A Fall Wonderland in North Cascades National Park

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At the end of September, Alex and I went on an overnight backpacking trip with our friends Alisha and Sean to a place we have been dreaming about for a couple years: Sahale Glacier camp. This backcountry campsite is one of the most sought after destinations in North Cascades National Park so understandably the competition for permits on weekends is fierce. Last fall Alex and I attempted to secure one of the park’s few first-come first-serve permits by showing up at the ranger station over an hour before it opened. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones who had that idea and we had been beaten by a few other groups who arrived even earlier than us. This year I decided to try to get permits online. So on March 15 (the date the park opens up reservations for the season) I applied for Sahale Glacier. I entered three dates that we could potentially hike, keeping my fingers crossed that we would get one of the dates earlier in the season, but we ended up getting our last date: September 29. I was excited we had gotten a permit but was more than a little worried about the time of year we would be hiking. The shoulder season in mountains is unpredictable. It could be sunny and hot or we could find ourselves in a snow storm, only time would tell. 

As it turned out we experienced something in between those two weather scenarios. 

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When we arrived to the ranger station to pick up our permit the ranger warned us that there was precipitation in the forecast but assured us it would likely come in the form of rain at our camp and, even then, the rain wasn’t expected until after midnight. That would give us plenty of time to enjoy the views in the daytime. The forecast had looked foreboding for the entire week so hearing this news gave me hope. 

The hike to camp is about 6 miles and requires 4,000’ of elevation gain. We arrived to the trailhead at around 10am to give ourselves plenty of time to make it to camp and still enjoy the views along the way. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the North Cascades were experiencing an abundance of fall colors. The dense foliage that lined the trail was ablaze in shades of red, orange, and yellow in a way that I have never experienced before. It definitely took our minds off the strenuous hike as we all looked around in awe, barely able to believe our eyes. 

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As the day wore on the sky began to look more ominous; the forecasted rain seemed to be moving in on us sooner than expected. By the time we muscled our way up the final incline to the camps we were all exhausted. We quickly found a site that would accommodate our two tents and began to set up camp. The camps at Sahale Glacier have some of the best views I’ve ever seen. They are all situated high on the ridge that overlooks Doubtful Lake and offers an unobstructed view of endless layers of jagged mountain peaks. I wish we had more favorable weather conditions because I could have stood outside the tent and just soaked in the view all night but unfortunately, shortly after we set up camp it began to mist and the temperature dropped precipitously. Alex and I and Alisha and Sean all retired to our respective tents.

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As the tent walls grew darker in the encroaching nightfall we started to hear the heavy pitter patter of rain on our tent. The storm was upon us. Despite the fact that it was barely 7pm I was already being lulled to sleep by the rain.

I was awakened just a couple hours later by my bladder. Regrettably, I put on my layers and groggily shoved my feet into my boots, but when I opened the tent door I was suddenly very awake. What we thought was rain falling on the tent had been snow and it was beginning to accumulate!

Throughout the night Alex and I routinely batted the tent to rid the walls of the accumulated snow. As more snow fell onto the tent the sound of the flakes were muffled and, more than once, we were tricked into thinking the snow had ceased. By sunrise 3-4 inches of snow had accumulated but thankfully no new snow was falling. The visibility had also improved. We had periodically unzipped the tent to check on the conditions during the night and, until recently, it had appeared we were looking at the inside of a ping pong ball.

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As light slowly seeped into the world we were able to better appreciate the scene outside our tent. The clouds swirled around in the valley below and Doubtful Lake, which was so vivid yesterday, appeared only intermittently through a hazy fog. We enjoyed the sight for a few minutes, but the cold was gnawing at us all so we quickly began breaking down our camps as we looked forward to heading back to the cover of the forest and then to the warmth of our car. 

The recent snowfall on the rocky trail made route finding back down a bit more difficult, and it took us nearly an hour to make it the first half mile. However, the trail was easy to follow once we made it past the rockiest portion. While we were making our way around a curve in the trail I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I whipped around and, for just a split second, I saw a bear running through the meadow before it disappeared into the trees. It was a heart-pumping moment but luckily it seemed that the bear was just as frightened of us as we were of it. We began making more noise as we hiked and never saw anything more of our ursine friend except for a few of its tracks.

Finally, we were back in the colorful valley. The landscape was breathtaking, even under overcast skies and in sporadic drizzle. Steep rock walls towered impossibly over the lush valley below, the remnants of glaciers and snowfields clung to mountainsides, pouring out waterfalls that flowed into the trees and out of sight. It’s still amazing to me that this sort of scenery exists only a few hours drive from my apartment. I took a few photos while the others powered on ahead and then I stood there and simply stared at the scene, allowing myself to bask in a few moments of awe and wonder before finally rushing to catch up with the group and hike back to the car.

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