We’re out on a thruhike of the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) westbound as part of a group of six lean, tan superheroes. Read our experience getting our collective butts kicked on the rugged and challenging PNT in Section 7 through the North Cascades.
After an incredible night’s sleep nestled in the pine trees, we resumed our walk around Ross Lake heading towards the resort to pick up our resupply box. The trail wound through moss covered forest giving us occasional glimpses of the lake. I took a moment to slow down and enjoy some of the easiest miles we’d seen on the PNT. Eventually, we came to a gravel road and walked across Ross Dam. Soon after, we arrived at Ross Lake Resort, one of the only floating resorts in the United States. We eagerly grabbed our resupply boxes and sorted out what we would hike with to get us to Concrete and what we were able to eat right then. The incredibly kind staff let us spend the afternoon loitering on the docks, taking in the views, and even spoiled us with some trail magic treats.
After nearly 8 hours of casual lounging by the lake, we packed up our bags and continued west about 10 miles for a relatively easy day. The entire stretch of trail was through old growth forest with little elevation change. As the soft evening light poured through the towering trees, we found our campsite just outside of the boundary to North Cascades National Park.
With an early start, we resumed our walk through old growth forest decorated with ferns and dripping with moss. It wasn’t too long into our day that the major climbs began. We were thankful that the trail was well made and only a few big blow downs got in our way. Still, the grade of the climb took our breath away in every sense of the phrase. I craned my neck at the seemingly impossible switchbacks in front of me while I sweated my way to the top. Just after noon, we arrived at the top of Whatcom Pass to reap the reward of all of the hard work.
Endless views of mountain ridges surrounded us, but the real star of the show was the Challenger Glacier. We took a long lunch feeling little in the presence of the massive hanging glacier. As hard as it was to pull ourselves away, we knew we still had work to do. We began a big descent down the other side of Whatcom Pass and continued down the PNT. In the late afternoon, we got the fun treat of getting pulled across the river in a cable car. Our final challenge of the day was another big climb up Hannegan Pass, again impossibly steep, which left our shirts drenched in sweat as we finally arrived to camp completely wiped from 10,000 feet of climbing throughout the day. Just before camp, we exited the official boundary to North Cascades NP.
Our morning began with a beautiful descent down Hannegan Pass which eventually ended at a trailhead on a dirt road. After a considerable stretch of single track, we weren’t surprised to resume road walking. We spent a couple hours on dirt before exiting onto pavement as we walked the shoulder up Mount Shuksan towards the Mount Baker Ski Area. We plugged in our tunes and did our best to ignore the endless traffic rushing by on the windy road. Just after noon, we arrived at the ski area and enjoyed views from the base.
We reluctantly resumed walking a couple hours later and were grateful to walk down a trail towards Swift Creek. The views of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker couldn’t be beat, but the overgrown trail underfoot led to slow miles and more tripping than I’d like to admit. We were thrilled to reach the creek and escape the overgrown trail and the insane amount of biting flies that had been keeping us company. We expected to have to ford the creek, so it was a wonderful surprise when we found a large log bridge and kept our feet dry. The PNT exited the Mount Baker Wilderness Area onto decommissioned forest service roads which put us just a few minutes from Mount Baker Hot Springs. It was an easy decision to end the evening with a quick soak before camp.
We set ourselves up for an easy 9 mile day road walking forest service roads near Baker Lake. It had been a week since our last shower and town day, and we all looked (and smelled) a little worse for wear. Around 9:00, we made it to our road crossing where we could hitch to nearby Concrete. In 2 hitches, we all arrived in town. Food was scarfed down immediately, but there was no lodging available. Despite wanting to stay close to trail, we decided to head to Mount Vernon on the I-5 corridor. We managed to find a ride for all 6 of us fairly quickly to get us 45 minutes away with a sweet Christian couple traveling in their converted bus. After our thank yous and a brief prayer, we parted ways eager to revel in 2 glorious zero mile days
After 250 miles from Oroville, we were desperate to take a real break from the trail. We spent 2 wonderful 0-mile days resting, eating, and doing our best to replace or repair broken gear items. We were thrilled to have our longest stretch between towns behind us as we prepared to set out on the final third of the journey.
Through a series of bus connections and a hitch, we made our way back to trail right where we had left off. Our first nine miles was gradually up forest service roads until we suddenly hit a trailhead swarmed with cars and people. From here, mountaineers can reach the route to summit Mount Baker, a popular weekend trip. We continued climbing towards Bell Pass taking in incredible views of the towering volcano. Past Bell Pass, the crowds thinned to pretty much just us as we continued on the PNT. We ended our relatively easy 20 mile day at Pioneer Camp. This isn’t the official end of Section 7, but I feel like it should be as we left the North Cascades and beautiful Mount Baker behind us.
Section 7 began when we left the Pasayten Wilderness Area and headed directly into the Ross Lake National Recreation Area followed by North Cascades National Park. This is easily one of the best parts of the PNT featuring out of this world views of endless ridgelines, massive glaciers, craggy peaks, old growth forest, and an array of colorful wildflowers. Truly, a hiker’s dream come true. The price of all this beauty? Insane amounts of climbing each day and a heavy pack loaded with food to get you through the wilderness which turned out to be a pretty fair trade.
The trail 15 miles in either direction around Ross Lake couldn’t have been nicer as we wound through old growth forest in awe of the giants that surrounded us. At Ross Lake Resort, we were treated to trail magic and graciously given a spot to lounge in with a spectacular view. Entering North Cascades National Park was where the hard work resumed, but the pay off made it all worth it. Outside of the park boundary, we returned to road walking in exchange for lounging at the ski area with big views of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker. We even got a dip in some hot springs during this section. Overall – much work, much reward.