In the past year and a half of our full time travels, Loops and I have managed to visit 29 National Park Service locations. They have varied in type, from historical sites to recreation areas, scenic trails to monuments, lakeshores to parks; each unique in their offerings.
When we pull in for a two day stay at North Cascades National Park though, it somehow feels further removed even from the other National Parks we have visited.
We find ourselves situated at the base of rugged mountainous terrain. There is a glacial river flowing through the park, ice cold to the touch and almost biting enough to freeze you just by looking at. The land is forested by pine, perfectly suited here in the harsh and wintery landscape.
But what makes this place so unlike the other parks is the distinct lack of a focal point. With each other visit there has always been something outstanding in which to draw you in, on which the park will hang its hat – the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, the Saguaro cacti of the Arizona desert, the Narrows in Zion, the railroad at Golden Spike, the missions in San Antonio, the caverns at Carlsbad and Mammoth…you see where I’m going with this, right?
North Cascades on the other hand is, well, just beautiful wilderness.
There is no ‘must see’ attraction here at the park. Nothing that you have to crowd into one place with 1,000 other people to view, just to say you’ve seen it or done it. North Cascades is just there to be enjoyed however you see fit. It is purely an outdoor lover’s destination. If you do not like being outside, walking or hiking, this is not the place for you. If you want some type of easy car or bus tour, a step by step list of activities, find somewhere else to go.
And it is because of this fact that Cascades is probably the most relaxed and noiseless park we have been in. There are no huge crowds, traffic jams or loud people that we have encountered elsewhere. It’s all rather peaceful, and just to my liking.
We are camping in the trees, the grounds are virtually silent, the sun is out and the air is relatively cool.
From right here at the campsite I can disappear into the woods, and walk less than half a mile to the visitor centre or take the 1.8 mile forest loop down to the river to dip my toes in the icy water. It’s lovely to have the option to walk out of the bus and in to nature, to not have to jump in The Beast or grab the Bandit to get somewhere, rather just be powered by my own two feet.
One of the interesting facts about this park (and I never said it didn’t have sights of interest by the way, just nothing slap bang in your face with crowds), are the number of power lines within it.
Hey, wait, what?
Yes, that’s right. North Cascades National Park, and the dammed lakes within it, helps to power the city of Seattle.
In the 1920’s the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project was set up here, beating the national park into being by some 48 years, with North Cascades not being established until 1968. There are three major dams located along the river, with the accompanying lakes to go with them, and together they are responsible for generating 20% of Seattle City Lights electricity production. The dams themselves are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If you are interested in the learning more about project there is the opportunity to take a tour of one of the lakes and/or the Gorge Powerhouse – a monstrous, yet impressive, slightly gothic looking building which can be seen from the main road that traverses the park (honestly, you’d have to be blind to miss it).
While Loops and I had no interest in visiting the hydroelectric plant, we did decide to take a trip over to Diablo Lake and take a walk on the trail which begins there. Loops and I made an agreement, he would come with me on our little hike but only if we limited its length. The trail is almost 7 miles long and I can confirm that it is most definitely not flat. Given that, we agreed on 45 minutes out and 45 minutes back. That’s a pretty darn good compromise for us!
The first thing I need to mention though is the lake. More specifically, the colour of the lake.
Diablo Lake contains the most intense turquoise blue water I have ever seen. The only time I have come close to seeing this colour in nature before was while I was in New Zealand and walked onto the Franz Josef glacier, the deep ice being a spectacular blue hue. And the two are in fact slightly connected in a way. The lake actually owes its colour to glacial flour – silt sized particles of rock which are produced when glaciers (hard packed ice) grind against the surrounding rock – which are then carried in the water and reflect green-blue light particles while other colours are absorbed, giving the lake its special colour.
Isn’t nature just the most amazing and magical thing?
While we could stand transfixed by the lake all day, Loops and I make good on our hike – which I will admit was more of a climb then I initially thought, giving us a good huff and puff and bringing some colour to our faces. The only downside was the discovery that the best view is located right at the end of the trail, where we agreed not to venture. We did get a couple peeks through the trees of the snow-capped mountains surrounding us and the lake below, but no 180o vista for us today.
Our destination once we leave North Cascades is just as watery and rather impressive too, but in a man-made fashion instead.
Loops has a hankering to pay a visit to the Grand Coulee Dam. Never heard of it? Me either. But apparently there is a rather large dam somewhere south-west of us and on our route towards Spokane, so why not? Additionally, Loops tells me they put on some type of laser and light show, beamed onto the wall of the dam itself. Well, that alone has me sold on the idea!
And so we rumble out of the national park and make our way towards the town of Omak for an overnight stop, before arriving in Grand Coulee the following day. We journey along Route 20, a road that equals (if not surpasses) Route 26 through Oregon that I loved so much. It is filled to bursting with towering white peaked craggy mountains, lush pine, river crossings and towns with names like Winthrop and Twisp. We once again cross the Pacific Crest Trail; the signs making my heart ache a little, and pause for a while to take in the view at the Washington Pass Overlook.
