North Cascades National Park: Six Reasons To Visit on Your Next Vacation

©istockphoto/epicurean

North Cas­cades Nation­al Park is one of the most expan­sive alpine won­der­lands in the con­tigu­ous Unit­ed States. Estab­lished as a Nation­al Park in 1968, the North Cas­cades cov­er over 500,000-acres of pro­tect­ed land, and over 300 glac­i­ers, the most of any park out­side of Alas­ka. This wilder­ness of emer­ald lakes, lush val­leys, and tow­er­ing gran­ite for­ma­tions resem­bles a cross of Yosemite and Patag­o­nia.

Apart from its nat­ur­al beau­ty, this lit­tle cor­ner of North­ern Wash­ing­ton is the play­ground for great Amer­i­can climbers, par­tic­u­lar­ly Fred Beck­ey, whose name is asso­ci­at­ed with the numer­ous first ascents that he estab­lished in these ranges. In recent years, the land­scape is rapid­ly chang­ing due to retreat­ing glac­i­ers, warmer tem­per­a­tures, and dev­as­tat­ing fires. For any climber, back­pack­er, and out­door lover, see­ing the North Cas­cades while it’s still pris­tine is a trip worth tak­ing. These are six rea­sons to vis­it this unfor­get­table wilder­ness.

Few Vis­i­tors
In 2013, Yosemite Nation­al Park received approx­i­mate­ly four mil­lion vis­i­tors. In the same year, the North Cas­cades received just over 20,000. While California’s famed park is only mod­er­ate­ly big­ger in area, the North Cas­cades are more remote and iso­lat­ed, with trails that dri­ve deep into the heart of the moun­tains. With only a hand­ful of small towns inside the bound­aries and few estab­lished facil­i­ties, much of the park is still very much most­ly untouched wilder­ness. While trekking up a glac­i­er, or scal­ing one of the remote gran­ite tow­ers, it’s rare to find many oth­er par­ties on the same trail or climb­ing the same peak. In addi­tion, there’s no entrance fee or check­points; Only a sign that reads “Wel­come to America’s Alps.”

First Ascents
As recent­ly as 2009, new routes were estab­lished in the Pick­ets and the Bor­der Peaks. In the spir­it of Fred Beck­ey, who wan­dered here for decades, there are oppor­tu­ni­ties for bold first ascents through­out the park in addi­tion to ski descents and unclimbed win­ter routes. Par­tic­u­lar­ly on remote, colos­sal objec­tives such as Bear and Johan­nes­burg Moun­tain, few have ven­tured off-trail and bush­whacked their way to the base or estab­lish new routes. In 2013, the late alpin­ist Chad Kel­logg com­plet­ed the first direct tra­verse of the remote Pick­et Range in a spec­tac­u­lar eight-day push. As climb­ing has evolved since the first ascents of the 1960s, alpin­ists are now find­ing their way to more iso­lat­ed sec­tions of the park, with a bevy of FA oppor­tu­ni­ties.

©istockphoto/thinair28

Dif­fer­ent Climb­ing Styles
The archi­tec­ture of the North Cas­cades’ sub­ranges is so var­ied that there’s a peak for every style of climb­ing. Alpine rock climbers will fall in love with the Patag­o­nia-esque Lib­er­ty Group or Wine Tow­ers of Wash­ing­ton Pass. Eldo­ra­do Peak fea­tures a dra­mat­ic knife-ridge lead­ing to its Himalayan-like sum­mit, and Glac­i­er Peak is a clas­sic, remote Wash­ing­ton vol­cano that’s loved for its excel­lent climb­ing and ski-moun­taineer­ing. First-time moun­taineers can find eas­i­er sum­mits on Sahale Peak and the Boston Glac­i­er. Sport climbers and boul­der­ers are drawn to the Goat Wall just out­side Maza­ma with routes rang­ing from 5.5 to 5.10+.

The Best Hik­ing In Wash­ing­ton
Not only a play­ground for climbers, but the North Cas­cades also have some of Washington’s most beloved trails. Three Beat Poets: Jack Ker­ouac, Philip Whalen, and Gary Sny­der spent sum­mers as fire look­outs in his­toric watch­tow­ers which are acces­si­ble through steep, stren­u­ous moun­tain treks. A key char­ac­ter­is­tic of North Cas­cade hik­ing is its untouched wilder­ness atmos­phere. Many of the trails, such as the one lead­ing to the Boston Basin, are un-main­tained and wild, tread­ing on rocky, uneven paths, rag­ing streams, and tricky boul­ders that ascend direct­ly onto the Quien Sabe Glac­i­er. Short­er day-hikes lead from the Methow Val­ley to Blue Lake just below Wash­ing­ton Pass, and Maple Pass, which explodes with col­or in the fall.

Year-Round Ski­ing
The North Cas­cades enjoy year-round snow­fall and con­stant glac­i­er cov­er­age. Ski moun­taineer­ing and pow­der turns at Wash­ing­ton Pass are avail­able until late sum­mer and the back­coun­try around Mt. Bak­er in ear­ly fall. Hut-to-hut tours, cross-coun­try, and heli trips have skiers mak­ing fresh tracks in the far­thest reach­es of the moun­tains. In the win­ter, the North Cas­cades High­way clos­es its gates till mid-spring. While cars are blocked, back­coun­try trav­el­ers skin up to yurts and make the first turns of the sea­son, well before Washington’s resorts have seen an inch of snow.

It’s In Trou­ble
The land­scape of the North Cas­cades is rapid­ly chang­ing in part due to cli­mate change. Glac­i­ers have reced­ed more than 40% in the last ten years, dri­er con­di­tions are caus­ing big­ger wild­fires, and inva­sive species are dec­i­mat­ing native flo­ra. The North Cas­cades are imple­ment­ing an action plan to save the eco-sys­tem, record green­house gas­es, and pro­vide edu­ca­tion to mit­i­gate the effect of cli­mate change on the park. The Cas­cades will con­stant­ly evolve and the land­scape will change, but by being a respon­si­ble hik­er or climber, they will remain pris­tine for gen­er­a­tions ahead.