Looking for a weekend getaway in the mountains, my friend Grace and I headed to North Cascades National Park: a true wonderland of steep, slate-blue craggy mountains, aqua-green lakes, and wondrous larch-peeping hikes. Colonial Creek Campground, a car campground located 125 miles northeast of Seattle--near mile marker 130 on Highway 20--fit the bill. The plan was to arrive on Friday afternoon and set up camp, hike and explore on Saturday, kayak on Sunday, and then drive back home.
Colonial Creek Campground is open from late May to early/mid-September and has two loops: one on the north side of Highway 20, and one on the south. The north loop has 42 first-come, first-served sites, while the south loop has 94 reservable sites as of February 2017.
Our campsite on the south loop had a picnic table, a fire pit, our own food storage locker, and a nearby potable water source: luxurious compared to our usual rustic backcountry campsites. The restrooms, a short walk away, were mostly clean, with separate men's and women's areas. There was even a boat launch and fish cleaning station to the north of our campsite.
The campground is popular, and I booked our site back in April (reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance) to reserve a spot. We loved seeing families with young children enjoying the woods and campsites, and admired the elaborate car camping set-ups as we walked the south loop: glamping tents, fancy grills, picnic tables draped with tablecloths and studded with lanterns, and polished canoes strapped to the tops of wagons. Kid-sized bikes scattered at campsites while giant floaties spilled out of the backs of pick-up trucks.
It wasn't all hearts and flowers though--camping outdoors in close quarters at a popular summer campground meant that camp noise traveled well, and at times made it hard to sleep. A combination of stuffing earplugs into my ears and being bone tired at the end of the day helped.
Day 1: Friday Arrival
On Friday afternoon at about 2:30 p.m., Grace and I left the traffic and hazy heat of Puget Sound behind for breezy Diablo Lake. Arriving at Colonial Creek Campground at about 5:30 p.m., we parked in the space reserved for our campsite, set up our tents, oriented ourselves, fixed dinner, and lounged in our camp chairs while twilight descended.
We marveled at the creature comforts we could bring with us (a big pillow for Grace, extra clothes for me) that we normally wouldn't be able to take on our backpacking trips. Thinking about our early start the next morning, we hit the sack around 9:00 p.m., promising each other that we wouldn't forget the s'mores ingredients on our next trip.
Day 2: Saturday Hiking in the North Cascades
The next morning, we rolled out of our tents, cooked our oatmeal breakfasts, and drove out of the campground at 6:30 a.m. We had heard great things about Cutthroat Pass, a half hour drive east of Colonial Creek Campground, and settled on hiking it before we left on our trip. Cutthroat Pass has two approaches: a 5.0 mile one-way hike via the Pacific Crest Trail or a 5.7 mile one-way hike via Cutthroat Lake. We chose the PCT approach, and boy were we blown away.
The well-signed PCT trailhead is located directly across Highway 20 from the Rainy Pass Picnic Site, where the Lake Ann and Heather-Maple Pass Loop hikes are located. We started out in the forest on a steady, gentle grade, soon ascending past creeks and wildflowers to a 360 degree panorama of peaks. Larches began peppering the slopes 3.5 miles into the hike, all the way up to Cutthroat Pass at the 5.0 mile mark. We thought how gorgeous this hike would be in the fall when the larches turned golden yellow (typically late September-early October).
After a rest, snack break, and picture-taking, we hiked north on the PCT for another mile to enjoy the mountain views a little while longer. On our way back, we ran into a small group of mountain bikers resting at the junction of the PCT and Cutthroat Lakes. Turns out they had ridden their bikes all the way up to Cutthroat Pass from Cutthroat Lake. Wow!
Arriving back at the trailhead at 1:30 p.m. we realized we still had almost a half-day free to explore without the usual stress of a long drive home. What else could we do?! We headed just over five miles east on Highway 20 to visit Washington Pass Overlook, a short, 0.25 mile paved loop with an impressive view of Liberty Bell Mountain. Then, we drove one mile west of Washington Pass Overlook to hike Blue Lake, a 4.4 mile roundtrip hike to a larch-studded lake.
