The best trail in North Cascades for a day hike into the alpine, making a determined ascent to stand eye-level glaciers.

Statistics

6 - 7

hrs

1,232

m

1,231

m

21

max°

Difficulty

FATMAP difficulty grade

Difficult

Description

North Cascades National Park is known for its vast and formidable wilderness of glaciated mountains.

Compared to other national parks of its size, this one has fewer trails that are suitable for day hiking.

Most of the mountainous landscape is left inaccessible and unseen by all but the most determined backcountry adventurers. There are a few ways that more casual hikers can get a taste of the alpine environment, however, and the most popular is Cascade Pass.

This trail departs from a gravel road and climbs efficiently to an elevated pass with views of glaciers and soaring peaks.

From there, the trail continues above the timberline, up the ridge of Sahale Mountain to eventually meet a glacier on its uppermost slopes.

Most people do this as a day hike, but with a permit, you can camp on a natural balcony beside the glacier, overlooking the sprawling peaks of the range. From the Cascade Pass parking area, the trail begins climbing immediately, taking many switchbacks through a leafy forest.

It’s almost three miles of zigzagging before the trail finally straightens out, taking a more gradual traverse across an open slope.

You’ll see snow and ice perched among rock faces all around, and hear the cascading of meltwater throughout the valley.

At the pass, you’ll come upon an overlook paved with stones, and with some rectangular boulders for benches. It’s important that hikers stay on the trail and within the rock-lined areas, off of vegetation.

These plants that are adapted to harsh winters and short summers do not fare well with the additional stress of being trampled, and the flora at Cascade Pass has already suffered from hiker impact.

Revegetation efforts are underway, so please do your part to let the plants grow naturally.

In summer, they provide quite the spectacle of blossoms among a carpet of green, and in fall, the leaves present a tinge of orange to the mountainsides. Most people are satisfied with Cascade Pass and turn around there, but a steepening trail continues up Sahale Arm.

Views get better and better higher up, and soon enough, the incline lessens to an easier grade on the sloping ridgeline.

From there, you’ll gaze up at the glacier and the peak and down at a lake within a cirque of cliffs and ribbon waterfalls.

This rocky and grassy ridge is the favored habitat of marmots, ptarmigans, and mountain goats––all of which you’re likely to see, especially the curious marmots.

Black bears may be spotted as well, especially in the early autumn berry season.

They’ll keep their distance if humans do the same. The last section on Sahale Arm steepens once again, and the surface becomes more rocky, rutted, and likely muddy.

These high elevations can hold snow well into July, so in early season you might find icy and unsafe conditions.

Soon the meadows give way to talus slopes, where only lichen and tufts of grass can grow.

Continue upward, over the heaps of broken rock and perhaps drifts of snow, and you’ll eventually arrive at the foot of Sahale Glacier.

It’s a swath of permanent snow that overlies compressed ice, guarding the summit of the mountain.

Only hikers with proper equipment and experience should continue onto the glacier, because the pitch is enough that a fall might be hard to arrest. The backcountry camp here is called Sahale Glacier Camp or Sahale High Camp.

Sites are located on the rocky moraine below the glacier, identifiable as cleared spots with stone windbreaks around them.

This elevation can be a chilly place to spend the night, but it’s worth it for the views.

Be sure to review the park’s [wilderness permit](https://www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/permits.htm) requirements well in advance if you wish to do this as a backpacking trip. Sources: https://www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/cascade-pass-trail.htm https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/sahale-arm https://www.mountaineers.org/activities/routes-places/cascade-pass-area-review/cascade-pass-sahale-arm