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Photo: Girl holding a rainbow trout caught while fishing scenic Ross Lake, Washington.
The challenge of accessing Ross Lake is part of its allure. The lake offers solitude, wilderness, ineffable beauty, and big trout for those who accept the challenge. Photo by John Brace
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Local Attractions
  North Cascades National Park
  Pasayten Wilderness
  Seattle City Power and Light Boat Tour
  Ross Lake Resort
  North Cascades National Park Service
  North Cascades Backcountry Permits
  Fishing and camping on Washington’s wildest lake:
Ross Lake rainbows
For anglers who want to get away from it all, few places in Washington state compare to the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which fills the upper reaches of the Skagit River just south of the Canadian border. This is wild country, sandwiched between North Cascades National Park and the Pasayten Wilderness, characterized by sharp peaks, glaciers, old-growth timber, avalanche chutes, waterfalls and spectacular alpine vistas. At Ross Lake, anglers will also find abundant camping opportunities and big, wild rainbow trout.

Wild country, wild trout

Ross Lake is managed as a selective-gear fishery, but retention is allowed. Successful anglers can eat their day’s catch for a shore lunch or dinner. The lake produces hefty rainbows to 25 inches as well as brook and cutthroat trout. Anglers may also encounter protected bull trout, which must be released unharmed.

Photo: Girl holding a days catch of rainbow trout caught while fishing scenic Ross Lake, Washington.
Marissa Brace with a days catch of rainbow trout.
Photo by John Brace

The lake’s trout grow fat on huge schools of illegally introduced redside shiners, which orient to the shorelines. Therefore, anglers fishing close to the steep banks are more likely to catch fish – and bigger fish – than those trolling the middle of the lake. Trolling parallel to the shoreline helps to cover lots of water with lures in the strike zone. Fish naturally orient to creek mouths, points and woody debris.

Fly anglers trolling full-sinking fly lines with streamer patterns like Zonkers, Bunny Leeches, large Woolly Buggers and other minnow-imitating flies do exceptionally well, as do anglers using spinners, spoons, and minnow-imitating plugs that meet selective-fishery requirements.

Getting on the water

Thousands of Northwest travelers catch a glimpse of Ross Lake every year as they traverse Washington Pass on the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), yet relatively few anglers stop to fish it. Given the size of the lake and the quality of fishing, this may seem odd – until you consider the challenge of boat access to the 23-mile-long impoundment. While it’s possible to portage a canoe or kayak via water taxi from Diablo Lake, the nearest available boat ramp is in British Columbia.

Hozomeen Campground at the far north end of the lake near the Canadian border offers boat access after a 40-mile drive south from Hope, B.C. Few families will make this long trek to access Ross, but the rewards are great for those who do: spectacular views of the North Cascades, lots of boat-in camping, and a carefully managed trout fishery.

Photo: Scenic photo of boats on Ross Lake, Washington.
Few places in Washington state compare to the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Photo provided courtesy of Ross Lake Resort

Seattle City Power and Light operates a water taxi/boat tour on Diablo Lake, accessible via Diablo Dam Road between mile markers 127 and 128. Those boats take travelers to the upper end of the lake, where a truck shuttle from Ross Lake Resort transports passengers, gear, and small crafts up to Ross. A water taxi from the resort carries guests to the lodge or to trailheads and campsites around the lake.

The unique floating resort offers the only services on the lake, is not accessible via highway vehicle and is extremely popular and booked well in advance. Plan ahead if you want to stay here – reservations are highly recommended – but they reliably offer rentals and shuttles that make accessing Ross Lake possible all summer. The resort also rents canoes, kayaks and small motor boats, which should be reserved well in advance.

A hiking and camping paradise

Hikers can also access the lake from the parking lot of the Ross Lake/Dam trailhead, clearly marked at mile marker 134 on Highway 20. The trail leads downhill to a gravel road that leads to the lakeshore and a phone to contact the resort for a water taxi.

The National Park Service, which manages Ross Lake National Recreation Area and North Cascades National Park jointly, offers comprehensive information for finding camping opportunities around the lake. Some campgrounds are first-come-first-served, while some larger campgrounds offer reservable sites. Backcountry permits are required for visiting Ross Lake and are easily procured at the ranger station in Marblemount and in five other locations, including Hozomeen. They may only be issued in-person on the day of your trip or one day before, and they’re free.

Big wilderness, diverse wildlife

Photo: Scenic photo of children on pier at Ross Lake, Washington.
Sandwiched between North Cascades National Park and the Pasayten Wilderness, Ross Lake is characterized by sharp peaks, glaciers, old-growth timber, avalanche chutes, waterfalls and spectacular alpine vistas. Photo provided courtesy of Ross Lake Resort

While you won’t see the huge herds of bison and elk you might see at other national parks, the North Cascades ecosystem is populated by some of the rarest and most beautiful creatures in the Lower 48. A small number of grizzly bears lives here, moving back and forth between the U.S. and Canada. The odds of seeing one are very long, even in the backcountry, but knowing they still roam the mountains makes everything a bit wilder. Black bears are much more numerous and are commonly seen crossing the road and patrolling berry patches as summer progresses.

Gray wolves are recolonizing the eastern slope of the North Cascades as well, and lucky backcountry hikers and campers could hear their howls. Cougars, lynx, wolverines, fishers, pine martens and short-tailed weasels also live here, and a healthy mule deer herd inhabits the North Cascades as well. The diversity of bird species spans a broad spectrum from white-tailed ptarmigan and black swifts in the arctic-alpine zone to spotted owls and ruffed grouse closer to sea level.

Ross Lake is one of Washington’s wildest and most wonderful getaways, but don’t overlook bountiful and more easily accessible opportunities in North Cascades National Park. With five car campgrounds, three lakes (Ross, Diablo and Chelan) with boat-in camping, and wilderness backpacking opportunities, prospects abound for families to slow down and take in the beauty and wildlife of the North Cascades, the most ecologically diverse part of this rugged and geologically young mountain range.