|North Cascades National Park|
Cascade Pass and Pelton Basin
|Location||Whatcom, Skagit, and Chelan counties, Washington, US|
|Nearest city||Mount Vernon, Washington|
|Area||504,781 acres (2,042.78 km2)|
|Established||October 2, 1968|
|Visitors||30,326 (in 2017)|
|Governing body||National Park Service|
|Website||North Cascades National Park|
North Cascades National Park is a United States national park located in the state of Washington. At more than 500,000 acres (200,000 ha), North Cascades National Park is the largest of the three National Park Service units that comprise the North Cascades National Park Complex, which together encompass an area of over 680,000 acres (280,000 ha). The park is surrounded by several national forests and wilderness areas, as well as Canadian provincial parks in British Columbia. The park features the rugged mountain peaks of the North Cascades Range, the most expansive glacial system in the contiguous United States, the headwaters of numerous waterways, and vast forests with the highest degree of flora biodiversity of any U.S. national park.
First settled by Paleo-Indian Native American ancestors of Skagit tribes, the region was visited by fur trappers in the early 1800s and was vied for by several British and American companies seeking control over the fur trade. After the international boundary between Canada and the United States was set at the 49th parallel in 1846, explorers came to chart potential access through the mountains for roads and railroads. Limited mining and logging occurred from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, but the first significant human impact in the region did not occur until the 1920s, when several dams were built in the Skagit River valley for the purposes of hydroelectric power generation. Environmentalists then campaigned to preserve the remaining wildness of the region, culminating on October 2, 1968 with the designation of North Cascades National Park.
Heavy snows and a high risk of avalanches due to the steep terrain, especially on the western slopes, severely limit visitation in the winter. Most access to the park is from Washington State Route 20, which follows the Skagit River, though even this road is closed for months at a time in the winter. Virtually all the endemic plant and animal species native to the park region are still found there, though climate change and pollutants from industrialized regions to the west pose risks to the environment. The park has one of the earliest and longest lasting research programs dedicated to studying climate change primarily through examining the effects of glacial retreat.
North Cascades National Park is almost entirely protected as wilderness, and so the park has few structures, roads or other improvements. Visitors wishing to drive to a campground must do so in the adjacent national forests or national recreation areas. Camping inside the park requires hiking in by trail, horseback or boat; however camping is regulated by a permits system to ensure the wilderness is not overly exploited. Mountaineering is popular in the park and only unobtrusive clean climbing is allowed.
Historians believe human history in the region that is now part of North Cascades National Park dates back to the end of the last glacial period, and the region has been continuously inhabited for the last 8-10,000 years.Paleo-Indian Native American ancestors of Skagit tribes slowly advanced from Puget Sound into the interior mountain region as the glacial ice retreated. Archeological evidence from other sites hundreds of miles away from the park indicate that Hozomeen chert, a type of rock well-suited to the fabrication of implements, was mined from near Hozomeen Mountain, just east of the park border, for the last 8,400 years. Hozomeen chert is part of the archaeological record throughout the Skagit River Valley, west of the park and in regions to the east, indicating people visited the region if for no other purpose than to obtain raw materials.
Prehistoric micro blades from 9,600 years ago have been discovered at Cascade Pass, a mountain pass that connects the western lowlands to the interior regions of the park and the Stehekin River Valley. The micro blades are part of an archeological assemblage that includes five distinct cultural periods, indicating that people were traveling into the mountains nearly 10,000 years ago. The archeological excavation at Cascade Pass is one of 260 prehistoric sites that have been identified in the park.
