The Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes area is one of the most scenic in all of the North Cascades. It’s a bit of a schlep to get there by any approach so it comes as no surprise that this is an infrequently visited corner of the range. From the west it’s 18+ miles via Hannegan Pass and down the Chilliwack to Brush Creek. From the east it’s 17+ miles along Little Beaver Creek. By either approach, it’s a long way in the woods with relentless flies and mosquitoes along with a healthy dose of quintessential North Cascades brush. I last visited Tapto Lakes eight years ago and it was one of the fondest memories in all of my travels in the North Cascades (which have been fairly comprehensive). Coming away from this trip I found the basin to be just as spectacular as I had remembered. As with eight years prior, we found a true wilderness with nobody else at the lakes, Whatcom Pass or even miles from the pass.
On this trip we took the boat shuttle from Ross Lake and hiked in via Little Beaver Creek. Progress along the first 10 miles to the junction with the Big Beaver Trail was reasonable as most of this stretch had recently been brushed out and the trail is fairly flat. Moreover, there are several sections in ancient cedar forest that are breathtaking. The upper part of Little Beaver, however, was chocked with waist-deep brush, including copious scratchy salmonberry (i.e. very slow going). Virtually all of the elevation gain on the Little Beaver occurs in the last couple miles to the pass; a 2,500 ft gain along steep switchbacks. Compared to the western approach via Hannegan Pass, the Little Beaver is much more scenic with excellent views of the “wall of thousand falls,” Mount Challenger and the immense Challenger Glacier. Whatcom Pass itself is very small and shielded from most of the views, but a short walk above the pass in either direction reveals sweeping views. If flies, mosquitoes and brush are the price to pay, then it’s worth it. Ascending north from Whatcom Pass on a rugged use path, one enters the alpine zone complete with wildflower meadows and clumps of picturesque alpine firs with Challenger Glacier gleaming in the background. Cresting the ridge, a magical basin of alpine lakes is found. There are at least four lakes in the Tapto Lakes basin and the lake furthest West provides the best view in my opinion. To the east lie Middle Lakes and East Lakes, but from my experience the Tapto Lakes basin is the most scenic. While I spend most of my time in the high Sierra since I live in California, it’s always great to return to the range that inspired me as a youngster. I look forward to many more adventure in the North Cascades.