ross Lake Resort has 15 floating cabins and a marina, but reservations are usually taken one year in advance. It’s open to campers and day-use if you are not one of the lucky ones to get a room.
Ross Lake Trail Runs
Thunder Creek Trail from Colonial Creek Campground is almost 20 miles and continues through Park Creek Pass.
Sourdough Mountain Loop is part of one of the most popular climbs in the North Cascades. The Sourdough Mountain Lookout offers 360-degree views of the mountain ranges and Diablo and Ross Lake.
The Big Beaver Trail from Ross Dam follows Big Beaver Creek for 24 miles through marshes and old-growth forest up to Beaver Pass.
Ross Lake Trail Races
Trail races aren’t allowed in National Parks or Recreation Areas, but a few races close to the North Cascades.
The Cutthroat Classic Trail Run is a 10.6 mile run on Rainy Pass that follows the Pacific Crest Trail to Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake.
Rainshadow Running’s Sun Mountain Trail Races are 50 miles, 50k, and 25k are on the east side of the North Cascades on the edge of the Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness.
The Sunflower Trail Marathon, 1/2 Marathon & Relay run through fields of wildflowers in the Methow Valley between Mazama and Twisp.
Ross Lake Trail Running Group
Cowgill Trail Collective was started in early 2020, running trails in the Pacific Northwest. In 2021, Cowgill started the Thirsty Thursday Throwdown to connect with the Seattle running community to get better at running up hills and push each other. Over the next several months, Cowgill grew and prioritized, making it a more inclusive community by reformatting group runs to cater to all paces, and started a new bi-weekly run called Grazing 101. Check out the Cowgill Instagram page, and Strava group for future group runs in the Seattle and Portland areas.
Coffee and Microbreweries/Taverns
Moes Coffee Shop in Darrington has outdoor seating with 360-degree views of mountains and glaciers to enjoy Caffe D’arte coffee and breakfast. Come back for pizza and craft beers or Italian wines!
The Wake and Bakery in Glacier is not just a funny name but an excellent place for coffee, quiche, and scones.
North Cascades Perks Espresso and Deli in Concrete features Fidalgo Bay Coffee and serves breakfast sandwiches.
The Rockport Bar & Grill serves espresso and breakfast in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, and pizza and burgers for dinner.
Birdsview Brewing on North Cascades Highway near Concrete makes several beers on tap with sandwiches and burgers. Enjoy live music on the weekends.
Enjoy a beer looking at the mountains and the Chewuch River from The Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop. Old Schoolhouse has a varied menu to go along with its award-winning beers.
Darrington’s River Time Brewing serves flatbread pizza and sandwiches with small-batch beers in the old city hall.
Check out Buffalo Run in Marblemount for dinner inside a charming cafe or outdoor patio if you like exotic meats.