When white explorers first entered the area in the late 18th century, perhaps a thousand Skagits lived there. The Skagits lived in settlements, culling their needs from the waterways and traveling by way of canoe. Skagits formed a loose confederation of tribes that united if threatened by outside tribes such as the Haidas, who lived to the north. They erected large houses or lodges that could house multiple families, each with their own partitioned area and entrance. The lodges were 100 feet (30 m) in length and 20 to 40 ft (6.1 to 12.2 m) in width, and the roofs were shed-styles, with a single-pitch; structures built by other Puget Sound tribes usually had gable roofs with more than one-pitch. The Skagits were generally lowlanders, who only ventured into the North Cascades during the summer months, and structures in the mountains were more modest, consisting mostly of temporary buildings erected with poles and covered with branches. The Skagits erected totem poles and participated in potlatch ceremonies, similar to the Haidas, but with less complexity and extravagance. By 1910, only about 56 Skagits remained in the region, but their numbers have since rebounded to several hundred.
Inland and residing to the north and east of the Skagits, the Nlaka'pamux (or Thompson Indians after explorer David Thompson), Chelan, Okanogan and Wenatchi tribes lived partly or year-round in the eastern sections of the North Cascades. The Skagits and Thompsons often had disputes, and raided one another's camps in search of slaves or to exact retributions. Like the coastal-based Skagits, inland tribes also constructed long lodges which were occupied by numerous families, though the style of construction was slightly different as the lodges did not have partitions separating one family from another, and were frame constructed and covered with reed mats rather than from cedar planking. One Wenatchi lodge was described by Thompson as being 240 ft (73 m) long. Inland tribes were more likely to travel on foot or horseback than by canoe since the inland regions were less densely forested. Inland tribes also had less bountiful fisheries and greater weather extremes due to being further away from the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, inland tribes rarely erected totem poles or participated in potlatch ceremonies. By the beginning of the 20th century, inland tribes, like their coastal neighbors, had experienced population decline from when they had first encountered white explorers a hundred years earlier, mostly due to smallpox and other diseases.
The earliest white explorer to enter the North Cascades was most likely a Scotsman named Alexander Ross, who was in the employ of the American-owned Pacific Fur Company. To the southeast of the modern park boundary, Ross and other members of the company constructed Fort Okanogan in 1811, as a base from which to operate during the early period of the Pacific Northwest fur trade. Fort Okanogan was the first American settlement in present-day Washington State, well north of the route followed by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, and also north of Fort Vancouver, located on the Columbia River. Fort Okanogan was later owned by the North West Company, and then the Hudson's Bay Company, both of which were British-owned.
Both Native American and white trappers conducted fur transactions at the trading post, which was staffed by representatives of the fur trading company. During one season, Ross traded 1,500 beaver pelts. In 1814, Ross became the first known white explorer to do a deep exploration into the valleys and high passes of the North Cascades, but he was less interested in exploration than discovering a route that would easily connect the fur trading posts of interior Washington with Puget Sound to the west. Ross was accompanied by three Indians, one of which was a guide, who led the party to a high pass in the North Cascades. Ross and the guide may have traveled as far west as the Skagit River, but failed to get to Puget Sound. Fur trading slowed considerably as demand for furs decreased in the 1840s, but a few residents continued to at least augment their income by trapping for furs in the future park until 1968, when the park was established, rendering the activity illegal.
Aside from isolated trappers, the North Cascades saw no further explorations until the 1850s. In 1853, U.S. Army Captain George B. McClellan led a party that explored for potential locations for the construction of a railroad through the region. McClellan determined the mountains were too numerous and precipitous, and that any railway would have to be constructed well south of the current park.
American and British disputes in the region centered on the fur trade, and the Treaty of 1818 allowed for joint administration of Oregon Country, as it was referred to in the United States -- the British Empire referred to the region as the Columbia District. The treaty set the international border at the 49th parallel, but this was disputed west of the Rocky Mountains, since the rival fur trading outfits had their own ideas about where the border should be. The Oregon boundary dispute between Britain and the United States eventually led to the Oregon Treaty of 1846, and the 49th parallel forms both the current international border as well as the northern limit of the current park. During the late 1850s, members of the U.S. North West Boundary Commission explored the border region, attempting to identify which mountains, rivers and lakes belonged to which country. One party of the commission was led by explorer Henry Custer, and they explored the northern district of the park, publishing their report in the 1860s. Custer's party crossed Whatcom Pass in 1858, and were the first whites to see Challenger Glacier and Hozomeen Mountain. Impressed with the scenic grandeur of the region, Custer succinctly stated, "must be seen, it cannot be described". During the explorations by Custer, gold was discovered in a quartz vein on the slopes of Eldorado Peak.
