Since Rachel and I hiked the Big SEKI Loop in 2018, we’ve been itching to get on the trail for another big multi-day 100+ mile loop hike. With COVID running throughout the country, it was a good time to look toward our own back yard – The North Cascades.
As a Washington native, I am no stranger to the North Cascades. Yet, Rachel and I had never done a long hike in the North Cascades. So, with two weeks of PTO burning a hole in my pay stub, we pulled out a map and began stitching together some classic sites around the North Cascades.
What we came up with was a loop hike that would travel 155 miles, from the North Cascades National Park, and beyond. I’m calling it The Big North Cascades Loop Hike. The Big NC features some of the finest hiking I’ve ever done, along with classic views of the North Cascades.
Mileage: 155 miles
Time of Year: Early September
Table of Contents
The North Cascades Loop Hike
Here’s what our Big North Cascades Loop Hike looked like.
As you can see from the map, the loop provided a pretty comprehensive backcountry hike tying together several gems of the North Cascades, both in and outside of the national park. Some of the most popular of those gems included Stehekin, the PCT, and Ross Lake.
A Breakdown of Our Camp Sites
Here’s a breakdown of where we started from each day.
- Colonial Creek Campground (located on Highway 20)
- Junction Camp (9 miles)
- Five Mile Camp (10 miles)
- High Bridge Camp (12 miles)
- Bench Creek (5.5 miles)
- Rainy Pass Trailhead (13 miles)
- Somewhere on the Methow River (13 miles)
- Tatie Peak (12 miles)
- The Devil’s Backbone (14 miles)
- The Devil’s Ridge (10 miles)
- Devil’s Camp (10 miles)
- Lightning Creek (3.5 miles)
- Hidden Hand (13 miles)
- Out at Colonial Creek (14 miles)
You’ll find more detail with a short summary of each leg below. I’ve broken the hike into four different sections, some of which could be done in separate trips, rather than linked together all at once.
- Colonial Creek to Stehekin (day 1 – 4)
- Stehekin to Rainy Pass (day 4-6)
- Rainy Pass to Ross Lake (day 6-11)
- The Eastbank Trail to Colonial Creek (day 11-14)
With a little creativity, and a map as reference, you could do several cool variations of these hiking sections.
Keep in mind, section 1, 2, and 4 were all within the North Cascades National Park, and require a permit for camping. Section 2 and 4 also included the Lake Chelan and Ross Lake National Recreation Areas, although permitting for these areas is also controlled by the National Park, so no additional steps or permits are necessary.
Getting a Backcountry Permit for the North Cascades
In order to do any overnight hiking in the North Cascades National Park, you’ll need to get a permit from the National Park service. This is crucial to help preserve the landscape of these fragile environments, as well as to preserve the tranquility of your trip.
You can get a permit, one of two ways.
Reserving a Permit
Each spring, the National Park Service makes 60% of the backcountry camping available for reservation. After making a reservation, you’ll still need to stop at a park station prior to your trip to obtain a permit. But, the benefit is that you’ll have your itinerary locked in. Checkout the National Park Services Backcountry Reservation page for more information.
Obtaining a Walk-up Permit
40% of permits are reserved for walk-up hikers. To get a walk-up permit, you can show up at the Marblemount Ranger station the day of your trip, or the day before you plan to start your hike. Also, if other hikes don’t show up to claim their reserved permits, those spots are then made available to walk-up permits.
Just because you can’t get a reservation, it doesn’t mean you can’t do the hike you originally envisioned. The permit for our Big North Cascade Loop was obtained via a walk-up permit, and we pretty much got the exact route we originally wanted. Obviously, this doesn’t always happen though.
Before you get your permit, think through the following questions:
- Where do you want to start your hike?
- How many miles do you want to do per day?
- What campsites would you like to stay at?
- What are some alternate starting points, or sites?
If you have your ideal trip planned out, and are flexible, you shouldn’t have a problem getting a permit for something very enjoyable. Most people run into permit trouble when they’re doing a short weekend trip to a popular destination. There are a variety of locations that have been ruined by Instagram, and those will be difficult permits to get. If you’re new to hiking, make sure to read up on trail etiquette.
