Thunder Creek Trail Hike and Camping at Newhalem

hiking with children, colonial creek campground,
Thunder Creek Trailhead, North Cascades National Park

Summer has officially arrived here in Washington.  It’s time to get out there and soak up as much of the mountains as we can before the gloom descends in the autumn and we have to wait 9 more months.  We had some time to make a longer drive the Friday after the Fourth of July holiday, so we were able to get up to the North Cascades and explore a new (to us) trail.  Aaron worked from home Friday to see us off, and suggested that since we were getting a bit of a late start and it was a long drive, perhaps we should take our camping gear along in case we were too tired to drive home.  That turned out to be a good idea, and I was grateful to have his blessing for the possibility.

We drove Hwy 20 in warm sunshine, stopping at the ranger station in Sedro-Woolley and at the picnic area at the Newhalem Campground.  We had a very quick lunch there; unfortunately it was just long enough for both my kids to step in dog poo. We did appreciate the running water available to clean them off.

It was only a bit farther to the Thunder Creek trailhead from there. We pulled all the way to the back of the South Loop of the Colonial Creek Campground to the trailhead parking – it was full, but there was a car pulling out, so we were lucky to get a spot.  It was 2:00 by the time we got on the trail.  The lowest energy time for my kids when we hike.  Annika wanted a snack before we were 10 minutes along.  I made her wait till we had walked for half an hour.  We enjoyed the dark shade and the huge trees, the lush growth and the sound of Thunder Creek nearby.

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Goofballs on the trail
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Lush ferns
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Giant trees and giant rocks

After a snack of trail mix and jelly beans, the kids picked up the pace, and we made good time to our planned stopping point, Thunder Creek Camp, 1.8 miles from the trailhead.  We had to take a minute to try to figure things out, because the map showed the bridge crossing a bit earlier, and this bridge was right at the Thunder Creek camp.  We figured that’s what the guidebook was talking about when it explained about the new section of trail and the new bridge, and then I remembered seeing concrete pilings in the river a ways back, and it all made sense.

hiking with kids, north cascades,
Thunder Creek Bridge

The camp was vacant, so we plopped our stuff down and took a little rest.  We had carried our sandals in the hopes of playing in the water there, but the “creek” was filling the entire bed, a powerful slate grey river that had no safe spots to wade.

thunder creek camp, north cascades
Roaring Thunder

So we sat and ate and had our water.  Gabe got out his knife to whittle, and Annika pretended in that fantastical imaginary way of hers.

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Gabe whittling

We saw one little chipmunk, but otherwise the forest was pretty quiet as the afternoon sun sunk behind the towering gorge walls.   We all felt pretty good and could have hiked up to the next camp if it had been earlier in the day, but with our late start, we thought it best to call it good.

kids hiking, thunder creek camp, north cascades
You are here!

I set up my PLB to test it again and to send my husband a text letting him know we made it to our destination.  It got a good signal to get the GPS coordinates, but it took about 20 minutes for it to send off the text.  It doesn’t like deep gorges for signal strength.  But eventually the message got through.

Two gals came up with overnight packs, and we let them have the camp to themselves.   It was a quick trip back down the trail.

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Looking downriver

The kids have good speed when they put their minds to it.  They played a game like the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, taking turns inventing adventures for the other to take.  This kept them happy and uncomplaining for the hike back. Mosquitos were out on this hike, but not too bad.

washington native plants, thunder creek north cascades
Rattlesnake Plantain
thunder creek
Robin nest – the occupant was noisily protesting our intrusion
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Almost back to the campground

After our hike we went up to the Diablo Lookout.

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Looking west from Diablo lookout
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Looking southwest toward Thunder Knob and Colonial Creek
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It’s windy!

It was super windy up there – the wind made an eerie howling noise, and blew the squawking ravens off course.  One of the ravens was banded – we wondered who was banding them and what they are researching.  At that point we had a decision to make.  Did we make the long drive home that evening, or find a spot to stay for the night at Newhalem?  It was dinner time and I knew it would be an hour for me to get the stove out and cook us up some grub, my eyes were drooping, and I was running low on gumption.  So my kids were thrilled that I decided to go back down to the Newhalem Campground and find a spot for the night.

On our way back down we stopped briefly at the overlook for the waterfall that comes off the side of the road.  It’s a long way down under that bridge!

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Waterfall
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On the bridge – don’t lean out too far!

When we drove through earlier in the day I was really surprised to see that only about half the spots were taken on this long holiday weekend.  They were nicer and more private than I expected, too.  A few more folks had pulled in while we were hiking, but we had no problem snagging a nice spot in the B Loop.  The kids helped me set up the tent on the sandy tent pad and I hooked the stove up for heating water for dinner.