In 1882, U.S. Army Lieutenant Henry Hubbard Pierce led a government-sponsored exploration that traversed along the western boundary of the southern section of the current park, in search of transportation routes and natural resources. As had been true for the party led by McClellan in the 1850s, Pierce failed to find a suitable route for a railway, and only marginally suitable routes for roads. Further expeditions by the military in 1883 and 1887 also determined that the mountains were virtually impenetrable. Explorers continued to seek out routes for wagon roads and railways and by the end of the 19th century, much of the park had been explored, but it was not until 1972 that the North Cascades Highway finally bisected the mountains.
Mineral prospectors entered the North Cascades region, and by the 1850s were doing placer mining along the banks of the Skagit River in search of gold. In the 1870s, placer mining also commenced along Ruby Creek, and hundreds of miners came to the region even though it was difficult to access. Most mining activity along Ruby Creek had ended by the 1880s, but was soon replaced by hard rock mining for silver and other minerals. This second period of mining lasted from the 1890s to the 1940s, but was only marginally more lucrative. Miners were hampered by short working seasons, difficult terrain, low quantities of ore and a lack of financial investment. Miners built some of the first trails and roads into portions of the backcountry, some that involved intricate engineering, including bridges over the numerous streams and dynamiting rock ledges above steep gorges during trail construction. One mining company built a series of flumes, the longest of which was over 3 miles (4.8 km), to both transport lumber and to supply water for use in their hydraulic mining operation.
During the latter years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, larger operations mined silver and lead in addition to gold, mostly with little or no profitability. The demand for various metals was not constant, and so prices tended to fluctuate too greatly for mining to be viable. Once the region became a national park, some privately owned mining inholdings remained. One such inholding, the Thunder Creek mine, was still privately owned as of 1997.
Unlike many other regions of the Pacific Northwest, logging had little impact on the future park. The ruggedness of the terrain and the existence of more economically viable timber resources that were closer to transportation routes largely dissuaded the timber industry from logging in the area. In 1897 the Washington Forest Reserve was set aside, essentially preserving the forestland that would later become the park. By 1905, the management of the reserve was transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service was subsequently created to administer these forest reserves nationwide, which were redesignated as National Forests. Though the Department of Agriculture allowed commercial enterprises the right to log the forest with a permit, most of the timber taken from the region was used only locally for the construction of cabins and similar small-scale enterprises. Logging expanded when the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project was commenced by the public utility, Seattle City Light in the 1920s. Almost 12,000 acres (4,900 ha) of timber would have been left underwater by the completion of the Ross Dam. A contract to extract the timber was awarded in 1945 and the project was not completed until 1958. None of the dams or areas that were extensively logged are within the current boundaries of the national park, but they are in the adjoining Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and Yosemite National Park in 1890, led preservationists to argue for similar protections for other areas. Even before the North Cascade region was provided some protection through designation as a Forest Reserve in 1897, activists argued the region should be afforded the greater protection accorded from a National Park designation. A petition was submitted in 1892 by Washington state citizens to establish a national park to the north of Lake Chelan, as many who had visited the region believed it to have scenery "greater than Switzerland's". Further efforts surfaced in 1906, and again in the years between 1916 and 1921, when several bills to designate the region a national park failed to gain approval from the US Congress.
Not all locals supported the idea of a national park, as they felt that such a designation would negatively impact the economics of the region. The Forest Service was also not in favor of park designation, as they would have to relinquish control over the land to the Park Service, which was not uncommon, since many parks being established were originally managed by the Forest Service. In an effort to appease their detractors, the Forest Service designated Primitive Areas which would provide increased protections to some of the most pristine regions they managed.
