The North Cascades are truly an awe-inspiring sight. The rugged landscape is so raw that it can be intimidating for some people, and many of the trails are too difficult physically and mentally for beginner hikers. The smooth, easy 2-mile-long Skagit River Trail, however, proves that the difficulty of a trail doesn’t always correlate with its overall quality.
The Skagit River Trail starts at the parking lot of the North Cascades National Park Visitor’s Center. I’ve got the location pinned to the map at the bottom of this post, if you’d like to see it. If you just park in front of the center you’ll find an outdoor station with a map showing how to get to the trail head.
I hiked the Skagit River Trail on the same trip during which I did the Diablo Lake Trail, and while the Skagit doesn’t have views anywhere near as grand as Diablo Lake, I have to say I enjoyed it more. Really, I can’t pinpoint why. That little stretch of woods just has a very soothing, relaxing energy about it.
The Skagit River Trail is short, and much of it intertwines with portions of the Newhalem Campground, but the woods are still nice and silent. They have a sort of homey feel about them.
In a couple places, the trail leads out into the Skagit River. The wide tree canopy blots out the sun and, while I’m sure there are periods where the sun hits the spots, I don’t think they’d make realistic sunbathing areas. I could be wrong, though. I went there in the early morning.
Either way, the view from the shore is beautiful, with the Skagit at your feet and the soaring North Cascades in the distance. I definitely plan on hiking this little trail again next time in the area. I’d also like to check out the Newhalem Campground, as my guess is that that spot makes for some terrific sleeping.
You’d be hard pressed to find any place in Washington state more rugged than North Cascades National Park and its surrounding area. The mountains jut straight up out of the earth, no foothills or gradual incline to speak of. The dramatic landscape makes many of the area’s trails among the most challenging you’ll find. Luckily for those not looking to set their thighs on fire or to take a mallet to their feet, the 7.5-mile-long Diablo Lake Trail is an easier option that nevertheless leads to some beautiful views.
Note that I said “easier” here, not “easy,” which is what some other sites designate the Diablo Lake Trail as. I disagree with that designation, and I base that disagreement on the fact that most of the people I came across on the trail were sweating heavily and asking how much farther they had to go.
I’m just getting back into hiking shape myself, but I’m not THAT far out of shape, and the trail certainly didn’t feel “easy” for me, just “easier” than the other trails I’ve done in the North Cascades. It’s no Storm King, but it’s no Box Canyon Loop, either.
I’m more apt to lean towards a classification of “moderately difficult” in terms of strenuousness. The Diablo Lake Trail is straightforward, though, and doesn’t have any river crossings or climbs or anything that will test one’s outdoors skills in any serious way (assuming that you don’t sustain some kind of injury, of course).
The trail takes you up the mountain and then down the other side to the shore of Diablo Lake. The lake is artificial, created by Ross Dam, which you can also see while being down by the lake. So, if you’re looking for a feeling of escaping civilization, this trail might not be for you.
If you’re just interested in a nice, easier hike with some pretty views, the Diablo Lake Trail is a good choice. It’s not as as easy (and not nearly as short) as something like the Skagit River Trail, however, so there may be better options if you’re looking for something extremely quick and easy.
The trail leads through the base of a boulder field that offers some interesting views. Another section of the trail leads over an extremely steep slope that drops off and leads a long, long ways down to the water at the bottom of the mountain. The trail is plenty wide at this spot, but people who don’t like heights might find it frightening.
North Cascades National Park is one of the lesser-visited parks in the Pacific Northwest, but its spectacular, rugged scenery shouldn’t be missed. The Diablo Lake Trail is a good starter hike to get to know the area and to get a feel for what it has to offer.
You don’t need to be a great mountaineer to enjoy the grandeur of Mount Rainier. Intimidating as the mountain may appear, it’s accessible for everyone to enjoy. While summiting the peak certainly takes preparation and physical conditioning, there ARE easy hikes at Mount Rainier.
As someone who’s visited the mountain dozens of times without ever losing a bit of my sense of wonder at it, I believe everyone who gets the chance to visit Mount Rainier should do so. It’s an experience you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.
Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier #1: Box Canyon Loop
Above all others, the Box Canyon Loop (which is part of the Wonderland Trail) is the one short trek that I always make sure to take visiting friends and family on. When it comes to easy hikes at Mount Rainier, this one is hard to beat. It leads to one of the most fantastic sites on the mountain. I’m not talking simply “most fantastic easily accessible sights,”; I mean, “one of the most fantastic sights on Mount Rainier…period.”
The quickest route to the trail is from Mount Rainier National Park’s southeastern Steven’s Canyon entrance (the National Park Service provides concise driving directions). You can’t miss the Box Canyon Loop trail head, which is just off to the side of the main road and generally well-visited (you’ll see cars and pedestrians).
The Box Canyon Loop is only 3/10s of a mile long. The trail itself is to the east of the road and parking lot, but don’t forget to also check out the lookout to the west.
The lookout is just a few yards from the parking lot. Not only does it have a terrific view of the surrounding landscape, but the ground itself is interesting in that the stone was scoured smooth by the recession of the Cowlitz Glacier long, long ago. The glacier itself has retreated a couple MILES up the mountain, but the evidence of its influence on the terrain is right there at your feet. It’s always felt humbling to me to consider the unfathomable time scale that the mountain reveals.
The main trail to the east of the lot leads to a bridge that overlooks a very narrow and very deep canyon cut into raw stone. Blasting through this little canyon is the melt-water of the Cowlitz Glacier. This is, in fact, the very start of the Cowlitz River.
The sheer force of the water coming through that channel is amazing and one of my favorite sights on Mount Rainier. It gives a visceral sense of the magnitude of the natural forces that Rainier represents. I’ve gotten lost in a sense of sublimity while standing on that bridge and contemplating the power of that water and the scale of the glacier, which itself is dwarfed by Rainier itself.
Incredible stuff. Don’t miss it. (The trail shows up on Google Maps as the “Box Canyon – Wonderland Trail,” rather than Box Canyon Loop. The location is pinned to map below)
Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier #2: Reflection Lakes
While the Box Canyon Loop is my personal favorite easy hike at Rainier, Reflection Lakes would probably take that prize in most other people’s eyes. This spot shows up in nearly visitor’s photographs and in the bulk of Mount Rainier postcards. There’s good reason for this.
Even if you didn’t walk at all, just parking and looking at the lake is impressive. On a clear day when the sun is at the right position, you can see Mount Rainier reflected perfectly in the lake (hence the name). This area is also known to explode with color at the right times of season, with wildflowers blooming in summer and leaves changing in autumn.
The one drawback to the beauty and easy accessibility of this spot is that it gets visited a LOT. There are often no parking spaces left. You can see the lakes from the road, though, and it’s pretty likely that it’ll be enticing enough that you’ll wait for something open up. Visiting Rainier without stopping to look at the Reflection Lakes should be a felony, in my opinion.
The trail goes around the lake. There are also points where other trails branch off of that primary trail, but that’s outside the scope of this article.
There are apparently trout in the lake, as well. I haven’t seen them myself, but word is that the lake was stocked with trout years ago and that you can even see them jumping now and then.
Easy Hikes at Mount Rainier #3: Cispus Braille Trail
This trail is specifically designed for visually impaired hikers. The trail, which is a little under a mile long with no appreciable elevation changes, features a guide rope that hikers can touch or hold as they go around. The walkway is kept free of anything that might trip somebody up.
The trail’s design also allows for all hikers to enjoy a new experience of nature. Even if your eyes work well, you can close them and lead yourself around by the guide rope, focusing on the feel and the sounds and smell of the woods. It’s an experience of nature that you aren’t likely to come by in any other way. I did it for a short while and felt like a whole new dimension of nature had been opened up to me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to remind myself while camping or walking to stop, close my eyes, and focus on my other senses.
This is one the trails I most like to tell people about, because it opens up the wilderness experience to a community of people who otherwise may not be able to fully immerse themselves into. The Lions Club sponsors this trail. That information isn’t something visitors really need to know, but I want to mention because I feel they deserve kudos for that. Go Lions Club!
