North Cascades National Park

North 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.


The North Cascades are still rising, shifting and forming

The North Cascades are still rising, shifting and forming. Geologists believe that these mountains are a collage of terranes, distinct assemblages of rock separated by faults. Fossil and rock magnetism studies indicate that the North Cascades terranes were formed thousands of miles south in the Pacific Ocean. Attached to slowly moving plates of oceanic rock, they drifted northward merging together about 90 million years ago. Colliding with the North American Continent, the drifting rock masses were thrust upwards and faulted laterally into a jumbled array of mountains. The collision broke or sliced the terranes into north or south trending faults that are still evident today.

Over time, these predecessors to today’s North Cascades were further faulted and eroded to a nearly level plain. During the past 40 million years, heavier oceanic rocks thrust beneath the edge of this region. Intense heat at great depths caused them to melt. Some of the melt rose to the surface as fiery volcanic eruptions like Mt. Baker. The rest recrystalized at various depths to form vast bodies of granitic rock forming the core of the North Cascades. These gigantic pinnacles have pushed upward to majestic heights again, exposing the roots of the ancient collision zone. Scientists agree North Cascades geology comprises some of the most complex and least understood geology in North America.

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Native American History

Home of the Lake Chelan and Upper Skagit peoples

Native people of the North Cascades were hunters, fishers and gatherers who lived in a severe and changing environment. The lives of the Native people of the North Cascades were closely tied to the natural environment and vulnerable to changes in the abundance or scarcity of the resources they depended upon. The Native people lived for thousands of years in the mountain environment. They were intimately acquainted with the land — trees, plants, animals, rivers and peaks — all of which had names and meaning. The mountain world was their home, supplying their needs for food and shelter and providing a base for their culture. Native American interactions with the environment were flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing conditions. They used the various mountain areas for different purposes at different seasons as food-gathering and settlement needs required.

The rugged topography of the North Cascades separates two regions that contained large Native populations: the peoples of the Columbia River Basin to the east and those of the Pacific Northwest/Puget Lowlands to the west. A trade network connected and enabled them to share locally abundant resources for any materials they lacked. They traveled across mountain passes to trade. They followed ridge crests to avoid dense brush along avalanche shoots and stream bottoms.

The difficulty of travel across these rugged mountains made intimate knowledge of them extremely important. Routes to the major mountain passes were vital to indigenous peoples. Lake Chelan and Upper Skagit groups used Cascade Pass regularly as a trade route through the mountains. They called the pass Stehekin, “the way through.” The Upper Skagit people reportedly cached canoes at the head of Lake Chelan to use in their trips southward down the lake. The mountains were inhabited mainly in summer and fall, when milder weather and melting snows permitted access into the high country. But reports exist that Upper Skagit might have traversed Cascade Pass in winter en route to Lake Chelan. When traveling to the east, the Chelan people crossed by way of Twisp Pass. Recent archaeological evidence indicates that Whatcom Pass might have been used by the Chilliwack and Lower Thompson Natives as a trade route across the northern end of the range.

(Adapted from “Sharing the Skagit: An Educator’s Guide to the Skagit River Watershed” from the North Cascades Institute. © 1993.)

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Park History

How North Cascades became a National Park 

Archeological Inventory
Even the most rugged and remote areas of the park contain sensitive archeological resources. Surveys are conducted to inventory archeological sites prior to any undertakings. Currently, 260 prehistoric sites have been identified, some dating older than 8,500 years. As a result of these studies, it is now widely recognized that the extensive subalpine landscape of the North Cascades contributed importantly to Northwest Coast Indian economies. Historic archeological sites include mines and mining camps, fire lookouts, sheep herder camps, sawmills, homesteads and a “lost” hotel.

Archeological Testing
Archeological sites are test excavated to assess their significance to the National Register of Historic Places. These excavations have contributed new and unanticipated information about indigenous use of the mountains, including the use of alpine obsidian sources in NOCA for the last 5,000 years; the establishment of regular travel routes for the movement of resources and people; the exploitation of mountain goats and other native fauna and flora; a geologic record of Cascade volcano eruptions which are used to mark the timing of both human and climatic events; and a radiocarbon chronology providing a timescale for human uses, natural events, and climatic changes in the North Cascades. Recent research at Cascade Pass has yielded a wealth of data about human activity spanning the last 9,600 years.

Historic Preservation
The cultural resources branch is responsible for the inventory and monitoring of over 81 unique and nationally recognized buildings and structures within the Park Complex. Additionally, there are remnants of at least 23 historic cultural landscapes within park boundaries. These historic treasures range from abandoned mines to a historic hotel that captures the spirit of rustic recreation in wilderness areas. These structures are regularly inventoried and their condition is monitored to ensure that they are managed in the most efficient and cost effective manner.

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The best things to do in North Cascades National Park

Outdoor activities, scenic vistas, and educational opportunities abound. Stop by a visitor center and enjoy an interpretive talk or a walk with a ranger. Discover the animals of the park with bird and wildlife viewing. Put your boots to the trail on the various miles of hiking. Visit the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and stretch your legs at one of the stops along the scenic North Cascades Highway via car or bicycle. Have a picnic, or go camping with the family. Take a trip into the wilderness for a premier backpacking or climbing experience. Ride the Lady of the Lake to the historic and unique town of Stehekin in the heart of Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Take a class from the North Cascades Institute at the new Environmental Learning Center. Go fishing in a lake or river. Perhaps, even take a rafting trip down a river! Have a horse? Stock are welcome on many of the trails.