But, if you’re willing to adventure further from the popular trail heads, and dive deep into the wild, you shouldn’t have as many problems with getting a permit. For more information on getting a permit, go to the North Cascades Permit page.
One of the most challenging parts about a long multi-day/multi-week hike is figuring out your food resupply points. Carrying two weeks of food would be pretty heavy, but fortunately, there were several possible resupply points on this trip.
Stehekin is a little town located on the northern tip of Lake Chelan, that can only be accessed by trail or boat. We arrived into Stehekin on day 4 of our trip, so it was a little early for a full resupply. However, is a common resupply point for PCT hikers, and it contains a post office, an outdoor resupply store, and a bakery. Even though we didn’t need a full resupply, we did enjoy several fine pastries, some coffee, and added a bag of day old rolls to our backpack.
Rainy Pass is located just off of Highway 20, heading east from colonial creek. It’s a popular trail head, that we encountered at the end of day 5 of our trip. We chose this as our resupply point, because it was the most easily accessible place on our route to do so. We chose to leave a separate car at this trail head and stored some food in a sealed Tupperware container.
If you stow a car here, you can also take a brief venture to Mazama, a little town located on the eastern edge of Washington Pass, which has an excellent grocery store, and bakery. If you do stow a car here, make sure to have a Northwest Forest Pass on display in your vehicle, and remove any valuables. Many of these trail heads have problems with burglary. You could also have a kind friend meet you here to bring a resupply.
Hart’s Pass could be another possible resupply point. This is further Northeast from Rainy Pass. To access Hart’s Pass, you have take Lost River Rd. heading out of Mazama, and then take a long, steep, windy forest service road (NF-500). This is also the exit point for PCT hikers.
Watch for Water
Finding water was fairly easy for most of this trip, however, there were several days where water was sparse. If you’re doing this trip earlier in the season (July-August), water will likely be more abundant. But since we were hiking in late September, some of the seasonal streams had begun to dry up as the snow fields disappeared.
The driest stretches of trail were on the PCT, from Rainy Pass to Holman Pass. However, we did find several small trickles of water near the following locations:
- Below Tatie Peak – there is a snowfield here earlier in the season that feeds a small stream. If the snowfield is melted, you’ll need to hike below the trail to find the small stream.
- Hart’s Pass – This camp area is pretty dry. But there’s a small trickle of water once you leave the campsite on the PCT. Don’t pass it up without filling.
We also had some trouble finding water while we were on the Devil’s Ridge trail. However, there was a small trickle after the Devil’s Dome, when you begin to descend toward Ross Lake.
In short, be on the lookout for water, especially while hiking the PCT portion of this hike.
I’m not going to go into too much detail on the gear, because the hiking gear is pretty similar for most of our trips. However, there were a few things that were unique or required for this trip.
North Cascades National Park Map
Nothing fancy here. Most of this hike was pretty well marked and easy to find. This National Geographic National Park Map was what we primarily used, without a problem.
We don’t usually use GPS for most trips. However, we did bring one along for this trip because we originally planned to take the Castle Pass trail, located further north from the Devil’s Ridge Trail. This is a rarely traveled trail, and we read that the trail can be difficult to follow. So, to be safe we brought along a Garmin GPSMAP 65s.
But, we ended up making a detour due to smoke conditions, and didn’t need to rely on our GPS.
We were lucky enough to need our rain gear only briefly, but it’s always a must have when hiking in the North Cascades, especially in the early fall season. You can get lucky with weeks of sunshine, but it can also change quickly.
I recommend both rain pants, and a rain jacket. For this trip, I snagged a deal from REI on a pair of the Mountain Hardware Exposure 2 PACLITE pants, and an Exponent 2 Rain Coat. Both are light options that have held up and performed exceptionally.
Typically, Rachel and I often hike with a tarp-tent setup, that has no enclosure. This has always worked well for us, but we decided to change things up for this trip.
We wanted something that wouldn’t add much additional weight to our packs, would hold up in the rain, and would also provide an extra barrier from bugs. So, we splurged on the Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum HV Tent, which ended up suiting us well. You can read our full tent review here.
