North Cascades – Washington

The North Cascades National Park includes the northernmost part of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. The Cascade Mountains are nearly impenetrable with forests, glaciers, sheer cliffs, pinnacles, spires and permanent snowfields. They got their name from the many waterfalls throughout the mountains. Some of these jagged mountain peaks are so difficult to climb they have earned the names Mt. Fury, Mt. Despair, Mt. Torment, Mt. Terror and Desolation Peak.

The national park is comprised of three different areas all managed by the National Park Service. They are the North Cascades National Park, the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The adjacent area, Pasayten Wilderness and Glacier Peak Wilderness are all included in the Stephen Mather Wilderness to give them additional legislated protection.

Three lakes have been created on the upper Skagit River by the Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams. These lakes are excellent for boating and fishing and have hiking trails along their shores. They are full of fish, aquatic inertebrates and amphibians. There are walks suitable for the whole family including the Trail of the Cedars near Newhalem, the Washington Pass Overlook loop and Happy Creek Trail near Diablo lake.

There are cascading waterfalls and over 300 glaciers in the park. The melting rate of the glaciers has increased significantly from 1980 to 2005 because of climate change. The western side of the mountains receives more snow than melts each year and the east is much dryer. The North Cascade Mountains have one of the highest rates of snowfall on earth. Even though during the summer months it is warm and dry in the lower areas, it is wise, especially for anyone who plans to hike into the wilderness, to take warm, waterproof clothing as storms can come without warning.

There are vehicle access campgrounds at Newhalem, Colonial Creek, and Goodell. RV’s are welcome, but there are no hookups. In the backcountry there are almost two hundred campsites that can be used with a permit. Climbing is one of the main attractions, but there is also bird and wildlife viewing, horseback riding and several interpretive/educational programs offered throughout the year. The favorite destination in the park is Cascade Pass. It was a Native American travel route.

It is very easy to get to the national park. I-5 runs north and south from the Canadian border to the Oregon border. State Route 20 which is open from mid-April through mid-November intersects I-5 and runs east and west through the North Cascades Park. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is 120 miles south of the park on I-5.

For those unable or unwilling to trek, there is the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway. It gives magnificent views of alpine and high mountain passes, a beautiful view of the scenery of Puget Sound and the lands along the Columbia River. There is a lot of wildlife to see and sometimes not see. The gray wolf, fisher and wolverine are elusive and not often seen, but the Columbia black-tailed deer, pikas and Douglas squirrels are constant entertainment for visitors. There are also rare birds such as the bald eagle, Harlequin duck and osprey.

Dogs are not allowed in the national park, but they are allowed on a leash in the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas and in the US Forest Service lands that surround the area. Also, if a person can legally possess firearms, they are allowed in North Cascades National Park and the Recreation Areas, however, there are some places in the park where firearms are prohibited. Those places have a sign at the entrance that states no firearms allowed.

There is a Junior Ranger Program that builds knowledge and connections to the national park through four age-specific booklets that introduce the North Cascades ecosystem. There is also a nationally recognized environmental education program in the Mountain School. It teaches geology, cultural and natural history and the hugely diverse ecosystem of the mountains in a thoroughly experiential curriculum.