Backpacking Guides

Sahale Glacier Camp Backpacking Guide

Sunset views from Sahale Glacier Camp

Overview

Description

Sahale Glacier Camp is a high-altitude backcountry camp that sits below the Sahale Glacier in North Cascades National Park. Because of its jaw-dropping views of jagged glaciated peaks and deep forested canyons, it is one of the most popular backcountry campsites in the park.

During our visit in September 2019, visibility was good, so we could see all the way to Puget Sound, nearly 100 miles to the west.

Kim takes in the morning view from just below Sahale Glacier Camp
Kim takes in the morning view from just below Sahale Glacier Camp

Permits

There are a limited number of designated campsites at Sahale Glacier Camp and backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays.

The North Cascades backcountry office accepts reservation submissions from Mar 15 – Apr 15 for camping dates that fall between May 15 – Sep 30.

Get a Permit

Jason Lockwood photographs the North Cascades from Sahale Glacier Camp
Jason in his element, photographing the North Cascades from Sahale Glacier Camp at sunset

What to Expect

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Sahale Glacier Camp is during late summer, in August or September when most or all of the previous winter’s snowfall has melted.

Snowmelt is highly variable and depends on a lot of factors, so make sure to discuss current conditions with the rangers. Some years, you may need an ice axe even in late summer.

Do not rely on generic weather forecasts for North Cascades National Park or nearby towns to plan your trip. Sahale Glacier Camp sits at 7,500 feet elevation and has a colder climate than these forecasts will account for.

Wind gusts can reach 60 mph at the glacier campsites. Despite rock walls that protect the tent pads from wind, the sites are still quite exposed.

It’s best to use a point forecast from NOAA.gov to get a more accurate projection just prior to your trip. Click the button below for a link to this resource.

Get the Weather Forecast

Justin takes advantage of the great lighting from our perch at Sahale Glacier Camp
Justin takes advantage of the great lighting from our perch at Sahale Glacier Camp

The Trailhead

The trailhead for Sahale Glacier Camp is located at the end of Cascade Pass Road and is called Cascade Pass Trailhead, elevation 3,600 feet. There is a parking lot here and restrooms.

You must pass through the town of Marblemount to reach the trailhead. This small community has a gas station and a few restaurants, and is your last stop for supplies.

Be prepared for stunning views as you drive out of Marblemount and ascend the Cascade Pass Road toward the trailhead. When you step out of your vehicle, you will find yourself at the bottom of a jagged range of peaks, including Johannesburg Mountain to the south.

Sahale Glacier Camp Trailhead
From left to right: The Triplets, Cascade Peak, and Johannesburg Mountain

Hiking to Sahale Glacier Camp

From the trailhead, head north to begin hiking up Cascade Pass Trail. The first 2.6 miles are a series of switchbacks, but the grade isn’t terribly steep. After the switchbacks, the trail traverses southeastward across the mountain with a gradual incline before reaching Cascade Pass, elevation 5,392 feet.

Looking west at the Triad from Cascade Pass Trail
Looking west at the Triad from Cascade Pass Trail

Cascade Pass is a great place to stop, take in the view, and power up on snacks before the next, more strenuous ascent of the Sahale Arm. The views here are spectacular and many day hikers turn around at this point.

Pelton Basin and Pelton Peak from Cascade Pass
Looking east toward Pelton Basin and Pelton Peak from Cascade Pass

From the pass, bear left onto the Sahale Arm Trail. After 0.8 miles of steeper hiking, you’ll reach a junction with a spur trail that goes down to Doubtful Lake. Continue straight here.

Looking down at Doubtful Lake from the Sahale Arm
Looking down at Doubtful Lake from the Sahale Arm

At about 6,000 feet elevation, you’ll get above tree line and stay above it for the rest of the climb. Things get progressively steeper from this point on, with the last mile being the steepest. Pace yourself, take breaks, drink lots of water, and bask in the panoramic views that surround you.

