North Cascades National ParkNorth Cascades National Park sees more than 30 thousand visitors each year
North Cascades National Park includes two geographically distinct units of the national park, as well as Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. The highly glaciated mountains are spectacular examples of Cascade geology. Popular hiking and climbing areas include Cascade Pass, Mount Shuksan, Mount Triumph, and Eldorado Peak.
Things To Do
There is something for everyone in North Cascades National Park
From day hikes to backpacking to horseback riding, there are no shortage of activities to take part in. Here are just a few of the things you can do in the park.
Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk
The Trail of the Cedars Nature walk is a leisurely 0.3 mile gravel loop beginning at the suspension bridge in Nehalem or at the Newhalem Creek Powerhouse. This gorgeous trail takes you through an old growth forest with beautiful views, and passes along the banks of the Skagit River. This trail is family friendly and easy, so make sure to stop by!
Ladder Creek Falls
Ladder Creek Falls is located in Upper Newhalem behind the Gorge Powerhouse. The trail itself is a 0.4 mile loop, and showcase both natural and manmade beauty. The trail takes hikers through manicured gardens, leading to Ladder Creek Falls. These falls are the power source for the Skagit Hydroelectric Project, which has been creating sustainable power for over 75 years.
If you are looking for a short day hike with a moderate difficulty, Pyramid Lake might be a good fit for you! The trail takes you to a mountain lake, with log gardens and beautiful views. This is an access trail to longer hikes as well, leading to the peaks of the mountains above- specifically, Colonial, Pyramid, and Snowfield. Along the way, you will see a wide variety of plants, and there’s even a chance to spot some wildlife!
Big Beaver Trail
There are a few ways to experience the Big Beaver Trail. If you begin from Ross Lake, this old growth forested hike makes a lovely day hike, or you can take a longer route for up to four days of backpacking. The trail boats beautiful old growth cedar trees, gorgeous streams, and rich undergrowth and wildflowers dotted throughout the scenery. Many animals make their homes here, including beavers. The habitat is also ideal for mosquitos, so come prepared with some bug spray!
For the more experienced hikers and backpackers making their way to North Cascades National Park, Sourdough Mountain offers a unique challenge. This trail is one of the most strenuous in the park, but the rewards are absolutely incredible.
The endpoint of the mountain is the historic lookout on the summit of the mountain. Hikers have two trail options, both of which are steep and strenuous- Diablo or Pierce Mountain. You will pass through forests and meadows on your way, huffing and puffing your way to incredible views of lakes, peaks, and glaciers.
The numerous lakes in North Cascades offer wonderful boating opportunities. Kayaking, canoeing, and motor boating are all very popular within the park. Gorge, Diablo, Ross, and Lake Chelan are popular destinations for avid boaters. There are ramps and Launches at all of these lakes. On Ross Lake, there is only a launch on the north side, but not the south.
For even more adventure, boat in camping is available on Ross, Diablo, and Lake Chelan. You will need obtain permits to go boat in camping at any of these locations- a backcountry permit for Ross and Diablo, and a federal dock permit for Lake Chelan.
North Cascades is renowned for the climbing terrain that can be found in the park. The routes in the park are challenging, both mentally and physically, making the reward all that much sweeter when you complete that challenge. The rugged access and volatile weather often make climbing solitary experiences.
There are over 300 glaciers and numerous peaks found in the park, making the climbing experience all the more unique. You can traverse classic mountaineering routes, glaciers, rock climbing, and scrambling. When you reach the summit after struggling all the way up the mountain, you will realize that the difficulty was all worth it, and why the park is so renowned for their climbing opportunities. Whether this is a once in a lifetime opportunity or a recurring experience, the views and accomplishment are as stunning the tenth time as they are the first.
For the avid horseman or woman, North Cascades National Park has day and overnight riding in the park. The most popular destination for horseback travel is in the southeast area of the park, where the trails are the most accessible. Bridge Creek is the most popular destination.
The North Cascades is an incredibly diverse ecosystem, providing a home for a wide variety of animals. The park houses some elusive animals, like the grey wolf and the wolverine, as well as more common sightings, like black tailed deer and Douglas squirrels.
