North Cascades Environmental Learning Center as Base Camp
It’s become a habit in recent years to get away hiking over the Fourth of July. Instead of noise and chaos, I heed the call to the mountains.
This year, Doug and I headed out Highway 20 towards Diablo Lake. We had intentions of two day hikes, Heather/Maple Pass loop on Monday, and Sourdough Mountain on Tuesday, July 4. We’d base ourselves out of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, also known as the North Cascades Institute (NCI). NCI is a comprehensive outdoor facility reached over Diablo Damn. Multiple programs take place here, and through BASE CAMP you can just spend the night, enjoy three organic meals, and participate in some activities available to guests. Doug had been there the previous summer and it sounded like a great place to stay between hiking adventures.
Monday’s Hike to Heather Pass
The drive from Bellingham to Diablo is exactly two hours. We rolled in to the NCI at 12:15, checked in, and got the low down on our stay. Everything about the NCI is organized and structured, something which caused a bit of angst for both of us free spirits. We had strict instructions from the desk clerk to return for dinner at 6:00 — even though dinner is buffet style, she said they like to serve everyone at once. With a 40 minute drive each way from Diablo to Heather/Maple Pass trailhead, that gave us a narrow time frame in which to do our hike.
We were up for the challenge! We reached the trailhead (Rainy Pass Picnic Area) and were packed up and on the trail by 1:20. We had four hours to enjoy whatever we could of this lovely area. This loop hike is one of my all-time favorites! Last year I did a post called “Soul Restoration Day Hikes” and this loop was one of six I listed. If we made the loop, this would be my 8th trip around and Doug’s 2nd. We knew there would be snow, and that snow and time would be the factors we would face in completing the entire 7.2 mile loop.
We opted for the counter-clockwise route, figuring we could at least reach Heather Pass and then evaluate continuing on to Maple Pass.
The trail started through forest for 1.25 miles before reaching the turn-off to Lake Ann. We encountered a surprisingly large number of people on this stretch, although the cloudless day and upcoming holiday probably contributed to folks being out and about. Some looked prepared for snow hiking and route finding, and others, not at all. We called out merry hellos as we went, our moods high in this magical place. The switchbacks immediately past the turn-off were full of wildflowers and the trail deceptively easy.
Then just like that, we hit snow.
We were prepared. I led, initially following footsteps up a steep but short snowfield. After that, things started to look questionable. We could see footprints high up in the snow, but the question was how to get there. I watched a cross-country skier climbing a steep slope to the pass, but his route looked too abrupt for foot travelers. I decided to follow four hikers headed straight up the mountainside to our right, not on snow, but on a steep, rocky, brushy slope. I had a flashback to the Green Mountain hike with Kyle two weeks prior! We followed the quartet for a bit, until it became obvious they had no concrete plan to cut over toward the pass.
We stopped to discuss alternatives and decided to embark on a traverse across a steep, snowy slope and see how it went. We had traction devices and hiking poles. I kicked steps across and uphill–the slope ended in rocks far below–and Doug followed steadily. We were able to gain Heather Pass this way, a step at a time, mostly on snow but scrambling up some rocky outcroppings. It was slow going. and in total it had taken us nearly two hours. But the views were stupendous! Dozens of snowcapped peaks all the way around and off into the distance. It’s one of those hikes where views appear so constantly, one can scarcely take it all in. We knew the views would continue to unfold on the way up to Maple Pass, a new reward reached with every step.
We had a snack and discussed continuing on. Through the deep snow it would take at least an hour to reach Maple Pass. We could see two hikers and the one skier headed that way, so there would be tracks to follow, but we had only two hours left. There was no way we could make the pass and make it down in time. Reluctantly, we backtracked, this time following the snow’s contours to find an easier way down, Even so, we had to take great care until we were off the snow and could fire up the afterburners…
We arrived back at the car at 5:30, just ten minutes behind schedule!
Stay at the Learning Center
Dinner at NIC was fantastic! The all-you-can-eat buffer offered salmon, side dishes of quinoa, mac and cheese and roasted cauliflower, and a fantastic salad bar. I was in heaven! Any place that offers unlimited salad rates high with me. Everything was organic and locally sourced, and we could taste that plus the careful preparation that went into the meal. Doug and I sat outside on the deck, overlooking Diablo Lake. Almost everyone else sat inside — why, we were not sure. But our corner table was as good as any intimate restaurant experience I have had, and we lingered after dinner with tea and enjoyed the breeze coming off the lake. An ideal dining experience, and well worth cutting our hike a bit short to enjoy it in full. After dinner we stopped by the story telling and campfire, and wandered some of the trails on the campus.
The overnight accommodations at NIC were all bunk rooms for four in various lodges, all named after native trees. There was a complex reservation system for singles to groups of four, the options being a private room or a hostel set up. At the hostel rate, there might be four to a room, with no guarantee of being in the same room as your partner. Doug and I had opted for the “couple” rate, which meant we would be in the same room and without anyone else, but still in bunks. All the lodges have community showers and bathrooms, and a living room area. There were families in our lodge (Fir), but it was quiet and I slept extremely well.
