On The Trail in Washington During The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic
By Lukas Saville
The spring months are an exciting time if you’re an avid hiker or backpacker.
As the snows melt, the spring flowers bloom and the countryside begins to wake up after long winter sleep, April and May are the perfect months to get out into the great outdoors and on to the trail.
However, this year the story was a little different. At the start of the hiking season, the world found itself in the grip of a deadly pandemic, with more than a third of the global population in some form of lockdown.
Social Distancing Everywhere
Social distancing was the new buzzword, face coverings became the new normal, and millions of people were confined to their homes in an unprecedented attempt to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
In July, as restrictions lifted and the national parks began to open up, we headed out onto the trail for a much-needed taste of the great outdoors. The North Cascades National Park in Washington State is a dream destination for hikers, but what would it be like to go hiking and backpacking in the age of coronavirus?
Hiking In The North Cascades National Park
Washington State is home to three beautiful national parks, but our favorite has to be the North Cascades. This rugged, wild space is packed full of rare and unusual wildlife, thousands of species of trees and flowers, and is littered with over 400 miles of fantastic hiking trails.
Hikers love coming here because of the sheer diversity of scenery on offer – you’ll find jagged peaks and rocky ridges, gushing waterfalls and serene lakes, beautiful wildflower meadows, and stunning larch forests.
The North Cascades is also famous for its high concentration of glaciers. There are over 300 glaciers coating the peaks and ridges of the park, and this creates some truly spectacular views over the mountains. These sparkling ice giants have carved the peaks of the North Cascades over millennia, redefining the mountains and creating the stunning vistas found in the national park today.
After months cooped up at home, what better place to rediscover the joys of the great outdoors! There are so many amazing hiking trails in the North Cascades National Park, it’s difficult to choose just one. As a result, we decided to set out for a multi-day hiking adventure in one of the most beautiful wildernesses in the United States.
Planning The Hiking Trip
Advance planning is an essential part of any hiking trip, but it’s even more important during the current crisis. Although many of the national parks are now open, some are operating with restrictions, and you may have to book in advance to secure entry. It’s also possible that many of the campgrounds and visitor centers may be closed, so make sure to check in advance before you travel.
In the North Cascades National Park, all visitor centers remain closed, as well as some group campsites, including Goodell, Colonial, and Newhalem campgrounds. Most of the other campgrounds, however, are open and must be booked a day in advance.
The Park authorities have issued specific advice to visitors, including urging hikers to bring their own gear, food supplies, hand sanitizer, and face coverings.
Although the park covers over 1000 square miles of wilderness, some popular trails can become crowded, so you may need to change your plans at the last minute, or hunt for some of the less-traveled trails. It’s recommended to avoid weekends and holidays when the park is much busier, so you’ll have a good chance of a little peace, quiet and space out on your hike.
We decided on a mid-week trip in the hope that the trails would be a little quieter. However, even so, we found some sections of the route to be very busy, so we’d recommend trying to find some of the less popular, quieter backcountry routes if you’re really looking for a little solitude.
The North Cascades National Park has no shortage of amazing hiking trails, but our favorite part of the park is the Cascade Pass area, where you’ll find a good combination of day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips. We decided to head out on the Basin Creek backpacking trail, which is a 3-4 day circuit that covers some of the most beautiful parts of the park.
The route begins by following the Cascade Pass trail, before heading over the pass to Basin Creek. The trail begins relatively gently, ascending through trees before reaching the pass itself, with phenomenal views over the Stehekin River Valley, Magic Mountain, and Pelton Peak.
As we had plenty of time, we made camp at Basin Creek and then completed the stunning day hike up to Horseshoe Basin. Here we found dazzling wildflower meadows, and a stunning glacial cirque decorated in tumbling waterfalls.
Hiking the Sahale Glacier Trail
On day three, if you’ve got the stamina, it’s possible to make the trip to the beautiful Sahale Glacier. This high, rugged campground is one of the most epic places to spend a night in the North Cascades, perched high up in the mountains at an elevation of 7,600 feet.
