5 days on Ross Lake

Christine and I just returned from our first kayak camping trip, a 5 day paddle on Ross Lake. Ross Lake is in the North Cascades, about 3 hours northeast of Seattle. The lake is 24 miles long, a mile or two wide at the most. It is not directly car accessible, so it stays pretty quiet despite being close to both Seattle and Vancouver.

The portage from Diablo to Ross Lake.

To get there we drove up the North Cascades Highway to Lake Diablo. We put our kayak in at Lake Diablo, then paddled 5 miles to the base of the Ross Dam and paid $25 to Ross Lake Resort to portage us and our gear up to the lake. There are alternative ways to get to Ross Lake, but this is the easiest method if you have your own boat.

Storms move in as the sun sets over Cougar Island

The lake is surrounded by mountains and there are tons of camp sitesalong the shore or on the islands. We reserved 4 nights worth of them and set off for our first one atCougar Island. Cougar Island was about 3 miles from the dam (don’t forget that we had already paddled 5 miles along Lake Diablo).Itwas a great campground with only two sites set on opposite ends of the island. We had a neighbor, but barely heard or saw him. At Cougar Island we became aquianted with what we called “feet fish”. We later learned that they are a bait fish that were illegally introduced about 6 years ago. There must be millions of them in the lake now, and you couldn’t go swimming without them swarming around you.

We were greeted that evening with a thunderstorm. Those are always fun and exciting for us because Seattle rarely gets them. The storm blew through quickly, didn’t get anything too wet, and cooled it down nicely for dinner.

The next morning was Monday and I woke up to thick fog. The lake already seemed quieter with much of the weekend traffic having gone home. We were due to move toTen Mile Island, about 7 miles up the lake. We choose a longer route and stopped by both Big Beaver campground for lunch and Devil’s Creek for a exploration. Devil’s Creek is a very deep canyon that you can paddle about a mile into. It is incredible looking up at these cliffs going right into the water and it felt 15 degrees cooler in there (nice on a hot day).

Inside Devil's Canyon

It was already 3 or 4pm by the time we got to 10 mile island and 2 of the 3 camp sites were taken. The last one was very exposed,right next to some loud campers,and didn’t offer good kayak parking. We decided to look around and found a much nicer site at Dry Creekand set up there (it is okay to move sites if you tell a ranger what is going on). The new site had great views on 3 sides of water and mountains, and a lot of space for our gear. We stayed at Dry Creek for two nights, using the day in between to go for a short hike and to get in some relaxation.

Wednesday came along pretty quickly and it was time to move again. The lake felt deserted at this point, the only people around were those who were staying the week. Our paddle back down to Spencer’s (our next campsite) was very quiet and we only saw one or other boats. The day was hot and we took a pretty exposed route to check out a waterfall across from 10 Mile Island. By the time we stopped for lunch it was 2pm and we really needed a cooldown swim. We hung out at Rainbow Point (with more feet fish than we had seen anywhere else) for a couple of hours, then headed onto Spencer’s.

Collecting driftwood for the fire

Spencer’s was another really nice campground. It offered two sites and both were pretty private. Ours had a great swimming area and a lot of open trees. I wanted Christine to try out hammock camping, so we didn’t setup the tent here. Pretty shortly after arriving we started to hear thunder and it began to rain. It rained on and off that evening, but left large enough dry areas for us to make dinner and enjoy one last camp fire.

Spencer's campsite.  This is a pretty typical Ross Lake campsite, including a huge bear locker for food and gear.

Sunset over Spencer's

I woke up pretty early in the morning to more thunder. Everything was pretty wet (except for us), so we packed up pretty quickly and headed out. The lake was silent and calm and we had a nice and quick paddle back to the dam and our portage home.

We took our time heading back to the car on Lake Diablo. Neither of us really wanted the trip to end and were enjoying the scenery. Lake Diablo is glacier fed (Ross Lake is not) making it both colder and greener than Ross Lake. We thought about camping another night on Diablo, but the best looking camp site was taken so we just headed back to the car. When we got back to Seattle we learned that we missed a week of record heat.

I really enjoyed Ross Lake and expect that we’ll return in a couple of years. It was a great first kayak camping trip because the paddling was easy and we didn’t need to worry about tides or currents. The campgrounds were mostly excellent. It was the perfect mix of relaxation, swimming, and staying busy. The only thing that I’d change if we went again would be to take less stuff. The kayak fits way more gear than a bicycle or backpack, but that doesn’t mean that I need to bring more than I’d take for cycling or hiking.

More photos


  1. Holy moly. These are fantastic pictures.

  2. Jimmy Livengood says:

    Great trip report, great pictures! Yeah, you missed some awesome heat here in town, I was wondering if you were getting fried being out and exposed on the water. Sounds like you had a great mix of weather, though.

  3. Paul Johnson says:

    It’’s an amazing place, bummer about the invasive (bait fish) species. I”ve been up there a couple times. In the future consider a hike up to Desolation Peak (it’’s a most of a day affair, but be sure to read Desolation Angels by Kerouac first!) From there you get a whole different look at the lake, and the mountains too. Oh yes, don”t forget to try to exclude weekends next time.

    Nice pix

    Yr Pal Dr Codfish

  4. AlexWetmore says:

    Paul — Desolation Peak was on the original plans. I”ve read everything by Keroauc and Desolation Angels is one of my favorites. Sadly Christine sprained her ankle on a hike a few weeks before our trip and we couldn”t do any extended hikes on this one. The hike will be there for us next time.

    The invasive fish is the Red Sided Shiner.

  5. Rory says:

    this looks like a beautiful and inspirational trip. thanks for posting!

  6. Jerry Wick says:

    Great trip report! Great photos too!

    So how did your wife take to hammock camping? I just tried it myself, two nights out so far. I think I”ll be avoiding tent as much as possible from now on.


  7. Gareth says:

    Fabulous photographs. They have a real ”I want to go there too” feel about them.

  8. Cat says:

    Thanks so much for this great post! I live in Seattle and have never been up to the North Cascades. My friend and I were looking to do our 1st solo kayak camping trip on Ross Lake, and found this post. So useful & inspiring- Thanks!

  9. AlexWetmore says:

    Jerry — Christine wasn”t that into the hammock camping. She loved having the hammock for lounging, but felt more comfortable sleeping in a tent. I”m a hammock addict though.