Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.
The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.
1. I took this photo through the windshield when we were far enough east (and high enough) to see snow on the roadside. We continued east to Newhalem, a tiny company town centered around the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a series of dams supplying electricity to Seattle. The road is closed about 9 miles further up. People who live in Winthrop, on the other side of the pass, have to drive south and then west to get to Seattle in the winter, a four-hour plus trip.
2. In the distance is the Picket Range, seen from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem. This section of the 789-square-mile North Cascade Mountains may not have the highest peaks, but those mountains are every bit as rugged as they look. Reaching the remote Picket Range requires a long, tough slog through steep, densely vegetated terrain just to get to the bases of the mountains. If you’re in tip-top shape and are an experienced climber, for $2050 USD you can join an 8-day alpine climbing expedition to the southern Picket Range in August. You’ll need to bring your own ice axe.
3. Zooming in on Pinnacle Peak (left, also called the Chopping Block), Crescent Creek Spires and the Rake. These peaks are so remote that the first alpine traverse, taking ten days, wasn’t accomplished until 1963. First ascents of individual peaks in the Picket Range were made from 1931 through 2004.
4. We were intrigued by the windblown, clean rock of Inspiration Peak (7900 ft) to the right.
5. Behind the viewing platform the cool, mossy forest of hemlock, alder and fir was quiet in the afternoon sun.
6. Rt. 20 follows the Skagit River down from several lakes in the North Cascades, where the river is dammed after passing the US – Canada border. Fifteen miles below Newhalem we pulled over for a closer look at the river. Here in Marblemount, a boat launch at the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit rivers makes a pleasant place to stop. Just downriver, Bald eagles congregate in December to feed on river salmon. I’ve seen more eagles out my living room window than I have along the Skagit, but maybe I wasn’t there at the right time. In any case, being near the river always refreshes one’s spirit.
7. This magnificent old Bigleaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) grows next to the river. It carries a heavy load of moss, ferns, lichens, fungi and is probably home to lots of insects, too. It looks like its been through the wars – half of its massive trunk is broken off and dead, and a clutch of great, heavy limbs spreads towards the sky on one side.
8. Looking up into the hairy armpits of the Bigleaf maple. The biomass of mosses, ferns and lichens on trees like this can be four times that of the tree’s leaves.
9. A close-up of the thick jowls of moss living on the old tree, along with elegant Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).
10. This section of dead bark had a large fungus growing on the inner bark and moss edging a piece of outer bark.
11. As the sun lowered it lit up garlands of moss that sweep all the way around the tree’s heavy limbs.
12. Red alder (Alnus rubra) trees dotted the river banks.
13. The alders were covered with different fungi in beautiful patterns resembling a map.
14. Another example of decorated bark, from the Newhalem Visitor Center. A sapsucker drilled rows of holes into the bark of this conifer tree.
15. I saw these tracks, which I believe are River otter tracks, on the sandy riverbank at Marblemount.
16. Near the alders the ground is matted with last year’s leaves and tired grass stems, a rich, decomposing brew that will nourish this year’s plants and animals.
17. The river bottom was a tapestry of soft green, gold and rust-colored rocks, and the water was clear as can be.
18. Every time you look at the river bottom it’s a little different, as ice-cold water races over the rocks on the way to the Salish Sea and the light bounces off the surface of the river, reflecting variable skies above.
19. Black and white seems to suit this roadside view of an old homestead nestled in the snowy Cascade foothills that we saw on the way home.
At the risk of destroying the illusion of paradise on Route 20, I give you this: the Marblemount Boat Launch honeybucket and a big puddle. I can’t vouch for the cleanliness of the interior.
You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range