Enjoy the Hikes!
If readers happen to check any of these options out, please shoot me a message to let me know about the experience. I would love to hear about it.
There are few easily accessible hikes I’ve ever seen turn away more would-be climbers than Mount Storm King does. I met the victims, walking wounded, several times on my way down the mountain.
“Are we almost to the top?” these strangers asked between labored gasps. They tried to smile, but the desperate glint in their eyes indicated something other than humor.
I would answer with something like, “You’re pretty close,” but then, compelled by a humanistic urge to Truth, would add, “but the trail only gets harder. A lot harder.”
Sometimes they would laugh, thinking that surely I jested. How could the trail possibly continue to go straight upwards any longer without reaching the sun itself?
“It’s rough-going,” I would say. Then I would reach deep into my motivational bag of tricks. “But the view from the top is my favorite view in the state” (this statement is true, by the way).
Some of them would continue on, and some would even make it to the top. Others would simply sit there, waiting for me to pass out of sight so that they could shamefully surrender to Storm King’s cruelty. These I occasionally ran across in the parking lot below, shuffling along shamefacedly and trying to evade my harshly judgmental gaze (I assume this is what they’re doing, anyway).
The trail is not long, only 1.9 miles, but that brevity is deceptive. The trail starts steep and it stays that way. I don’t recall any stretches of the trail that give even a temporary level-graded respite.
Do I say any of this to deter anyone? Of course not. The kind of people who do the King are the kind of people who will be intrigued at the promise of cruelty and despair. These words are sweet talk to the breed of people who will make this climb. Are you feeling seduced right now? Feeling hot?
Step inside my office, then, my friend. The King awaits.
Where to Find the Storm King Trail Head
The Storm King trail head branches off of the very popular (and much easier than Storm King) Marymere Falls trail, which itself begins at the Storm King Ranger Station. I’ve pinned this location below for your convenience (I do strive to be a good guide…please, please tell me I’m good).
The Final Trial of Storm King, and Then Those Views
There are a couple places to stop off for nice views on the way to the top of Storm King. The views are striking enough that I personally think they make the climb worth it, even if a person doesn’t make it all the way to the top.
In a way, there are two “ends” to the Storm King trail. The first provides stunning views and awards imaginary medals for toughness and courage to all who make it.
The “second end” of Storm King takes another level of irrational persistence. To make this final run, you’ll have to climb up a very steep slope of loose dirt, pulling yourself up with a rope. Allow me to stress here that I’m not saying the rope is there as a novelty or as a convenience. The rope is necessary to get up the loose-footed rise, and you will be relying largely on upper body strength.
Beyond this is another such climb. When I hiked this a few years ago,there was a rope there as well, and I believe there should STILL be a rope there. As of the date of this writing, however, that second rope is gone.
Going up these two sections is a bit tough, but nothing too crazy. Where things get a slight bit hairy is when you have to go back down. Falling down either of these two steep sections carries a legitimate risk of serious injury, and possibly death (in some nightmare scenario where the momentum carries a person clear off the side of the mountain).
But, those brave adventurers who make it to the end shall be treated visually thusly:
There’s Birds in Them Thar Trees
Up at the top of the mountain, you’ll find plenty of these grey jays cruising around and looking for handouts.
They’re an athletic bunch of birds to watch…and to envy the ease with which they maneuver through the territory you just sacrificed a piece of your soul to reach.
Like All Things Worth Doing, the Suck is the Best Reward
Like a ruptured quadriceps or a torn calf muscle, Mount Storm King is an event you’ll never forget. The views are amazing; they are probably my favorite views in the state, in fact. But, what really makes Storm King terrific is how much suck it manages to pack into a mere 1.9 miles of trail.
It’s the kind of hike you laugh about years later, fondly recalling that time you asked your hiking partner to kill you so that you wouldn’t have to go on…that time your hiking partner responded, “Only if you kill me first.”
This is the good stuff. Take on the King. He is harsh and he is cruel, but he rewards those who persevere to the end.