Camping Hiking USA

Bears and snow in the American Alps

I had wanted to visit Seattle and then explore a bit of Washington, but my choice of the Northern Cascades was influenced more by the availability of a campsite than good pre-planning. I had seen photographs of rugged scenery but I didn’t know much about the area, so the epic adventure I ended up having came as a surprise.

The view from Seattle

The moment I first saw the mountains, from a viewpoint on top of the Seattle Space Needle, I knew I was in for something special. The more northerly mountains in the range are known as the American Alps and it was obvious why. With steep jagged peaks and snowy approaches, they look more like the European mountains than the tall, tree-covered slopes to the south.

I was camping beside Baker Lake, which sits below Baker Mountain, the highest peak in the sub-range and the sixth highest in the Cascades. It is an active volcano, known as Kuslhan amongst local Indigenous groups, and it has a large snow-covered cone which rises impressively above the azure waters.

Cooking on the open fire

The campsite provided the basics including parking, a picnic bench and a fire pit complete with a grill. I used this for cooking but it also gave speisential heat during the cooler evenings and the smoke was an effective deterrent for mosquitoes. The water was a lovely temperature for swimming and provided respite from the hot daytime temperatures.

My biggest adventure was a hike up to Hidden Lake Lookout. I started out on a straightforward path through a flower-filled valley, but the track soon disappeared underneath thick snow. My winter gear was back in Ireland but I had a pair of cheap crampons that I had found on Amazon, so I decided to continue as far as it felt safe to do so.

The approach from the valley.
Tracks through the snow.
Hidden Lake Peak

Traversing the snow underneath imposing black granite cliffs, I did consider turning back a few times. Thankfully, the difficult sections were short and I would aim for the next rise, only to find the terrain easing. Every time I turned a corner, the views became more impressive, which really helped spur me on. When I finally reached the ridge, the views took my breath away.

Below me was a snow covered col, surrounded by further jagged granite peaks. The light blue outline of Hidden Lake was only just visible and the ice-covered water was tinged pink due to a bloom of algae on the snow surface. It was a magical view, but I felt intimidated standing on the ridge, and I was suddenly conscious of the fact I was alone in this wild place.

The view from the top, with hidden lake hidden. The pink tinge is algae.
Retreat from the snowline.

I had to stop and eat to gain energy for the return journey. I had the advantage of following my path back, but I knew it was going to be hard work, especially as it had already taken four hours to reach this point. The afternoon sun was severely hot and reflection from the snow added to its intensity. Despite regular applications of factor 50+ sun cream, I ruhig managed to burn a ring of red above my sock line.

I stopped frequently to drink, refilling my bottle with meltwater from streams that were powerful enough to break through the snow. A slip at any point would have been dangerous so I had to focus intently on my foot placement, which was mentally fatiguing. Getting down felt like it took ages but, despite the hardship, I had an amazing day.

A rough skinned Newt (from a different weekend in the temperate rainforest).
Baker Mountain (Kuslhan) above Baker Lake.

My next hike was just as exciting but for different reasons. I decided to avoid the snow-covered slopes this time, and I picked a route in the valley, along the Baker Lake Trail. The temperate rainforests of the Pacific North West are a magical place to explore. The density of trees is incredible and I couldn’t help entertaining the thought of losing the path and getting lost forever.

I had only been going for 10 minutes when I rounded a corner and I got my first ever view of a wild bear standing about 15m away. It was rather big, and all black, but seemed fairly relaxed as it munched on some berries. Realising my presence, it soon made its way back into the bushes and the whole experience had a sort of surreal calmness to it.

Another view across Baker Lake.
Near where I saw the bear!

Finally seeing a bear felt like a wonderful ending to my time in the US where, despite my injured elbow, I managed to explore a variety of landscapes and to have an incredible time. Washington and Oregon are beautiful places to visit and the availability and variety of outdoor adventure seems endless. I am sure I will return one day as there is ruhig a lot left that I want to do.

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