Sunset at Tapto Lakes

Back in the North Cascades: Whatcom Pass and Copper Ridge Backpack

Come Home, Get Back on the Trail

I am always traveling. That is what restless, intelligent, and curious people do. When I tell people ‘I have spent the last year and a half traveling’ I feel a little disingenuous. Why? Because, when I am at home I am always looking for a new adventure. I always want to hit the road when I am not working. In essence, I feel like we are always traveling.

We are eternally thankful that when we left London we decided to live in Washington State. It really is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth and curiously under-traveled. This is a shame. There is so much to do here. So, we will be your gateway. We will continue blogging about our travels at home and, hopefully, persuade a few more to check out this magnificent corner of the world.

First up, our lovely 5-day backpack to Whatcom Pass, Tapto Lakes, and Copper Ridge in the North Cascades National Park in late August. I won’t bore you with the tiny details. There are plenty of excellent trail guides to the region. But, I will try my damnedest to inspire you to go!

Our Story: No Planning, No Problem?

We really made a mess of our preparations for this trip! We abandoned our planned trip to Banff at the last minute due to poor weather in Canada, grabbed a car at SeaTac Airport, and headed north. It’s a three-hour trip up to the trailhead from Seattle. However, we had to pick up a backcountry permit from Glacier Ranger Station, an hour drive east of Bellingham on the Mt. Baker Highway. Well, whaddya know? Guess who turned up at the ranger station on the one day it was closed for maintenance? Yep! Us.

This was a real pain in the ass. We could have self-permitted for a couple of the camps but this is not allowed for the limited camps on Copper Ridge itself. Oh, well, we were here now so a truncated trip would be better than no trip at all. We called the main NCNP ranger station at Marblemount for options, but the ranger wasn’t so sympathetic or helpful. Worse, since the station was closed, we couldn’t hire a bear canister, which is compulsory for the park.

We decided to drive 45 miles back to REI in Bellingham to buy a canister. By doing so, there was no way we could get to our intended first day camp site. With the bad weather in Banff and the problems in Glacier we really thought that the gods were against us. First world problems, I know!

We bought a bear canister. Annoyed, I called the station at Marblemount again. This time we got a more sympathetic hearing and the ranger issued us a permit over the phone. That was simple. However, given the spaces available on the days we wanted, and the distance between the camps on the high ridges with views, we had no choice but to build in two very long hiking days. One would be 15 miles and the other 17. Usually, this would be OK but we were not in tip-top hiking shape. We summoned the spirit of our Everest hike, when we started out in terrible shape, and marched onwards and upwards!

Day One: Hannegan Trailhead to Hannegan Camp (4.1 miles)

Sunset. Hannegan Camp
Our campsite at Hannegan Camp.

We weren’t in the best of moods when we finally hit the trail and it’s funny how much heavier your pack then seems! By the time we started walking, it was 4:00 and the sun was falling fast. We got our heads down and charged up the trail. The trail is easy on the legs, and after passing through the forest you come out into an open valley with views of Nooksack and Ruth Mountains. Hannegan Camp is a delightful spot just below Hannegan Pass, with views of Ruth Mountain. We had passed through here a few years ago when we spent a night on top of Hannegan Peak. The peak is a real must-do if it is your first time here. It affords a glorious 360 degree view of the best of the North Cascades.

Hannegan Camp has a number of sites, so wander around and find something you like. The sites close to the trail were all full, so we kept walking uphill and pitched up below a wonderful open meadow of heather and wildflowers with babbling brooks all around. A peaceful spot after a hectic day. The sunset was wonderful, the alpenglow on Ruth soothing, and we were pleased we had stuck with it. Next day would be the real test. Would our legs hold out? Would the weather stay calm?

Day Two: Hannegan Pass to Whatcom Pass (15 miles)

Trail sign. North Cascades
Rustic trail sign.

Well, of course, our legs were up to it. And, boy, did the sun shine for us! Thankfully, we spent much of the day under the cover of the immense old growth forest. It was hot.

The trail is super easy to follow. The permit system keeps the traffic light, but you won’t be alone here. Hannegan Pass is a half mile beyond Hannegan Camp and is approached via a series of short switchbacks. If you have the time, take the side trail up 1100 feet to Hannegan Peak. You won’t regret it. We passed on it today, though. There was a long day ahead.

You descend into the Chilliwack Valley via another set of moderate switchbacks. On a hot day, stock up on water at Boundary Camp. It is a little tricky to find the way down to the river, but wander down the trail to the camp and take a right fork down.

Boundary Camp marks the line between the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to the North Cascades National Park. From here on out, backcountry camping permits are required and will be checked! Rangers checked our permits twice on our trip.

At Boundary Camp, you will also see the junction with the steep climb up to Copper Ridge. We will return here in a couple of days.

The trail continues through the forest slowly descending. You can really get a head of steam up on the forest trail. While the trail is beautiful through the old growth forest, there is nothing much to grab the attention and stop.

