Adventures mountains United States Washington

Bonus: North Cascades Day Hike – Thornton Lakes

By on August 14, 2016

After returning to our campsite in the national forest we decided we wanted one last adventure before heading back to the real world. We had a relatively relaxing morning since it was pouring down rain when we woke up. So we spent a little extra time just lounging around in our tents before getting started on the day. After breakfast and packing our stuff for a day hike we headed back into the park to the visitor’s center. The ranger at the visitor’s center recommended hiking to either Thornton Lakes or Sourdough Mountain to the Sourdough fire lookout. The clouds were hanging low and the hike to Thornton Lakes had half the elevation gain of the one to Sourdough Mountain over the same distance – we picked Thornton Lakes (big surprise that I didn’t push for the steeper hike!)

The first adventure of the day was getting to the trailhead. If you remember from the first post in this series, the four of us were piled into a Toyota Yaris – not exactly a car made for off road travel. The road was mostly crushed gravel but it was STEEP and there were some very big ruts. At a couple points during the drive I was praying that we wouldn’t start to roll backwards. The only benefit to having the Yaris was that it was a tiny car and we could avoid most of the ruts that larger cars probably could not. After much praying and excellent driving by Wade we made it to the trailhead. I checked out the hiking information board and it said that the road was only recommended for high clearance four wheel drive vehicles. The Yaris will never be the same again.

Thornton Lake Trail - NinetySeventy

Chilling on a stump

The information the park ranger gave us said the hike was 5.2 miles and 2000 ft of climbing to the lake but the first two miles were flat. He was certainly correct about the first two miles, although we still gained over 500 ft of elevation on the “flat” section. Once we got above the thick underbrush the hike quickly turned straight uphill. It did follow some switchbacks but in general the trail was steep and loose/slippery/muddy in some spots. The forest of the North Cascades looks so much more alive than the forest of Colorado so at least the views were great, even if it was too cloudy to see the sweeping mountain views we had come to expect after our backpacking trip.

I’m not sure what about the hike made us feel this way (maybe the sustained 700 ft per mile climb) but I kept looking down at my watch willing it to finally say we had reached 2000 ft of elevation gain and to suddenly be at the lake. Alas that was not meant to be. When my watch reached 2000 ft of elevation gain, we were still only at mile 4.6 and on the side of a heavily forested mountainside without any indication that we were approaching a lake. After that realization the hike quickly turned into a “heads down and just make it up the damn trail” type of adventure. Eventually (500 ft later) we came crested the side of the ridge and came to an overlook of the lake. The lake looked to be about 500 feet below us and at that point, none of us had 500 ft of descending followed by 500 ft of climbing (in addition to the 2500 ft of descending back to the car) in our legs. We had a snack at the overlook, took a group picture where I tripped on a rock and reinjured my hip, and headed back down to the car.

4th of July Celebration - NinetySeventy

Proud Americans on July 3rd!

The way down was a little more eventful since we were more talkative and had the idea of a warm shower spurring us onward (the ranger recommended an RV park/campground a couple miles down the road that had pay showers). We did stop a couple of times and even took the stump picture above but in general we joked our way down the mountain.

After reaching the car and navigating back down the steep gravel road we headed back to camp to pick up shower supplies and beelined it for the RV park/campground. When we got there the man at the office told us that the RV park stopped allowing people who were not staying at the campground to use the showers. They had told the park service this repeatedly but the park service was still sending people their way. After looking pitiful and explaining that we had just finished backpacking and needed to get on a airplane the next day the man agreed to let us shower if we paid the $5 day use fee. He let us into the bathrooms since they had a keypad lock on the door and we each enjoyed five minutes of hot water and soap induced bliss!

Thornton Lake - NinetySeventy

Moody clouds that luckily held out for our hike

Overall the day was filled with a rollercoaster of emotions – from sadness when we woke up to rain to happiness being back on the trail to frustration at realizing the hike was longer than we anticipated to joy at seeing the lake to despair when we found out the RV park didn’t have public showers anymore to pure unadulterated joy standing under the hot water in a less-than-clean “public but not public” shower. Thornton Lakes look beautiful and if we had more time I definitely would have liked to explore the area more. Based on the number of backpackers on the trail, it’s a popular overnight location with a couple dispersed campsites surrounding the lake. There are also two lakes above the main Thornton Lake and a cirque of mountains begging to be climbed. I recommend the hike, but just beware that the park service literature at the visitor’s center doesn’t provide accurate information. You can find closer to accurate information from the park service at this website.

Strava data can be found here.

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