North Cascades National Park is only three hours northeast of Seattle, but its remote location makes one of America’s least-visited national parks. Established in 1968, this federally-protected area encompasses 789 square miles (2044 square km) of mountain wilderness in the Cascade Range of Washington. Over 300 alpine glaciers decorate rugged peaks while pristine waters flow through dense conifer forests blanketed with lush lichens, mosses and ferns. The varied terrain hosts the largest number of plant species of any US national park, and a variety of wildlife call this place home. Amid this wilderness is also a scattering of historically interesting and economically important human structures.
North Cascades is actually part of a national park “complex” that incorporates Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas (NRAs). The only road through the park is North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) which follows the Skagit River through the Ross Lake NRA section.
Although most of the park is designated wilderness and has strict restrictions on development, the narrow Ross Lake corridor hosts three major dams that are part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Operated by Seattle City Light, these structures are all listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Gorge Dam was completed in 1924 and was then replaced by Gorge High Dam in 1961. It impounds Gorge Lake, which is fed not only by the Skagit River but also by Gorge Creek and its beautiful waterfall.
When Diablo Dam was completed in 1930 it was the tallest dam in the world at 389 feet (119 m).
This dam created Diablo Lake, and like other waters in the area it’s tinted a beautiful light blue color by the minerals weathering from the surrounding mountains.
Ross Dam was completed in 1953 and impounds Ross Lake, the largest body of water in the area.
These dams and their accompanying villages and power transmission lines are of interest and importance to modern society, and they have created some scenic alpine lakes. At the same time, however, they do have a tendency to invade what would be otherwise pristine views of nature.
Thankfully within this park it’s not hard to escape human development, even along North Cascades Highway. One point of interest is the Newhalem Creek Campground, and this quiet spot along the Skagit River is serene.
A number of trails radiate outward from this spot, winding throughout the eastern edge of the Pacific temperate rain forest. These forests are dominated by towering spruces, hemlocks, and other conifers:
The forest understory is blanketed with lush ferns:
In the dim light and abundant moisture, lichens and moss seem to cover every surface:
The verdant plant life can create scenes that feel like they’re out of a fantasy novel or movie.
A hike up Newhalem Creek showcases a rocky, roaring stream that is typical of the Cascade Range.
Here the abundant rainfall, thick forests, and steep rocky slopes lead to some really tranquil scenes.
In these deep, dark forests animal life is everywhere. Most conspicuous are abundant insects like this beetle…
…as well as these leaf-eating larvae:
Steller’s Jay (Passeriformes: Corvidae: Cyanocitta stelleri) aren’t uncommon near the campsites where they can be found foraging for discarded human food.
East of Newhalem Creek there are much higher elevations to be found in North Cascades.
American pikas (Lagomorpha: Ochotonidae: Ochotona princeps) can be found along the rocky mountainsides:
Along exposed slopes, many of the higher-elevation trees exhibit krummholz formations. Also called “flag trees,” this type of growth is the result of a constant barrage of strong, cold wind.
Some roadcuts expose a glimpse into the geologic chaos that has been forming this region. For tens of millions of years the oceanic Pacific Plate has been thrust against and subducted under the continental North American Plate. Islands in the Pacific have been slowly squished against the continent, adding to the North American land mass. As oceanic crust has been pulled under the margin of North America it has melted and risen to the surface, creating the volcanoes of the Cascades. Further inland, intense depth, heat, and pressure have melted and recrystallized some rocks into different rocks. Below you can see the dark-colored Skagit Gneiss from the “crystalline core” of the Cascades. This metamorphic rock was formed by the recrystallization of older granite and sandstone. The light-colored bands are younger intrusions of quartz and feldspar.
A number of great interpretive signs can be found along North Cascades Highway, including this geologic cross-section of the region. Between this information and the first-hand views of the landscape, it’s not hard to imagine the massive forces at work in this area.
Although North Cascades seems to be overshadowed by the better-known Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, this quiet corner of America should not be missed. The historically and economically important dams as well as the natural beauty of jagged peaks, lush forests, rushing waters, abundant wildlife, and interesting geology make this park well worth a visit. It’s important to note that the locations shown here are only along North Cascades Highway. Hundreds of square miles of designated wilderness stretch out from here, and these more remote locations are sure to hold far more to discover.