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Whatcom Peak reflected in Tapto Lake, North Cascades National Park

Tapto Lakes: A Long Awaited Journey to the Heart of the North Cascades

Everyone has a place they dream of, somewhere that holds a special spot in their heart. At some point in their lives, usually at a young age, they see a picture or read a story about a place that for various reasons captures their imagination. They carry it with them over the years and hope someday for the chance to visit it in person.

For me it has always been mountain wilderness. And not just any run-of-the-mill mountain wilderness. It had to have a primordial feel. Dark mysterious forests, raging rivers, and rugged peaks with jagged rock summits jutting out from glittering glaciers. For me the North Cascades fit the bill perfectly. It was this vision that first drew me to Whatcom Pass many years ago.

Last year I was finally able to make a return visit to Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes, in North Cascades National Park. In the heart of the park, Whatcom Pass is quintessential North Cascades wilderness. It rises out of deep untouched forest valleys to jaw-dropping views of rugged glacier-clad peaks, far away from any road, town or cell signal. My first visit had been way back in the late-eighties and I’ve been wanting to go back ever since. There have been many reasons for my delayed return, not the least of which were the memories of the long, exhausting hike and the nightmarish swarms of flying insects.

Unlike most backpacking trips, this one—in addition to covering lots of miles—has some major ups and downs. The first day requires climbing a pass and then descending deep into another valley. The next day you must climb all the way up to another pass, then higher still to the lake basin. In all you’ll cover around 40+ miles and about 8500′ of elevation, including side trips, before returning to the trailhead. A very strong hiker could make it in two days. Most people allow three to four days. My primary goals were photography and relaxation, so I allocated six days. Aside from the photography thing, I always feel that if you work so hard to get some place, why hurry to leave? Take your time to relax and enjoy the surroundings!

Hiking to Hannegan Pass

The trail to Hannegan Pass, Mount Baker Wilderness

On the first day I made an early start, hoping to make it through the brushy Ruth Creek Valley before the black flies awoke. It’s about five miles and 2000′ up to Hannegan Pass, along a very scenic trail that sees a lot of foot traffic. I’ve been up this trail to the pass nearly a dozen times and never get tired of the open views of rugged Nooksack Ridge. About halfway up you begin to see snow-capped Ruth Mountain guarding the head of the valley. Ruth Mountain itself is a popular destination for hikers, climbers, and skiers in early season.

Although I’m not much of a mountaineer, I managed to hike up the glacier to the summit several years back. From the top you get an incredible view of Mount Shuksan and its glaciers spilling into Nooksack Cirque. Truly awe-inspiring!

Down the Chilliwack Valley

Hand operated cable car crossing of the Chilliwack River

Upon reaching Hannegan Pass I took a rest break to have a snack and dry off my sweat-soaked shirt. From here it’s all downhill into the wild Chilliwack River Valley, losing all that hard-won elevation. Shortly after leaving the pass, I finally entered North Cascades National Park, indicated by a weather-beaten wooden sign. The hike down into the valley was through a beautiful untouched fragrant forest of silver fir, mountain hemlock and grand fir. The feeling here of true wilderness was very tangible. Even the trail seemed wilder. From the pass I needed to travel another five miles to U.S. Cabin camp, my first night’s destination.

Ten miles is about my limit for hiking with a full multi-day pack, so I was glad to reach the camp and set up my tent. Amazingly, there were very few bugs thus far and I was able to relax and eat dinner along the river unmolested, enjoying the impressive forest. That night I turned in early in anticipation of the grueling hike the next day. I had to hike another seven miles and more than 3000′ up to my ultimate destination, Tapto Lakes above Whatcom Pass.

The next morning I again got up early to hit the trail. The first stop of the day was the unique crossing of the Chilliwack River via a hand-operated cable car. I don’t know how common these contraptions are but for most hikers it’s a highlight of their trip. Later in the season, crossing the river on foot wouldn’t be very hard, but why pass up such an interesting experience? Two hikers and their packs can fit in the car which is operated by pulling on a rope. It’s pretty easy getting across the first half since the cable sags down a bit. After that you begin to pull your weight up to the opposite side. By the time I got the car docked on the platform my arms were pretty tired from pulling.

