Searching for the perfect base camp for backcountry adventures in Washington’s North Cascades (aka American Alps aka most heavily glaciated area in the lower 48)? The North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center located on the shores of Diablo Lake gets our vote. I had the chance to visit this summer – their college campus like setting comes complete with lodging, meals, library, store and learning programs. Not only is it the nicest place you’ll find in the area west of Mazama but it also happens to be located just 7 miles West of SR 20’s winter road closure gate at MP 134. See where we’re going with this? North Cascades’ SR 20 provides access to vast backcountry ski terrain beyond the winter closure gate which typically opens mid-April or May. When that happens, the closest place to rest your head will be Colonial Creek Campground at MP 30. It’s an awesome campground with year round sites on the shores of Diablo Lake as well but they don’t plow so there’s a good chance they’ll still be under snow when the road opens (more on Colonial Creek in “Note” below).
For those who prefer a lodge in the area: really, nothing comes close to North Cascades Environmental Learning Center which begins their season in early June. The non-profit North Cascades Institute operates the Center in partnership with the City of Seattle and the National Park Service. The campus which opened in 2005 features 16 NW styled buildings (think REI, contemporary NW ski lodges) above the north shore of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. Facilities include overnight lodging for up to 92 participants plus housing for graduate students and staff, a lakeside dining hall (serving up 3 hearty buffet style meals made daily from locally farmed ingredients), multimedia classrooms, a research library and aquatic and terrestrial labs, an amphitheater, outdoor learning shelters and trails leading into the surrounding wildlands and a dock on Diablo Lake for paddling adventures. Guest rooms are located in three lodges, each with shared gender-specific bathrooms with showers. Guest rooms contain four twin beds in a double bunkbed configuration, desk, cabinets, locker (bring your own lock or purchase one at the store). Guests can bring their own bedding and towels or rent them for $10 extra. Walls are thin so they provide ear plugs. During our stay, noise wasn’t a problem but those ear plugs might come in handy during a “Family Getaway” program when there are babies or toddlers. Overnight accommodations are for paid registrants only- no pets or unregistered guests. The room and board pricing includes a learning program and varies according to the program and sleeping arrangements – but pricing begins at $95 for a single shared room or double, $160; triple, $195; quad $230 – i.e. $58 per person per night for lodging, meals and program if sharing 4 to a room. A private single room is $125. There’re no additional taxes or fees (nice surprise). The library and dining hall are open 24/7 and the dining hall offers tea, coffee, fruit all day. The campus street lights go out at 11pm so bring a light to get around. I signed up with my family (3 generations) for the “Base Camp” program about Mountain Ecosystems. Since we attended during the week, there were only 3 other registered groups there who opted to do their own thing rather than participate in the program so we had the programs to ourselves. The programs are led by Western Washington U’s graduate students in Environmental Studies or the like. Each day, there was a morning, afternoon and evening program. The shuttle bus took us to trailheads where we hiked, learned about forestry, fauna, etc. and to tour local sites like the dam, powerhouse, waterfalls, etc. The field guides always had reference materials and were eager to teach, answer questions. On our last day, we signed up for the Skagit boat tour of Diablo Lake guided by a National Park Ranger – the tour fee includes lunch at the Center ($30.00 adults $15.00 youth 12 & under $27.00 seniors 62 & older). Take a look at our pictures below and visit ncascades.org for more info.
To get to the Center from Seattle, take Interstate 5 North to exit 230, North Cascades Highway/State Route 20 East. Drive 65 miles to Diablo Dam Road, milepost 127.5. Turn left, drive over Diablo Dam, turn right and park at the end of the road in the lot. If you’re unloading or loading, you can drive up through the gate to the main office or guest lodges but overnight parking is at the lot, a few minutes walk downhill. Estimated time from Seattle: 3 hrs, Bellingham: 2 hrs, Sedro-Woolley: 1.5 hrs.
About NCI: North Cascades Institute (non-profit) seeks to inspire closer relationships with nature through direct experiences in the natural world. Their mission is to conserve and restore Northwest environments through education. Since 1986, they have helped connect people, nature and community through science, art, literature and the hands-on study of the natural and cultural history of the Pacific Northwest. Their programs include: Mountain School (residential environmental education for students), Summer adventures for youth, Natural and cultural history retreats and field excursions, a M.Ed. Graduate degree in environmental education and nonprofit leadership in partnership with Western Washington University, Base Camp for flexible, affordable lodging and learning adventures, Group programs, conferences and retreats at the Learning Center, Family Getaway weekends, Skagit Tours, Special community events featuring natural history and humanities and more.
Note about Colonial Creek Campground: if you’re looking for winter camping to get the closed, snow covered SR 20 roads and slopes all to yourselves, this campground is the place to be. Skiing and snowmobiling on the closed road is totally legal by the way. It’s closed only to licensed motor vehicles per WSDOT. The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service lands along the highway are open to the public year-round which means that skiers, boarders and snowshoers can venture past the road closure gates all winter long. However, check with the NW Avalanche Center because the road has some serious avalanche zones. Also, be mindful that when WSDOT begins clearing the road each spring: they work four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday so leave them to do their thing and wait until Friday-Sundays.