From the overlook there is an 180o curving outlook from where you can survey the mountain tops sitting opposite for mountain goats (yes, there are some living here, no we didn’t see any much to my disappointment), catch a glimpse of hikers atop the peaks (we spotted two!) and look sharply down on the switchback road below, watching cars pass by, heading off into the distance where the wintery mountains give way to the warmer farm valleys.
After our overnight sojourn in the city park in Omak, we have a long day’s drive, watching the countryside slowly change right before our eyes from the green and verdant land we’ve become accustomed to, to the drier yellows of the eastern portion of Washington State. The change is so dramatic my mind doesn’t seem to quite believe that we are still in WA, it’s the complete opposite of the coastal scenery from just a week or so ago, or even just yesterday’s craggy backdrop! Along with the change in view comes the variation in temperature; no longer can we feel a cooling breeze, we are now firmly back in a hot climate.
We arrive in to Grand Coulee late in the afternoon, but given that the light show doesn’t start until after dark (around 9.30pm as it is summer); we have plenty of time to get the bus parked and get ready for our outing.
So what to tell you about Grand Coulee Dam?
Well, it is rather grand, if you are very much in to engineering structures. Though oddly enough, I’m not sure I really took in the scale of the dam, because to me it didn’t really feel huge. I don’t know, maybe it was just the perspective of it, perhaps I was not standing in the right place to really be overawed, but who am I to say, right? The numbers here bear it out though….
The Grand Coulee Dam was built during the Great Depression, bringing both work and hope to a country that was struggling. Taking eight years to build, and thousands of men to get the job done, it is one of the largest structures ever to be built by man – according to the NPS it is just shy of a mile in length, 550ft tall and contains 12 million cubic yards of concrete, which sure sounds like a heck of a lot of concrete to me. The reservoir it holds back, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, is approximately 125 square miles and almost stretches to the Canadian border, which again, sounds like rather a lot of water.
There is a free tour of the dam which I sure provides a good insight into the workings of the dam and gives you a greater understanding and respect for the creation it. We however didn’t do this (having arrived too late in the day), so we settled for seeing the light show, of which we had no idea what to expect, but here’s what we got….
Once seated in the outdoor concrete amphitheatre to the left of the dam spillways, you wait for the natural light of day to die down and through scattered speakers you are told the show will commence shortly.
The spillways then begin to open. I was wondering if they were going to simply project images onto the grey concrete spillway walls, but instead they open the gates just enough to let down a controlled steady stream of water which creates a white backdrop upon which the lights are then shone. Watching the spillways open one by one and the water slowly flow down the walls was really quite a magical sight in itself. As more water flows (there are eight spillways that open if I remember rightly), the temperature slowly but surely begins to drop too.
The show isn’t quite what I hoped it might be, but personally I enjoyed it all the same. It is actually a story of how the dam came into being, narrated in the style of a Native American grandmother to her granddaughter, the land once belonging to them of course. It is a realistic and slightly apologetic show I feel, with the explanation of how by building the dam, the Columbia River was effectively damaged in terms of the salmon runs on which the people relied for their livelihood. The surrounding land on which they lived was also flooded by the creation of the subsequent lake. So all round, not a good thing for the native people.
The story also explains the giant feat of constructing the dam and its importance to the nation during World War II, creating electricity required for aluminium smelting plants, Boeing factories, and shipyards in Portland.
The lights and music are done in a creative and artistic fashion, with some elements of wavy lights and animation and then other bits which appear to be from real life news reports.
Overall, I felt I had learned a lot by the end, but I think I was expecting more of a musical, whimsical, and light-hearted production!
We watch the spillways close, the water vanishing in a blink of an eye. One moment there is a solid white rushing of water and the next it is like the flow has been snipped with a pair of scissors, the final part of it flowing into the basin and leaving once again a grey concrete wall behind for us to stare at.
Before the night ends, Loops and I have a discussion to make plans for changing from our short but constant traveling days, to longer drives across the remaining states and staying for longer periods at places we wish to explore, namely Yellowstone National Park and when visiting Mount Rushmore.
Our strategy is immediately thwarted in the morning though. While doing his routine checks, Loops spots a puddle under the bus, it appears we have sprung a transmission fluid leak; meaning yet more repairs.
Our only option is to head as planned to Spokane and keep our fingers crossed that we can get Belle fixed up and ready for the long drive from West to East, still getting me to Chicago in time for my flight home to England.
And it is here that it is time for me to make a confession, for even with our altered plans, I did not complete my travels with Loops on the final eastern leg of our trip.
As it turns out, by the time we arrived in Spokane and sat for two days waiting for a part to arrive to remedy Belle, I came to the conclusion that I was ready to finish my travelling for this part of the season. I needed to go home. And not in a couple weeks, but right now. I was ready to see my friends at home, to drive my old car and to be there to help get ready for my best friend’s big day. I was ready to have a little more space than 43ft and to spend time with more people than just Loops.
And so, just like that, I packed my bags and Loops drove me to the airport. We agreed he’d keep on trekking eastwards as planned, and that I would see him in a month and a half back in Michigan where he’d be waiting out the final part of summer. And from there…..who knows?
But right now, let’s go home to England…