Ross Dam


Every day Never Closes


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
Of the three Skagit River dams, Ross is the newest, the largest, and the most remote. There is no vehicle access to the dam. The few trucks located there have been barged in by boat to be used exclusively for dam maintenance or for the Ross Lake Resort to haul people and boats between Diablo Lake below the dam and higher Ross Lake behind the dam. High cliffs with occasional rock slides may temporarily limit some of the options for recreational access either to or past the dam.

Despite its remoteness and seeming inaccessibility, there are actually a number of interesting ways to reach the dam. The easiest and most direct route for hikers is by way of the short but steep Ross Dam Trail that drops down from the North Cascades Highway. Those hiking longer distance may approach via either the Happy Panther Trail from the east or the long trek through the North Cascades ending on the Big Beaver Trail from the west. Boaters may reach the landings above and below the dam by putting in at either Diablo Lake to the south, or Hozomeen camp on the Canadian border at the far north end of Ross Lake. Among the many variations and combinations of hiking, boating, riding, and shuttles; some may include services provided by the floating Ross Lake Resort located a short distance northwest of the dam (see articles, this website).

Nearly all the activity at the dam is concentrated on its south end. Above it, the Ross Dam Trail descends from the highway offering hikers a short steep descent to the Portage Road. This gravel road provides a passage around the dam linking lower Diablo Lake with much higher Ross Lake. A short spur from the Portage Road provides the access to cross the top of the dam.

The upper end of the Portage Road terminates at Ross Lake and is a short walk from its junction with the Ross Dam Trail. Traveling on this gravel roadway to the Ross Lake shore, notice the waters of Happy Creek spouting from a tunnel bored through solid rock then flowing under the road before spilling into Ross Lake in a manmade waterfall. A little further on, the phone and boat pickup location for the Ross Lake Resort are passed. The road ends at a potential launch site for water craft; portaged here from Diablo Lake by trailer, truck or occasionally hand carried. The views of the lake are limited by topography but the upper dam structure and floating resort on the opposite shore can be clearly seen.

Below the dam the large powerhouse manages the production of electricity from the powerful force created by Ross Lake water flowing through its generators. These facilities are off limits to the public as one might expect. On the nearby shore however, docks are provided for visitors arriving by boat on Diablo Lake. Commercial shuttle services or personal watercraft arrive from launch points at either Colonial Creek Campground or from the Diablo Dam area located on opposite sides of Diablo Lake. A long suspension bridge, sometimes temporarily closed due to rockslides blocking access to it, offers a connection across the water to the Diablo Lake Trail. Those planning to use the bridge should always check on its status beforehand.

The area on the north end of the dam is in complete contrast. The dam ends without fanfare against a steep rock and forested slope. Sheer drops on the downstream side offer scenic views but no access. Along the upper lake shore a seemingly obscure trail begins. With few junctions past the resort, the trail continues; offering the adventurous and fit a more than 40 mile trek through the heart of the North Cascades.

The intended name of Ross Dam was Ruby; chosen for the soon to be flooded nearby Ruby Creek gold mining district and town site. The final choice of Ross is often understandably mistaken to represent that of Alexander Ross, a famous explorer of this region during the early 1800s. The name was changed however to honor the lifelong service of James Delmage (JD) Ross; chief engineer and primary force behind the creation of the Skagit River Dams for Seattle City Light, who died during the dam’s construction. During his tenure the cost of electricity fell from 20 cents/kilowatt in 1905 to less than a penny a kilowatt by the 1930s. Despite the present better understanding of the potential ecological problems associated with dams; this dramatic decrease in the price of electrical power would be difficult to ignore in today’s climate of increasing energy demands and escalating costs.

Regardless of which way or manner visitors may arrive at the Ross Dam, they often find the setting and landscape to be surreal. Emphasized by its remoteness and solitude the massive monolithic manmade structure suddenly appears; anchored in a deep rocky gorge, its crown and footings lapped by the waters of opposing lakes, surrounded by a wreath of white capped mountains forming serrated skylines. Despite the number of travelers passing over or around the dam during the height of summer, the dam crossing is often quiet and may even seem desolate. With no camping or other facilities directly associated with it, visitors often enjoy the views for only a short time before continuing on their many different journeys.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 5/11/2010


Ross Dam may be reached most directly by hiking down the short but steep Ross Dam Trail from the North Cascades Highway near milepost 134. Variations of boating and longer trail approaches are possible via Diablo Lake below the Dam or Ross Lake above the dam (see details in this and related articles). Road connections to the dam do not exist and consequently vehicle access is not possible.


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