There are areas of this hiker where a bear canister is not required. In a lot of areas you can do a bear hang, but the National Park does require bear canisters in specific locations that have more bear activity. For much of this trip, a bear canister wasn’t actually required, but we brought one anyways, since we owned one.
You can refer to the North Cascades National Park for more information on Food Storage Requirements. If a bear canister is required for the location you’re hiking, you can also rent one from the Wilderness Information center in Marblemount for $5.
What to Expect on the Big NC Loop Hike
Okay, let’s get down to business. The above details should give you a pretty good idea of how to prepare for this trip. Now, here’s a preview of the hiking from our experience, along each leg of the journey.
Hiking from Colonial Creek to Stehekin
Our journey started out at the Colonial Creek campground located on Lake Diablo. We started out on Labor Day weekend, during the COVID-19 pandemic, so Colonial Creek was especially busy with people looking to get outdoors. That meant finding a place to park our van for two weeks was a little difficult. But, the understaffed Ranger was incredibly helpful and directed us to a specific spot where we’d be out of the way.
From the Colonial Creek campground we hiked up Thunder Creek southward bound toward Stehekin, which is located on the northern edge of Lake Chelan.
This leg of the journey would take us 31.31 miles, and we would camp at three different spots, all of which were in the North Cascades National Park.
Day 1: Colonial Creek to Junction Camp (9 miles)
After a beautiful, and silent walk up Thunder creek, our first night was spent with a spectacular view looking to the West at the Ticouni glaciers.
This was a welcome site from our past six months of isolation. We were mask-free, miles from people, breathing in the glacier cooled air.
Day 2: Junction to Five Mile Camp (10 miles)
Day two brought a ~3,000 ft climb to Park Pass, one of the wildest, and most beautiful sections of trail within the North Cascades National Park. Lush with vegetation, we found ourselves bushwhacking for hours.
We’d disappear into the forest, then emerge in the bushes, our heads peaking out to capture pictures of Park Pass, as it grew closer.
Eventually, after hours of bushwhacking and a steep climb, we emerged on the rubble heaped saddle of Park Pass.
From the top of Park pass we descended to 5 Mile Camp, nestled next to Park Creek. We pitched our tent peering toward Park Pass and watched as dusk overcame the forest, swallowing the mountains from view.
Day 3: 5 Mile to High Bridge Camp (12 miles)
This morning we discovered our water filter with bite marks in it, yet still usable. We took off down the trail through a burn to eventually merge with the PCT, then along an abandoned road and into High Bridge Camp, which sits above Stehekin.
Stehekin to Rainy Pass
The second leg of our journey was a fairly short section taking us from Stehekin to Rainy pass, located on Highway 20. We would only have one camp along the trail for this section, and the total distance was almost 19 miles.
A highlight of this section included the Stehekin Bakery, and Oreo Cookies that Rachel stashed in our car at Rainy Pass.
Day 4: High Bridge to Bench Creek (5.5 miles)
After an evening at High Bridge, we caught the white bus from the camp, heading into Stehekin Valley. The bus had multiple stops along the way eventually dropping us off at the Stehekin waterfront. The ride was ultimately about 8 miles.
Stehekin was not exactly what we expected, as it actually had a number of cars, and required a car to travel around. However, the Stehekin bakery was well worth the visit and we took the time to visit it twice during our visit.
After spending a few hours in Stehekin (primarily at the Bakery), we decided to set back out on the trail, and stay the night at Bench Creek.
Day 5: Bench Creek to Rainy Pass (13 miles)
This was a fairly long day, that involved making a push to Rainy Pass where we stored a food cache in our car. We could have camped a couple of miles before the Rainy Pass trailhead on Highway 20, but we were eager to get to our food cache.
Since there technically isn’t any camping at the Rainy Pass trailhead, we used this as an excuse to hop in our car and drive to Mazama, where we camped for the evening. This also allowed us to get fresh brewed coffee and a pastry from the Mazama store in the morning, before driving back to Rainy pass and beginning the next section of our hike on the PCT.
Hiking the PCT from Rainy Pass to Ross Lake
From Rainy Pass, we hiked northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the Devil’s Ridge Trail which junctions with the PCT at Holman Pass. This is some of the most beautiful high ridge hiking in the North Cascades.
