Elevation Gain (ft)
Sahale Glacier Camp is one of the top backcountry campsites in the United States National Park System. The individual campsites are ringed with rock walls and perched at 7,570 ft. at the foot of the Sahale Glacier. 8,681 ft Sahale Peak rises at your back and a sea of North Cascades peaks spread out before you. You can even spot Mt. Rainier on a clear day. If you are willing to put in the effort, you will be rewarded with a hike and campsite of a lifetime.
Location: North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA
Trailhead: The end of Cascade River Road 23 miles from Marblemount off of Route 20; pit toilets
Length: 12 miles, +4,000 ft
Trail Type: Out and back
Warnings: Backcountry permit required from North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount. Mountain weather is extremely variable. Prepare for temperature swings, sudden rain, sleet and/or snow, high winds, and whiteout conditions. The last half mile of trail is faint and follows a series of cairns that are sometimes hard to find.
Without falling victim to too much hyperbole, almost everything about this hike is stunning and on a grand scale. In fact, the visual treats start before you reach the trailhead on Cascade River Road. This 23 mile road winds through lush old growth forest full of moss-covered big leaf maple trees and cascading waterfalls hidden around every bend. As you drive along, make sure to pull over and explore as you make your way through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
As you progress, you will cross into North Cascades National Park and before long the road will dead end in a parking lot, which serves as the trailhead. The view from the parking lot is full of towering peaks with glaciated crowns and cascading waterfalls running down the mountain sides – hints of the visual feast that awaits.
The first 4 miles of trail coincide with the Cascade Pass trail, which is a worthwhile hike in itself and one of the most recommended hikes in the national park. Like most hikes in the North Cascades, you are going to have to earn your views. That means lots of climbing, which is what you will be doing until you reach Sahale Glacier Camp. Luckily you have switchbacks and relatively moderate inclines all the way up to Cascade Pass. However, if you have been living in your man cave or binge watching Netfilx for the past couple of months, you will quickly be huffing and puffing as you make the steady climb upwards. You will pass through some beautiful forest and have beautiful mountains peaking through the trees, however, to keep your motivation up.
As you near Cascade Pass, the switchbacks stop and you cross some talus slopes before reaching the pass itself and your first rest stop. Have some snacks, explore or just enjoy the views of the surrounding peaks and the Stehekin Valley, which lies before you. Most people turn around here, but not you. You are just getting started and have 2 miles and +2,200 ft of elevation ahead of you.
Pass the signed trail junction with the Upper Stehekin Valley Road Trail and resume your climb toward Sahale Glacier Camp. Rest assured the views only get better as you climb.
One of the highlights as you make your way up is Doubtful Lake. There is a trail that will take you down to the lake a few hundred feet below, but on you way up, I suggest you don’t lose any of the elevation you have gained. The steepest part of the trail is still ahead of you.
If you are lucky enough to do this hike around mid to late September, the trail may be lined with wild blueberries, which serve as an excellent trail snack and can give a boost to your moral. As you continue to climb and leaving Doubtful Lake below, the views continue to improve with each step. Keep in mind that the best views may be behind you so be sure to look back.
Soon you are confronted with a steep talus slope and a trail that has turned into a foot path marked by cairns. The angle of the slope and the color of the cairns make the path difficult to see at some points so keep your eyes peeled. If you get off course, just remember that the camp it up and at the foot of the Sahale Glacier. You shouldn’t have too much trouble.
Hiking poles will definitely come in handy during this section, especially if you are carrying an overnight pack. When I did this hike in late September, the camp was above snow line so I was hitting snow/slush all the way up the talus slope, which made route finding a bit more difficult, but not too much of a problem.
As you come over a small ridge, you finally get a glimpse of the raised knobs on the slope and the rock rings that serve as campsites. After one final push, you will see the sign for Sahale Glacier Camp. Congratulations, you did it!
Now all you need to do is choose your campsite, which is kind of like choosing between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini. You can’t go wrong. Make sure your tent is secure and guyed out, and then start exploring or just sit back and enjoy the views. You earned them.
Looking away from the glacier, from right to left you have Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak, The Triplets, Mix-up Peak, and Magic Mountain. Behind them a sea jagged black peaks extends to the horizon. The view is simply stunning. If the clouds stay away, make sure you catch the sunset and definitely wake up before sunrise to enjoy the pre-dawn stillness and glow of the surrounding mountains. Staying at Sahale Glacier Camp is an experience that will stay with you and memory you will cherish.