Doubtful Lake and the North Cascades from Sahale Glacier Camp
Doubtful Lake and the North Cascades from Sahale Glacier Camp

Sahale Glacier Camp

Campsites: Once you reach Sahale Glacier Camp, you will begin to see flat tent pads built onto rock mounds at the foot of the glacier. Almost all of the sites have fantastic views of the surrounding peaks.

Most of the sites descend into steep slopes on all sides and are only big enough for one or two tents, but there are a few that are large enough to accommodate three or four tents.

There are several camp areas with rock walls built up to protect from wind. To help reduce impact, please do not build new ones! Make sure to use the ones that already exist.

Storms: We were fortunate to have great weather on our trip, but storms can be extremely harsh at Sahale Glacier Camp. For this reason, a lot of Sahale backpackers pitch mountaineering tents, which are able to withstand brutal conditions.

Water: In warmer months, water is readily available from streams that trickle down from the glacier.

Toilet: There is one clearly marked composting toilet near the start of the tent pads. All hikers are encouraged to use the toilet only for stool and small amounts of toilet paper, as urine stops the composting process. Digging cat holes is not allowed.

Sunset at Sahale Glacier Camp
We were treated to an unbelievably colorful sunset at Sahale Glacier Camp

Sahale Glacier Camp is known for its unparalleled views, but many people don’t realize it also has the world’s most scenic bathroom.

Me (the author) having the most memorable poop of my life
Me (the author) having the most memorable poop of my life

Bear Safety

In September 2019, we saw a black bear on the ridge line above Cascade Pass before setting out after lunch. We saw another black bear about 5 miles into the hike.

Because of the presence of bears and absence of trees to hang food on, the park mandates that backcountry campers store all food in bear canisters.

If you don’t have one, the park will loan you one for free (with a credit card deposit) at Marblemount Ranger Station. Otherwise, I recommend purchasing a BearVault canister.

BearVault BV 500

View at REI

View on Amazon

What to Bring

The biggest mistake beginner backpackers make is bringing too much stuff and hauling too heavy of a pack.

I guarantee your trip will be much more enjoyable if you pack light. Identify what you need to bring and leave behind what you don’t.

The only caveat I give is to not fixate on being so lightweight and minimalist that you sacrifice preparedness, safety, and sensible comfort on your trip. Like many things in life, it’s all about a balanced approach.

Wearing my Zpacks Arc Haul-Zip below Sahale Glacier Camp
Our packs weighed about 30 lbs fully loaded

Gear List

Tent: Kim and I slept in an MSR Carbon Reflex 2. Our friends brought tarps, but some of them slept under the stars because the weather was good.

Backpack: Kim and I both used our Zpacks Arc Haul-Zips on this trip. If your base weight is under 20 lb, this is a comfortable, lightweight option. It’s included in my best lightweight backpacking packs list.

Sleeping Bag: I stayed warm and cozy under my EE Revelation 20 quilt and Kim slept in her Montbell sleeping bag. Both are included in my best lightweight sleeping bags list.

Sleeping Pad: I used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, a lightweight air mattress. Kim used the ProLite Plus, which weighs a few more ounces but self inflates and is more comfortable. See my best lightweight sleeping pads list for more info.

Cooking System: We shared a trusty MSR Pocket Rocket (included in my best backpacking stoves list), TOAKS Titanium 1000ml Pot, and a couple titanium long handle spoons on this trip.

Water: I treated water from glacial runoff with Aquatabs and carried it using two 1L Smart Water Bottles. Start the hike with at least 2 liters.

Footwear: I hiked in Salomon Quest 4D II GTX boots. Kim hiked in Ahnu Montara Waterproof boots.

Headlamp: Kim and I both used Black Diamond Spot Headlamps.

Food: We brought homemade meals with ingredients that we dehydrated at home. If you’re feeling lazy, here are my favorite freeze dried and dehydrated food options.

