I’d read repeatedly that the hike to Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm was one of the best in the North Cascades. I waited patiently for the best time to do it, and today, with a forecast for perfectly clear weather, was it.
Even at the trailhead, the views were fantastic. Almost directly above us was Johannesburg Mountain, its stark black peaks towering thousands of feet over glaciers, snowfields, and avalanche gullies.
We started hiking at 11, climbing the mountainside opposite Johannesburg Mountain. Immediately, we entered a lovely old-growth forest of Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii). The trees had furrowed bark, and from the bark hung feathery green lichen that swayed gently in the breeze. Between the trees, we caught glimpses of the rocks and glaciers on the other side of the valley.
We got our first big view while walking through an avalanche chute. Among shrubs and saplings, we could look straight down the heavily forested Cascade River valley and see the peaks around it, still heavy with snow at their higher reaches.
The forest gradually changed as we gained elevation, and Nootka cypress (Callitropsis nootkatensis), mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) began to appear. The Nootka cypress is a favorite of mine, with its yellowish foliage and drooping, sorrowful branches.
Above, the forest gave way to meadows and avalanche chutes, and in the distance we got our first sight of the pass. At the same time — and I thought this was really neat — we could also see the trailhead, and even our car, looking tiny over a thousand feet below.
We got to the pass at 1:00. The views back down the Cascade River valley were fantastic, and the views to the other side were just as grand. The glaciers on Johannesburg Mountain hung over green grassy slopes that gradually thickened into dark green shrubs. The shrublands were split by long sinewy waterfalls that made them look more like tropical hanging gardens than plants clinging to life in an alpine environment.
We were making good time, so we decided to continue up toward Sahale Arm. We passed a few snowfields, one of which we had to climb over awkwardly and and another that we had to hike around completely. Above the snowfields, however, the trail was essentially clear and we climbed on.
This was the Cascades experience I’d been searching for but hadn’t yet found. We walked along on an easy, undulating trail through alpine meadows bursting with flowers. In every direction were high, ragged peaks, painted white with snowfields and glaciers. Below us were sparkling lakes and lush valleys.
We found a spot with an amazing view of Sahale Mountain and Doubtful Lake and stopped for a break.
We had planned to turn around at 2, but the hiking was so great that we kept going. We cruised up Sahale Arm, gradually gaining elevation while hiking through meadows and shrubby patches of mountain hemlock.
We turned around at 2:30 and made good time back to Cascade Pass. We stopped for a snack and watched some of mountain goats: two families, seven goats in all, including two kids.
We left the pass at 3:30. On the way down, we were twice reminded that the mountains were not as static and placid as they seemed. The first time, we heard a low rumble and looked through the firs for its source. Across the valley, a massive chunk of glacier had disintegrated and was crashing down its cliffs. Later, near the car, another piece of the glacier broke off, creating a waterfall of ice that lasted several seconds.
We ended the hike at 5:15.