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Adventurer’s Guide to North Cascades National Park, Washington

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Established in 1968

The North Cascade Range’s rugged mountain crests are havens for a greater variety of plant species than any other national park.

When you stand amidst the untouched wilderness of the North Cascades, it’s easy to envision yourself back in a time prior to human civilization when the loudest clamor is from cascading waterfalls, the stars dazzle even brighter, and nature’s own trees and mountains form the boundaries.

Located in the northwest region of Washington state lies the rugged landscape known as North Cascades National Park. The park is known for being the most glaciated park in the United States outside of Alaska as well as having the most flora biodiversity of any US National Park.

The North Cascades differ from mountains in the southern region of the state. Up north the park is predominantly protected as wilderness, and surrounded by national forests, recreation areas, and provincial parks that lie in Canada. The landscape is far less accessible than the mountains surrounding Seattle, leading to a pristine landscape unlike anything else in the state, and the entire nation.

Cascade Pass is a popular area of North Cascades National Park. Surrounded by many iconic Washington mountains, it is also a start point to the Ptarmigan Traverse, a classic mountaineering route. Crowding and overuse have become a challenge even with an overnight permit quota most of the year, making education in leave no trace principles as imprtant as ever for those interested in exploring the outdoors.


Long before Europeans began exploring the region, the North Cascades was home to the Paleo-Indian Native Americans. Scientists estimate that humans have inhabited the surrounding region for around 9,000 years. It is likely that the Paleo-Indians arrived in the North Cascades from the Puget Sound. Microblades found throughout the park date back to over 9,000 years ago, helping researchers distinguish five unique cultural periods of the past. Because of how rugged the peaks of the North Cascades are, the Skagit tribes primarily inhabited the western slopes of the park, exploring the mountains during the summer months when snowfall had diminished.

European colonizers first arrived in the North Cascades region around 1810. A camp was set up soon after to explore the region and expand the growing fur trade of the time. For many decades fur trapping was the only reason Europeans were inhabiting the region. But with the expansion of the railroad in the 1850’s more settlers began moving into the area. Though no railroad was built through the North Cascades, as they were deemed too dangerous, the population of the region began to grow.

Mining continued to grow from the 1890s into the 1940s, which helped create some of the first trails in the park. While many sections of the Pacific Northwest were used extensively for logging, the North Cascades jagged peaks helped deter major logging companies.

Environmentalists and activists of Washington comprehended the natural beauty of the region and wanted to protect it by establishing a national park. Local populations often said that the region had beauty “greater than Switzerland”. Efforts began as early as 1892, continuing through the first few decades of the 1900s. Finally, President John F. Kennedy approved the region as a National Park in the early 1960’s, with official designation taking place in 1968.

White mountain goat in North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Geology, flora, fauna

The Skagit river runs through the park, separating the Northern Unit from the Southern Unit. Because the park straddles the Cascade Range it offers a diverse landscape. The western slopes are characteristic of western Washington. High rainfall leads to lush forest and an abundance of flora. The eastern region of the park is more dry with less dense forests and more exposed peaks.

The park boasts 9,000 feet of vertical relief and lies just east of Mount Baker. Glacial retreat over time has carved the rugged peaks that distinguish the park from any other in the nation. The park is home to some of the steepest mountain ranges in the United States along with over 300 glaciers. On top of the immense amount of glaciers, the park is also home to over 300 lakes, containing the headwaters for both the Stehekin and Nooksack Rivers.

Lake Reflection of Mount Shuksan in North Cascades National Park, Washington.

The peaks of the park are made up mostly of Mesozoic crystalline and metamorphic rock whose continually reformation has led to the park being one of the most complex geological formations in all of North America. The tallest peak in the park in Good Mountain, standing at 9,220 feet in the southern region of the park. North Cascades National Park is home to seemingly endless peaks reaching over 8,400 feet. Another notable peak, in the northwestern section of the park, is Mount Shuksan standing at 9,131 feet. To comprehend just how steep some of the peaks are, many turn to the iconic Mount Shuksan. Though the peak is just over 9,000 feet tall, it towers above Baker Lake by nearly 8,400 feet. The lake lies just six miles away from the base of the iconic peak.

The 312 glaciers of the park make it the most glaciated park outside of Alaska. Over a third of the glaciers that lie within the lower 48 states can be found within the park’s boundaries. Because the park is so glaciated, it is home to one of the oldest research stations in the country that is tracking glacial retreating.

Steep and rugged peaks, along with high amounts of rainfall, allow for various flora and fauna to thrive throughout the North Cascades National Park. Over 1,600 plant species, excluding fungi and non-vascular, have been found throughout the park. Old growth forest covers nearly half of the 500,000 acres of the region. These old forests are made primarily of Douglas fir and western hemlock trees. As elevations rise, older forests give way to pacific silver fir and mountain hemlock. Between 4,000 and 7,000 feet, the forests finally begin to thin while grasses and shrubs dominate the landscape amidst the many lakes. White bark pine is native to the region though threatened by white pine blister runs and the mountain pine beetles.

Despite the immense amount of biodiversity, invasive species and climate change threaten the pristine park. Diffuse knapweed and reed canary grass threaten the native species of the park while warmer temperatures lead to forest fires and faster melting glaciers.

