Beaks and Bills
Birding and Camping in Early Winters Country
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 150 articles for Whatcom Watch.
The idea of a quick dash over the mountains to surprise a family gathering at Pearrygin Lake in mid-June was cut short by the record-setting heat. Those in the family gathering pulled up stakes and came back to the cooler side, so there was no one for us to surprise. That was okay with us since triple-digit heat does not make for a great camping experience. As uncomfortable as winter camping might be, I prefer it to the hot weather variety. We had no problem adjusting to our decision to stay home, but I must say that I was a bit disappointed to miss a chance to see some of the high country flora and fauna just over the Cascade Crest in Okanogan County.
On previous trips over the North Cascades Highway, I’ve had the opportunity to discover and explore some of the best places in Washington State to observe a wide variety of mountain birds. The lure of the drier side of the Cascades becomes more apparent as soon as the snow has been cleared over Washington Pass. For many who live on the west side of the mountains, the first spring trip over the pass is an annual celebration of sorts. It usually means that another winter is behind us. The timing is usually perfect for birdwatchers, too, since many of the higher elevation birds are beginning their breeding cycles.
The best plan to maximize your chances of finding good birds is to first locate a good place to camp. There are three campgrounds that come to mind whenever we make the first trip over the mountains after the snowplows have cleared the way. Just over the pass and perfectly spaced along Early Winters Creek are three excellent campgrounds for establishing a base camp. While I have my preference of the three, they’re all good. They’re always clean and have few amenities, but what more do you need besides potable water and clean toilets? The three are all Forest Service campgrounds and reservations are not available. Even though they operate on a first-come-first-served basis, sites are usually available. The reasonable rates are a reflection of the bare-bones nature of these campgrounds.
Lone Fir is the first campground below the pass as you head east. At 3,600’ above sea level and depending on the previous winter’s snowfall, the opening of this compact campground might be delayed if the sites are still covered by snow. Of the three campgrounds, the higher elevation of Lone Fir makes it the best place for crossbills, pine grosbeaks, Clark’s nutcrackers, and the ubiquitous gray jays. There are trails to explore along Early Winters Creek and Lone Fir is close enough to the Cutthroat Lake Trail if a day trip is in order.
The overnight destination we had planned in June is one you’ve read about before in this column – Klipchuck Campground. This is the second campground along Early Winters Creek and my personal favorite. We had never stopped to give this campground a second look until just a few years ago. We left that day with plans to return as soon as possible. This hidden gem has since become a favorite for a number of reasons. It’s quite simple and has none of the perks that many campers find to be necessities, like electric hookups, showers and flush toilets.
Klipchuck sits right at 2,900’ above sea level, and the birds that you find are difficult to find anyplace else. Klipchuck is known for its woodpeckers, flycatchers, hummingbirds and warblers. Among the woodpecker species I’ve found are northern flickers, pileated, downy and hairy woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers and the not so common Williamson’s sapsuckers. Calliope and rufous hummingbirds abound, along with evening grosbeaks, Cassin’s finches, pine siskins and Swainson’s and hermit thrushes. Chipping sparrows, gray flycatchers and Townsend’s warblers are special treats as well.
In addition to the great birds, this campground has one of the largest concentrations of deer I’ve ever seen. In springtime, many fawns can be seen browsing alongside the adults, and one magnificent ten-point buck strolled through my campsite on one visit. As spectacular as the wildlife is, wildflowers and magnificent trees demand your attention. Some of the largest Ponderosa pine trees are found throughout the grounds. If the campground activities are a little slow, a good day hike for fresh air and exercise is the Driveway Butte Trail. Since this is a south-facing slope, be sure to take lots of water.
Early Winters Campground rounds out this campground trio with sites available on both sides of Highway 20. Even though this campground is closest to the highway, the creek is usually noisy enough to provide the perfect buffer. Easy trails allow for meandering, and one connects to the same Driveway Butte Trail from Klipchuck. At an elevation of 2,200,’ this campground is free of snow sooner than the two farther up the road.
While these three Forest Service campgrounds have all you need for a great camping experience, numerous options are available. For the more adventurous traveler who prefers to be farther away from the main highway, there is a special place that sits right on the line between Whatcom and Okanogan Counties. Hart’s Pass is a wonderful destination if you want to leave most of the world behind. From Mazama it’s a long, sometimes precarious climb that tests the mettle and desire of anyone. Fires in recent years have left parts of the long approach to the upper meadows looking like a surreal landscape. Rockslides have created obstacles that require good nerves to drive over and around. No guard rails and steep drop-offs add to the excitement.
The second half of the climb is much less of the white-knuckle driving and once you get to the high meadows around the pass and below Slate Peak, the real adventure begins. Hiking is first-rate at Hart’s Pass and a trek to the summit of Slate Peak is a must. From the ridge you have wide views of the expanse of the Pasayten Wilderness, a roadless area of more than a half-million acres. Keep an eye out for mountain bluebirds, mountain goats and marmots in the meadows. Incidentally, this is one of the best places in Washington to observe raptor migration in the fall.
While you’re enjoying your time away from the crowds, keep in mind that Winthrop is close enough for quick day trips and resupply runs. And if you feel the need, a hearty breakfast meal might be the antidote for a week behind the cook stove. Then, as soon as you’ve had enough of the crowds, head back to the mountains where the breathing is easier. A little perspective goes a long way.