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Our tent held down by rocks on the sandy tent pad

Unfortunately, in my last-minute haste to add the camping gear, I had forgotten the Coleman 2-burner stove at home.  All I had was my little Pocket Rocket and a half-used small isopro canister.  I hoped it would be enough fuel to cook dinner and the next morning’s breakfast.

We managed to cobble together a dinner from the random food I had tossed in the food bin, and Gabe helped me clean up quickly while Annika tried to set things out in the tent.  Then we went down to the amphitheater in Loop A for a ranger program that evening.  It was about wolves in the North Cascades, and was interesting and thought-provoking.  While the ranger was talking, nighthawks began making their weird ‘cheeping’ noise above us as they hunted the dusky sky.  We also saw bats flitting above, though they didn’t seem to be making much of a dent in the mosquito population!

On our way back to camp, Annika alerted us to an owl that swooped down to our level and flew along the road right in front of us.  What a thrill that was!  We went straight to bed, as it was getting pretty late and we were all tired.  It was so warm we were almost too hot in our sleeping bags.

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Our campsite

The next morning we had breakfast (there was just enough fuel for coffee and cocoa!) and packed up in time to hit another ranger program in camp.

mammals, north cascades, park rangers, kids in nature
Skull replicas

This one was about all kinds of forest ecology topics – skulls and types of teeth on mammals, trees and other woodland plants, birds and bugs, and a bit of history and Native American tales.

north cascades national park, newhalem campground
The kids learning from the park ranger

We walked a little way on the trail near the amphitheater.  There are several loops and nature trails you can take in and around the campground, making for multiple options for a sweet little stroll if you’re staying there.

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Annika in a burned-out cedar tree

The kids all got their Jr. Ranger badges for participating.

Then we drove up to the Ranger Station (you can also walk there on trails, but we were going to be heading out after that) to check out the interpretive displays.  We didn’t go in there last time we were here to hike.

newhalem visitor center, north cascades national park
Ham and Eggs

I was pleasantly surprised, there was lots to see inside, cleverly presented.  We had fun finding animal foot prints, discovering all kinds of creatures that live in the park, and learning a bit about history.  My kids were excited to find out that flying squirrels live in the park.

The last thing we did before we headed home was to make a visit to Ladder Falls.  We parked in front of the Gorge Powerhouse, just as the road makes the curve and heads out of town.

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The Gorge Powerhouse

There are signs marking the trail.  We didn’t see those at first, though, and followed some other folks across the left bridge over to the Powerhouse.  There was a lovely garden behind it, and steps and a trail meandering up the hillside.  We could see people over on the other side, so we kept walking and eventually met up with the main trail that most people take to see the falls.

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Ladder Creek Falls

They were loud and misty, and lowered the temperatures nicely in the hot afternoon air.  It was neat to see the glacial water tumbling down through the narrow clefts in the hillside.

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Ladder Creek Falls 2

The main path is paved and there are several benches to rest on.  The trail we had come in on went through gardens that the original guy who oversaw the building of the dam and powerhouse put in when everything was built.  He apparently used to have heated the ground somehow, so he could grow tropical plants.  You can still see speakers on trees from his project of bringing in music and lights for people viewing the falls.  There were signs around the Newhalem area saying they refurbished and upgraded the colored lights that shine at night on the falls, but we didn’t have the energy to see them Friday night.  Well, we always have to have something to come back and see next time!

newhalem, north cascades, ladder creek falls
Suspension bridge

We enjoyed the falls, and walked the short distance back to the car over the smaller suspension bridge.  That is the more direct route.  Then it was a long drive home.  Thankfully the weather was beautiful, and we made good time and had no problems on the way home to my husband who was happy to see us.

If you go: 

Read about the Thunder Creek trail on WTA’s site.

Find out more info about the Newhalem Campground.

Read more about the variety of short trails in the Newhalem area.

4 Responses to Thunder Creek Trail Hike and Camping at Newhalem

  1. Hi! Love your photos and blog. I’m going here at the end of the month with a friend. We’re both from the East Coast and aren’t sure if we should stay at Newhalem or Colonial Creek. Any suggestions?

    • People like both campgrounds for different reasons. Colonial Creek is on the water, and you can get campsites close to the shore of the lake if you are lucky. Of course, the Thunder Creek trail starts right at the campground. The Thunder Knob trail is also there. Personally we don’t care for that campground, as the sites are pretty close together and the trees make it really dark in many spots. The sites on the north side of the highway seemed better than the south, though. But whenever we drive through there in the summer, it’s pretty full, so I guess lots of folks find it fits their taste.

      Newhalem has more privacy between sites. We thought it was prettier, too. Some of the sites are kind of closed in by shrubs, but we liked the separation of a lot of them. Of the 3 in the area, Newhalem is our favorite.

      Hope this helps! Have a great trip, it’s a gorgeous area.

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