Ross Dam Trail: North Cascades National Park


After a day of driving along Washington Route 20, and stopping to take photos in small towns and overlooks, I was anxious to finally find a trail to hike.  The Ross Dam Trail seemed like a good option: not too long (about a mile, one way), and it actually ended at an interesting destination: Ross Dam, the third in the series of dams along the Skagit River, providing electricity to Seattle.

The trail begins at a parking area, along the side of Washington Route 20.  During my visit, the parking lot was almost full, but the trail was almost empty — which probably means at least some of the people were using the trail to access the Ross Lake Resort, a secluded retreat that requires visitors hike or boat in.

The only downside to this trail is, it’s downhill all the way, which of course means later on, you’ll be huffing and puffing uphill, to get back to your car.  Aside from the elevation loss and gain, it’s a nice walk through the woods at first…

… and it even passes a small waterfall along the way, which provides a good place to take a break.

Keep heading downhill…

… and before long, you’ll start to hear the sounds of Ross Dam.  A break in the forest gives you the chance to look down at your destination from above.  It looks so close, yet there’s still a good bit of hiking remaining.

Eventually, the trail emerges from the woods and joins a rough gravel road…

… and then that road reaches an intersection.  Make the turn around the hairpin curve…

… and you’re almost at the dam.  It almost feels like you’re some place where you shouldn’t be, but don’t worry, you’re allowed to wander out onto the dam.

Ross Dam is 540 feet high.  Construction began on the first phase of the project in 1937, and the dam reached its current height (at the end of the third phase of construction) in 1949, though it didn’t generate any electricity until 1954.

A fourth phase was planned, which would have raised the dam to 665 feet, and flooded land well into British Columbia (the current height formed a lake that reaches only a couple of miles over the Canadian border).  The waffle-shape on the front of the dam was put in place to allow that extra height.  But, due to environmental concerns, the fourth phase was never completed.

The intake towers are located just above the dam, on Ross Lake.

Afternoon isn’t the best time to capture a photo, looking west from the top of the dam.  But, despite the glare from the sun, you can see that there are some pretty impressive mountain peaks in the area.  The highest peak you see is likely Pinnacle Peak, which tops out above 7,200 feet.

Looking east, you can just barely make out the floating cabins at Ross Lake Resort.  If you’re staying there, and you’ve hiked all this way, you should call the resort (using a pay phone at the end of the dam) and a boat will come to pick you up.

In the middle of the dam, there isn’t much to do, but take pictures in either direction, and hold onto your hat — it was quite breezy in the middle, during my visit.

When you’ve rested up and mentally prepared for the return hike uphill, head back the way you came.

On the return trip, I took a moment to admire this old boat (a tugboat, maybe?), which has inexplicably been left aground, at the side of the trail.  I can’t see any way that the water would have been this high, since at this point, I was well above the top of the dam — so it must have been left here, for some reason.

Enjoy the uphill slog!

The Ross Dam Trail was as far east as I ventured on Washington Route 20.  After finishing the hike, I backtracked on Route 20, eventually ending in Bellingham for the night.

Earlier drafts of my vacation plan included an extra day or two in the North Cascades National Park area.  The plan extended my trip down to Chelan, at the foot of Lake Chelan.  If you have a day to spare, there’s a nice cruise that will take you up Lake Chelan to the remote resort town of Stehekin for the day, allowing you to hike in the area, before making the return trip (you can also spend the night in Stehekin).  If you do continue further, you could turn this route into a loop trip, making the return to Seattle via US-2.  I covered this route, including a stop in Leavenworth, on Day 1 of this trip.

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