Eventually, you have a decision to make. Ford the Chilliwack river, an easy option at this time of year. Or, jump in the ancient and mildly terrifying self-propelled cable car. The cable car is a box suspended on a pulley rope between wood platforms on each side of a river. The car will be your only option earlier in the season since the melt from the high peaks will create raging torrents at the ford. The cable car holds two people in the basket plus two backpacks. The weight maximum is 500 pounds. If you are a couple of big fellows you might want to go solo. The car runs about twenty feet above the river. It creaks. It rocks. It feels horribly unstable. And, it is bloody hard work hauling on the pulley ropes to move the damn thing. We made it over but without saying anything we knew on the way back we would ford!

The infamous Chilliwack cable car
Pulling the cable car to our side of the river.

About ten miles in, we hit the well-marked junction to Whatcom Pass. This is quite a slog and the second biggest climb of the hike. We huffed and we puffed and we definitely didn’t blow any houses down, but eventually we made it to Whatcom Camp. The camp itself is a little below the pass and only has a few sites to pitch a tent. But, we got a secluded spot right in the trees. And, as an added bonus, it was blueberry season, and we were surrounded by them. The biggest crops were to be found by the composting toilet. Go figure! Didn’t bother us. They were a tasty addition to our breakfast porridge the next morning.

We arrived just before sunset so we ran up to the pass for monumental views of the huge Challenger Glacier that cascades down Mt Challenger. The wild expanse of the North Cascades stretches east as far as the eye can see, with the steep-sided Little Beaver Valley flanked with forbidding peaks. A rock and meadow rib stretches south towards Mt. Challenger, offering lots of viewpoints.

Us at Whatcom Pass

Us at Whatcom Pass with Mt. Challenger in the background. North Cascades National Park, Washington

Laura is not one to miss an opportunity for decent light, so I knew she was already staking out spots for sunrise! We took our stove and dinner up to the pass so we didn’t miss the light show. A trick we repeated for breakfast at 5:30 in the morning. No rest for the wicked!!

Crepuscule. Whatcom Pass
The Challenger Glacier from Whatcom Pass

The mountain is high and the valley is deep.
The Little Beaver Valley stretching east from Whatcom Pass

Soon after sunset, we hit the sack. It was a tiring but ultimately rewarding day. The North Cascades National Park doesn’t have a big-ticket item like Rainier or Mount Baker but it has a remote, wild, and rugged feeling that is unsurpassed anywhere in Washington. We utterly love it here.

Day Three: Whatcom Pass to Tapto Lakes (1 mile)

Sunrise on Challenger
Morning light on Mt. Challenger

Ouch! Legs were a little stiff this morning. But, hey, only a mile or two of walking today. We woke up early to catch a glorious sunrise over Whatcom Pass. There really is nothing like the joys of a quiet early morning in the wilds. Even better if you can brew up a nice cup of coffee and cook a bowl of porridge while watching the sun come up.

Breakfast. Whatcom Pass
Breakfast with a view

After breaking down camp, we wandered back up to the pass to find the obvious boot path off to the left that runs up to Tapto lakes. The boot path is rough and steep. At times, you have to clamber up using your hands, but it is not scary. Once it tops out, you follow the obvious path down to the lakes. The trail is unofficial, unmaintained, but easy to follow. These high alpine lakes sit in very fragile environments so keep on the trail and resist the temptation to stomp on the delicate plant life.

The views from the lakes are truly astounding. Some of the finest in the Cascades. The views of Challenger and Whatcom peaks are truly impressive.

Before the mountain. Whatcom Peak
Approaching Tapto Lakes

Tapto Morning
This view of the Tapto Lakes reminded us of Banner and Ritter above Thousand Island Lake in the Sierras.

The lakes are a great spot to meander around. We found a cute grassy spot to camp and headed out to explore the area. We climbed up to a knoll below the mighty Red Face Mountain that dominates the western views from the lakes. It looked like perfect territory for bears or goats but they were conspicuous in their absence.

Panorama of Mt. Challenger, Whatcom Peak, and our little tent at Tapto Lakes. Click the image for a larger version.

You come here though for the mighty views across to Challenger. And, where there are lakes there are gorgeous reflection shots. I worked on my piles sitting on a cold rock while Laura went to work taking a gazillion reflection shots in a muddy pond. The pics came out alright. Unlike my ass. The pictures of the mountains are below. My piles will remain under wraps.

Whatcom Peak in Ugly Duckling Pond
Whatcom Peak reflected in Ugly Duckling Pond

Challenger Over There
Mt. Challenger

We had a splendid light show at sunset and Laura’s shutter went into overdrive as she captured the amazing pinks and purples reflecting from the high mountains. It was one of the best sunsets we have ever seen. Laura didn’t know which of the lakes to point her camera at! We shared these glorious views with two other sets of campers. The long walk in keeps out the miserable hordes and maintains the sense of remoteness.

