In 1814, trapper Alexander Ross struggled to make his way through the exceedingly rugged terrain of Washington’s Cascade Range. The dense forests and glacier-clad peaks may put some modern-day visitors in mind of the Alps, but when Ross negotiated the mountains that would later become part of North Cascades National Park, he did not dwell on the beauty. Instead, he declared, “A more difficult route to travel never fell to man’s lot.” Thankfully, the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) greatly eases travel travails today. The road runs through Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which divides the north and south units of the national park. This route through the mountains, a portion of which closes in the winter, facilitates access to the park, but the names of the surrounding peaks — Mount Fury, Mount Terror, Mount Despair and Damnation Peak — hint at the terrain’s unrelenting nature.
Of course, the ruggedness of the landscape specifically attracts hikers who appreciate knife-blade ridges, saw-tooth peaks and oh-so-deep valleys. While exploring nearly 400 miles of trails, hikers and fans of wildlife can watch black bears devour berries, mule deer forage in meadows, mountain goats scurry over rock outcroppings and marmots warm themselves in the sun. Harder to spot are the park’s bobcats and mountain lions, but visitors can easily see the handiwork of North Cascades’ hundreds of glaciers in the park’s scenery.
Named for the countless waterfalls that run at full flood in the spring, the Cascade Range reaches from British Columbia to Northern California. As mountain ranges go, this is a young one, and the sharpness of its features indicates the range’s youthfulness. The western part of the park receives far more precipitation than the eastern section does, and the 110 inches of rain that fall on the western slopes give rise to hemlocks, western red cedars and Douglas firs. The mountains have wrung the clouds of moisture by the time the winds carry the clouds to the east, and the ponderosa pines and sagebrush that grow in the rain shadow near Lake Chelan are testament to the arid climate.
Including the national forests and wilderness areas that surround the national park, the region delivers so much untrammeled acreage that dedicated explorers will need many return visits to comprehend the area’s vastness. Travelers with less time, though, should begin at the North Cascades Visitor Center on the North Cascades Highway near Newhalem. Exhibits and audio-visual programs in the visitor center grant an overview of the park, and a viewpoint trail begins nearby. The 60-mile drive from Marblemount to Washington Pass, or vice versa, along the North Cascades Highway, delivers many of the park’s most spectacular road-accessible views, including the aqueous blue beauties of Ross Lake and Diablo Lake. This drive is almost inevitable, since North Cascades Highway is the park’s only paved road.
RVers who stay in either of the no-hookup campgrounds (Newhalem Creek and Colonial Creek) should, if possible, get out of their RVs at every opportunity. They don’t have to endure the difficulties that Alexander Ross did, but they should at least breathe deeply.
North Cascades National Park, (360) 854-7200, www.nps.gov/noca.