The mountain lakes and streams provide an ideal environment for many fish and amphibians, and the forests swarm with different insects. For obvious reasons, North Cascades is a popular wildlife spotting destination. Be sure to practice proper safety precautions- don’t feed the animals and don’t disturb them, for your safety and theirs. Keep your distance and treat the animals with respect for the best wildlife viewing experience.
North Cascades National Park has an extremely diverse ecosystem
North Cascades is home to approximately 75 mammal species in 20 families; around 21 species of reptiles and amphibians; at least 28 species of fish; and recent surveys have documented over 500 types of land insects and approximately 250 aquatic invertebrate species.
The beaver is the largest rodent in North America, with adults weighing anywhere from 24 to 71 lbs., usually weighing approximately 44 lbs. on average. The beaver is a semi-aquatic animal, with many traits that are adapted to this type of life. Some of these include a large, flat tail and webbed back feet. They have unwebbed front feet, which have claws and are used for defense and digging.
They also have a thick layer of fat which keeps them warm in cold water. Their fur is made of long outer hairs and short, fine inner hairs known as a double coat. This fur can be in a variety of colors, usually dark brown or other shades of brown. They are well known for their large front teeth, which grow endlessly throughout their life.
They are mainly active at night. They are very strong swimmers, and can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes at a time. They try to remain in the water when they can, as they are more vulnerable to predators on land. Communication is highly developed in beavers.
This communication includes scent marking, vocalization, and tail slapping. They are known for their building of dams, which go across streams, which they use to create artificial ponds to build their homes, or lodges, in. Their lodges are made of sticks, rocks, and mud, and are usually surrounded by water. They do touch land often, and the beavers dig burrows into the riverbanks.
Mates For Life
Beavers are monogamous and mate for life. They form family colonies that all live together. Beaver kits are born with a developed coat, and remain with their parents for up to two years. Beavers are herbivorous, and have distinct foraging preferences. They eat a mixture of herbaceous and woody plants. Beavers have a few natural predators, including coyotes, mountain lions, and wolves. Sometimes American black bears can prey on beavers as well, which they do by attacking their lodges directly.
Beavers were trapped out in North America, due to the high demand of its fur. The fur was used to make clothes and beaver hats. Extensive trapping began in the early 17th century. During this time, over 10,000 beavers were trapped per year, which severely depleted the population. Protections for the species began in the late 19th century and continued into the early 20th century.
Now, the beaver population is estimated at 10 to 15 million individuals. While this is an improvement, this is a fraction of the population before the fur trade, which was estimated at 100 to 200 million. The beaver is a keystone species, and they increase biodiversity in their territory through creation of ponds and wetlands.
The American Black Bear is one of the many animals that reside in the park. Black bears today are often found in highly forested, mountain regions, which are sparsely settled by humans. The main consideration for black bear habitat seems to be inaccessible terrain, thick vegetation, and large amounts of food. The current range of this species is constant throughout the Appalachian mountains. Their population has been stable or increasing over the past few years, and it is estimated to be between 339,000 and 465,000.
American black bears, despite their name, have a wide range of different colorations. Their fur can b white, blonde, cinnamon, brown, and jet black. Some can even be silvery grey, although these mainly occur along the coast of Alaska. Their fur is dense and soft. Female black bears have more slender and pointed faces than their male counterparts. Males typically weigh up to 551 lbs. and females weigh up to 375 lbs.
Smarter Than The Average Bear
These bears are dexterous. They have been shown to be capable of opening screw-top jars, and even successfully opening door latches. They are very strong, and are capable of maneuvering weights up to 325 lbs. They have better eyesight and hearing than humans, and their sense of smell is seven times more sensitive than a dog’s. They are very strong swimmers, and use this to their advantage when swimming. They also climb trees, to feet, escape enemies, and sometimes even to hibernate.
Black bears mainly forage by night, although they can be active at any time of day or night. Black bears who live close to humans tend to be more nocturnal than others. They are highly territorial towards other black bears, although they can coexist in areas with abundant food sources. When this happens, a power hierarchy forms, with the most powerful males taking the best spots.
