Ross Dam Trail


Every day Never Closes


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
The Ross Dam Trail is a vital link between a number of trail and boating connections in the heart of the North Cascades. The short steep trail provides access to the remote dam as well as trails on the west and east banks of Ross Lake; boating facilities on Diablo and Ross Lakes; the portage road that connects the lakes; and when open a further connection with the Diablo Lake Trail. A few feet beyond the trailhead parking lot, the location of the winter closure gate for the North Cascades Highway makes the Ross Dam trailhead the last trailhead accessible by vehicles year-round.

Though the trail is fairly steep with a substantial mixture of rough rock surface, it is also a scenic and pleasant trail to hike. Winding through the more open and drier forests indicative of east side conditions it contains an interesting mixture of plants and animals of both climate regimes. Promises of distant views are abundant but few deliver; the best views being only minutes away by the safer trail route.

Not long from the trailhead, a rustic wooden bridge provides a crossing of Happy Creek. Pause a moment to enjoy its tumultuous descent down this steep slope and also to consider its relationship to the dam and surrounding topography. The headwaters begin high on Ruby Mt, splashing down through the accessible boardwalk area of Happy Creek Nature Trail (see article, this website) before reaching this bridge. Below, the creek disappears as it drops over a mossy cliff. Beyond this natural drainage the creek’s journey to the former Skagit River takes an interesting new route. Before the dam was constructed, the creek fell into the river gorge in a spectacular waterfall. Its location however posed a possible threat to the Dam’s anchor to bedrock as well as diverting potential hydropower around the dam. To address these issues, a tunnel was bored through solid rock, permanently diverting the waters of Happy Creek to the upper side of the dam. Today it spills into Ross Lake, less dramatically, but still a scenic waterfall. Use caution when continuing beyond the bridge; the steep slippery slopes provide no additional views and even a short segment of the trail itself approaches the cliffs a bit close for some hiker’s comfort.

The trail continues to attractively twist its way down in a cooler, moister habitat that supports surprisingly large trees. Their trunks show blackening, scars of many natural forest fires that have swept through this summer dry landscape. Huge boulders force the trail to turn, their positions a result of erosion and glacial action. At a sharp turn in the trail, a small maintenance building marks the location of an unofficial view point. If you decide to peek over the edge, be cautious and stay clear of buildings and equipment.

In a few more minutes the trail ends abruptly at an intersection with the Portage Road. To the right you’ll find a final crossing of Happy Creek, the phone and boat pickup location for Ross Lake Resort guests, and a sample of the shoreline and views of Ross Lake. Traveling left on the Portage Road leads to the crossing of Ross Dam, access to the suspension bridge (when open) that crosses to the Diablo Lake Trail, and the boat docks on the northern end of Diablo Lake that service park visitors and resort clients.

The year round vehicle accessibility of the Ross Dam Trailhead makes it a special winter time location as well. When conditions are right, a variety of user groups can enjoy both the trail and availability of the trailhead. Snow-hikers enjoy the challenge of the short steep trail to the surreal winter scenery of dam structures, forests, mountains, and lake views. For the adventurous, the Happy Panther Trail provides a winter route to the East Bank Trailhead and potential road ski or snowshoe back. Snowmobilers require a good snow base on the road but can access the deep reaches of the gated highway though they, like skiers and hikers, must consider the avalanche potential that causes its closure.

The Ross Dam Trail and its trailhead provide a year-round variety of possibilities for unique adventures, long trips, or short day hikes. Whatever the season and whatever your time constraints, the dramatic scenery, the extremes of perspective, and the many natural and manmade features make this trail an exceptional value for your time.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 5/11/2010


The large roadside parking area for the Ross Dam Trailhead is located adjacent to the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) near milepost 134. This location is approximately midway between Colonial Creek Campground to the west and the East Bank Trailhead to the east. Do not block loading and hitching facilities for horses located on the eastern corner of the lot.


Copyright 1998-2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED