How do I describe the last few days spent camping in the North Cascades in words, when all that’s in my head is color? A milky turquoise blue ringed with moss and evergreen and bleached stone grey. Color that looks fake to the eye; that looks unreal in photos – more evocative of a tropical vacation than of a trip to the mountains in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll just have to take my word for it that my photos aren’t ‘shopped.
We camped for a few nights at Colonial Creek, which is right on Diablo Lake, and spent most our time with open mouths, gaping at how stunning everything is. The atmosphere of the forests and the lake is just so different from everywhere else we have been.
The incredible blue of the lake comes from the glacier water that feeds it. The surrounding glaciers ground rock into such fine dust that the particles stay suspended in the water and make it look opaque and kind of magical. I had no idea until our visit that there are over 300 glaciers in the North Cascades National Park. The lake feels just like you’d expect glacial runoff to feel, too – wading in to launch our kayaks was like stepping into an ice bath, even after the air temperature last week hit 100°F!
I was absolutely enchanted by the way the creeks running into the lake were perfectly clean but had this soft milky blue color to them, just like the lake. I hiked Thunder Knob and Thunder Creek Trail during our stay, and loved the strange, sudden changes in the landscape. The trails meander through leafy undergrowth close to the lake, and as the path rises in elevation a carpet of yellow-green moss coats the cedar trees and softly furrowed ground in a velvety carpet. But then there will be a creek crossing, and not only is the creek itself this strange pale color, but the rocks are all stark white too. It’s obvious that the springtime snow-melt has a truly powerful impact on this landscape from the destructive looking rock-slides and downed trees where the stones are all stripped of moss and no undergrowth has taken hold. Climbing higher still, the landscape quickly transforms again, to windblown lodgepole pines and striated boulders of schist and gneiss and other rocks that I’m only loosely familiar with enough to vaguely identify but can at least tell are beautiful and different from the norm in the lowlands. And then, while dangling my feet off of one of these sunny crags on the side of a cliff, I can see that all around are peaks towering thousands of feet above me, with their own completely different terrain and flora and fauna, not so far out of reach from where I am now. It’s mind-blowing, the variations on beauty this one little region contains.
Honestly and truly, I would have been happy enough to sit by the fire, reading a book and shooing away nosy chipmunks from my snacks at our mossy, secluded little tent site. I would have breathed in the fresh air under the low canopy of vine maples and marveled at the sliver of the lake through the trees and entertained myself watching the raven taking a bath under the park’s water spigot. But to get to enjoy some relaxation in the forest and to get to explore as many breathtaking views and captivating trails as I did just made my heart completely full. It was an adventure I’ll remember, and one that will probably spark a dozen more.
Areas explored: Camping at Colonial Creek Campground, Diablo Lake (by kayak), Diablo Dam, Gorge Creek Overlook, Thunder Creek Trail, Thunder Creek Nature Loop, Thunder Knob Trail, Trail of the Cedars (in Newhalem).
If you go: Plan your trip thoroughly, but leave room for spontaneity. There are lots of details to consider, but also a lot of little places to explore that can be done on a whim. We chose to download maps for all of the trails near the lake and on the drive home that were doable for a 9-year-old, and made our decisions based on our mood at the moment. There were a few harder ones that I would have loved to do that we missed, but this area is a gateway to so many incredible hikes that to do them all over a long weekend would be impossible, so plan for the highlights that appeal to you! There were also some safety concerns to consider – bears frequent the area, so using appropriate caution when hiking and camping is a must, and kayaking presented its own slew of preparations! Conditions change quickly on the lake and wind is a daily constant – if you’re planning to do some exploring outside of the slightly more sheltered Thunder Arm, I’d really recommend having a sea kayak with a spray skirt and being fully prepared for immersion and potentially being stranded on shore while waiting out the midday gusts. Our inflatables were definitely not up to the challenge and I would not use them on this lake again. If we had the right equipment, however, it would have been an amazing excursion!