Day 6: Rainy Pass to Methow River (13 miles)
From the trailhead to cutthroat pass, is a pretty easy hike up hill. There’s a good water source before the top, right as you emerge from the trees. From cutthroat pass, the views begin and don’t go away for miles.
This is some of the finest ridge walking Rachel and I have ever done.
Day 7: Methow River to Tatie Peak (12 miles)
After camping in a woods somewhere along the Methow River, we continued our hike through thick trees and brush, then pushing up to High Pass, and then pushing even higher below Grasshopper Peak.
The start of the leg was plentiful of water, but after you leave Bush Creek, access to water is difficult to find. There are some trickling streams near High Pass, but the water quality is suspect. The next water source we found was at Tatie Peak, located down below the trail.
Day 8: Tatie Peak to The Devil’s Backbone (14 miles)
From a beautiful campsite below Tatie Peak, we curve our way along the ridge, and climbed to Hart’s Pass. Here is another location you could have a potential re-supply if you had someone drive in to meet you. This is also the exit point for PCT hikers.
From here we hiked on to one of my favorite camp sites – located on the Devil’s Backbone, a unique Ridgeline that extends out from the trail, sitting below a towering Jim Peak.
Day 9: The Devil’s Backbone to the Devil’s Ridge (10 miles)
Day 9 would mark our exit from the PCT. We packed up our camp on the Devil’s Backbone, then veered off to the west at Holman Pass onto the Devil’s Ridge Trail. This also is a section of the Pacific Northwest trail, a trail that travels from the Glacier National Park in Montana, to the Pacific Coast of Washington.
After exiting the PCT, the number of hikers thins out. The views along the Devil’s Ridge trail are unmatched in beauty. You go from damp wetlands at the foot of the forest, then climb along brushy hillsides. The terrain is a little rough, but mainly because the trail is not as regularly maintained. At no point did we worry about losing the trail.
Day 10: Devil’s Ridge to Devil’s Camp (10 miles)
The Devil’s Ridge Trail continued to take us westbound toward Ross Lake. As I mentioned above, the beauty of the Devil’s Ridge is unrivaled, and that was made abundantly clear on day 10 of our adventure.
After several days of smoke, we awoke to wet ground, and rolling clouds. As we climbed, the skies cleared, and we were greeted by stunning views of Devil’s dome and Jack Mountain. This was by far, the most beautiful day of the trip.
After winding our way down, we camped along the shore of Ross Lake, at Devil’s Camp.
East Bank Trail to Colonial Creek Campground
The East Bank East Bank Trail runs along the bank of Ross Lake. We spent our last several days running along the edge of the trail. The East Bank trail connects to Highway 20 at its southern end.
Day 11: Devil’s Camp to Lightning Creek Camp (3.5 miles)
This was the shortest day of our trip, which was also nice because it was our first day on Ross Lake. We started with coffee and oatmeal on the lake, and then moved north to the Lightning Creek Stock Camp, which sits just south of the Lightning Creek Bridge.
The best part of this day was that we had the whole camp to ourselves. The worst part? It was smoky, and we were running low on food. But we still enjoyed listening to the lake Loons, reading, and swimming in the water.
Day 12: Lightning Creek to Hidden Hand (13 miles)
Day 12 marked our last night of camping on the trail. We were sad to leave lightning creek, but our food was low, and our bellies growling. The East Bank trail has some beautiful spots where it rides above the lake, on a path etched into the stone.
We capped the evening off with desert, and sunset at Hidden Hand.
Day 13: Hidden Hand to Colonial Creek (14 miles)
This was the last day of our trip. It was a short hike from Hidden Hand to The Eastbank trailhead. From there we had to walk eastbound on Highway a short distance until you reach the Panther Creek trailhead. At this point the trail get’s fairly steep as it marches into the woods over Fourth of July pass, and then makes a steep descent back to Thunder Creek, finally exiting at the Colonial Creek Campground.
Where Will You Be Hiking this Year?
Now, we’d like to hear from you.
Have you done a long hike in the North Cascades, or elsewhere? Are you planning one?
Or, maybe you’ve hiked one of these trail sections and noticed something that we missed.
Either way, let us know by leaving a comment below.