For a user-friendly backcountry trip, combine camping with boating on Ross Lake

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1 of 7 From the boat launch at Diablo Lake pictured here, many Ross Lake visitors catch a ferry to the truck portage that eventually takes you to Ross Lake. This route allows visitors traveling with heavy gear such as coolers to access the lake. (Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)
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2 of 7 Canoe campers pass under the footbridge along the East Bank Trail after exploring Lightning Creek canyon. (Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)
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3 of 7 The author’s campsite at Rainbow Point, one of only three sites at this campground, reserved 24 hours in advance. The spot features lake views in two directions and plenty of trees from which to hang a hammock. (Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)
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4 of 7 Nothing says summer like jumping into a clean mountain lake on a hot day. Amanda Gatlin takes the plunge while 3-year-old Ian Gatlin watches from the Little Beaver campground. (Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)
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5 of 7 A camper at Little Beaver campground tries his hand at fishing for trout just a few steps from his campsite. (Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)
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6 of 7 Guests at Ross Lake Resort enjoy their morning coffee with a view of the North Cascades. Ross Lake Dam and Ruby Mountain can be seen in the background. The floating cabins are built atop some of the trees that once supported a floating logging camp used by crews logging in the valley when the valley flooded around 1952. Ross Lake Resort is the major launching point for campers — especially those renting boats. ( Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)
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7 of 7 Visitors aboard rental motor boats explore the narrow confines of Devil’s Creek. The steep canyon walls are so tight that in some places it’s only wide enough for two boats. (Jeff Layton / Special to The Seattle Times)

It's just complicated enough to keep the crowds away, but still doable as a great non-digital family experience.

The narrow slot canyon on the edge of Ross Lake was just too tempting to pass by. Water flowed from the narrow slit in the cliff, creating a channel just wide enough for my family’s small rental motorboat to navigate inside.

We inched forward into the grotto, weaving through bends where ferns clung to rugged walls and cedars formed a cool protective canopy above the aquarium-clear water. When Ross Lake reservoir was created starting in 1937, it flooded creeks and rivers along the Skagit River to create mysterious little channels like this one, and places where torrential waterfalls empty into the lake.

I killed the engine and let the incoming water slowly push us out of the chasm, listening to the chatter of an unseen waterfall and watching hundreds of tiny trout cruising 20 feet below the boat. We were in awe that such a charming, idyllic place even exists — never mind that we were boating through it.

Since having my first child almost four years ago, I’ve been on a constant search for kidventures: family-friendly outings that are easy to manage with a child, yet adventurous enough to thrill adults.

I had only been boat-camping on Ross Lake an hour, but the Devil’s Creek Canyon was proof positive that this trip would make lasting memories for our entire family.

Backcountry with a beer cooler

For decades, the North Cascades National Park has been the overlooked middle child of the park system.  It’s free to visit, but there are few services and virtually everything you do (aside from driving through it) qualifies as backcountry recreation.

The 23-mile-long Ross Lake is the crown jewel, its deep blue waters teeming with fish, and virgin forest and glacier-studded peaks rising above the shores.

A camping trip is just complicated enough to keep the crowds at bay, yet it doesn’t have to be strenuous: Even a family laden with gear and toddlers can embrace boat camping without breaking a sweat.

Call it backcountry with a beer cooler.

After a long drive, a ferry, a truck, a water taxi and a rented motorboat, we were finally navigating the lakeshore. And everyone was giddy at the novelty and freedom of a self-guided expedition.

Campsite snobs welcome

Under clear blue skies, we sped up the lake, pausing to explore little bays and inlets or unexpected waterfalls. Rounding Cougar Island, we saw kids splashing in the shallows; a few colorful tents dotted a forested knob.

We stopped to test the suspension bridges along the East Bank Trail, searched for swimming holes and cruised close enough to the base of Skymo, Arctic and No Name Falls that our boat was blasted with spray.

At Rainbow Point, we entered a small bay and slung up our hammock at our reserved campsite, which afforded water views in two directions.  Osprey hunted for rainbow trout, and the only noises were the occasional blips of fish breaking the surface.

I’ll admit it — I’m a campsite snob. Nothing makes my skin crawl more than hundreds of campsites packed together. By contrast, the quaint sites around Ross Lake are some of the finest in the state.

Eighteen boat-in campgrounds are serene reminders that camping is the essence of summer.  There isn’t a bad spot in the bunch.  Most have lake views from your tent, and campgrounds are small — most only have one to three sites.

Almost all feature bear bins, pit toilets, fire rings and lake access.  Some are island camps and most sites have deep-water docks that double as swimming platforms on a hot day.

There and back again

In the evenings, we took short excursions to other camps, where we enjoyed the sunset and cooked dinner on our portable camp stove.

Ross Lake has a way of hooking you. That was my takeaway after meeting other campers who told us stories about repeat trips year after year. In the shadow of Desolation Peak (where Jack Kerouac spent a summer in a fire lookout), I met a father with his two young boys camping on Cat Island. “We’ve been making annual trips here for five years,” he said. “I like camping on the islands because I know the kids can’t go very far.”

Our son Ian explored with his boys, returning to gush about finding a sleeping deer. Playing desert island was just scratching the surface of his nondigital delights. Driving a boat is a pretty big deal for any 3-year-old. So is jumping into an alpine lake on a hot day or riding driftwood logs along the shore. At every turn, memorable details stacked up — from our sunset boat ride over glassy water to the anglers fishing from canoes to the flocks of mergansers hunting small fish like packs of wolves.

Days after getting home, I still find Ian taking imaginary trips to Cat Island. I have no idea how much he’ll remember in the long term, but I’m pretty sure — like the other campers we met — that Ross Lake has him permanently hooked.

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If you go

Getting to Ross Lake can be confusing due to a combination of hydroelectric dams, steep terrain and lack of road access.  Most visitors travel through the Ross Lake Resort (rosslakeresort.com), which offers water-taxi service to campsites and rents kayaks, canoes and motorboats (reservations required). Here are four ways to get there:

Launch your powerboat. The only boat launch for larger watercraft is from the Canadian side of Ross Lake at Hozomeen.  This requires a 37-mile drive down a gravel road, which limits the size of boats.

Hike in. Park at the Ross Dam trailhead along Highway 20 at Milepost 134. Hike one mile to the lake.  Call Ross Lake Resort from the landline phone for a water taxi to the resort ($2 per person one way).  You can also backpack to the lake on the East Bank Trail.

Hop a boat. A ferry departs from Diablo Lake at 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. ($10 per person one way), crosses Diablo Lake and connects to a flatbed truck and water taxi ($10/pp round trip) to Ross Lake Resort.

Canoe or kayak. Launch your small watercraft at Diablo Lake and paddle to the end.  Call for truck portage to Ross Lake ($35 one way).  Boats must be light enough to lift into the truck.

Free backcountry camping permits must be obtained in advance.  Many are issued through an online lottery, but walk-in permits are issued within 24 hours of the start of your trip at the Marblemount or Winthrop ranger stations.

Jeff Layton