Months ago, I made plans with a friend for some spring backpacking. The timing couldn’t have been better for the conditions and for my sanity!
There are quite a few backpacking options in the spring for this state, but many are either far to the east or far to the west. There’s a couple options closer to Seattle that are very dependent on conditions, including a few in North Cascades National Park.
My friend Celeste did all of the legwork in researching options, and we picked a hike to the Big Beaver campsites of the Big Beaver trail (also called the Ross Lake trail), with several backups planned just in case. At T-Minus 20 hours, a wrench was thrown due to historically low levels of Ross Lake, all boat-in campsites, many of which are along the Big Beaver trail, would be closed. We contacted the ranger station and confirmed our second choice, Pumpkin Mountain also on the Big Beaver trail, was open and packed our bags.
Sun shining, we met (with me being late, apologies again Celeste!) at the trailhead, me already smiling ten miles wide with giddiness. One last tightening of laces and look at our cars and down we went! The Big Beaver trail starts by dropping you a massive amount down to the lake level. Keep this in mind, as you’ll get to be climbing up upon return. Once you are done descending, you will be walking on the Ross Lake Dam that separates Ross Lake and the stunning Diablo Lake. Our trek out was on a blustery day, and we had to hold on to our hats, literally, as the dam was like a wind tunnel! However, the view was just stunning, with the dam feeling like an equator with snow-capped mountains in each hemisphere.
Once we were protected from the wind and on dirt again, we wound up the north side of the lake. Despite the stunning weather, the trail was fairly empty for a Saturday afternoon. A little over a mile in, a small wooden sign designated a spur as “Greenpoint.” Do not skip this! We decided to follow the spur and take a break, and were greeted with the most stunning lunch spot possible.
We finished our snacks and rejoined the main trail, which is actually part of the Pacific Northwest Trail or PNT. As we ambled along, my anxieties melted away. I had been a little nervous about backpacking with someone new. What if I’m too slow? What if I forget something important and I look stupid? What if I can’t handle the mileage or weight? What if I am a terrible companion? This was by far my longest trip out-and-back, and certainly the most weight I’ve carried on the trail before. However, the steps flew by as we caught up. I spied bits of white along the trail–mountain goat fur? I know mountain goats are aplenty in the park, but I assumed it wasn’t the right time for them yet. I have yet to see one up close and personal!
The trail took us a little bit away from the lake for a bit, through a stunning grove of trees. Slowly, the trees and ground around us became carpeted in a layer of moss I’d expect in the Olympics, not the Cascades! On the return journey this area became even more breathtaking, with the morning light providing a beautiful glow. We came upon a junction with the Pierce Way trail to Sourdough Mountain and other destinations before coming along a new viewpoint. We knew we were getting close to camp! The sound of rushing water began to grow. Springtime means snowmelt, which made me nervous for a difficult crossing, but I was relieved to see we had a nice study bridge to cross over what were some breathtaking waterfalls.
There was one crossing where this weeble wobbled and nearly fell down, my balance completely thrown off by the weight of my pack. I made a mental note and remembered to use a stick here on the return trip, which helped immensely, but conditions at this crossing could vary greatly with the snowpack and time of year. It wasn’t long from there that we had a mild, mossy jaunt downhill and saw a sign for our camp! We encountered a couple who told us about a few potential remaining campsites, set our packs down, and took in the area around us. Along with one pit toilet, there was one ‘beach’ site, along a sandy bank and with stunning views, and one more protected in the trees, with makeshift benches and a perfect fire ring.
We chose the established site, content that the fire ring and benches would be more legitimate than the beachy site. We set up camp quickly and set out on getting water and exploring! As I mentioned, the water levels are historically low for the lake. We couldn’t believe the sandy dunes with tree stumps, a river rushing and carving through canyons that would all normally be underwater. It was simultaneously breathtakingly unique and incredibly alarming to see.
The sandy dunes had a few surprises for us: For starters, fishing lures. We found many that were stuck around the dead trunks, and tried to free them to throw away at home as best as we could. But also in the sandy dunes were prints–elk prints! Or some other ruminant, I’m no scout master. I instantly got so excited, eager to see a critter. We also spied raccoon tracks (or similar animal) in the sand as well, flitting about the elk prints. If my feet weren’t exhausted and my belly empty I could have explored this sandy, cavernous area for hours. However, dinner, in the form of delicious tacos Celeste had brought and a crowler of cerveza I had lugged along, was calling.
Time flew by after dinner, and soon we were in the tent ready for sleep to come. I had been so focused on reading the weather report that I hadn’t thought about what sleeping outdoors in 40* weather (albeit high 40s) would feel like. I had an unfortunately restless night, trying to keep my whole body ‘mummified’ and warm in my 30* bag but also letting just my nose poke out for fresh air. Morning eventually came and we all-to-soon packed up camp and got back along the trail.
As I said before, the trail became even more peaceful and tranquil when bathed in sunlight. The sky was more clear than the previous day, giving everything a fresh look. This trip had made me feel like a window that had been squeegeed after being filthy for months. The walk across the dam, no longer a wind tunnel, gave us one last gift of breathtaking beauty. It really had been the perfect trip with stunning weather and catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. I even had a new item to add to my gear-list an REI Flexlite chair Celeste had ingeniously brought! It was nearly perfect.
Except we still had to climb upward the last mile. I hadn’t forgotten as much as pushed it out of my mind. This last climb was also in fairly direct sunlight with it already being 70* (or close to it). Not for nothing had I seen people joke about it being the worst mile of a backpacking trail in the state! There were a few merciful patches of shade for us, luckily. We noticed far more people than the previous day, many of whom were breezily strolling packless down the hill as we huffed and puffed up it.
We reached our intact cars and got to stripping off boots and socks for sandals. It was unseasonably warm, which had only made the trip more wonderful. I can’t promise every spring along the Big Beaver trail will be warm and snow-free, but this weekend in May, it sure was.
If planning on hiking the Big Beaver trail or backpacking, I strongly suggest you chat with a ranger at North Cascades National Park, especially with boat-in sites closing for the time being. The trail in full is over 20 miles long. First-come, first serve permits and bear cans are required for overnight stays.
Distance: Choose-your-own-adventure, this trail is great for dayhiking, backpacking, or multi-night backpacking. It was 7.0 to Pumpkin Mountain.
Elevation: Gain depends on destination, but you start by plummeting downwards, and what goes down, must come up.
Parking: No parking pass required, but Backcountry permits are required for overnight stays.
Bathrooms: There was a pit toilet at Pumpkin Mountain.
Food Storage: Hanging food or a bear can is required.
Fires: Allowed in designated rings, pending burn bans.
Best Beer Bet: Depends on route home!