Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Occasional Trails: The Cougar Traverse

  • Name: The Cougar Traverse
  • Location: Pasayten Wilderness of northern Washington
  • Length: 242 miles
  • Best season: Mid-July to mid-October
  • Features: The longest wilderness route in the lower 48 states. A loop. No road crossings, no resupply, no backtracking.
  • Permits: (1) Ross Lake National Recreation Area camping (free), (2) U.S. Forest Service hiking (free), (3) Trailhead parking (Northwest Forest Pass).
  • Info at:

This trail might make you crazy with lust for the backcountry.

Along the western edge of Washington's Pasayten Wilderness is Ross Lake, a deep reservoir on the Skagit River, bounded in turn on its west by North Cascades National Park. Canada caps the north edge of the 50 mile wide, 20 mile deep, 530,031 acre wilderness. The last few miles of the Pacific Crest Trail live here.

If you count you'll find almost 150 peaks over 7,500 feet, and 160 bodies of water. Part of the new 1200 mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail calls this place home as well.

Green west-facing slopes covered by fir, cedar, and western hemlock butt up against sunny, dry, grassy-brown eastern slopes supporting pine and larch. Farther east you'll find large swaths of tundra with acre after acre of wildflowers.

Want to visit the largest population of lynx in the lower 48 states? Stop by. You might say hello to a grizzly too. Then there are mule deer and moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and possibly a stray cougar. Or gray wolf. No, really. Plus the typical marmots and hooting blue grouse.

You can even stumble across a few historical remnants. Like an odd long rectangle scraped clean by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s for a landing strip. Still visible. And resting quietly, the remains of a forgotten mine. A tungsten mine on Tungsten Creek. How the tons of equipment got there is something to wonder about.

To the west, 4400 feet above blue Ross Lake, is Desolation Peak. In 1956 writer Jack Kerouac spent a summer at the fire lookout there, inspired by poet Gary Snyder. The stay featured in two of Kerouac's works, "Desolation Angels" and "Dharma Bums", some of his best writing. Although this peak isn't on the route, no one will scold if you stop by.

In fact this isn't an official trail in any sense. Mike and Kristy Woodmansee created it and dropped it into their 2003 book "Trekking Washington" as a long challenge, far from anywhere else. Their difficulty rating is "toughest", as it would be if done in the recommended 10 days.

You can do that if you like or make your own route. There are many trails here and more than enough to see: Freezeout Lake, Elbow Basin, Big Face Creek, Joker Mountain, Devil's Park, Devil's Dome, Devil's Pass, Devil's Creek in the western half. Sound interesting? There's more to the east: Horseshoe Basin, Topaz Mountain, Cathedral Peak, Wolframite Mountain, Tungsten Lake.

And if you do this trip you'll find something else, the trail of 2006's Tripod Complex Fire, which erupted that July and burned through 175,000 acres before making a September exit into Canada where winter finally killed it. After a fight.

So, think you can have fun here?