By the mid-1930s, forester Bob Marshall argued that the region should be set aside as wilderness. Rival interests continued to argue over whether the lands should remain under the management of the Forest Service or the National Park Service, but by the 1960s, the environmentalist argument advocating for a national park prevailed. Though the North Cascades National Park Act designated the region as a National Park on October 2, 1968, the National Park Service did not commence direct management until January 1, 1969. The North Cascades National Park Act also designated Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Redwood National Park in California was also signed into existence on the same day as the North Cascades. By 1988, much of Bob Marshall's original plan to set aside the future park as wilderness was achieved when almost all of North Cascades National Park was designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness.
North Cascades National Park is managed by the National Park Service, and the park headquarters is in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. The park consists of a northern and a southern district or unit. These are separated by Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The southeast boundary of the southern district abuts Lake Chelan National Recreation Area; the park and two recreation areas are managed as the North Cascades National Park Complex. Most of the park complex was designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, preventing further human-induced alterations to 93 percent of the park. The mandate of the National Park Service is to "preserve and protect natural and cultural resources". In keeping with this mandate, hunting is illegal in the park, as is mining, logging, oil and gas extraction, and removal of natural or cultural resources.
In 2016, North Cascades National Park recorded 28,646 visitors, while adjoining Ross Lake National Recreation Area reported 905,418 visitors and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area had 45,514 visitors. Peak visitation is between the months of June and September. The vast majority of visitors come to Ross Lake National Recreation Area which is easily accessible on Washington State Route 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway and the only road which bisects the park complex. North Cascades National Park Complex had an operating base budget of $7,700,000 for fiscal year 2010, augmented by another $3,700,000 of non-base funding (which can fluctuate significantly on an annual basis), and additional funding from revenue generated from concessionaire contracts and user fees. Much of the budget is for staffing, with 83 percent directed to pay for the employ of 81 permanent employees, not all of which are employed year-round, and the nearly 250 seasonal and term employees that work primarily in the summer months. In 2017, the fiscal year budget was approximately 7.5 million dollars, and budgets have been stagnant overall for all National Park Service sites for many years.
Although there are some gravel roads open to the public that enter the park, such as the Cascade River Road beginning at Marblemount, and the Thornton Lakes Road near Newhalem, most automobile traffic travels on Washington State Route 20, which passes through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The visitor center at Newhalem on the North Cascades Highway is open in the summer. Some of the best views of Mount Shuksan are from the Heather Meadows Visitor Center in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest well outside of the park. All backcountry access requires a permit, and most are obtained at the Wilderness Information Center near Marblemount. Full accessibility for all is not available in the park, but the adjacent National Recreation Areas have a few trails, in addition to all visitor centers, campgrounds and restrooms which are fully accessible.
The nearest large town on the west side of the park is Sedro-Woolley, Washington, while Winthrop lies to the east. Chelan is located at the southeastern end of Lake Chelan where east-side access to the park from Stehekin serves the eastern Washington communities. The closest international airport is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac), which is 120 mi (190 km) from North Cascades Visitor Center and 190 mi (310 km) from Chelan. In Chelan, the Lady of the Lake is a passenger-only ferry that transports visitors to Stehekin, and the trailheads hikers can use to access the southern end of the park.
North Cascades National Park is located in portions of Whatcom, Skagit, and Chelan counties in the U.S. state of Washington. Bisected by Ross Lake National Recreation Area, the park consists of two districts; the northern and southern. The northern boundary of the north district is also the international border between the United States and Canada; the latter manages adjoining Skagit Valley Provincial Park. The entire eastern and southern boundary of the north district is bordered by Ross Lake NRA. The western side of the north district is bordered by Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, within which lies the Mount Baker and Noisy-Diobsud Wildernesses, both of which border the park. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest also borders a portion of the southern district of the park, to the southwest. Also, along the southwest border, lies Wenatchee National Forest, within which lies the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The southern boundary of the park is shared with Lake Chelan NRA, while a small section of the eastern boundary is shared with Okanogan National Forest. The Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness lies in the Wenatchee and Okanogan National Forests along the southeastern park boundary.
