Eugene Weekly : Outdoors : 10.4.07

Greater Ecosystem
Four hikes in the North Cascades

There are ecosystems — communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms linked by their interactions — and then there are greater ecosystems, those ecosystems that are large enough to accommodate populations of even the largest native wildlife, like grizzly bears and wolves.

Photos James Johnston

There are just a half dozen or so such ecosystems left in the Lower 48, including those in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, northeastern Washington and southern Colorado.

Last but not least, and by far the shortest drive from Eugene, is the incomparable Greater North Cascades Ecosystem in northwest Washington, which includes approximately six million acres of roadless wilderness. The North Cascades are the wettest of all the remaining primeval landscapes in the U.S., with as much as 200 inches of precipitation annually. The rain falls on fantastically rugged peaks and accumulates in more than 700 glaciers (half of the remaining glaciers in the Lower 48). The glaciers feed giant, silt-laden rivers that pour through steep river valleys choked with lush rainforests on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

The glaciers have a tremendous impact on aquatic function. Approximately one-quarter of all the annual water flow in the North Cascades, water flow that supports endangered salmon runs as well as human communities, comes from glaciers. No one knows what glacial retreat caused by global warming will mean for people, salmon, or the host of other species who depend on glacial runoff.

There’s a long and impressive history of wilderness protection in the North Cascades. The 685,000-acre North Cascades National Park was created on Oct. 2, 1968, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the North Cascades Act. The same law created the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas, as well as the 550,000-acre Pasayten Wilderness to the east of the park. It also enlarged the Glacier Peak Wilderness to the south to a total of 464,000 acres. More recently, Congress in 1984 created the 117,500 Mt. Baker Wilderness to the west of the park. Other roadless areas and old-growth forests are protected administratively by the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, one of the few national forests in the U.S. that emphasize habitat and recreation over resource extraction.

Greater ecosystems aren’t just for bears and wolves; they’re also ideal habitat for humans who want to spend days or weeks without encountering signs of civilization. There are thousands of miles of trail in the North Cascades, which explore hundreds of different types of landscapes, from snow-capped volcanoes to quiet old-growth forests. I recommend four different hikes, three of which can be enjoyed either as day hikes or extended backpacking trips. (It is easy to get lost — buy a map!)

The first hike, up the North Fork of the Sauk River, explores one of the most spectacular old growth forests anywhere in the country. To get there, turn east on the Mountain Loop Highway (Forest Service Road 20) approximately 16 miles south of the town of Darrington onto FS 49. Turn left into the trailhead parking lot in just under 7 miles. The first mile of the trail takes you through groves of massive western red cedar, some more than 9 feet in diameter. The next 3 miles of trail follow the river closely (stay straight at the intersection 2 miles from the trailhead) and feature an equally stunning mixed old growth forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, red cedar and silver fir. A stream crossing in 4 miles is a logical turn-around point for day hikers. In approximately 6 miles from your vehicle, the trail climbs steeply to the north into the heart of the immense Glacier Peak wilderness, where there are several multi-day backpacking loops. This area is lousy with black bears in the fall (grizzly bear encounters are unlikely but possible).

The next hike explores Mount Baker, at 10,700 feet the tallest peak in the North Cascades. Mount Baker formed a million years ago and is today, other than Mount St. Helens, the most active volcano in the Pacific Northwest, with frequent steam and ash activity. Several small eruptions were recorded between 1843 and 1880, and in 1975, the mountain was closed because of volcanic activity that threatened a major eruption (though nothing ever happened).

To get there, take State Highway 542 a mile east of the small village of Glacier. Turn south on Glacier Creek Road and find the well-marked trailhead in about 8 miles. The first 2 miles of trail travels through dense forest and several potentially difficult stream crossings. In approximately 2.5 miles, the trail forks. The right fork is a tough scramble to the foot of Coleman Glacier. Cross-country travel and camping from this point are only recommended for experienced mountaineers. The left fork is a much easier hike to a spectacular glacier overlook.

The next hike explores the extraordinarily scenic meadow complex to the north of Mount Baker. The most popular trail is Yellow Aster Butte. To get there, travel 13.5 miles east of Glacier and take a left on a gravel road just past an equipment maintenance shed (FS 3065). Park at the trailhead in just over 4.2 miles. In approximately 2 miles, the trail splits. The route to the left takes you past lovely meadows and glacial tarns (ponds) before petering out. The route to the right winds up to Tomyhoi Peak. If it’s sunny, you’re sure to encounter marmots, the largest members of the squirrel family. Oddly for a creature living in this wet climate, a marmot’s fur loses its insulating property when it’s wet, and they spend rainy days bedded down in elaborate underground burrows.

The final hike takes in some of the most spectacular mountain scenery anywhere. Not far past the road for Yellow Aster Butte, turn left on Hannegan Pass Road (FS 32). Drive 5 miles to the signed trailhead at roads end. The trail climbs gently along a broad, U-shaped river valley, before reaching Hannegan Pass and some of the most spectacular views in the world in 4.2 miles.