Breakfast on Tuesday was just as grand as Monday’s dinner! Roasted potatoes, scrambled eggs, pancakes, chicken sausage, oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, dry cereal, and the usual coffee and tea. Again, all organic, and all extremely fresh and good. We chose our same outdoor table, and planned the day ahead. We both felt ready enough for Sourdough, a steep and challenging hike a mere ten minute drive away. Doug had done it the previous year in conjunction with his stay at NIC, and I had done it three times previous. We both knew it was no cake walk, so we fueled up well at breakfast in preparation.
Before we left the dining room, we took time to make lunch. NIC sets out food during breakfast for guests to put together a take-along lunch. I asked for and received gluten-free bread for my sandwich, adding chunky hummus, roasted turkey, peppers, and lettuce. All organic, of course. There was also fruit, snap peas, and cookies to take along. One of the staff even gave me a gluten-free cookie from her stash in the freezer following my bread request. We piled our food into paper lunch sacks, profusely thanked the staff, and returned to the room to pack up and move on with our day.
Tuesday’s Hike to Sourdough Mountain
The stats on Sourdough: Elevation, 5985 feet. Distance one way, 5.2 miles. Elevation gain, 4870 feet.
Basically, that’s a thousand feet a mile for five miles. Even though we both knew and expected the difficulty, the reality hit hard once we hit the trail. In the first two miles of switchbacks, we gained 3000 feet. That’s steep, and all the mental preparation in the world didn’t alleviate the difficulty in pulling it off. The day was warm, I was sweating in my shorts and tank top, and Doug even more so in his lightweight hiking pants and long-sleeved shirt. We didn’t communicate much for the first several miles, each lost to our own strategies of how to get through the steepness to achieve the rewards that we knew lay ahead.
After the first initial hump, the grade eased, and views started popping out to honor our efforts. Just before four miles, we reached snow. Someone had built a snowman, who stood as if to greet weary hikers who had made it that far. There were only two people that we knew of up ahead, and we wondered who had built it. It couldn’t have been there long, and certainly it wouldn’t last long in the sun. We enjoyed Mr. Snowman’s company while we put on traction devices and had a snack.
At four miles we crossed the creek at Sourdough Camp. Some hikers camp here when it’s snow-free, an option to turn the long day hike into an overnight.
We lost our snow, mostly, on the other side of the creek. We were back into switchbacks, through glorious, open wildflower meadows, with views popping out in each direction. The expanding array of multiple snow-covered peaks, the lesser grade of climb, and the promise of the top just ahead made the next mile relatively easy. Once we topped out at the final switchback, the views really exploded! Here we finally encountered our only significant snow of the day. But the grade was gradual as we traversed the snow-covered meadow to the lookout tower and top of the mountain.
A few facts about the lookout on Sourdough: 1. It’s one of the earliest lookouts in the North Cascades, built in 1933, and restored in 1998. 2. It’s historically significant if you are a fan of poetry. Two poets (Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen) worked at the lookout in the 1950’s. Both claim to have “found their muse” on the top of Sourdough. What a place to sit, write, and contemplate! 3. The lookout is unfortunately locked and wrapped with a huge belt, so you can’t get in. Perhaps to prevent vandalism, but unfortunate as it would be fantastic to stay the night in the lookout after the push to get there.
We stayed on top for an hour, enjoying our lunch and basking in the spectacular setting. Equally as stunning as Heather Pass, this time the views stretched all the way to the Pickets in Canada. So many peaks, that words could no way do justice for this non-poet. Pictures will have to suffice. Although the effort to get there was extreme, it was so very worth it.
Seen from Sourdough Mountain…
What goes up must come down, and the way down Sourdough was in many ways harder than going up. The pounding on knees and feet was brutal and relentless. But we did what we had to do, a step at a time, each trying to keep our own and each other’s spirits up.
Finally, we arrived back at the car at 6:30, 8.5 hours after we’d left it. Exhausted, we opted for a dinner in Marblemount to break up the drive back to Bellingham.
It’s still early for many hikes in the area, but things are opening up quickly. By the time this post goes up (a week after it’s happening), Maple Pass will likely have an established route around it, although snow will still be present. The snow level is hovering around 5500 – 6000 feet, so if you plan to go on any hike that takes you to this level, check the WTA trip reports before you go. People post here regularly, and you can almost always find an update. Keep in mind, though, that every hiker has a different perspective on a hike, and one person’s easy adventure may be quite difficult for another. And vice versa! Here is the link to WTA’s information on Heather/Maple Pass hike.
On the whole, our stay at NCI was more than satisfactory. Generally, I don’t like tight structure when I am mountain mode, but I was impressed with how the “rules” helped everything to go so smoothly. I would highly recommend NCI as a great place to stay for an upgrade to camping or backpacking. Here is the link to their general website for comprehensive information on all their programs: North Cascades Environmental Learning Center
And finally, a few words on Sourdough: In all my trips up the mountain, twice now in July, once in August, and once in September, I have never seen many people. My theory? It seems too steep and long for most people to get excited about as a day hike. But the rewards are so worth it! If you are willing to pay a price early, you will be rewarded. Pick a nice day though — in my opinion, the pain would not be worth it without the views. But if peace and solitude and extreme reward sound good to you, go for it! Here’s the WTA link to Sourdough Mountain.