Field Notes

North Cascades National Park Holds Once-in-a-Lifetime Views for Those Willing to Make the Drive

Spend a long weekend exploring the Rainbow-McAlester Loop.

By Ben Tepler September 9, 2020 Published in the October 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

A long weekend can provide a “best-of” survey of this unadulterated wilderness along the Rainbow-McAlester Loop.

Image: Ben Tepler

For Portlanders used to Mount Hood in the backyard, plus Adams, St. Helens, and Rainier within hailing distance, it can be hard to explain the appeal of a six-hour trip to Washington’s North Cascades National Park, against the Canadian border. But here’s my best effort: imagine your favorite Oregon wilderness area with azure lakes, snowy peaks, and lush forests, then multiply that tenfold.

A long weekend can provide a “best-of” survey of this unadulterated wilderness along the Rainbow-McAlester Loop, which starts off in the North Cascades South Unit and wanders into the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Kick off a three-day trek at the Bridge Creek Trailhead, on WA20 just over 30 miles west of Winthrop. Portlanders can go through Seattle and Everett or Yakima and Wenatchee, but with either route it’s smart to check the local pandemic status and bring your supplies from home. (If interstate travel doesn’t seem like the best idea, of course, or you miss your window before the snow starts, consider this a planning primer for a trip in 2021.)

From the trailhead, go south on the Bridge Creek Trail, part of the Pacific Crest Trail, and travel counterclockwise. Day one brings a bracing ford of Bridge Creek (early in the season, water can be fast-moving and thigh-deep, but late August and September bring easier crossing) and a steady climb up Rainbow Pass. The payoff is huge: turquoise Rainbow Lake sits in a leafy bowl below, reflecting Tupshin and Devore Peaks. Aim to nab an overnight camping permit for Rainbow Lake or its namesake wildflower-filled meadow. There are several campgrounds closer to the trailhead if 13.6 miles is too far for a day’s hike.

Day two brings a steep, 2,600-foot descent down to Bench Creek, with vistas of Lake Chelan to the south. Head back up to 6,000 feet over the next four miles to McAlester Pass, a sprawling subalpine hemlock and larch meadow strewn with chirping pika. Just over a half-mile farther sits McAlester Lake, another blue-green gem practically begging for a dip. There are excellent campgrounds around the lake, if you can get a permit. Enjoy an easy hike out on day three: a relatively gentle seven miles back to civilization.

Drive Time 6 hours // Activity Backpacking // Distance 28 miles // Difficulty Difficult // Notes Backcountry overnight permits required. Apply via on online lottery for 2021 before March 31 (60 percent of available permits can be booked in advance) or try to snag a walk-up permit on a first-come-first-served basis. See website for details and COVID-19 adjustments.

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