Max’s Clothing: 

Kim’s Clothing: 

Map: We used the Gaia GPS app. For a paper topographic map, get North Cascades National Park by Nat Geo.

First Aid Kit: Before every trip, Kim (my ICU nurse wife) assembles a kit for me. Check out her articles here. If you don’t have the time or knowledge to make your own, I recommend buying this one.

Sunscreen: Bring high SPF sunscreen and wear it. Despite its reputation for cloud cover, the Washington sun can be powerful, especially at higher elevations.

Other Stuff: 

Quick Facts

  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Hike Time: 2 days
  • Elevation Gain: 4,000 feet
  • Fee: $20
  • Dogs: No
  • Difficulty: Hard

Map

Location

From Seattle, head north on I-5 for approximately 50 miles, then take exit 208 and follow Washington State Route 530 east.

Continue for 50.5 miles, then turn right onto Washington State Route 20 in Rockport.

Continue for 8.4 miles, then turn right onto Cascade River Road in Marblemount.

Continue for 16.6 miles, then turn left onto Cascade Pass Road.

Continue for 6.3 miles and you will arrive at Cascade Pass Trailhead.

Get Directions

Trip Reports

September 2019

In September 2019, Kim and I flew from Phoenix to Seattle and met up with six friends that flew in from other cities. The trip was a loose celebration of my 30th birthday.

We rented a Suburban and drove to Clear Creek Campground near Darrington, where we car camped for a night.

The next day, we converted our advanced reservation for Sahale Glacier Camp to a permit at Marblemount Ranger Station. I had made reservations the day they were made available on March 15, 2019.

Day 1

  • Distance: 6 miles

Made it to the trailhead and started hiking at 12:30 p.m. After 2 hours of hiking, we reached Cascade Pass and stopped for lunch. Some other hikers pointed out a huge black bear as we were leaving.

At 3:45 p.m., we saw another black bear. We reached Sahale Glacier Camp at 5:30 p.m. We had an unfilled permit, so our longtime friend Clay Hagblom invited his buddy Joe Koizen along. This was one of the hardest hikes he’s done but he was a great sport, had fun, and caught the bug.

Joe Koizen was all smiles after the grueling hike up to Sahale Glacier Camp
Joe is all smiles after a grueling hike up to Sahale Glacier Camp

After dark, I saw a mountain goat standing really close to our camp and staring at us. For some reason it looked sinister. I yelled at the goat and encouraged him to move along. He took the hint and shuffled down the scree slope below us.

Day 2

  • Distance: 2 miles

We started hiking down at 9:45 a.m. For how strenuous the climb was, the down-climb was equally difficult and we took it slow.

At 11:30 a.m., we arrived at Cascade Pass. At 1:15pm, we made it back to the suburban.

In Marblemount, we went to Mondo Restaurant for the second time to fuel up for the Devils Dome Loop. When we finished that loop, we ate there again for a third time! Delicious American-Korean food made by a very friendly couple.

Our group starts the long descent down to Cascade Pass Trail
Our group starts the long descent down to Cascade Pass Trail

Resources

Guidebooks

Topographic Maps

Photos

The Sahale Glacier at night
The Sahale Glacier at night, shot from our campsite
Johannesburg Mountain looks a lot different camp vs. the parking lot
Johannesburg Mountain looks a lot different at camp vs. the parking lot
Kate and Justin make their way down the trail in the morning. We didn't want to leave!
Kate and Justin make their way down the trail in the morning. We didn’t want to leave!
Early into the hike, the forest opens up to reveal craggy peaks
Early into the hike, the forest opens up to reveal craggy peaks
September is a beautiful time of year to hike in the North Cascades
September is a beautiful time of year to hike in the North Cascades
Doubtful Lake sits below Sahale Mountain at 5,400 feet
Doubtful Lake sits below Sahale Mountain, elevation 8,681 feet
From left to right: Justin, Joe, and Clay
From left to right: Justin, Joe, and Clay

 

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