September 20, 2010
Location: North Cascades (Ross Lake and Pasayten Wilderness)
Length: 43 miles
Recommended Hiking Time: 3-5 days
This trail is so dirty it’s named after the devil. Well, at least you feel that way as you climb up and down one steep slope after another. That aside, the trail is a fabulous extended introduction to pretty much everything Washington wilderness has to offer with some very stark juxtaposition.
Split between the boat and kayak friendly Ross Lake recreation area and the Pasayten Wilderness, there’s a little bit of a Doctor Jeckel/Mr. Hyde schizophrenia going on. If you are familiar with these areas, you know what I’m talking about. They have very little in common to say the least.
The eastern 25+ miles of trail passes through Hell or at least that’s suggested by the names of nearly all the major landmarks: Devil’s Park, Devil’s River, Hell’s Basin, Devil’s Pass, Devil’s Dome, and finally Devil’s Junction. Even the wilderness area is called Pasayten (pronounced pah-SATAN — that’s right Satan is actually in the name).
This section of the trail is somewhat merciless on a heavily burdened backpacker with intense switchbacks climbing 4,000 feet in the first 8 miles with only a brief pause in the boggy, but beautiful meadows of McMillan Park. There is another brief pause in Devil’s Park where a very decent shelter offers a roof over your head and friendly deer are often seen snacking on the meadow grasses. A wide variety of wildflowers bloom here mid-July through August. In September and October the fall color sets in and the blueberries ripen. On the Pasayten side of the loop you can camp pretty much anywhere there is a flat spot, so stop here or press on another few miles. Keep in mind that while the next day has no long continuous climb it has numerous short, steep ones and is equally grueling.
For the next 12 miles the path leads you steeply, sometimes quite suddenly, up and down ridges and valleys and over sections of rocky shale path. Fortunately throughout there are nearly non-stop panoramic views to reward you for all your work. (Note: Make sure there are reasonably clear skies in your forecast for this section of the trail; the drudgery is simply not worth it if you can’t see anything.)
The two major peaks, Crater and Jack Mountain, dominate the skyline with glaciers and heavy run off leading to waterfalls, rivers, and small lakes in the distance. The steep-sided Jackita Ridge is also a highlight. As you hike below it you’ll find more interesting views and a large camping spot. However, it is just a pit stop as you work your way towards the highest point of the trail at Devil’s Dome where you have 360º views of the North Cascades. Not for the faint of heart or those afraid of heights.
Once you hit the Devil’s Dome pinnacle you descent 5,400 feet over 7 miles from Hell into the Pacific Northwest paradise of Ross Lake. You can see the lake several times as you approach it, but you will likely get tired of continually down hiking and grow impatient to get to it.
The path is sometimes steep, but generally gradual compared to earlier sections of the trail. As you lose elevation you leave the meadows behind and enter tree cover. The tread is gentle and soft with a thick layer of pine needles and duff. This section of the trail is roughly 20 miles from the nearest trailheads and it shows. Maintenance here is infrequent and the brush is heavy and very overgrown in some areas. We hiked this section after a heavy rain and were pretty soaked by the end.
The lake once reached is peaceful and quiet (if there aren’t any motor boats around). The surrounding woods are practically rainforest — radiating green and heavy with moss, fungi, and a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, which are lovely in the fall season. As you hike along the generally flat trail you’ll appreciate the amount of maintenance that has produced it. Since Ross Lake was created by a dam, it’s shorelines are steep and dotted by fjords. Bridges and embankments make it passable and in some sections you can see where rock has literally been blasted away to allow foot traffic.
The camp names are much friendlier on this side of the trail too: Rainbow Point, May Creek, and Ruby Pasture. They are also much more civilized and a permit is required to ensure you have a site. (Get this before you head to the trailhead at the Ranger’s Station in Marblemount). Since boaters often camp along the shores of the lake, most camping areas have docks, pit toilets, fire pits, bear lockers, perfectly flat, terraced areas for your tent, and even picnic tables.
I recommend camping at Rainbow Point, which extends a bit out into the lake so you can see it from your camp and there are views of Pumpkin Mountain to the southwest. Camping here means a roughly 13 mile hike out if you begin at the Canyon Creek trailhead and 10 miles if you begin at the Ruby Creek trailhead. The 3 miles between the two is not difficult, but after all the miles you’ve covered the ups and downs along the sizable canyon of Ruby Creek can be a little frustrating. I kept expecting to see the bridge crossing the creek back to the parking lot around the next corner, but it kept eluding me. If you’re like me and like landmarks, the bridge comes up just a few minutes after the large ruined shelter to the side of the trail.