Melissa Lamarche pauses to exhale after reaching the end of the Stetattle Creek Trail in North Cascades National Park. PLEASE CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE OR SEE BELOW THE STORY FOR MORE
Stetattle Creek Trail is a hike to nowhere in particular, and that’s quite alright
Sandwiched between the Diablo and Gorge Dams along the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project in the North Cascades National Forest is the little, aged town of Diablo: a community built in 1925 to house workers who built the dams for Seattle City Light and, by extension, largely power Seattle.
What brought my girlfriend Melissa and I to that spot, nestled in the Skagit Gorge just off the North Cascades Highway, was a quick weekend adventure on Aug. 17 to hike Stetattle Creek Trail and camp overnight at Gorge Lake Campground, found just outside Diablo and very near the trailhead. The campsite is first come/first serve with limited spots, but it’s also absolutely free.
To be honest, we picked the campsite first and looked for hikes second. Coming to Seattle via Montana and Idaho, I’m used to ample free primitive camping and fall into an existential, diva-like crisis every time I’m forced to pay. Melissa, knowing that, recommended Gorge Lake and a nice day hike up Stetattle Creek earlier in the week.
As we researched Stetattle on the Washington Trails Association website (an amazing resource), I realized this was going to be a new experience: It was a trail that meandered up the creek for a bit, split off and wandered into the woods before simply stopping three miles in. This is the end for your average day hiker, but hardier souls with orienteering prowess can bushwack on further into the wild, all the way to Azure Lake.
Looking back at the dozens of wilderness hikes I’ve done in my 35 years, I guess I’ve been picky: always choosing routes that led to a peak, a mind-blowing vista, a pristine mountain lake, or at least a loop where the goal was getting back to the start with fresh terrain all the while.
After setting up camp at Gorge Lake around 11 a.m. on Saturday, we geared up for a hike. The “lake,” by the way, is only a river at this time as Seattle City Light is doing work on the Diablo Dam into September, which means they’ve drawn back the flow, exposing the lake bed and making it explorable by foot. We filled our day packs with the necessities, put our phones on airplane mode so we could use them as cameras and keep the battery healthy, and made the few yard hike over the Stetattle Creek Bridge to the trailhead.
Within a few minutes all traces of Seattle’s main power source (the dams, the power lines, Diablo’s homes and infrastructure) were out of sight and it was just us, cruising creekside along a well-maintained trail with the turquoise waters of Stetattle keeping us company. That iridescent glow that makes the water up there look so great is the result of the North Cascades’ many glaciers grinding rock into a fine silt that floats along, suspended in water as it plays with light.
There are a few areas where the trail has blown out due to erosion and washouts along the creek, including one spot where you’ll need to do some basic bouldering up a 10 foot wall, but it’s manageable for most.
A mile in, the switchbacks kicked in and we found ourselves climbing up and away from the creek into the steep, moist forest. We stopped a few times to breathe deeply and acknowledge how we really should get into better shape. As if Mother Nature heard our plea, the trail quickly mellowed out.
Over the next two miles we crossed several tributaries (and spied a few waterfalls) running at a trickle through a beautiful mature forest, enjoying (as the National Park Service puts it) “the lush carpet of moss and ferns.” As an Idaho/Montana transplant I’m pretty biased towards the Rockies, but I have to say the ruggedness and powerful peaks found in the North Cascades rival anything I’ve seen. And the lushness, due to bucketloads of rainfall, makes for a truly enchanted experience. I remarked at one point that we were just as likely to encounter an Ewok as an elk.
At every plane of vision was something worth admiring, from massive mushrooms clinging to tree bases like barnacles on a weathered ship to the occasional peak, snowfield and glacier towering above, seen through cracks in the tree line.
Our curiosity was rolling as we estimated our three miles were coming to an end. Bushes and spider webs began increasingly encroaching onto the trail as nature staked its claim.
After a final blind uphill turn we came to a wooden sign etched with the proclamation we’d been anticipating: “END OF MAINTAINED TRAIL.”
A large blowout with several downed trees made it clear this was indeed the end for day hikers like us. We posted up on a log, taking breaths of solitude in the land of the Upper Skagit Native Americans and the animals they lived aside. We tore into a hunk of baguette, unstrung string cheese and took sips from a Nalgene bottle dedicated to merlot from a box.
We had arrived, and I realized a wilderness walk for the sake of a wilderness walk – just to get away from the bustle and into the thick of it – is what it’s really all about.
Turning back, we soon crossed paths with two women along for the same trek.
“What’s at the end?” one asked. “An amazing mountain vista, a mountaintop lake?”
“Just a sign,” we replied. “But it’s well worth it, and you’re almost there.”
There would be no epic hero shot atop a peak to post to Facebook, just a perfect four hour excursion with my right-hand woman.
Round Trip distance: 6 miles (it took us just under four hours with quite a bit if dilly-dallying)
Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
Camping: Gorge Lake Campground, at the trailhead is ideal but small, so if it’s full there are large (pay) campground options back on Hwy 20. It has bathrooms, garbage bins and recycling as well (a rarity with free campsites). If you are there for a day trip, there is parking in Diablo just after the Stettatle Creek Bridge.
Directions from Seattle: (roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes) Take I-5 North to exit 208 for State Hwy 530. Take 530 north to State Route 20 (North Cascades Hwy), head east and turn at milepost 126 for the town of Diablo.
Lore: According to the National Park Service, “Stetattle Creek, in the heart of the Skagit Gorge, was the natural boundary between the Upper Skagit Indians and their northern enemies from the Fraser River Valley. The word ‘Stetattle’ may have originated from the Skagit name which referred to these people from the north.”
Photo gallery for this story