Climbing to Whatcom Pass

North Cascades National Park

After the river crossing, it was back to work again on the trail, which now traversed a very brushy section. Years ago, on my first visit, the chest-high brush was covered in morning dew. After a half an hour of hiking I was soaking from the waist down. A few miles later the climb to Whatcom Pass began in earnest. The trail began to rise from the valley bottom and gradually views opened up to rugged Easy Ridge. After what seemed like an eternity, Whatcom Peak came into view and the terrain began to take on a subalpine look. I arrived at Whatcom Pass exhausted and once again drenched in sweat from the climb.

I still had another mile and 800′ feet of elevation to travel to my camp at Tapto Lakes. At this point I was wiped out and began to have doubts that I could make it. The trail to the lakes is more like a climbers route, with sections so steep you need to pull yourself up by root and branches. While deciding if I had the energy I spoke with a few other backpackers doing the cross-park hike to Ross Lake. Like me, they had spent the whole morning climbing up to Whatcom Pass. However, they only paused briefly to take in the views before heading down again into the adjacent valley. Again I thought to myself, what’s the point of all the work if you hurry past the best parts?

The previous day I had met a woman who was hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail. This 1200-mile long trail starts at Glacier Park in Montana and ends at the Pacific Ocean. Like the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian trails, you need to hike a set number of miles each day to complete it. During our brief conversation I couldn’t help admiring her determination and stamina. But at the same time I also felt a bit sorry for her. It struck me as sad that she needed to hurry through such beauty to stay on schedule.

At Tapto Lakes

Whatcom Peak reflected in Tapto Lake

By this time I felt physically and mentally rested enough to slog up to reach my camp at Tapto Lakes. Taking it very slowly, the climb proved easier than I anticipated. Soon enough the views exploded to include Mount Challenger and the imposing rock buttresses of Whatcom Peak. A short 200′ descent into the basin brought me to the beautiful lakes. The day was still young so I took my time and leisurely explored the area to find the best campsite. The only other people there was a small group staying at the pass below. They had day hiked up to the lakes to take in the views and enjoy a quick dip in the frigid lake waters. When they left I had the entire place all to myself.

Time to rest and take it all in, and do nothing but marvel at the rugged beauty that spread before my eyes. At last I had returned to the place that held my imagination spellbound for nearly 28 years.

Exploring Tapto Lakes Basin

Backcountry camp, Eiley-Wiley Ridge seen in the distance.

Tapto Lakes is one of those locations that many hikers dream about visiting. Remote, high in the subalpine, and surrounded by rugged snowcapped peaks, the lakes have all the attributes of a classic backpacking destination. About 800′ above Whatcom Pass, they sit in a basin containing one large lake and several smaller lakes set in a heather-filled subalpine meadow. The basin is shaped somewhat like an amphitheater, with the main show being the stupendous views of Mount Challenger and Whatcom Peak. This is a designated cross-country zone within North Cascades National Park and with a permit you are free to camp anywhere among the lakes, though with a few caveats.

After investing two days of hard work reaching the lakes I woke up rested and refreshed. Elated at the prospect of not having to hike anywhere with a full pack, I took in the views and planned my day. Of course since my main reason for being here was landscape photography I woke up early to survey the light. I had already identified several excellent spots to run to in the event of some great morning light. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case on my first morning, so I had lots of leisure time to explore all the lakes. My usual modus operandi is to spend most of the day scouting out and lining up possible compositions. I then try to assign a priority to them and work from top down when the lighting becomes appropriate. My first evening had some very nice light, enabling me to photograph some classic reflections of Whatcom Peak.