Challenger Rose

Ugly Duckling

Pink streaks. Tapto Lakes

Whatcom stones

Day Four: Tapto Lakes to Silesia Camp (17 miles)

Our crazy schedule dictated that day four would be a major league slog. This is not a typical or advised itinerary. Oh, well. We could have requested a permit for Greybeal Camp or U.S. Cabin Camp between Whatcom Pass and Boundary, but that would mean camping down in the forest and we wanted to get high alpine views every night. After carefully picking our way down the slope from Tapto Lakes, we stopped off at Whatcom Camp for a poop and blueberry session, and then steeled ourselves for one of our longest days of walking in Washington State.

Leaving Tapto
Leaving Tapto Lakes

On the way down, we ran into three hardy chaps from the National Park Service. They were sawing through blowdowns to keep the trails free of obstruction. They looked like they could wrestle bears and win, and smelled liked they hunkered down with a pack of skunk for the night. They told us they had another 9 nights out before returning to base. The Republican Party would probably prefer that these dudes were hauling down old growth trees for lumber, but for now they are doing a fantastic job keeping our National Park trails accessible. North Cascades National Park is the second least visited National Park in the US. Go up there soon and keep these fine dudes in work.

We also met up with our first ranger on the trail down from Whatcom Pass. Since we didn’t have a paper permit, he radioed back to base with our permit number, and confirmed that we had a bear canister. We told him our story about driving from Glacier to Bellingham and back to buy a canister, and he seemed suitably impressed.

We continued down to the river to ford. It took a little while to find the path on the other side, but after a quick soak in freezing water we were soon on our way again. We soon picked up the path we ran down on day two. As we had been through before, there wasn’t much to distract us. Today was all about speed and distance.

By mid-afternoon we reached Boundary Camp. We loaded up on water and then marched on up the steep slope to Copper Ridge. We came across a few more people on the trail at this point. I got a bit competitive since I knew good camps were at a premium on the ridge. Oosh, it was tough going after such a long day though. Once we got onto the ridge we had a number of small ascents and descents before finally reaching Silesia Camp. A friendly ranger checked our permits here.

Silesia Sunrise
The view north from Silesia Camp.

The camp is right on top of the ridge. The water is not. Egg Lake, the nearest water source, is a punishing half-mile trip down a miserable, steep trail. The last thing you want after a trekking death march! The views from both sides of the ridge were utterly sublime. We slept well that night.

Day Five: Silesia Camp to Copper Ridge Lookout and return to Hannegan Trailhead (12 miles)

Aerial waterfall. North Cascades
Fog lifting over the North Cascades at sunrise.

We woke up to a foggy morning. As the sun rose, the clouds burned off so we decided to head further along the trail to Copper Ridge Lookout. This is an absolute must-do. You get sensational views of Mt Shuksan, Mt Baker, and pretty much every other magnificent peak in the North Cascades.

We rarely see much wildlife in the Cascades beyond the occasional pika, marmot, goat, or deer. But, as we plodded up to the lookout we got quite a surprise. We bumped into a black bear at very close quarters, munching blueberries above a switchback. The bear scooted away in the opposite direction. The bear was actually pretty cute and by all appearances was more scared of us than we were of it. Still, the adrenaline boost got us up the hill pretty damn quick.

The lookout is set up for rangers to monitor wildfire activity. It was a cosy looking spot with incredible views. The clouds floated in and out in front of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. We got out the topo map and compass and had fun identifying peaks all the way from the Glacier Peak Wilderness to Canada. A few bros turned up to ruin the ambience a little but I guess the wilderness is there for all comers!

Panorama looking west and north from the Copper Ridge Lookout. Click the image for a larger version.

Panorama looking east and south from the Copper Ridge Lookout. Click the image for a larger version.

The hike out was fairly uneventful. We retraced our steps down the ridge to Boundary Camp and over Hannegan Pass. We were merrily marching down the last mile or so when the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. After four and a half days of good weather, the skies opened up and drenched us right down to the bone. Grrr! Thanks Guardians of the Cascades!

Final Thoughts

Us at the Copper Ridge Lookout

Us at the Copper Ridge Lookout in the North Cascades National Park, Washington

This is one of our top five hikes in Washington. It feels like genuine wilderness out here. The crowds are low. Why? Probably because the North Cascades NP doesn’t have a signature tourist mountain like Mt Rainier that draws in large crowds. There are no visitor centers with selfie-worthy views. You need to work hard for your views here.

Don’t try and skimp on the hike. We did five days and I would argue that it would be worth adding in an extra day to camp on top of Hannegan Peak… or at least be prepared and set out earlier than we did!


View full size photos on Flickr

3 thoughts on “Back in the North Cascades: Whatcom Pass and Copper Ridge Backpack

  1. Pingback: Oregon's Volcanoes, or Why You Should Travel Close to Home | Design Think Travel

  2. Kevin Colwin

    Do you recall what map you used for this backpacking route?
    I am having a hard time finding a terrific laminated map for our 5 day route clockwise around Copper Ridge to Tapto Lakes.


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