Ranger Programs
Ranger-led programs and naturalist tours by National Park Rangers are regularly scheduled during the summer and by special request at other times of the year.

Are you ready for winter adventure?
Although park operations are limited during the winter, the park remains open and winter activities are often sought after. Be extra prepared for recreating outdoors in the winter. Winter driving conditions in the North Cascades can be hazardous, particularly due to water, frost, snow, and/or ice on the roads. Roads may not be regularly plowed. Visit the Safety page to learn more on winter travel and avalanche safety.

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North Cascades is nearly unsurpassed in its botanical diversity

Among national park areas in North America, North Cascades is nearly unsurpassed in its botanical diversity. Extreme variation in rock and soil types, exposure, slope, elevation, and rainfall create many diverse habitats within a relatively small area. About 1,630 vascular plant species have been identified in the park’s eight different life zones.

Plant life in the North Cascades is extremely varied, reflecting differences in rock and soil types, exposure, slope, elevation, and rainfall. Eight distinctive life zones support thousands of different plant species in the North Cascades greater ecosystem. No other US National Park surpasses North Cascades National Park in the number of plant species recorded. Over 1,627 vascular plant species have been identified, and estimates of non-vascular and fungal species could more than double this number for total plant species in the North Cascades. Some of these plants are threatened or endangered, and changes such as air pollution and global warming might affect their survival. Other threats include invasive non-native plants that are referred to as exotic species. Exotic species are capable of displacing native species and changing biotic communities. Resource managers at North Cascades National Park are taking action to reduce this threat by removing these invasive plants. This can be particularly difficult because these plants utilize trails, waterways, wind, and roads to colonize the area. Restoration of habitats changed by human activity has been a priority since the park was established in 1968. As leaders in developing methods of revegetation in the National Park Service, the plant propagation crew has grown thousands of native plants from seeds and cuttings. Taken from areas adjacent to damaged sites, these seeds and cuttings are later returned as young plants to restore campsites and trampled areas of the park.
Trees and Shrubs

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Animal Life

The North Cascades is one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth

The North Cascades is one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. Animals with fins, fur, feathers and scales are all at home in this dramatic and beautiful environment. Elusive mammals like the gray wolf, fisher and wolverine wander the wilderness in small numbers, while more adaptable Columbia black-tailed deer, Douglas squirrels and pikas delight park visitors in abundance. A wide variety of birds breed within the park boundaries, including rare animals such as the bald eagle, osprey, Harlequin duck as well as a variety of neotropical migrants. Fish and amphibians lurk in the clear mountain lakes and streams. The rich forests, rocky slopes and clean waters teem with invertebrate life, such as butterflies, dragonflies, stoneflies and mayflies. Each creature, no matter what its size, plays an intricate role in the North Cascades, whether it is a grizzly bear or a banana slug. North Cascades is home to approximately 75 mammal species in 20 families; around 21 species of reptiles and amphibians representing at least four orders; roughly 200 species of birds in 38 families; at least 28 species of fish; and recent surveys have documented over 500 types of land insects and approximately 250 aquatic invertebrate species.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Mount Rainier National Park

Day Hiking – Discover the many trails found in the frontcountry.
Backpacking – Experience the North Cascades on an overnight backpack trip.
Trail Guide – Find information on trails in the park.

The North Cascades National Park Service Complex preserves some of the finest mountain country in North America—a hiker’s smorgasbord. From accessible trails and short, scenic strolls to steep, grueling hikes that will make your legs burn but your heart sing, there is a trail here that will suit your mood. The extreme gradients of climate and topography contribute to an impressive diversity of habitat and species. To navigate the incredibly steep elevational relief, the nearly 400 miles of trails often follow the long, forested, valley bottoms, then switchback up to the steep passes or ridges. Over 300 glaciers cling to the spires, peaks, horns and ridges of the surrounding mountains, and more than 127 alpine lakes lie in glacial cirque basins below. The valleys are narrow, deep, and U-shaped, covered on the lower reaches with dense stands of old trees and layers of green undergrowth.

A Wilderness Park

This area is the core of a vast mountainous ecosystem of protected public lands. Envisioned as a wilderness park from its inception, over 94 percent of the park complex is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness. It lies at the core of over two million acres of federally designated wilderness, which is one of the largest such areas in the lower 48 states. Enjoy the solitude, peace, and challenge that hiking in this beautiful park offers. Remember to walk lightly, so that many generations more may discover this place as you will.

Hiking Season

Intrepid hikers, backpackers, and climbers ply the trails of the park year round. However, the more common hiking season stretches from April through October. The driest and most popular time to visit is during the summer months of mid-June through September. Keep in mind that higher elevation trails often remain snow-covered well into July and sometimes August. Precipitation and snowfall are greatest from November through March. The park’s winters are wet, and snowfall is heavy. Access is often limited during these winter months by impassable or closed roads, so be sure to check the park conditions report.

Trip Planning

The key to a successful trip is to plan ahead and be prepared. Check out the Wilderness Trip Planner to find out all you need to know about park regulations, backcountry permits, party size limits, hiking with pets, current road and trail conditions, and more.

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