Wild Crags of the North Cascades, Washington

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14113A, Backpacking


  • Explore glorious alpine country during peak wildflower bloom
  • Stand in awe of views across a sea of jagged, glacier-covered peaks
  • Travel through ancient forests and beside icy rivers that rush through glacial-carved valleys


  • All meals, beginning with breakfast on the first day and ending with lunch on the last day
  • All group cooking gear, bear canisters, and safety-related equipment
  • Friendly, experienced trip leaders


DatesAug 10–16, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffJohn Lasseter

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Sometimes called “America’s Alps,” the North Cascades offer some of the grandest mountain scenery in the United States. Since 1968, more than 700,000 acres of this wilderness have enjoyed protection as the North Cascades National Park. Our backpack adventure will take us into the rugged Picket Range, whose jagged spires form the northernmost unit of the park. We will pitch our tents beside an icy river, by clear alpine lakes, and in high country that overlooks the great bulks of Whatcom Peak, Mount Challenger, Mount Shuksan, and countless other, sharp-toothed giants. This is wild country, with few trails, abundant wildlife, brilliant wildflowers, and ridgecrest views that stretch across two countries.


Day 1:  We will assemble in the morning at the Silver Fir Campground, where we will have breakfast, our first “official” meeting with each other, and distribution of group gear. From there, we will move vehicles a couple miles east to the trailhead, where we will begin the trip mid-morning with a 7.5-mile hike up to Hannegan Pass and down the headwaters of the Chilliwack River, then camp at Copper Creek.

Day 2: We follow the icy Chilliwack River, from its headwaters down to its junction with Brush Creek. There, we will turn south, traveling up the Brush Creek canyon to our camp at the extraordinary Whatcom Pass.  An interesting adventure highlight is the chance to cross the Chilliwack in a hand-operated cable car. Views up and down the Chilliwack and Brush Creek canyons are enormous, and only get better as we near camp. At 9.6 miles of hiking, this is the longest day of the trip, and though the first 6.6 miles are on a downhill or a gentle climb, the final three miles to Whatcom Pass require a steady ascent.

Day 3: After the demands of the previous day, we will take a well-deserved layover at Whatcom Camp, drinking in the sights of alpine wildflowers nearby and mighty Whatcom and Challenger glaciers in the distance. Depending on group interest, we may make a side trip to explore the Tapto Lakes, high up on Whatcom Peak. 

Day 4: We return down Brush Creek to its confluence with the Chilliwack, heading north along the valley floor to make camp at Indian Creek. This will be a moderate day of eight miles hiking, nearly all a gradual downhill.

Day 5: The day begins with a flat mile to a crossing of the Chilliwack River. From there, we begin a long, steep climb to gain the crest of Copper Ridge, making this the most physically challenging of the days.  At the top, we’ll pause to catch our breath, celebrate the accomplishment of finishing the trip’s hardest work, and take in the top-of-the-world views that will accompany us through the rest of the day and the day after. We’ll make camp at Copper Lake, with a total of 8.4 miles for the day.

Day 6: Our route for the day is a leisurely 6.4 miles to Boundary Camp. Nearly all of the route is along the relatively level crest of Copper Ridge, and if the weather is clear, we will have to avoid tripping on our own feet, distracted as we’ll be throughout the day by stupendous views of the interior mountains.

Day 7: We bid farewell with a last look back at the Picket Range from Hannegan Pass, followed by a gradual descent that will have us back at the trailhead by mid-day. From there, we will discuss a suitable spot for a farewell lunch.



Getting There

The trip begins and ends at the Hannegan Pass Trail, at the end of USFS Road 32, which is about 55 miles east of Bellingham, Washington or a 145-mile drive north from Seattle. Travel to Bellingham is possible by car, flight, passenger train, or bus. 