Mountain lions are also known as cougars and pumas. These essential predators are solitary and shy, and avoid park visitors when at all possible. Ranging in size from 7-8 feet, mountain lions are the second heaviest large cats, closely following the jaguar. Mountain lions are slender and agile, making them ideal ambush predators. Mountain lions hunt nocturnally for smaller mammals. As ambush predators, they use stealth to trap and hunt their prey.
They have the largest range of any land mammal, spanning from the Yukon to the Southern Andes. This large range is made possible by their extreme adaptability, allowing them to adjust to virtually any environment. Mountain lions face threats from habitat fragmentation and loss, and loss of prey due to poaching. They mainly occupy undeveloped areas. When they do pass through developed areas, they do not linger. It is unlikely that park visitors will encounter a mountain lion, but if you do, there are precautions you can take. Do not run, shout in a low voice and make yourself look larger, and maintain eye contact.
Bighorn sheep are named for the large, curved horns that rams grow. Ewes also have horns, but they are smaller. The bighorn sheep’s coloration ranges from light brown to dark brown. Males weigh up to 315 lbs., while females weigh up to 201 lbs. They can be up to 41 inches tall and 73 inches long.
There are two climates that bighorn sheep occupy- colder, mountainous regions, and desert regions. Their main predators are bread and wolves, and most importantly, mountain lions. The species is very sensitive to human influence, and the presence of the bighorn sheep is often used as an indicator of land health.
Bighorn sheep live in large herds, and do not follow a single leader. When mating season comes around, males attempt to establish a dominance hierarchy.
Moose stand at a height of over six feet on average at the shoulder, and weigh nearly 1,000 pounds. They are perfectly suited for harsh winters. They have long legs for walking in deep snow, and their dark coats help them absorb the sun on the days that it does shine. Male moose have wide antlers and a flap of skin beneath their throats, known as a bell. This makes them easily distinguishable from females.
Elk are some of the most breathtaking and most photographed animals in the park. This is mainly due to their antlers. Only male elk have antlers. They grow in the spring, and the elk shed them in the winter. Antlers can be up to nearly four feet long, and weigh nearly 40lbs. They can grow nearly an inch a day during the growing season. While they grow, they are covered with a layer of soft skin known as velvet.
Elk are known as ungulates, which means that they have an even number of toes on each foot. Other members of this order are camels and goats. They have a four chambered stomach, and are herbivores. Their main food sources include grasses, plants, leaves, and bark.
Grass is their main food source near round, with bark supplementing in the winter when grasses are more scarce. They eat at a very high rate during the summer, and can eat up to 15 pounds of vegetation in a day. They are primarily grazers. They eat mainly in the mornings and evenings, and digest during the day.
Elk are not solitary animals, and they live in single-sex groups during most of the year. This changes during the mating period, when males compete for female attention and create harems, that they then defend from rival males.
Elk follow a migration pattern during the year. They move to higher altitude areas during the spring, and lower areas during the fall. During the winter, elk seek out areas with trees and shelter, both for protection from the elements and bark availability. They are highly adaptable in their environment. They prefer forest habitats, or close to forests, and mountainous regions. They can also inhabit desert-like areas. They have few predators, the main ones being wolf and coyote packs.
Among national park areas in North America, North Cascades is nearly unsurpassed in its botanical diversity
Extreme variation habitats within a relatively small area allows for a vast plant diversity. About 1,630 vascular plant species have been identified in the park’s eight different life zones.
The butterfly bush is a general term that encompasses nearly 140 different species. These species can be either shrubs or trees, though most are shrubs standing less than 16 feet tall. The butterfly bush is most known for its flowers, which attract large numbers of pollinators. These include butterflies, which give the bush its name. The flowers can be anywhere from 4 to 20 inches long. Some variations of the species have evolved long, red flowers, which attract hummingbirds as their sole pollinators.
The flowers can vary in color from pinks, to blues, to reds, to yellows. The flowers are highly rich in nectar and honey scented, filling the air around them with a lovely smell. Some variations of the species can grow berries, which are inedible and contain numerous small seeds.
