Tuesday, October 2, 2012

North Cascades Institute Getaway: Great Hiking, Fab Food, and an Environmental Ethos

With more than a half a dozen weekend trips already to the North Cascades Institute's Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake, I'm clearly a fan.  

Besides the tasty, locally sourced meals and beautiful mountain lakeside setting, many other things make the "ELC" a special place. Like the laid back staff (no city stress on their faces), earnest college interns, interesting fellow visitors, and the comfy LEED-certified campus that blends harmoniously with its setting at the base of Sourdough Mountain on the edge of North Cascades National Park.

This past weekend a friend and I were there for a Sourdough Speaker event, where visitors can get a taste of the place (literally and figuratively) with an overnight stay and guest speaker.

We arrive at the center mid-afternoon on Saturday after a leisurely 3-hour drive from Seattle along backroads past Darrington and Rockport, then up the upper Skagit River Valley. Before dinner we get settled in the spacious Pine building on campus and go explore the Sourdough Creek trail through the forest behind the ELC.

Sourdough Creek Trail
Early fall in this subalpine locale is cranking up, but we're still mostly ahead of the real fall colors.  

Vine maple on the ELC campus

At least once a season the Sourdough Speaker series features regional chefs, wild food foragers, or farmers who focus on eating sustainably within our local foodsheds. Edible Seattle magazine editor Jill Lightner and Skagit Valley organic Blue Heron Farm owner Anne Schwartz are on hand this Saturday evening to discuss local farm and food policies in our state.

But beforehand as we're gathered in the dining hall, NCI Chef Shelby Slater enthusiastically describes our meal.  

"Your dinner tonight was sourced 98 percent locally," he says, then describes the honey lavendar goat cheese from the Methow Valley and the grass-fed beef, line-caught salmon, and fruit and veggies from Skagit Valley farms. 

The man is as giddy as a kid when he talks of working with local producers and growers.  His passion shines through in our splendid feast.

Usually I'm a bit of a night owl, but tonight sleep comes much earlier than normal in the quiet of a mountain night. I wake up before sunrise, refreshed and free of my usual morning dragginess, and go for a walk down along the lake.

Breaking dawn, Diablo Lake

While there is a naturalist-led hike planned after breakfast as part of the weekend event, we opt instead to hike the Diablo Lake trail from the ELC property to the base of Ross Lake Dam. The current ELC does owe its existence partly to Seattle City Light, which funded much of the facility construction as mitigation for its Skagit Dam hydroelectric project permit renewal.

Don't let the name "Diablo Lake" trail fool you. It's not really a lakeside trail. While much of the fairly mellow trail meanders through forest and over old rockslides well above the lake, we finally catch some spectacular views of the surrounding peaks and the lake/former river canyon far below, over a mile from the ELC.

Pyramid Peak
Pyramid Peak and Diablo Lake

Vehicles being barged up Skagit River Canyon
Instead of hiking all the way down to the suspension bridge just below the base of the dam, we turn around about 1.5 miles into the hike. Three miles is about all we have time for today with a several-hour drive home ahead.

With reluctance, we pack up and head back to the city. But it's always hard for me to leave this place, the North Cascades, and the heady scent of forest and mountain sunshine. 

I'll be back.

How about you? Have you participated in any NCI programs? We'd love to hear about your experience there in the comments below.

When You Go 
There are several more great weekends coming up this fall at the ELC.  Check out their schedule here. Here are directions to NCI from both the west and east side of the Cascade Mountains. Also know that the fee you pay for these programs partially funds the Mountain School environmental education programs for local grade school kids from around the region.

If you'd like to see a few photos of the buildings and learn a little more about it's mission, click here to a blog post I wrote about NCI a few years ago.



Anonymous said...

Your blog is wonderful!

Ivan said...

I've heard about this place and would love to get up there sometime. Thanks for the tour, Jill!

Erin said...

Thanks Jill, this place looks incredible!
I'm already looking at the course catalogue...

jill said...

Hey Erin, yes, it's a incredible place with a wonderful mission to educate and inspire.

Ivan, you should make the trip north. Better yet, contact them about perhaps teaching some of their program offerings! I think you'd be a great fit there. I thought of you when I sat at dinner with a youngish associate profesor of forest ecology from University of Idaho. He was staying at NCI for a few days solo to focus on writing an academic paper.

Lisa Osse said...

Your food pictures are making me drool! I will definitely check out their program when I'm back in the area!

M said...

We just drove through the North Cascades last weekend...and I looked down and wondered where the Institute was exactly, now I know - thanks! I didn't realize they had such good hikes too.

mab said...

Hi -- I now know that they have great hikes at the Institute - I've driven by so many times and never have stopped.

Unknown said...

Jill, your stories and locations are beautiful. Since I have some experience hiking (I know it was a while ago), I know of your love of the outdoors and it shows. Additionally, your photography is simply breath-taking and brings back many great memories. Love your work Jill.
Keep it up!

jill said...

Thanks to the most recent commenter, I so appreciate the feedback on the blog and hearing that others enjoy it. And I strive to share my passion for the outdoors and this region so other can appreciate and protect also.