Northwest Travel
Sept-Oct 2003

At the Crest of the Cascades
Northern Washington's Pasayten Wilderness Area



"The area inspired
beat legend Jack
Kerouac, who manned
a fire lookout there."


This remote preserve is nicknamed the "American Alps" for its crags, jagged glacial valleys and delicate mountain meadows. The Wilderness Area also embraces deep forests, luscious wetlands and the crest of the North Cascades.

The Pasayten (pronounced pah-SAY-ten) runs 50 miles along the Canadian border in Washington state. The western end is rugged and verdant, thanks to soggy clouds rolling off Puget Sound. The broad eastern plateaus are drier. The area inspired beat legend Jack Kerouac , who manned a fire lookout there, to write Desolation Angels.

Thick sandstone – studded with marine fossils – crops up in the western Pasayten, which may once have been the shore of the North Cascades Micro-Continent drifting in the Pacific. The Okanogan Highlands to the east were formed deep within the earth, later thrust upward like the neighbouring Rockies.

Glaciers carved the terrain, leaving behind dramatic gorges, rugged ridges, pocket lakes, alpine plateaus and the only boreal hummocks in the continental U.S. These conical earth mounds are more common to the tundra and polar latitudes.

Nomadic tribes entered the Pasayten around 6,500 BC, hunting and herding. Humans left little mark until the 19th century, however: Trappers exhausted the area’s beaver and marten, while gold prospectors dug shafts around Canyon and Slate Creeks.

Ranchers dominated the area in the 20th century, grazing sheep and cattle in the fragile alpine meadows. In 1906, Germans established the Tungsten Mine, which exported heavy metal alloys. Pasayten ore helped form the guns and bullets that killed Americans and allies in World War I. The U.S. government took over the mine in 1916.

Commercial outfitters began running trips in the 1950s. Tourism ignited when the North Cascades Highway 20 opened in the 1970s. More eco-friendly rules were established two years ago – and grazing was finally banned – after Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics accused the Okanogan National Forest of gross mismanagement of the Pasayten.

Vital stats
Created in 1968, the Wilderness Area protects 530,031 acres in northern Washington state. The roadless preserve is roughly the size of Rhode Island, measuring 54 miles across and 10-23 deep.

The Pasayten boasts almost 150 peaks over 7,500 feet – including several of America’s "50 classic climbs" – and at least 160 bodies of water. Jack Mountain is the highest point at 9,066 feet, rocketing up from Ross Lake.

The lush western side is blanketed in fir, cedar and western hemlock. In the eastern rain shadow, high-desert species like pine and larch take over. The Pasayten also has spectacular meadows and vibrant wildflowers, including bog orchids, avalanche lilies, alpine thistles, foxgloves, columbines and Indian paint brushes.

The Pasayten is home to the largest lynx population in the Lower 48. Other large predators include elusive grey wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, wolverines, black bears and grizzlies. You’re more likely to spy a mule deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep or moose. Golden and bald eagles circle overhead, while ptarmigan, pheasants and quail scurry through the underbrush. Native fish include rainbow, cut-throat and bull trout; spring Chinook and summer steelhead.

Early July through mid-September. High western trails sometimes are snowed in till early August. Summer weather ranges from balmy to thunderstorms and flurries, so be prepared for anything.

There are no fees for use of any undeveloped site or parking at trailheads east of the Okanogan River. Other areas may require a Northwest Forest Pass or charge a nightly fee per vehicle.

Okanogan National Forest: 1240 Second Ave. South Okanogan, WA, 98840; Tel: 509-826-3275;

Seattle-Tacoma is the closest international airport ( The Pasayten is about 5 1/2-hour drive from the metropolis. Break up the trip with a night in the charming sea-side village of La Conner or the mountain town Marblemount.

Methow Valley Sport Trails Association offers airport pickups from Seattle, Spokane and Wenatchee – and also ferries outdoor enthusiasts into the mountains (P.O. Box 147 Winthrop, WA, 98862; Tel: 509-996-3287;

Easiest Access
From one mile north of Loomis, WA, on the eastern side of the Wilderness, turn west on Forest Service Road 39 for approximately 10 miles; turn north Forest Service Road 500 for approximately three miles to Iron Gate Campground and the Boundary Trailhead.

Best Base
Winthrop, in the Methow Valley, makes an excellent jumping-off point. The frontier theme town boasts olde-time shop fronts, wooden sidewalks and hitching posts (Tel: 509-996-2211 and 800-572-0493;

Wet your whistle at Three Fingered Jack’s, which claims to be the oldest legal saloon in Washington state (509-996-2411). Or sample the gourmet pizzas and home-made cinnamon rolls at Grubstake & Co (509-996-2375).
Winthrop is chock full of "trading posts" peddling Western souvenirs, penny candy and dream-catchers. Pop into Winthrop Mountain Sports for last-minute supplies; the store also rents skis and mountain bikes (Tel: 509-996-2886;

Locals events include the 49ers’ Days in early May, featuring a wagon train and square dancing (888-463-8469); the North Cascades Old Time Fiddlers Contest – and giant insect competition for the kiddies – in August (888-463-8469) and the Winthrop Blues Festival in mid-July (

Visit the airborne fire fighters at the North Cascade Smokejumper Base (open June-October; East County Road between Twisp & Winthrop). The United States Cavalry School offers a range of frontier experiences: six days as an Army horse soldier for $675, a weekend workshop practising equestrian skills and firing period firearms for $165 or one-day trooper school for $95 (P.O. Box 1171, Twisp, WA, 98856;

Sun Mountain Lodge is the valley’s flagship resort, nine miles outside Winthrop. Perched on a high ridge, the lodge pampers guests with a spa, pool, hot tubs and tennis courts. Activities include golf, rafting, horse riding, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, snow shoeing, sleigh rides and ice skating (604 Patterson Lake Road, Winthrop, WA, 98862; Tel: 509-996-2211 and 800-572-0493;; doubles $85-330).

Backcountry excursions
Timberline Adventures ventures into the Pasayten on its North Cascades Tour. The $1,495 price tag includes van shuttles, meals, trail maps and six nights in B&Bs (7975 E. Harvard Suite #J Denver, CO, 80231; Tel: 303-368-4418 and 800-417-2453;

Outward Bound offers 8,14 and 22-day mountaineering courses, which dip into the Wilderness Area. Students learn minimum-impact camping skills, outdoor cooking, basic first-aid, map and compass use, route finding, knot tying, rock climbing and rappelling. Prices range from $1,295 to $2,795 (Tel: 888-837-5205;

Packing tours
Commercial outfitters have a bad reputation in the Pasayten. In 2001, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics accused them of destroying wetlands, fouling waterways, illegal stock-grazing and tree-cutting, among other offences. Tour operators accepted stricter regulations, but relations between hikers and riders remain tense.

Pasayten Llama Packing runs trips from early-July to mid-September. Create your own itinerary for $125 per person each day. The company also ferries gear into the backcountry, setting up drop camps (P.O. Box 852 Twisp, WA, 98856; Tel: 509-996-2326;

Saddle up and head down the trail with Early Winters Outfitting. Horse excursions cover 6-15 miles daily with plenty of time for photography, fishing and hiking. Deluxe pack trips cost $160 per day (HCR 74, Box B6, Mazama, WA, 98833; Tel: 509-996-2659;








"Pasayten ore helped
form the guns and
bullets that killed
Americans and allies
in World War I."














"The Pasayten is
home to the largest
lynx population in the
Lower 48. Other large
predators include grey
wolves, mountain lions,
bobcats, wolverines,
black bears and grizzlies."




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