The fairy bell flower has two different variations. One of them is far more common than the other. This is the Hooker’s fairy bells, which is an upright flower with horizontally spreading branches. Their alternate leaves arrange parallel to the ground, to get the most surface area absorbing sunlight. The upper stems of the flower often have small hairs on them.
The fairy bell blooms in the spring, and they have adapted to the rainwater that falls during that season. The bell shaped flowers are protected from heavy rainfall by the tips of the leaves. Fairy bells also produce berries in the summer. While these berries are edible, they are not particularly tasty. They do, however, provide a good food source for local wildlife.
Fireweed is another wildflower that you may spot during the year. They can grow anywhere from sea level to the subalpine zone, and are very distinct. They are known for their bright colors and tall height. They love open meadows, streams, roadsides, and the edge of the forest. The fireweed gets its name from its ability to quickly grow in recently burned areas. After the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s, the fireweed was one of the first plants to reappear. They grew in London after the bombing of London in World War II. The fireweed is the official flower of the Yukon territory in Canada.
Fireweed can grow up to nine feet tall in ideal conditions. They have long narrow leaves that occur along the stem. They have circular leaf veins, which is not seen in other flowers. 4-6 feet of the flower is stem- the rest of it is made up by the flowers, which form a spike. A single fireweed can have over 50 individual flowers, most of which are pink to purple in color.
Each flower represents a capsule filled with seeds, which have a tuft of silky hairs at the end. They produce up to 80,000 seeds, which helps explain how they colonize burned areas so quickly! The fluff from the seeds was used by native people for weaving and padding. Fireweed was also used to make tea, and new shoots can be eaten as a vegetable. Honey can be made from the flowers of the fireweed, which is very popular in Alaska, which has a high fireweed population.
Lodge Pole Pine
This adaptable evergreen conifer dominates 80% of the forested area in the park. It thrives near the ocean and in dry montane climates. There are four different subspecies of lodge pole pine, which are the Bolander pine, the shore pine, the Sierra lodge pole pine, and the lodge pole pine. Depending on subspecies, this plant can grow as a tree or as a shrub.
Shrubs can be anywhere from 3 to 10 feet tall, while the evergreens reach a height of 160 feet. The species name is contorta, due to the twisted appearance of the shrub subspecies and the twisted needles of the tree subspecies. The lodge pole pine is a fire dependent species, meaning that it requires regular wildfires to thrive.
Fir trees are a second crucial species in the boreal forests. Fir is a broad term for a genus of 48-56 species of evergreen, coniferous trees. Fir trees are found throughout much of North America, and generally grow in mountains. The name is derived from Latin, “to rise”, which refers to their immense height. Fir trees can reach anywhere from 33-262 feet in height, and can have trunk diameters anywhere from 1 foot 8 inches to 13 feet wide.
These trees are distinguishable from other pines through their needles, which are attached to their branches with a suction-cup like base. Their cones are unique as well, which stand upright on their branches and disintegrate when they reach maturity. Different fir species may have different sizes and arrangements of leaves, different shapes and sizes of cones, and different types of cone scales, which can help identify which fir species you are looking at.
The California blackberry is a wide shrub or vine. They can grow anywhere form 2-5 feet high and over 6 feet wide. The plant forms clonal colonies, as the branches can root themselves if they touch the soil. The California blackberry is deciduous, and has male and female plants on separate plants. They have white flowers with narrow petals. The defining feature is, of course, the berries.
They are dark purple, dark red, or black in color and can grow up to 2 centimeters in length. They are edible, and very tasty! Of course, when berry picking, be sure you know your stuff- some berries can resemble blackberries, and you wouldn’t want to pop the wrong thing into your mouth!
American Black Nightshade
American black nightshade has a reputation as a dangerous, poisonous plant. While it may not live up to the stories, the plant is toxic. However, its poisonous qualities depend on the genetic strain and location. Nightshade grows up to 59 inches tall, and is an annual perennial plant.
