For Labor Day Weekend this year my friend Stuart and I decided to go to North Cascades National Park to climb some tall mountains. We woke up at 3:30am on Saturday to meet up and drive down to Chicago to catch our 9am flight to Seattle. We got into Seattle around 11:30am, picked up the rental car, and headed directly towards the park. We stopped at a Walmart north of Everett, WA to pick up bear spray and all of the food and water we needed for the trip. We didn’t want to cook, so we bought Cliff bars, sandwich supplies, fruit, trail mix, and some assorted snacks to fuel our trip. After the Walmart stop, we headed straight to our first hike: Trappers Peak.
We heard that Trapper’s Peak had some of the best views in the park, and it sure did not disappoint. To get to Trapper’s Peak, follow signs for Thornton Lakes Trailhead. Getting to the trailhead involves about 5 miles of driving on an unpaved gravel road. Our sedan rental car handled the drive just fine, but it would have been more comfortable in an SUV. We got to the trailhead at 4:30pm and set off as quickly as we could.
The trail starts out fairly flat for a little over a mile in a dense pine forest, then you cross a creek under a waterfall and the switchbacks begin. After about another mile or two, the trees begin opening up and giving way to some breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. At around the 4 mile mark, there’s a wooden post marking where the trail to Thornton Lakes Campground splits off from the trail to Trapper’s Peak.
Once the trail splits, it gets a lot steeper and rockier and there are much fewer trees. The first scramble is the steepest the trail gets and is classified as a class 3 scramble. After that, there were several class 2 scrambles followed by false summits and we were racing to get to the top before the sun set over the surrounding mountains.
We reached the summit around 45 minutes before the sun went behind the western peaks. I set my phone up to take a timelapse of the setting sun and we used Stuart’s Cannon camera to take pictures of the incredible 360° views. In one direction, the sun was setting above the upper Thornton Lakes.
The Pickets were lit up by the setting sun.
There were some clouds scattered between the mountain peaks below us and the sky above was clear.
As soon as the sun dipped below the Western peaks, we started back down the mountain. I wanted to get through as much of the rock scrambles as possible before we lost all light from the sun. We had to put our headlamps on about halfway down the final (steepest) scramble, but it wasn’t really that bad in the dark.
Once we got back to the switchbacks, the hike out in the dark felt never-ending. We got back to the car at around 11pm and drove over to our campsite. We didn’t really start planning the trip until about 2 weeks before we left, and when we were looking up campgrounds everything was full. Considering it was a holiday weekend, this made sense. We figured that with hundreds of campsites in the park someone was bound to cancel their reservation last-minute, so we refreshed the campground reservation webpages hourly until Stuart was able to book us two nights at Colonial Creek campground. I definitely recommend planning where to stay for a North Cascades National Park trip much further in advance than we did, because you don’t want to end up without a place to sleep overnight. When we finally got to our campsite at 11:45pm, someone else was set up in our spot. They probably didn’t have a place to stay and assumed that we weren’t planning on coming because it was so late at night. I didn’t have the heart or the energy to try to make them leave, so we just set up our tent next to theirs and fell asleep for the first time in 20 hours.
The next morning, we woke up and got ready to tackle Sourdough Mountain. The hike is a steep and strenuous day hike that gains 5,100 ft in 5.2 miles. The steep switchbacks begin almost immediately as you wind through the dense pine forest for several miles.
Once the trees start opening up a little, the trail levels off for a bit and takes you across a stream crossing. The stream was completely dry when we visited, but there are times of year when you need to be careful crossing the water. On the other side of the stream, the trail begins aggressively switch-backing up a luscious alpine meadow. After gaining some serious elevation with the creek visible below, the trail winds around to the next face and you’re greeted with an amazing view of Diablo Lake way below.
You can really get a sense for just how far you’ve hiked up at this point, because the hike begins at lake-level.
The switchbacks continue up this face until you reach the top of the mountain. From the top, there’s a view of Ross lake and all of the mountains to the north. There’s a flat walk over to a firetower that was built back in 1933– one of the first firetowers in the country! You can’t actually go inside the firetower, but it’s listed as a national historic building and it is occasionally still staffed.
Stuart brought a telephoto lens for his camera and we had a lot of fun using it to take pictures up at the summit.
We spent a while taking pictures with the two different lenses Stuart brought along.
After spending over an hour taking pictures and resting our feet, it was time to head back down.
We went back down the same trail we came up, and once again I was very grateful that I bought hiking poles for this trip. I also switched out of my hiking boots and into my Chaco’s for the descent. The switch to Chaco’s felt so much better than the descent from Trapper’s Peak the night before where I wore my boots the whole time. That night, we had our campsite to ourselves.
The next morning, we decided to drive around the park until it was time to head back to the airport. We drove all the way over to the east side of the park to the Washington Pass overlook. If you have the time, I recommend driving over to the overlook. It takes about an hour to get there from the visitor’s center, but the drive is absolutely breathtaking and there are some cool hikes on that side of the park that we didn’t have time for. On our way back out of the park, we stopped by the Diablo Lake overlook which is an absolute must stop if you’re in the park.
As we were driving back to Seattle we could see the Olympic National Park mountains, and later Mt. Rainier. I definitely need to take another trip out to Seattle soon to explore those mountains. Back in Seattle, we stopped at Katsu Burger located 10 minutes from the airport. I got the curry burger and curry fries which I thought tasted amazing, especially after 2 days of living off of cliff bars and fruits. I highly recommend stopping in for a bite on the way to the airport; I certainly plan on visiting again on my next trip!