Accommodations and Food

All food, starting with breakfast on the first day through lunch on the last will be provided. Though the fare is not strictly vegetarian, a vegetarian diet can easily be accommodated. Both John and Leah are avid cooks who take pride in providing meals that avoid freeze-dried foods and are tasty and filling. As on most Sierra Club trips, all members help with cooking and clean-up chores. All group commissary and cooking equipment will be provided. Trip participants and leaders will all share in carrying food and equipment.

Trip Difficulty

This moderately strenuous trip (rating 4) is for the physically fit backpacker, with at least some previous experience. While there is no technical climbing and no cross-country travel on the itinerary,  these are formidable mountains, and some of the days will be physically demanding. Our route will cover 45-50 miles of hiking, with climbs over three, moderately steep passes, and one substantial climb of more than 3,000 feet.  Please be frank and completely honest when completing your trip application. The trip leader will talk to you at length by phone to make sure that this is a trip appropriately suited for you, but the Sierra Club reserves the right to turn participants away at the start of the trip if it is clear they have not been truthful in the application process. 

Though there are very few exposed sections on this hike, the terrain sometimes requires slow, careful footing. We will travel at a reasonable pace, averaging between 6 and 10 miles per day, and no one will be rushed through difficult sections. Elevations are fairly low (no more than 6,500 feet), so altitude will likely not be a factor.

Mid-August in the Cascades is usually sunny, warm, and dry, but it can rain or snow at any time of year. And yes, there are the bugs, too, which are less plentiful than in some other areas, but will probably be annoying at this time of year. It’s all part of the trade off for being in the heart of some of the wildest, most dramatic mountains in America.

Equipment and Clothing

The leaders will send out a detailed equipment list to approved participants prior to the trip. They are happy to discuss any questions you may have.


  • Lorain, Douglas, Backpacking Washington.
  • Tabor, R. W. and Ralph Haugerud, Geology of the North Cascades: A Mountain Mosaic.
  • Martin, James, North Cascades Crest: Notes and Images from America's Alps.
  • Whitney, Stephen R. and Rob Sandelin, Field Guide to the Cascades & Olympics.
  • McPhee, John, Encounters with the Archdruid.


The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, and encourages grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club. 

Congress established the North Cascades National Park on October 2, 1968, after a long campaign in which the Sierra Club played a vital role. The park consists of three separate units, compromising approximately 684,000 acres of wilderness, with almost 300,000 acres of ancient forest. The park enjoys a tremendous variety of plant species, with over 1,630 vascular plant species recorded, the largest by far of any U.S. national park. The mountains and valleys are home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians, including the western toad, rough-skinned newts, Columbia black-tailed deer, marmots, bald eagles, black bear, moose, and rarely seen animals such as the wolverine, gray wolf, mountain lion, lynx, and even the occasional grizzly bear.

The biodiversity of the area is threatened by global climate change and invasive exotic plant species, introduced along the roads and trails. Climate change over the past few decades has led to decreased winter snow pack and a significant retreat of all glaciers in the park, though the mountains still hold dozens of glaciers, with several over 2.5 square kilometers each.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from North Cascades National Park.



John Lasseter has been a volunteer trip leader with the Sierra Club since 2010. A certified Wilderness First Responder, he has spent the last 20 years backpacking and hiking in wild areas of the Pacific Northwest, Basin and Range, Alaskan Arctic, Sierra Nevada, Rockies, Scottish Highlands, and most recently the mountains of New England and upstate New York. By trade a professor in the Computer Science department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, he is also a skilled vegetarian cook, a passionate photographer and musician, and a lousy long-distance runner. He’ll try hard not to be overwhelming with his enthusiasm for, well, everything, but you should know that it isn’t easy.


Leah Madoff has been backpacking for over 15 years in the Sierra, the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and the Catskills. She is a high school science teacher at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies when she is not busy walking or jogging her dog around Prospect Park. She is trained as a Wilderness First Responder and leads hiking trips with her students during the school year. An avid vegetarian cook, Leah loves to experiment in the home kitchen, as well as on her MSR stove. Leah is related only to law-abiding, non-infamous Madoffs.

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