Happy Panther Trail

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Review

Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
The Happy Panther Trail provides a vital connection between the trails of the North Cascades and the trail systems on the east side of Ross Lake including the Ross Lake Recreation Area, the Pasayten Wilderness, the Okanogan National Forest, and Manning Park, British Columbia. The trail is an interesting blend of old and new treads blending the past with the present. While primarily a forest walk the western portion begins at Ross Lake and provides a transition through several different habitats. In winter it may provide an interesting snowshoe or ski loop when the North Cascades Highway is gated at the Ross Dam Trailhead for the season.

Beginning at the western trailhead, the Ross Dam Trail (see article this website) drops fairly steeply through rough terrain providing interesting forest views along the way. Upon reaching the portage or haul road it’s only about a ¼ mile road walk to the trailhead. Along the way you’ll cross the drainage of Happy Creek spouting out of a manmade tunnel next to the road. This is the “Happy” portion of the trail name, the “Panther” being Panther Creek which can be accessed from the eastern trailhead parking lot.

The Happy Panther Tail begins on the uphill side of the road-cut with a short steep section but soon takes on an entirely different appearance. Climbing gently, the trail curves around a bluff and turns east for its long traverse. Down the steep wooded slope the sights and sounds of Ross Lake are evident, more so on especially busy summer days. Above you coming and going, the sounds of highway traffic may be heard. Despite this the trail has an ancient and secluded feeling that soon dominates your interest. The rockwork along this portion of the trail seems old. Plants and forest duff have secured the narrow tread as it passes around rocky outcrops and beneath talus slopes. Though partially hidden by the dam and modern Ross Lake, the deep cliff walled river gorge that once existed here gave travelers few portage options. This tread may very well have followed the original trading and hunting routes that led into the Skagit Valley. Later it became the primary pack trail serving this area including the historic mining town of Ruby now hidden beneath the waters of Ross Lake.

Within the Lilliputian moss forest of the talus slopes a small rodent like animal will almost certainly appear or at least give you notice of its presence by its distinctive short shrill whistle. The pica is a cute little animal that lives exclusively in and among the cavities of talus slopes. An industrious farmer, it spends the summer piling grass into miniature haystacks beneath the boulders. Active throughout the winter but under deep snows, it comfortably survives on these stored supplies. If you keep your distance it isn’t very difficult to observe this animal. Notice its plump body similar to a rabbit’s. It’s no coincidence; despite its little round ears, better adapted to rocky burrows, this is a small member of the rabbit family and not a rodent.

The trail continues passing through dry steep sloped forests paralleling the lake shore but climbing higher and eventually further inland. Soon you encounter different forest habitats; some dry, some wet, deciduous and conifer. Interesting trail cuts crossing streams provide brief glimpses of their journey down steep banks to the unseen lakeshore. Upon reaching muddy sections of trail, consider them opportunities rather than burdens. Animals make frequent use of these trails and their tracks are their signatures. The presence of the highway above and lake below insure that many animals will cross this trail at some point in their travels.

Eventually the trail begins to rise in earnest and slips rather unceremoniously into the parking lot of the East Bank Trailhead. If you’ve arranged a shuttle, this will be your pickup point. If not, the return back down the trail will offer you a second chance for observing wildlife. Deer in particular will often take to the trail soon after you pass and can sometimes be encountered when you unexpectedly return. In winter when the highway is gated at the Ross Dam Trailhead you have another option. With only the possibility of snowmobiles on the highway why not enjoy a loop. In cold weather, dazzling ice formations develop on the road-cuts and the highway viewpoints offer distant and dramatic scenery. If you’ve carried cross-country skis the entire way, this is the time to put them on and enjoy a kick-and-glide back to your vehicle. Snowshoers also enjoy this loop; their advantage is being able to use their snowshoes for the entire trip where most skiers would not find all of the trail sections pleasant. An obvious benefit of this loop is avoiding the climb up the Ross Dam Trail at the end of the day. In summer however, with highway traffic on the roadway, it’s unpleasant and potentially dangerous to walk the road shoulder.

The Happy Panther trail is not a high use trail but for those wishing to make the most of trail connections it’s the only way around Ross Lake. In winter it can be a special loop but be aware of snow conditions. Even small talus slopes can present avalanche danger and portions of the trail may be icy rather than snowy.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 5/11/2010

Directions

Access the Happy Panther Trail from either of two trailheads. From the east, use the roadside parking lot for the East Bank Trail on Highway 20; the Happy Panther Trailhead is close to the road on your left. To access the west end of the trail: park at the Ross Dam Trailhead and hike down (see articles this website); at the first junction with the portage road, turn right. Walk down the road; the trailhead will be on your right going up a short steep road-cut. If you reach Ross Lake, you’ve gone a little too far.

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