Unknown to more of greater Puget Sound residents than imaginable, undiscovered by even more, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country lives in our backyard. Less than 90 minutes from Bellingham and Anacortes, and just two hours from Seattle, awaits the “American Alps,” more commonly known as the North Cascades National Park. Take a drive down scenic Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway) and let it take you through the deep valleys of towering peaks, which average 5,000–6,000 feet in elevation, and past rapidly fed waterfalls, streams, and rivers, as you head east. When the highway opens after its often-six-month winter closure, snow is still stacked high on either side. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex, which encompasses North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
For a half-century, visitors have found wonder in the jagged peaks, and the countless rivers and streams fed by more than 300 glaciers—found only in comparable density in the United States in Alaska—and the wondrously green meadows found above the treeline. While there had been talk in conservation circles of a national park in the North Cascades Range since the late 1800s, it wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson pushed the idea into the national spotlight, says North Cascades National Park ranger Katy Hooper said. On Oct. 2, 1968, he signed the North Cascades Act, and the park was born. “The North Cascades National Park and its adjoining acres in what have been called the ‘American Alps’ is next door to the Pacific Northwest’s most populous communities. We are preserving for the pleasure of these people one of the most beautiful regions on God’s Earth,” Johnson remarked after signing.
The complex is unlike any other national park in the United States due to its complicated and diverse ecosystem, but also its vast recreation opportuni-ties. The complex is made up of three different land designations, each with its own regulations: park, recreation, and wilderness. With nearly 94 percent of the 680,849.5 acres designated as “wilderness,” it has immense, nearly undisturbed habitat for wildlife includ-ing rare species like wolverines, wolves, and even a handful of grizzly bears. Such vast wilderness lands make the complex an ideal place for backcountry camping, which requires a camper to hike in, rather than simply drive into a campground. “You can get on the trail and not be there with a million people,” Hooper says. In fact, you may go an entire weekend bumping into no more than a handful of fellow hikers.
In 2017, just 30,326 visitors set foot into the North Cascades National Park and a total of 828,446 visited the entire complex, Hooper says. For reference, Mount Rainier National Park had 1.4 million visitors in 2017 and Olympic National Park had about 3.4 million visitors in 2016. While its rugged nature is legendary, the North Cascades complex tends to rank last or second to last in visitors on an annual basis mostly due to the lack of amenities and accessibility, Hooper says. Larger national parks often have large lodges and nearby towns, while similar options near the North Cascade National Park are limited.
Visitors can experience the North Cascades in a variety of ways; hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, birding, cycling or a simple drive through the park via the North Cascades Highway. Hikers and backpackers will find seemingly endless options, year after year, within the nearly 400 of miles of accessible trails. For those looking for more comforts of home, the park encompasses a handful of reservable car campgrounds with picnic tables, bathrooms, and fire grates.
North Cascades Visitor Center
206.386.4495 ext.11 | nps.gov/noca
Five Things Not To Miss in North Cascades National Park Service Complex
A STOP AT THE WASHINGTON PASS OVERLOOK
Located about 30 miles west of the town of Winthrop, Washington Pass is the most scenic of the stretch of Highway 20 through the North Cascades. Park at the overlook and take in Liberty Bell Mountain to the south of Washington Pass.
HIKE DIABLO LAKE
Diablo Lake is fed by glacial melt full of silt and minerals, giving it an unreal blue-green color. The trail along the lake is appropriate for all types of hikers and is located within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
PADDLEBOARD ON LAKE CHELAN
The 50-mile-long lake provides a great water recreation playground within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
While not technically within the national park, Winthrop’s quaint western theme makes it a great place to stay the night while exploring the park. Continue about 25 miles east outside of the national park to reach Winthrop town center.
HEATHER-MAPLE PASS LOOP
Noted as one of the most scenic trails in the North Cascades, the Heather-Maple Pass Loop is seven miles of ever-changing landscape. Hikers are greeted with wildflowers, crystal lakes and views of soaring peaks.