Long known for its stunning peaks and deep valleys, the remote North Cascades area offers both interesting birds and an awe-inspiring beauty. Rainy Pass and the Pacific Crest trail north to Cutthroat Pass have typical upper-elevation coniferous forest composed of Pacific silver fir, subalpine fir (at higher slopes), and mountain hemlock. Stream valleys and wet slopes are often covered with thickets of Sitka (''Slide'') alder, whose new or crushed leaves have a heavenly scent. A variety of showy wildflowers adorns the roadsides, forest floor, and open meadows in season.
Rainy Pass, one of two prominent passes along this scenic route, allows some of the best access. From here, the Pacific Crest trail offers spectacular alpine terrain. While species diversity is certainly lower than at sea level, the birds present tend to be those absent from lower elevations; many visitors come for the montane and northern specialties.
Three-toed Woodpeckers are permanent residents throughout the area. Except for perhaps the Hairy Woodpecker, the Three-toed is the most likely woodpecker here, and it has nested within 100 yards of both parking areas at the pass. However, this is a retiring bird, and patience will likely be required - listen for quiet tapping and follow the sound. Black Swift is pretty reliable from Ross Lake up to the pass - try a pull-out with good overlooks. Although none is easy to find, Red-naped Sapsucker, Pine Grosbeak, and White-winged Crossbill are regular but infrequent at or near the pass. Boreal Chickadee has been reported just twice. More typical are Gray Jay, Common Raven, Clark's Nutcracker, Hermit, Swainson's, and Varied Thrushes, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Townsend's and Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, and Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos, among others. Blue Grouse are common but more easily heard than seen.
The best time to visit is mid-June to September, with mid-July to mid-August the best for both birding and wildflowers.
Rainy Pass is reached via Highway 20. From I-5, Exit #230, travel east through the towns of Rockport, Marblemount, and Newhalem. (Marblemount is your last shot until you reach Winthrop on the east side of the Cascades, about 68 miles away, so stock up on fuel and food.) If you intend to hike the Pacific Crest or other trails, stop at the Marblemount Ranger Station for a permit, watching for Eastern Kingbirds along the well-marked entrance road. The drive past Newhalem along Ross Lake and Diablo is spectacular, but full of curves and tight corners. Drivers, keep your eyes on the road! The ascending road flattens out at Rainy Pass (4800 feet), which is well marked.