North Cascades National Park has nearly 9,000 feet (2,700 m) of vertical relief, with the park's highest point atop Goode Mountain, and the western valleys situated at only around 400 ft (120 m) above mean sea level, the park has a highly varied ecosystem, including eight life zones. Erosion from water and glacial ice have created some of the steepest mountain ranges in the contiguous U.S., rising between 4,000 and 6,000 ft (1,200 and 1,800 m) above their bases. The park is home to over 300 glaciers as well as 300 lakes, and contains the headwaters for the Skagit, Stehekin and Nooksack Rivers. The ruggedness of the terrain was an obstacle to human encroachment and consequently, the park is almost entirely wilderness, though it is but 120 miles (190 km) from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington.
Named after the mountain peaks that are the central feature of the region, the North Cascades are a subsection of the Cascade Range which extends from northern California into British Columbia, Canada. The North Cascades are the northern section of the Cascade Range and unlike their southern counterparts that consist of Tertiary to Holocene volcanic rocks, the North Cascades are composed primarily of Mesozoic crystalline and metamorphic rocks. The exposed rocks predate the middle Devonian and are approximately 400 million years old. Much harder and more durable than the newer volcanic rocks of the southern Cascades, the North Cascades are consequently more rugged, with steep terrain being the norm due to heavy erosion from water and ice. Apparently still rising, the North Cascades originally formed from the jumbled masses of various rock structures that had their point of origin thousands of miles to the south, some 90 million years ago. By 40 million years ago, the heavier basaltic rocks of the ocean floor had started to push the lighter granitic rocks that are the core of the mountains upward, a process that is ongoing. Continued rising in conjunction with erosion from water and ice has created deep valleys and the vertical relief is significant, averaging between 4,000 and 6,000 ft (1,200 and 1,800 m), which is comparable to much taller mountain ranges.
The tallest mountain in North Cascades National Park is Goode Mountain at 9,220 ft (2,810 m). Goode Mountain is in a remote backcountry region of the southern section of the park. Near Goode Mountain are several other peaks that exceed 9,000 ft (2,700 m), including Buckner Mountain (9,114 ft (2,778 m)) and Mount Logan (9,087 ft (2,770 m)). Just under 9,000 ft (2,700 m), about 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast of Goode Mountain, is Black Peak (8,970 ft (2,730 m)). Other prominent peaks in the southern section of the park include Boston Peak (8,894 ft (2,711 m)),Eldorado Peak (8,868 ft (2,703 m)) and Forbidden Peak (8,815 ft (2,687 m)).
The northern region of the park contains the Picket Range, a subrange of the Skagit Range, which is in turn a subrange of the North Cascades. The Picket Range has numerous spires with ominous names such as Mount Fury, Mount Challenger, Poltergeist Pinnacle, Mount Terror, Ghost Peak and Phantom Peak, all of which exceed 8,000 ft (2,400 m). The Picket Range is only 6 mi (9.7 km) long yet contains 21 peaks over 7,500 ft (2,300 m). North of the Picket Range and near the border with Canada lie Mount Redoubt (8,969 ft (2,734 m)), Mount Spickard (8,979 ft (2,737 m)) and the spires of the Mox Peaks (8,630 ft (2,630 m)). Isolated and dominating the northwestern reaches of the park lies the oft photographed Mount Shuksan (9,131 ft (2,783 m)), which towers more than 8,400 ft (2,600 m) above Baker Lake only 6 mi (9.7 km) to the south.
More than 500 lakes and ponds are located within North Cascades National Park. Many of these are devoid of fish, not uncommon in steep terrain where fish may not be able to access high altitude waterways. Around 240 of these lakes exist in the higher elevations and while they have historically been naturally fishless, stocking of some of these lakes has been ongoing since the late 1800s. In 2008 an Environmental Impact Statement was produced that examined whether these lakes should continue to be stocked, and if so, what the impact would be on native species such as salamanders and other aquatic life.