In the evening, we drove to Diablo Lake Overlook, located just 1.5 miles east of Colonial Creek Campground, to watch the sunset. Camp chairs, blankets, and vanilla cookies that Grace had stowed away made the experience even sweeter.
Right before we left, I heard someone call out, "Hey, Melissa!" Surprised, I walked toward the road and realized it was a friend of mine, Laura, who was camping at Colonial Creek Campground that same weekend. What were the odds? Laura is an Information Specialist at the Elisabeth C. Miller Library who had helped me identify plants while I was writing my book, 75 Great Hikes Seattle. She and her husband Eric had explored Lake Ann earlier that day, and were heading to Baker Lake on Sunday. Grace admired a stunning plywood and fiberglass canoe perched atop their car. It turns our Eric had made it himself 20 years ago!
Day 3: Sunday Paddle + Visit Ross Lake Resort
Thinking a paddle on Ross Lake would be a fun Sunday activity, we headed east to rent kayaks from Ross Lake Resort. The popular resort (reservations tend to get booked up one year in advance) was built in the early 1950s, and sits perched on the edge of Ross Lake just north of Ross Dam. Quiet, furnished cabins are outfitted with hot and cold running water, electricity, bed linens, towels, pots, pans, and kitchens. The motto is "bring your own food" (many people pack coolers and tote them over). There isn't a restaurant, but the office has a supply of candy, crackers, energy bars, and s'more making ingredients for purchase.
Curiously, you can't drive to the resort. In order to reach it, folks can either hike 0.7 miles (one way) down to Ross Lake and then request a boat ride over to the resort ($4 roundtrip per person, about 1 minute crossing time), or, if hiking doesn't sound appealing, you can take a ferry across Diablo Lake, hop on a connecting truck to the boat launch on Ross Lake, and get picked-up from there ($30 roundtrip per person, 1 hour trip).
Grace and I chose the hike approach for simplicity's sake: it was cheaper, shorter, and closer--only four miles east of Colonial Creek Campground. We easily found the signed (and jam-packed) parking lot for the trail, maneuvered my Subie into an open space, and began our hike to the lake in our crocs, shorts, and bathing suits.
Signs pointed the way to the boat launch and the resort's phone, and it was easy to call up the resort and request a pick-up. Minutes later, we watched a shallow boat with twin Evinrude engines zoom across the lake. Without fanfare, we hopped in, giddy when the captain accelerated to same zippy speed over to the resort. After a short ride, we hopped off onto the faded wooden deck and headed to the resort's office. Renting kayaks from the resort costs $15 per hour (2 hour minimum), $56 for the day. Advance reservations are recommended.
Soon, with help from our captain, we were donning kayak skirts, life jackets, paddles, and climbing into our bright yellow single kayaks. The office recommended paddling over to Ruby Arm, a narrow funnel on the east side of the lake where the winds were quieter, so that's where we headed. As we maneuvered into Ross Lake, we were struck by the wondrous feeling of being sunk beneath the steep valley walls surrounding the lake, and marveled at the number of boat-in campsites surrounding it.
Low clouds partially obscured the mountaintops, and choppy waves began kicking up during our paddle. Grace, an experienced rower, paddled on while I headed back to the resort. The captain had assured me he would keep an eye out for Grace, a kind gesture that put me a bit at ease. It turns out, according to the resort's office, that it's not unheard of for kayakers to get stuck, pull up to a campground and wave their arms at a passing boat to signal distress.
Grace returned safely a little under an hour later and we rested at one of the tables and chairs on the deck. After zipping back to the other side of the lake and hiking back up to the Subie, we called it a day, glad that we had packed up our tents earlier that morning.
As we drove back west towards Seattle, we passed through tiny towns announcing fresh peaches in season and huckleberry ice cream. Rain showers in Marblemount gave way to clearer skies, and the thick haze enveloping the Seattle area since early August was slowly fading way.