The hike up Sahale Arm is more strenuous than the beginning of the Cascade Pass trail, passing through windswept boulder fields with splendid views all along the way. The campground is relatively basic, with rock walls to provide shelter from the wind. Sunset from the Sahale Glacier is simply stunning, as the last rays of the day touch the high, craggy peaks, casting a golden light over the mountains.
Once the sun goes down, the show really begins. This campground is one of the best places for stargazing in the whole of Washington State, with zero light pollution. The dazzling canopy of stars is breathtaking – so much so that we didn’t want to go to sleep! A night here will leave you feeling as though you’re on top of the world.
New Etiquette On The Hiking Trail
In many ways, a hiking trip to one of the United States’ incredible national parks is the perfect way to leave behind the stresses and anxieties of the pandemic and find a moment of peace and calm. However, wilderness hiking and backpacking haven’t been left untouched by the pandemic.
Out on the trail, we found that new forms of hiking etiquette have developed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Social distancing applies even when you’re out in the wild, and although the North Cascades National Park is vast, there are some narrow paths where it’s very difficult to keep the regulation 6 feet away from fellow hikers.
Turning Away on the Trail
It’s now common practice to cover your mouth or turn your face away as you pass other hikers on trails where you can’t keep a sufficient distance from other hikers. It’s also important to carry a proper face covering for situations where you may be in close contact with others. For example, you may require a mask at campgrounds, in bathrooms, or at viewpoints that may be cramped and crowded.
Most importantly, when hiking in the national parks, visitors should make sure not to place undue pressure on local services and businesses. To avoid contact with people in the local towns, we packed in everything that we needed for the entire trip, including all food and beverages, all equipment, and made sure that we had a full tank to avoid using local gas stations.
Don’t Go Overboard
If you’re a novice hiker, it’s also important to make sure that you don’t overextend your limits. Emergency services are already stretched in many parts of the country, and we didn’t want to place extra pressure on them by getting into difficulty out on the trail.
We picked a trail we already knew and were confident that we would be able to complete the trek without assistance. Most importantly, we checked the local weather forecast before leaving, to make sure that we were fully prepared for the conditions out on the trail.
Planning Ahead For The Cascade Pass
It’s important to note that backcountry permits in the North Cascades National Park are now only open one day ahead, meaning that you can’t book ahead weeks in advance. This may mean that you need to change your plans at the last minute if the campgrounds are full.
In particular, the Sahale Glacier campground is very popular (with good reason!), so it’s best to have a backup plan in case you’re unable to secure a permit. To check availability, visit the park website, where you’ll find all the information you’ll need to get a permit.
Our trip to the North Cascades gave us plenty to think about, especially in relation to the recent pandemic. There’s no question that this has been a very difficult time for millions of people across the country, who have lost their jobs, been ill, and in some cases even lost loved ones. The prolonged confinement and uncertainty associated with the pandemic has also taken its toll, increasing stress, anxiety, and worry.
Hiking in nature is one of the best ways to combat these problems. Studies have demonstrated that just a short walk in a natural setting can help to lower blood pressure, boost your mood, and even reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There’s never been a better time to get out into the great outdoors and enjoy everything that nature has to offer.
Leave no Trace Camping
However, it’s also crucial that, while hiking during the pandemic, we take whatever precautions we can to avoid spreading the virus. This means respecting the rules while out on the trail, avoiding contact with others wherever possible, and following the principles of Leave No Trace camping.
As we hiked through the epic, beautiful landscape of the North Cascades, we breathed in the fresh air and thought, despite the stress and uncertainty of recent months, how lucky we were to be in this place, in this moment of calm.
Lukas Saville prefers a night in the tent over a night in the hotel and loves exploring the best trails on earth and sharing his experiences through writing and photography. He hopes his experiences will help more people to start their own adventures and appreciate the world surrounding them a little bit more.