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Ross Lake: Rugged, isolated, beautiful, and most of all, ignored by tourists

By on April 22, 2019 in Outdoor Fun with 4 Comments
Colonial Peak, North Cascades National Park: The first night was spent at its base at Colonial Peak Creek Campground.

Story and Photos 


“Cougar Island? Where is that?” asked Fernando, on the phone from Vancouver, British Columbia.

“It is in Ross Lake,” I answered from Wenatchee, Washington. “We’ll meet you at Colonial Creek Campground, which is in the middle of North Cascades National Park, but is not part of the National Park, but the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. We will leave you a written note at the entrance of the campground so you can find us.”

Navigating the North Cascades National Park can be confusing for the non-initiated. After nearly 30 years in Colorado, I moved with my family to Washington State to be close to this park. 

Rugged, isolated, beautiful, and most of all, ignored by tourists. It is considered one of the least visited of all National Parks (25,000 visitors per year compared to 4,200,000 per year in Yellowstone). 

A well defined trail connects Highway 20 parking area to the actual Ross Lake Dam.

Many of those visitors actually go to the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas that are not part, administratively, of the North Cascades National Park. 

Most of North Cascades is designated Wilderness Area, so roads, bike trails, Park Rangers houses, gas stations and visitor’s centers are forbidden. They won’t even charge you an admission fee. 

We also invited our two sons, Carlos Luis, coming from Colorado and Carlos Eduardo, from California, to join us, making for a team of six. None of us had been at Ross Lake before, although all of us had experience exploring rivers in the Amazon basin. We felt ready for the task.

Around 11 p.m., Fernando Mora and his wife Claudia Fraser, arrived at the campground. Fernando had been a hang gliding partner when we were growing up in Venezuela. Hang gliding led to caving, climbing, Amazon expeditions and a close friendship.

As the wind chill factor worsened, it was time to warm up and spend the late afternoon sharing old hang gliding stories.

 “Fernando y Claudia, ¿tienen hambre? (are you hungry?),” asked Mirza, my wife, while warming up in our gasoline Coleman stove, meat with red peppers, onions, champignons and paprika, knowing in advance the answer. 

During that night, I kept wondering if my decision of renting three canoes to transport all of us — plus food and camping equipment — was a wise one. Except for my experience with makiritare curiaras in the Amazon 40 years ago and a recent visit to a Canadian lake, my experience with actual canoes was limited. Two owls maintained a vivid conversation close to our tents and finally I fell asleep.

In the morning while Mirza and Fernando prepared sandwiches and coffee for all of us, we dismantled the camp and loaded the cars with our backpacks. It was 6 a.m., still dark, cold and rainy. 

We drove east on Highway 20, passed the Diablo Lake overlook and reached a parking area at the start of a trail that descends to the dam of the Skagit River. An unpaved road connects the Diablo Lake to the Ross Lake. 

Because the Ross Lake is a National Recreation Area, private businesses are allowed. 

The Ross Lake Resort (we took this information from their internet site) is open from mid-June to October 31. They have individual cabins and bunk houses, they rent canoes and motorboats. Each canoe cost $42 plus tax. Reservations can be made at (206) 386-4437. 

As far as I know it is the only business of this kind in the whole Ross Lake. 

We found a young couple walking the road transporting supplies and a canoe from Diablo Lake to Ross Lake but not using the services of the resort. We gave them a hand with their load and wished them well. 

There is a phone near on the south shore of the lake we used to let the resort know we were waiting for them. In a few minutes, a powerboat arrived and all of us were transported to the actual resort on the north shore of the lake.

Wilmer Perez’s two sons — Carlos Luis and Carlos Eduardo — explore the surroundings of Cougar Island while the wind was calm.

We were warned to keep an eye on the sudden winds that come over the lake and that can make navigation quite difficult (as we found out the next morning). 

The canoes turned out to be very stable and we could accommodate all our equipment with no difficulty. 

After some discussion we decided to spend the night at an island called Cougar. My wife was concerned with the activity of bears prior to winter and an island sounded pretty safe. 

Ross Lake is about 20 miles long. Cougar Island was only about 1.7 miles away from the dam. The wind over the lake was pretty mellow and our paddling turned out fairly efficient. These are the last two weeks of activity of the resort (end of October 2018) so we saw minimal tourist activity. 

We had obtained a backcountry permit from the Ranger Station in Winthrop the day before. This permit is mandatory to spend the night in any place at Ross Lake or any portion of the wilderness areas. 

They won’t give it to you on the phone. You have to be present at the station to get it. Proof of backcountry registration was requested at the resort. 

Once camped at Cougar Island, we decided to accept the challenge of rowing with increasing wind speed in the early afternoon. It was coming from the west. 

Trying our best efforts, we could not advance more than half a mile against it. That was a warning to be ready to deal with the next morning. So, we turned back to the island to set our camp, eat and do some photography. 

We set the alarms at 6 a.m. and, despite the apparent good weather, we dismantled our camp and started loading the canoes, keeping a close eye on the wind. 

Eventually we got back to the Ross Lake resort, wet and cold, but happy. 

We were transported to the south side of the lake, walked up the trail, reached our cars, Fernando and Claudia left to Vancouver and we went back to Wenatchee.

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There Are 4 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Enchanting story of a family group, with adventures, expectations of bears, navigation type amazonica and camp included

  2. Mike says:

    Just returned from a week of fishing and boating on Ross Lake. Amazingly beautiful area! And yes the afternoon winds seem to kick up every afternoon and settle down as evening comes. I will return again!

  3. Ang says:

    Can you tell me more about Cougar Island? I am interested in taking my 3 kids there to camp. I was also thinking of no bear activity, like your wife! I camped at Big Beaver 20 years ago and there were bears. Was the island windy? Thank you!

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