NORTH CASCADES INSTITUTE: A DREAM EXPERIENCE FOR NATURE LOVERS
ITINERARY LOCATION: Diablo, WA, off Route 20 and part of the “Mountain Loop Highway.”
To escape the City in search of beautiful mountain scenery and interactive experiences to ignite the biologist, naturalist, adventurer in each one of us. Our family scheduled this as a two-day excursion before continuing Eastward to Winthrop’s Sun Mountain Lodge.
At 1,200 feet elevation nestled among the “American Alps,” the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center sits on the shore of Lake Diablo. The mountain scenery is a breathtaking backdrop for Lake Diablo, which is typically a surreal bright green color that is created by “glacial flour” melt from 30+ glaciers. The LEED-certified Environmental Learning Center campus, is comfortable, beautiful and gracefully tucked into the surrounding landscape.
Adults or families, and especially anyone who packs a field guide, camera or art materials in the backpack for hikes.
There are many favorite aspects of this magical place. Here are just a few:
Flexibility. There is a wide range of experience offerings. They range from specific classes on topics like dragonflies, wildlife photography and tracking, hunting for culinary mushrooms; to structured family weekends designed to appeal to kids; to an option called “basecamp.” Basecamp allows groups or individuals to pay a daily rate that allows them to take in the experience at their own pace, and includes 3 meals and guided activities.
Anyone who is a nature lover will absolutely lose themselves in the public nature library, featuring floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with books on everything from trees, flowers, mammals, insects, birds and amphibians. It is a free, sharing library. Guests of the Institute can take books back to their room for perusing. My family took stacks of books back and forth during our entire two-day visit.
Yoga in the forest. Each morning, yoga classes are held in a room with huge windows looking out to the forest. There might not be a better way to start the day.
Fresh, local food is cooked from scratch and served buffet-style three times a day in the lakeside dining hall. Although the eating schedule puts structure around the day’s events, including an early breakfast time, once you rise and stroll around the grounds and indulge in delicious home-cooked food, you forget that you are eating on a schedule.
Nightly campfires provide an opportunity for all to interact, share stories about their experiences and sing. The weekend my family was there, my husband, Tim, and daughter, Bella, brought a “lake worm” that they caught in a bucket to the campfire, where one of the staff biologists then proceeded to study and identify the worm with Bella. After about 30 minutes of research in the nature resource library, Bella and the staff biologist returned to the campfire to give us all a presentation on their findings before they put the worm back into the lake. This was a very positive learning experience for all! Minutes after the fireside worm presentation, that same staff biologist was strumming the camp guitar while tweens and teens requested songs and then accompanied her with lyrics. A few minutes later, several other staff biologists and dads were beat-boxing! The nightly campfires are not to be missed.
The lodge-style rooms are like luxury dorms, with four bunks, a very nice shared public restroom and shower facility. A few things to note: you have to bring your own bedding (sleeping bag, pillow, etc.), if you choose to stay with the “basecamp” option and your party is smaller than four people, you could be paired up with other people to fill a bunk room, and they do not serve alcohol in the dining hall, but you can bring your own and consume it inside the room.
IF YOU GO
- ABILITY TO UNPLUG RATING: High! The remote location cannot support cell coverage. There are wireless routers throughout the campus, in cases of dire need.
- Winter weather makes the trek to the North Cascades Institute impossible, so it is only open spring, summer and fall.
- Marblemount is 20 miles West of the Institute and is the last place to stop for gas. The small town of Newhalem is 8 miles West of the Institute and has a convenient store and playground.
- There is a gravel path that is a long walk from the parking lot to the Institute office and lodge rooms. Try and pack smart so that you do not have to make two trips to the car.
- SURROUNDING AREA: Consider taking the Seattle City Light boat tour on Lake Diablo to learn about how the dam helps capture energy, or tour the town of Newhalem, rich in hydro-power history. Reservations recommended. There are links for Skagit tours on the Institute’s website.
- The town of Rockport, along route 20, has a few charming restaurants if you are looking for a meal on your way to or from the Institute, but that is the last place to find dining and gas. One of our personal favorites is the Buffalo Run Restaurant. It has a shaded patio and a woodland garden path that is great for stretching your legs. Closer to the Institute, the tiny town of Newhalem has a convenient store and playground.
- Cascadia Farm is a dreamy place to stop on your way back from the Institute if you are heading West on route 20. They have “u-pick” blueberries and raspberries, ice cream and a restroom.
- TRAVEL TIME FROM SEATTLE: 3 hours Northeast, via route 20.