The View North

Mount Challenger elevation: 8236 feet (2510 meters)

On my second day I decided to move camp to a higher location. My map showed a very small lake not far away in its own small talus-fringed basin on Red Face Mountain. It appeared to offer even more commanding views, along with quick access to a ridge on that beautiful peak. The short hike up was definitely worth it. The lake still had some snow along one side and I quickly found an excellent spot to set up camp, after which I continued to explore upwards.

As I crested the ridge I was presented with incredible views of the wild peaks to the north. Dominating the view was Bear Mountain and the jagged needle-like spires of Mox Peaks and Silver Peaks. Far below the precipitous and crumbling ridge were the turquoise colored Reveille Lakes. All of this territory was completely devoid of trails, a true wilderness only accessible to the most determined mountaineers. I sat there for quite some time, contemplating how fortunate I was to be in such a special place. I got up after a while and headed back down the slope, wondering if I’d ever return.

Back down at the lake, I immersed myself in the splendor of the setting. Some clouds had moved in and were swirling around the summits of nearby peaks. I was hopeful they wouldn’t completely sock in everything before sunset. I moved to the back of the lake where Whatcom Peak was reflected in the still waters, the clouds and reflections creating a sort of Rorschach effect, painted in subtle pastel tones. All in all it was a very satisfying day.

Middle Lakes

Tent illuminated during twilight at backcountry camp near Middle Lakes, Mount Challenger seen in the distance.

The next day, I packed up and moved on. A bit east are a few more small tarns, the most accessible being the Middle Lakes. I decided to spend my last day here before heading back. Climbing back up to the ridge I turned and bid a somewhat melancholy goodbye to the lakes I had dreamed of revisiting all those years.

Middle Lakes turned out to be an easy mile or so further, with only a steep rock slope to cross to add a bit of excitement. When I reached upper Middle Lake I found the setting to be somewhat desolate. Surrounded by steep slopes on three sides and a boulder field at the outlet, there didn’t seem to be any good campsites. I moved on to check out the lower lake. The lower lake was more attractive, but it too afforded little flat ground for camping. However, when scouting for campsites I noticed an odd mound near the lake outlet with intense iron-red soil. There appeared to be springs emanating from the mound. The main spring had formed small red mineral terraces similar to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. I felt the water but it was cool to the touch.

I ultimately found a nice spot for the night among boulders and heather meadows with a commanding view of Mount Challenger. For a mountain with such an imposing glacier it seemed that its elevation should be more than 8236′. During my entire stay in the area I noticed a nearly constant flow of clouds near its summit. Apparently despite its relatively modest height, Mount Challenger tends to make its own weather, partly explaining the huge glacier. Most of that afternoon and evening I enjoyed and photographed the dancing mists whimsically curling around the summit.

Hiking Out

Old growth forest consisting of Silver Fir and Western Hemlock in the Chilliwack Valley.

The next day it was time to head out, retracing my steps down to Whatcom Pass and into the Chilliwack River Valley. Although I was filled with a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, I was also sorry to leave. I faced a long day of hiking filled with memories – both old and new. After around ten miles, I reached Copper Creek Camp, bone-weary with plenty of hot spots on my heels and toes. The next day I faced the stiff climb back up to Hannegan Pass and then the final miles out to the trailhead where my truck waited.

Nearing the pass I began to meet more hikers. Many of them were just beginning trips similar to mine. You could easily see the excitement in their faces, anticipating the wonders that were waiting for them. Then it was down the pass for the last five miles of the trip. Although I was out of North Cascades National Park and in the Mount Baker Wilderness, it was easy to sense civilization was close. I began to see more people on the wider, well-maintained trail. I got back to my truck in a few hours, in a parking lot filled with dozens of cars.

Tired but flush with a deep sense of contentment, I began wondering how soon I might get another chance to return to the dreamlands around Whatcom Pass.

Alan Majchrowicz is a mountain wilderness fanatic who has been hiking and photographing in the Pacific Northwest and beyond for over 35 years. His landscape and nature images have been used by The Sierra Club, Apple Computer, National Geographic, Alaska Airlines and many more. He resides with his family in Bellingham. Learn more at alanmajchrowicz.com.

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