They have alternating leaves, and flower. The flowers are white or light purple. They also grow berries, which are shiny and black, and contain seeds. Some of the berries are edible, but we strongly suggest you exercise caution, as some of the berries are poisonous. Unless you are absolutely sure that they are from an edible strain, please leave the berries alone!
History of The Park
From the first inhabitants of the North Cascades to the designation of the area as a national park, the North Cascades has a rich history
Here is a brief overview of the most important moments of human history in the area.
Paleoindians and Native Americans
Humans have been inhibiting the region that becomes North Cascades National Park for many, many years. The first human inhabitants entered the area 8-10,000 years ago. Paleo-Indians came to the area from Puget Sound as glacial ice from the last glacial period retreated. Prehistoric microblades up to 9,600 years old have been discovered at Cascade Pass, which contents the lowlands to interior regions of the park area. These microblades help us identify when humans began their advance into the area. There are 260 prehistoric sites within the bounds of the park!
At the time of the first European explorers, late in the 18th century, there were an estimated thousand Native American Skagits living in the area. The Skagits generally lived in settlements in the western end of the park, closer to Puget Sound. They traveled mainly by canoe and used the waterways for food. There was a loose confederation of tribes formed by the Skagits, which would unite against outside threats. In their settlements, they had large houses and lodges that multiple families lived in.
These lodges could be up to 100 feet in length and up to 40 feet in width. The Skagits were lowland tribes, avoiding venturing into the mountains except in the summer. They built temporary structures in the mountains for these months. By 1910, due to European settlement, there were only 56 Skagits remaining in the area. Since then, their numbers have returned to several hundred.
The first European explorer in the North Cascades was Alexander Ross, a Scotsman in the employ of the Pacific Fur Company. Ross and other members of the company would construct Fort Okanogan in 1811, which was used as a base to operate the fur trade company in the Pacific Northwest. Fort Okanogan was the first American settlement in Washington State!
It was used by both Native American and white fur trappers to conduct transactions. Ross traded up to 1500 beaver pelts a season. In 1814, Ross would go on to explore the valleys and passes of the North Cascades, in order to establish a route to connect the fur trading posts of interior Washington and Puget Sound. European settlement was limited to trappers for many years, with no further exploration until the 1850s.
Establishing the National Park
Preservationists were inspired by the establishment of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and began to argue for protections for the North Cascade region. The area was designated as a Forest Reserve in 1897, but activists continued to argue for further protections. Washington residents submitted a petition in 1892, before the area had any protections, to establish a national park north of Lake Chelan. In 1906, there were further attempts to gain national park status, which continued until 1921. All proposals were shelved by Congress.
There was some local dissident about the idea of a national park. Some people felt that a national park would damage the economics of the region. The Forest Service also opposed the designation, as it would result in them giving up control of the land to the Park Service.
By the mid 1930s, Bob Marshall, a forester, argued for the region to be set aside as wilderness. The two sides of the debate continued to argue for 30 years. In the 1960s, the side advocating for a national park succeeded. President John F. Kennedy directed a study to investigate the idea of a national park in the area, which was submitted to Congress in 1966. The North Cascades National Park Act designated the region as a national park on October 2, 1968, and the National Parks Service took control of the region in 1969.
The North Cascades Mountain Range has been called one of the most complex and unique geological formations
Here is a brief overview of the formation of the mountains, occurring over millions of years.
The Beginning of the Cascades
The North Cascades are a work in progress. They are still changing, shifting and forming. Geologists have studied fossil and rock magnetism studies show that the North Cascades terrains were formed thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean.
They were attached to oceanic tectonic plates, drifting slowly northward and merging together approximately 90 million years ago. Eventually, they collided with the North American continent, and were thrust upwards to become a jumbled array of mountains. The collision created faults that we still see today.
The Mountains Today
Over time, faults and erosion continued to shape the North Cascades. Over the past 40 million years, oceanic rock collided with the edge of the region. They were melted by intense heat. Some of this melted rock caused eruptions, like Mt. Baker, while the rest formed bodies of granitic rock.
This rock now forms the core of the North Cascades. They have moved upwards over the years, showing the roots of the collision.