North Cascades National Park

July 19, 2016

By Dutch Franz

Photo at right: Darina Stoyanova and Em Sevol, of Olympia, Washington, pause to enjoy the view on the trail from Cascade Pass up to Sahalee Camp. Photo by Andy Porter


The North Cascades National Park is one of the largest parks in the lower 48 and hosts some of the most diverse recreation in the nation. Visitors can bike scenic paths, hike alpine meadows, boat on rivers and lakes or backpack deep into the wild backcountry.

According to Park Ranger Katy Hooper, the North Cascades National Park is a unique complex of three recreation units: North Cascades National Park (501,458 acres), Ross Lake National Recreation Area (116,798 acres), and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (62,902 acres). The park serves as the core of over 2 million acres of protected wilderness and it hosted 825,442 visitors in 2015.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into creation Aug. 25, 1916. Half a century later, the U.S. Congress established the North Cascades National Park Complex in 1968.

Located in north and north-central Washington, the Complex is a tribute to Congress’ mandate to preserve “certain majestic mountain scenery, snowfields, glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes and other unique glaciated features … for the benefit, use and inspiration of present and future generations.”

A Bold Past

While the park was officially created in the late 60s, the area has been visited and inhabited for thousands of years. According to the Park Service, archeologists have found evidence of human habitation in the area going back 9,600 years.

Excavations show the use of Cascade Pass by indigenous peoples as a trade-route between the Columbia River Basin to the east and the Puget Lowlands to the west.

Euro-Americans came in the late 1700s when adventurous fur traders arrived by foot and canoe into the lower elevations of the North Cascades. Fur trader Alexander Ross is credited as the first Euro-American to cross the North Cascades in 1814.

Gold, silver, and lead were discovered in the area in the late 1800s and mining continued along with logging into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Later, the park served as artistic and literary inspiration for a new generation.

Writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen all worked as fire lookouts in the early 1950s. Kerouac lived in the Desolation Peak lookout station in the summer of 1956 and the experience is credited with inspiring his books, The Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960). According to Ranger Hooper, the park still offers a variety of arts programs including writing, photography and music.

Fun and Adventure

Rough, rugged and remote, this National Park offers visitors a plethora of true adventure. Whether it’s an excursion along the hundreds of trails, a scramble up a peak or pass, an overnight stay on the edge of an alpine meadow reached by foot, bike-tire or hoof, the wilderness of the North Cascades offers beauty and adventure for everyone.


The North Cascades Scenic Highway, also known as State Route 20, is a popular road biking route, but other less well-known routes offer a chance to get away from the crowds and explore new areas. Consider the Cascade River Road, State Route 542, or the Stehekin Valley Road.

The park is adjacent to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest which has incredible singletrack trails and mountain biking for all ability groups. If you need a bike, rentals are available in Stehekin, Twisp, Mazama and Winthrop.

Reflected in the placid waters of Picture Lake, all 9,131 feet of Mt. Shuksan shimmers in the mid-day sun. Photo by Andy Porter, courtesy of


Many popular day-hiking and backpacking routes can be found along State Route 20 and each offers something for all abilities and interests. There are over 400 miles of trails that generally start in the forested valley floor then zigzag up switchbacks to scenic alpine meadows and mountain passes. Enjoy views of mountain spires and more than 120 alpine lakes in glacial cirque basins.

The hiking/backpacking season traditionally goes from April to September, but higher elevation trails could have snow all year. There are 140 backcountry campsites available in the park and backcountry passes are required for wilderness camping. The Pacific Crest Trail also runs through the park offering visitors a chance to section-hike this popular trail.

Boating and Fishing

The Skagit and Stehekin rivers, along with four lakes, offer plenty of boating and fishing opportunities in the North Cascades National Park Complex.

With 25 boat-in camping spots dotting the backcountry shorelines of Gorge, Diablo and Ross lakes and both rivers, white-water boaters, kayakers, canoers, SUP’ers and four-stroke engine motor boat enthusiasts have a multitude of places to explore and spend the night.

All rivers and lakes in the park are open for fishing during specific seasons; all need a proper fishing license. Bait and fly-fishing options for cod, trout, kokanee, rainbow and cutthroat abound.


North Cascades National Park:
Centennial Events:
Maps of North Cascades East and West:

Dutch Franz is an avid North Cascades outdoor enthusiast and journalist. He is a regular climber, hiker and skier and has written extensively on activities in the region.