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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.