Because so much of the park is protected by wilderness, the relatively unexplored terrain allows for animals to thrive. North Cascades National Park is home to over a dozen carnivore species including cougar, bobcat, mink, coyote, black bear, and river otters. Other large mammals include elk, deer, mountain goat, moose, bighorn sheet, beaver. Both grey wolves and grizzly bears inhabit regions of the park with the wolf being classified as an endangered species. The grizzly bear was extirpated during the 1860s and there have only been two sightings in recent decades. However, there are plans to reintroduce the grizzly bear to the region. Wolverines also inhabit the park though they are known for being one of the most elusive species in all of North American.

The park is also home to over 200 species of birds. Both golden and bald eagles roam the sky along with northern spotted owl, trumpeter swan, harlequin duck, and various others. The endangered peregrine falcon finds protection from the park as the endangered species works at rebuilding its population. The waterways of the park are home to all five species of Pacific salmon including pink, coho, chum, sockeye, and chinook. Various species of trout and bass can also be found in the lakes and rivers of the park.

Washington Overlook in North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Main attractions

Despite how remote the park may seem, it is just a few hour drive from Seattle or the city of Bellingham that lies to the west. Many of the main attractions of the park can be found within the Stephen Mather Wilderness. While nearly every national park requires an entrance fee, North Cascades National Park does not.

Highway 20 cuts through the middle of the park and is noted as being one of the most beautiful roads in all of America. While just outside the park, views from the Mount Baker Wilderness provide visitors with unobstructed views of Mount Shuksan from the iconic Artist’s Point Hike.

View of Mount Baker from the Artist Point hiking trail in North Cascades National Park, Washington.


Hiking is by far the most popular activity within the North Cascades National Park. The remoteness of the park gives way to a landscape that seems to be untouched by time.

One of the most popular routes in the park is the Blue Lake Trail. This 4.5 mile hike has just 920 feet of elevation gain, making it more accessible than many within the park. Just off of highway 20, the trail leads hikers to one of the most iconic lakes in the park, surrounded by the distinctive rugged peaks of the park.

Another popular hike is the Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm Trail. The route is 11.6 miles roundtrip with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. This longer route provides visitors with a true look at the diversity of the park. Dense forests give way to wide open basins, often full of wildlife. The North Cascades tower above with the glaciers covering many of the upper peaks. The steep climb is worth the panoramic views of this national park.

Other popular trails include Sourdough Mountain, Cottonwood Camp, and Thunder Creek. The park has over 400 miles of hiking trails, which also includes sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail. Snowshoeing is available on a few hiking trails during the winter months though access is limited due to snowfall and the lack of roads in the park.


The North Cascades National Park is unique in the fact that there are no campgrounds that visitors can drive directly up to. Though there are various campgrounds along the iconic Highway 20, these are not technically in the park boundaries. Thus, all overnight camping within the park is considered backcountry camping.


While no mountain bikes are allowed on the trails within the park, many bikers still explore the park through the main roads. Road bikes and gravel bikes pass over Highway 20 during the summer months. Camping specifically for hikers and bikers is available at Colonial Creek, Newhalem Campground, and near the city of Stehekin on the northwestern shore of Lake Chelan.

Climbing & Mountaineering:

Though the park isn’t home to the tallest peaks in the state, it is full of both climbing and mountaineering opportunities. The rugged peaks in North Cascades National Park will challenge even the most experienced climbers. While some of the popular peaks can be completed in a day,  the more remote ones require a multi-day excursion. Much of the modern climbing routes were first set by Fred Beckey who in the 1930s-1950s was the first to summit over two dozen of the peaks within the region. When it comes to rock climbing the park has strict clean climbing rules meaning that no new fixed anchors can be placed. In order to protect the alpine region, climbers must use chocks and cams for climbing. Popular mountains and regions in the park include Eldorado Peak, Mount Shuksan, and Liberty Bell on Washington Pass.

Mountaineer climbing in North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Nearby Cities

Located an hour and a half west of the park lies the city of Bellingham. Nestled along the coast, the city has a population of over 90,000 people, making it the largest city within Whatcom County. With the North Cascades lying to the east, British Columbia to the north, and the San Juan Islands to the west, Bellingham is known for its abundance of outdoor activities. Home to some of the most extensive networks of mountain biking trails in the country, the city acts as a gateway to the North Cascades National Park as well as the rest of the peaks within the Northern Cascades.

An hour and a half south of Bellingham lies Seattle, the most populous city in the state. Though the park is only a few hours from Seattle, North Cascades National Park remains far less visited than Mount Rainier National Park or the national forests east of Seattle.

The North Cascades National Park is unlike any other park in the United States. It’s rugged peaks are more synonymous with those of Europe rather than North America. Yet despite the unparalleled beauty of the region, it still remains a protected yet hidden gem of the region. While fewer roads has allowed the wildlife to thrive and old growth forests to flourish, it has resulted in fewer people exploring this northern part of Washington. Whether visitors are looking for a scenic drive through the rugged peaks, or seeking solitude in the remote backcountry wilderness, the North Cascades National Park is sure to leave one wanting to come back for more.

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