Top 10 Things to Know About North Cascades National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.
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West side entry sign for North Cascades National Park on state highway 20 in Washington. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, Outsider)

The alpine landscape of northern Washington’s North Cascades National Park (NOCA) is as fascinating as it is unique among the National Park Service (NPS).

Named after the mountains sharing the same moniker and spanning 505,000 acres, North Cascades is one of the largest U.S. national parks outside Alaska. Flora and fauna have evolved alongside moist, brilliant soil in the park’s west, while a fire-adapted ecosystem fights on in the east. Between, enormous, snow-capped peaks host hundreds of glaciers. And it’s all at risk due to a warming climate.

For those wishing to explore this gorgeous wilderness, the good news is: there is no entrance fee for North Cascades National Park. Below, we’re breaking down 10 more fascinating and need-to-know facts about the park ahead of your excursion into the far north of Washington. Let’s get to it!

10. North Cascades National Park has a Canadian ‘Twin’ Park

View at sunset of Mount Baker in the North Cascade Mountains from the Skagit Valley. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The first thing you’ll notice about North Cascades is how far north it is. The park runs all the way up to Washington state’s international border with the Canadian province of British Columbia.

But the connection doesn’t stop there. The park actually has a Canadian “twin”: Skagit Valley Provincial Park. Currently, both Americans and Canadians can cross the border from one park into the other without a passport via dirt roads surrounding Ross Lake. But doing so from the U.S. side would require crossing through a near-impenetrable wilderness and the jagged peaks of the North Cascades. So it’s not exactly a leisurely excursion.

9. North Cascades is Part of a Gorgeous NPS Complex

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North Cascades National Park, Washington State on June 22, 2020. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The most pertinent thing to know about North Cascades, however, is that it’s part of a much larger NPS complex. The national park is managed alongside Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.

All three parks were formed in 1968 as an NPS complex. And when you visit, be sure to put these recreation areas on your list, as the majority of roads and facilities visitors can visit are within these NRAs (more on this below).

8. A Large Portion of North Cascades National Park is Inaccessible Wilderness

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Stehekin, Chelan County, Washington, USA. south North Cascade National Park. (Photo by: Jumping Rocks/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The reason you’ll want to include the entire NPS complex for your excursion is simple: the majority of North Cascades is inaccessible wilderness. Much of this rugged alpine landscape remains untouched by man and is extremely remote. But they remain hard to access for a reason, as NPS’s main interest with the national park is conservation.

In fact, the Stephen Mather Wilderness contains around 93% of the North Cascades National Park Service complex. For visitors, heading to the Washington towns of Marblemount (west) and Winthrop (east) are the best places to start, and the main public road through the park is Cascade River Road.

The other is Thornton Lakes Road, which will take you through Ross Lake National Recreation Area. For Backcountry access, visitors will need to acquire a permit through the Wilderness Information Center near Marblemount. 

7. North Cascades Houses the Most Glaciers Outside Alaska

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Eldorado Peak and Eldorado Glacier at sunrise from Cascade Pass Trailhead. North Cascades National Park, Washington. (Photo by: Greg Vaughn /VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If it’s catching a glimpse of glaciers you seek, then North Cascades is the place. The park houses a staggering 300 glaciers. This is more than any other U.S. national park outside Alaska.

Amazingly, this is the equivalent of 1/3 of the glaciers contained within the lower 40 states. And as our climate warms, these glaciers are receding at unprecedented rates.

6. Goode Mountain is the Tallest in the National Park

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View of McGregor Mountain from Goode Mountain, Goode Ridge Trail. (Photo credit: NPS media, NOCA)

As for the largest of the glacier-peaked mountains in North Cascades National Park, that’s Goode Mountain. Standing at 9,220 feet, it can be found in the southern section of NOCA.

Close behind it are Buckner Mountain at 9,114 feet and Mount Logan at 9,087 feet. The park’s other tallest peaks are Black Peak at 8,970 feet, Boston Peak at 8,894 feet, and Eldorado Peak at 8,868 feet). Forbidden Peak rounds out the tallest NOCA peaks at 8,815 feet.

Many mountains in the park gained their English names from the first European immigrant explorers to encounter them, but hold much older names in Indigenous languages.

5. NOCA is a Unique Climbing Hot Spot

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A climbing group with the National Outdoor Leadership School rests from hiking at Ptarmigan Traverse. North Cascade Mountains, Washington, USA. (Photo by Joel W. Rogers/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fancy a unique climb? NOCA offers challenges unlike most U.S. national parks. A few are easily accessible and mixed with hiking, but the real challenges push even the most experienced mountaineers to their limits.

This is because clean climbing is the only way to climb in North Cascades National Park. Clean climbing is the practice of undisturbed ascents; meaning no chocks, pistons, cams, or anchors of any sort can be used. Banning such techniques leaves the Cascades untouched and without human markings.

4. North America’s Most Famous Predators are Found in North Cascades

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A bear with upright ears and a direct stare may be curious about you or your campsite. (Photo credit: NPS/Dixon, NOCA)

America’s most well-known, beloved, and revered predators call North Cascades National Park home, too. In total, there are 75 species of mammals from 21 different family classifications. Among the most notable are grizzly bears, black bears, gray wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, lynx, bobcats, and even river otters.

This does, of course, mean visitors to North Cascades will need to be bear aware at all times. The same wildlife safety principles can also help you stay safe in this wild ecosystem where wolves and cougars thrive. Please see NOCA’s Bear Safety page ahead of your excursion.

For more, see our National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist next.

3. More Plants Thrive in North Cascades than Any Other National Park

Alongside the fauna, North Cascades National Park houses more flora, or plant species, within its borders than any other national park. No other NPS site has recorded as many plants living in a single conservation area.

This means gorgeous colors in spring when wildflowers bloom, flourishing forests throughout the year, and an abundance of fall colors come autumn. This is due to the fantastic soil of the area, which aids the growth of plants. In fact, trails in NOCA require clearing every single year just to keep them from overgrowing and becoming unusable for visitors.

2. The Indigenous Legacy of North Cascades

According to the national park, the Skagit Tribe of the North American Paleo-Indians were the first to settle the area that is now North Cascades. When the first European immigrants arrived in the 1800s, the region became a hot spot for fur trading, vastly altering the Indigenous way of life.

Prior, “The Skagits lived on the west side of the park around Puget Sound,” the park states. “They lived in settlements forming a loose federation. Large houses fenced with an entrance were occupied by several families. They held potlatch ceremonies. Skagits only ventured to the highlands during summer.”

Today, few Skagits remain in the region. For more on the native peoples of NOCA, see the park’s information page here.

1. The Founding of North Cascades National Park

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West side entry sign for North Cascades National Park on state highway 20 in Washington. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Alongside the two other national recreation areas in the complex, North Cascades became a national park on October 2, 1968. It was President Lyndon B. Johnson who would sign the NPS complex into existence.

But the area’s conservation legacy stretches back much further. In 1897, the region was first protected as a Forest Reserve. But it wouldn’t be until 1968, however, that North Cascades would become a national park after decades of debate. This was due to the long-lasting aftermath of World War II, in which clear cuts, mining operations, and motorized recreation threatened this mostly-untouched wilderness.

Today, the complex’s purpose remains “providing the American public a wealth of scenic, scientific, historic, and recreational opportunities in a wilderness environment.”

Outsider will be back with more on North Cascades National Park soon.

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