If you had to choose, what view would you rather have? Clear, dark skies filled with stars or incredible mountain peaks in all directions?
Just kidding. You don’t have to choose…
Sahale Glacier Camp in the North Cascades has the best of BOTH worlds!
Getting to this insane campsite in North Cascades National Park is an adventure in itself, and we’re breaking down the whole process in this post. We’ll share how to get permits, what you can expect on the trail, and how to prepare for alpine camping.
This post is packed with useful information so make sure to save it somewhere to reference later!
Let’s get started.
Spend The Night At Sahale Glacier Camp In North Cascades National Park
Keep in mind: The photos we are sharing are from early-season camping. Our trip was July 3-6, 2020.
What Makes Sahale Glacier Camp So Special?
Sahale Glacier Camp sits at 7,400 feet, making it one of the highest elevation campsites in the whole national park.
It has almost a 360-degree view of the mountain ranges, and on a clear day, you can see Magic Mountain, The Triplets, Mix-up Peak, Mount Baker (10,781 feet), and Mount Shuksan (9,121 feet) in the distance.
Best Time To Visit Sahale Glacier Camp
So, when is the best time to visit Sahale Glacier Camp?
That depends on the snow levels! Generally, you can expect to plan a trip anytime between July and September. If you have questions about the current snowpack or weather, you can always call the North Cascades Marblemount Office ((360) 854-7245) and they can provide you with the latest weather update.
Snow levels are the deciding factor on whether it’s safe/doable to camp. You can expect to find snow year-round, but we’ve seen it thaw out pretty significantly in late August and September.
Another deciding factor in choosing the best time to visit Sahale Glacier Camp is if the composting toilet has been dug out! High snow levels bury it every year, and if it’s still buried, you must poop in a bag and pack it out (more on that below).
Getting A Permit For Sahale Glacier Camp
You can get a permit to camp at Sahale Glacier Camp one of two ways:
First Way (Advanced Reservation)
Reserve your campsite dates in advance. The window for advanced reservation begins March 15th and ends April 15th. **Note, these are for camping dates between May 15th and September 30th.
Up to 60 percent of the sites are reserved in advance, so if you are absolutely sure of your camping dates this will be the highest chance for you to secure a spot.
Click here for a walkthrough of the permit process and be prepared with all your camping dates and details.
Second Way (Day Of Walk-Ups + First-Come-First-Serve)
The second way to get a permit for Sahale Glacier Camp is to show up at the Marblemount Ranger Station the day of OR day before your trip, and try for an open spot.
We suggest coming EARLY, because like the DMV, you will be served at the counter via ticket number. Grabbing an early ticket number ensures you get an early pick of the remaining available campsites. If you are hardcore set on dates and campsites, consider coming at like 5:00 am, grabbing a number, and sleeping in your car until the station opens.
For backcountry availability, save this site to know which campsites in the park have openings. This site is updated after every counter walk-up, so you can see virtually real-time if your campsite and dates are still available.
Permit Planning Tip For Walk-Ups
It’s always a good idea to come with a backup camping plan, maybe even two. We saw group after group get denied their first choice and have to figure out a new plan on the spot. Come prepared with your top choices to chat with the ranger when it’s your turn.
Permit Planning Tip 2
Be prepared for snow! If you are hoping to get an early season walk-up permit, come prepared to handle snow camping. We BARELY got the last spot at Sahale Glacier Camp. The people in line in front of us were going to take the spot, but the ranger told them of the high snow levels, and they backed out because they weren’t prepared. Yay us for planning ahead!
What To Bring To Sahale Glacier Camp
Sahale Glacier Camp is a backpack-in site, which means you’ll have to bring everything you need for overnight camping on your back!
If you are going with a group of people, you can plan ahead and divide up the heavier items. Things like tent pieces, cooking pots, fuel, and ropes can be separated among hikers to help share the weight.
Curious about what you should pack? Read the full packing list here: The Ultimate Guide To Backpacking Gear and What To Pack For Your Next Adventure
More likely than not, you’ll be camping in the snow. Make sure to pack extra snow gear like gaiters, waterproof boots, and gloves to keep yourself warm.
Need more snow packing tips? Read our guide on how to layer clothes in winter adventures.
Finally, PACK SUNSCREEN. THIS IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE. The snow and clear skies make the sun rays literally inescapable, and we saw our camping neighbors look like absolute lobsters by the end of their time. Pack the highest SPF you can (we brought this 100+ one) and pack things like a hat, buff, and sunglasses to protect your face as well.
Trail Details: Hiking Cascade Pass > Sahale Arm > Glacier Camp
Now that you’ve got your permits, packed all your backpacking gear, and checked the weather, it’s time for you to start the trail! Here are the quick details:
Cascade Pass Trail / Sahale Arm Trail
- Trailhead Coordinates: 48.4735959,-121.0747054
- Distance: 12-miles route-trip
- Elevation Gain: 4,000 feet
- Difficulty: Challenging
Love stats and tracking your trail? Check out the best hiking apps to elevate your hiking experience.
To get to the trailhead from Highway 20, drive south on Cascades River Road for 23 miles (about a 1-hour drive.) There is no requirement for any PNW forest passes or national park pass to park.
Early Season Note: If you are coming in the early season, there is a chance that the road will be closed before the trailhead (that happened to us in early July). If that’s the case, you’ll need to park on the side of the road right before the closed sign and hike the additional miles on the road to the trailhead.
To begin Cascade Pass Trail, you immediately begin a series of 35 switchbacks. This continues for the next 1,700 feet of elevation gain, and you’ll know you are reaching the end when you begin to break through the tree line.
One way we liked to keep track of the switchbacks was to shout the number as we rounded the corner. It sounds counterintuitive, but it really helped show our progress and kept morale high – especially when reaching the end!
Read More: 15 Incredible Gifts For Hikers Under $50
At the top (about 3.7 miles in), you’ll come upon a flat area with stone benches, overlooking the incredible mountain range in front of you. This is the turnaround point for day hikers. (This trail is also one of the most popular hikes in Washington State!)
After a quick snack break here, follow signs to Sahale Arm to continue your journey.
For a more in-depth description of Cascade Pass Trail, read our full guide on what to expect and pack for this popular hiking trail in the North Cascades! (coming soon)
Sahale Arm Trail Section
Continuing onto Sahale Arm (you’ll find the trail to the left of the Cascade Pass Trail platform area) traverse across a meadow spilling over with alpine wildflowers, glacier lilies, and a plethora of cute mountain creatures. You can expect to find marmots, pikas, mule deer, and grouse in this area. They will keep their distance, but don’t have a problem squeaking and squawking at passers-by. It’s pretty entertaining!
After a quick section of steep switchbacks, you’ll emerge at the top to find a little break in the elevation with a gentle slope upwards – you can expect to walk through meadows full of beautiful alpine heather and see Doubtful Lake below as you hike past it. Make sure to enjoy this section while it lasts, because…
The last part is absolutely the most challenging. In just a fifth of a mile, the trail pitches upwards in a rocky, muddy section full of boulders. Even though this was the shortest section of the trail, it took us the longest.
Some sections required us to use our hands and feet to climb up rocks – this is where we would definitely recommend using hiking poles to help with balance and weight distribution.
Looking up, you can teasingly see the Sahale Glacier Camp sites dotting the flat section at the top. After a challenging end though, finding your rock-ringed campsite is probably the most rewarding part of the entire trail.
Setting Up Camp
Because of the protected rock ring walls, locating and setting up camp is fairly easy. This area of the North Cascades has total exposure to the elements, which is why people have built these circular rock structures to bring a little shelter from the wind and ice.
Again, you need a permit to stay overnight at Sahale Glacier camp, but it’s up to you to choose any empty campsites you like. The walls are somewhat protected from the wind, but it’s still a good idea to stake down your tent for extra reassurance. If you are coming in the early season like us, you can expect to dig out some snow to level out a flat spot for your tent.
Reminder: This is bear country, and the mountain goats are brave and confident. ALWAYS keep smelly items like food and toiletries in your bear canister, away from your campsite. We stored ours in a rock area, about 50 feet away from our tents to keep the goats away from our area.
Sustainability Reminders In Alpine Conditions
Alpine environments are delicate and beautiful, but can also be destroyed with just one wrong footstep.
They require a bit more careful attention when it comes to camping and hiking, so here are a few tips to practice Leave No Trace principles in these mountain areas:
Stay on the Trail: Plants like alpine heather grow very slowly, and one wrong footstep can ruin 20+ years of slow growth. Keep to the trail and rock sections as much as possible, and lay your tent on bare dirt as to not disturb any delicate plant life.
Pack Out Your Poop: Yep, your poop won’t break down in alpine environments, so you’ll need to do your business in a bag and carry it out. Luckily, Sahale Glacier Camp has a composting toilet to use, but be prepared for it to be buried in snow if you are camping in the early season.
Read more camping and backpacking hygiene tips here before you go!
You Can’t Dump Food Greywater: What is food greywater? It’s the liquid left over at the end of your meal, or the water you use to clean out your bowl after you’ve finished eating. It’s weird, but you’ve got to drink it!
Throwing it on the ground is not an option, because you could attract mountain goats. If mountain goats figure out that they can get their food from humans, they can get braver and possibly even more aggressive. Don’t give them the chance to be dangerous!
What To Do During The Day At Sahale Glacier Camp
Alright, you’ve got your tent set up, you’ve made dinner, and are stoked about the days ahead. …but what should you do now?
Here are some suggestions of fun activities you can do near Sahale Glacier Camp:
Climb To The Top of Sahale Mountain
If you’ve got the gear and skills, climbing Sahale Mountain can be a fun day activity! Make sure you are going with people you trust, and are prepared with safety gear like ropes, helmets, ice picks, and more.
(We’re not mountain climbers so make sure to do your research with this one!)
Slide Down The Slopes To Camp
While we may not be mountain climbers, we had a TON of fun climbing up as high as we could, and sliding back down to camp!
If you decide to do this, make sure you’ve got equipment to stop you (ice axes), and know where your path leads. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings – you don’t want to slide off the side of a cliff!
Take A Day Hike Down To Doubtful Lake
If you are visiting Sahale Glacier Camp during a warm part of the summer (likely August) you could take a day hike down to Doubtful Lake and jump in to cool off. Be prepared for a huge elevation change, and know you’ll have to do that challenging section of Sahale Arm again!
Chill Out At Camp
Sometimes, just sitting and soaking in the views is the best thing to do at Sahale Glacier Camp.
Reward yourself from the hike with watching the sunrise and sunset, playing card games, or just hanging out with your friends at the top. You’ve earned it!
Sahale Glacier Camp Conclusion
We hope you enjoyed our guide to Sahale Glacier Camp! Our intention is to prepare you for a fun and sustainable trip, while giving you practical tips on making the most of your backpacking trip in the North Cascades.
Have a wonderful time, and don’t forget to come back and leave a comment here about your experience!