Washington’s North Cascades, part of the Cascade Range, provide a bountiful array of riding opportunities. Composed of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the Pasayten Wilderness, and North Cascades National Park, the region offers millions of acres for exploration.
The North Cascades will satisfy any horseman’s hunger for an equine adventure, from riding your own horse to going on a pack trip to participating in a wagon train.
Bridge Creek Trail
Our introduction to the North Cascades was a ride on the Bridge Creek Trail portion of the famed Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Canada to Mexico. We rode our faithful Missouri Fox Trotters, Cowboy and Nate.
From Winthrop, Washington, we traveled west on the North Cascades Scenic Hwy. to the Bridge Creek trailhead, just before Rainy Pass.
The Bridge Creek Trail takes you through an exceptionally gorgeous area, with the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness and North Cascades National Park to the south, and the Pasayten Wilderness to the north.
This trail is easy to follow, as it travels down a large, wide valley following Bridge Creek. Within a couple of miles, we entered North Cascades National Park, where the surrounding mountains rise to nearly 8,000 feet and are crowned with active glaciers. However, down in the valley, where we rode, deep forests obscure the view of the mountains.
After our Pacific Crest Trail ride, we eased back on the North Cascades Hwy. and drove to the town of Twisp, 22 miles west, and on to the Twisp River Horse Camp, managed by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
This camp is for horse campers only. There are numerous campsites, most with pull-through spots. Campsites have picnic tables, campfire pits, feed bunkers, and highline setups.
Several trails radiate out from camp. Our first ride was along the Twisp River Trail, which follows the road and Twisp River, and accesses the North Lake Trail and Twisp Pass Trail.
En route, we visited the remains of the ghost town of Gilbert. From Gilbert, you can ride north about 4.5 miles to North Lake. A good place to picnic is a small meadow at the south end of this lake.
You can also ride west of Gilbert by following the trail to Twisp Pass, which marks the border of North Cascades National Park. The first two miles of this trail are fairly easy, but the last three miles gain elevation in the climb to the pass. Before you reach the pass, the trail will cross open, rocky areas. The pass has beautiful alpine views.
Another ride from camp is up South Creek to South Pass. It’s nearly eight miles to South Pass, which borders the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. From South Pass, you can see the North Cascades’ rugged peaks.
A shorter ride from camp, about five miles, is to Louis Lake. This small, scenic lake is crouched at the base of peaks that rise to 8,000 feet elevation.
For a wagon train adventure, join the annual Ride to Rendezvous, a five-day wagon trip hosted by the Washington Outfitters and Guides Association. You can bring a wagon or just a horse, and join about 100 hardy souls on a 70-mile route.
The route follows historic trails through the Methow Valley and into the historic village of Winthrop. Once in Winthrop, the association hosts its Packers’ Rendezvous, where packers and outfitters perform packing demonstrations, test their packing skills, and generally whoop it up!
Into the Wild
Just north of Twisp and Winthrop lies the Pasayten Wilderness Area. To feed a truly adventurous spirit, a horse-packing trip into this untrammeled wilderness is an experience of a lifetime.
This wilderness area covers more than a half-million acres. Bordering Canada, it has the largest lynx population in the contiguous United States and offers more than 600 miles of trails.
The western end of the Pasayten provides magnificent views of the stately Cascades, while the eastern end is noted for tundra-like alpine grasslands.
We’ve done two pack trips into the Pasayten Wilderness with our two saddle horses and one pack horse. It’s a thrill to ride in wilderness, knowing that when night falls, you’ll be camped right in the middle of it.
If you don’t have your own outfit, you can have a similar experience with Cascade Wilderness Outfitters. Steve and Jess Darwood are the real deal when it comes to packing in.
The Western Dream Ride, sponsored by the Olympic Back Country Horsemen of Washington, is well-named. We attended this three-day fundraising ride event at the Flying Horseshoe Ranch, which is located about 90 minutes from the Greater Seattle area on Interstate 90. The ride raises funds to maintain area trails.
We arrived at the ranch, parked and leveled our living-quarters trailer, and turned out Cowboy and Nate in a portable corral. Within a few minutes, Sue Sundahl, chairman of the ride committee, greeted us with a delectable slice of her 60th birthday cake. A perfect beginning for a dream ride!
The Flying Horseshoe Ranch is run by Penny Blackburn. Founded in 1904, it was purchased by Penny and George Blackburn in 1956. For 50 years, the ranch was a summer camp for children, where the focus was on fostering the love of horses, horsemanship, and much riding.
In 2002, the ranch became a year-round guest ranch. Penny also continues her first love, introducing trail riding to children. During our stay, we watched two groups of autistic children with ear-to-ear grins heading out on a trail ride.
During the ride, the ranch accommodations — which include cabins, bunkhouses, and tipi encampments — are half off. Most of the riders, like us, were parked in a large, flat field near the horse corrals.
For the ride, the Olympic BCHW rents the ranch facilities, provides five meals, holds a silent auction and raffle, arranges evening entertainment, and marks miles of trails.
For the Western Dream Ride, Jim Davis color-coded the trails on the nearby state recreational land. Jim, an enthusiastic Olympic BCHW member, led the introductory Friday evening ride. He’s an advocate for keeping trails open to trail riding.
The color-coded trail map was easy to read; riders could create their own trail loops. Most trails were old logging roads, along with some cross-country trails. Riders could easily go all day without worrying about getting lost.
Our first ride out of the ranch was on the Blue Trail, which ultimately led to the river. On our windy ride, the logging road swirled with dust and brittle, papery vegetation layered the ground, due to drought. This very easy trail, closed to motorized traffic, ended at the river.
After reaching the river, we tied up our horses, and found a good sitting log. Instead of a sandwich, the creative Olympic BCHW member who packed our lunch gave us a delicious chicken/cranberry wrap, thick, homemade, chocolate chunk cookie, chips, and fruit.
On our return trip, we followed the pink-and-white ribbon trail then veered onto the white trail. The white trail made a nice loop through a huge meadow where we had a grand view of the valley below. This trail was less dusty, even though trees were still dancing to wind’s rhythm.
On our second ride, we followed the yellow-and-orange ribbons to Lamby Lake, a small, brown lake in the throes of drying out. This entire area is in dire need of moisture. The leaves of bushes and trees are dust-covered and faded. A good rain is surely needed.
Continuing past Lamby Lake, the trail worked its way through stately stands of ponderosa pines intermixed with fir. The ribbons were easy to see, and the trail was gentle, lending itself to long stretches of easy gaiting. After eight miles or so, we were back at the Flying Horseshoe Ranch.
Sunday morning found us once again served a breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, and fruit. Then we attended a Cowboy Service, where we expressed gratitude for all our blessings. Afterward, everyone mingled, enjoying old and new friendships.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.
North Cascades Resource Guide
Cascade Wilderness Outfitters
Flying Horseshoe Ranch
North Cascades National Park
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
Olympic Back Country Horsemen of Washington
Washington Outfitters and Guides Association