Hundreds of creeks and streams and several rivers originate within the park. The higher elevations streams are oftentimes directly supplied by meltwater from glaciers, and within their waterways they carry finely ground rock particles commonly referred to as glacial flour. Turning the water a turquoise hue at times, this finely ground powder remains suspended in lakes the creeks flow into, also causing some of them to appear turquoise. Thunder Creek is particularly well known for this attribute, as it is supplied melt water from dozens of glaciers and transports the suspended particles into Diablo Lake.
The Skagit River bisects the park into the north and south districts, and while it itself lies outside the park boundaries, some of the creeks and streams that supply it originate within the park; the Baker River is the largest of these tributaries. The Skagit River is the largest river that flows into Puget Sound to the west, and the dams located in Ross Lake National Recreation Area and impounding other lakes adjacent to the park supply nearly 90 percent of the electricity used in the Seattle. Other important rivers that orginate in the park include the Chilliwack, Nooksack and the Stehekin River.
With approximately 312 glaciers, North Cascades National Park has the most glaciers of any U.S. park outside Alaska, and a third of all the glaciers in the lower 48 states. Counting a few glaciers in the adjoining National Recreation Areas, the North Cascades National Park Complex glaciers covered an expanse totaling 27,000 acres (110 km2) as of 2009.Boston Glacier, on the north slope of Boston Peak, is the largest glacier in the park, measured in 1971 to have an area of 1,730 acres (7.0 km2). Other glaciers that were measured in 1971 to be larger than 2 square kilometers include East Nooksack and Sulphide Glaciers on Mount Shuksan, McAllister and Inspiration Glaciers on Eldorado Peak, Redoubt Glacier on Mount Redoubt, Neve Glacier on Snowfield Peak, and Challenger Glacier on Mount Challenger.
The dense concentration and relative ease of access to the North Cascade glaciers brought about some of the earliest series of scientific studies regarding glaciology in the United States. Beginning in 1955, The University of Washington sponsored Richard C. Hubley to undertake annual aerial photography expeditions designed to capture images of the glaciers and to show any alterations that might be occurring. In 1960, Austin Post expanded the aerial coverage to include other regions and he also used ground-based imagery to augment the research. In 1971, based on the photographic imagery and other data collected since 1955, Post and others wrote a groundbreaking report that documented the number and scale of glaciers in the North Cascades. At the time of Austin Post's inventory, their study concluded that some North Cascades glaciers had experienced a period of minor growth or equilibrium in the mid-20th century, after undergoing decades of retreat. The study concluded that annual glacial melt due to seasonal variations has a significant influence on river levels, accounting for about 30 percent of the late summer water flow, which directly impacted the supported ecosystems such as salmon fisheries.
The National Park Service, United States Geological Survey (USGS) and glaciologists such as Mauri S. Pelto, who has led the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project since 1984, have continued research on North Cascade glaciers. Since 1993, the National Park Service has conducted rigorous studies on four park glaciers: Noisy Creek, Silver, North Klawatti and Sandalee Glaciers. The National Park Service research indicated that these four glaciers experienced rapid decrease in volumes between 1993 and 2011. In 1998, a National Park Service and Portland State University aerial photographic inventory showed a 13 percent loss in park-wide glacial volume since Austin Post's inventory in 1971. The NPS stated that in the last 150 years since the end of the Little Ice Age, a period of several centuries in which the earth experienced a cooling phase, glacial ice volumes in the North Cascades have been reduced by 40 percent. This loss of glacial ice has contributed to decreased melt in the summer. In the Thunder Creek watershed alone, this decreased runoff amounts to a loss of 30 percent of the summer streamflow.
Eight distinctive life zones support thousands of different plant and animal species in the North Cascades National Park ecosystem. With a elevation gain of nearly 9,000 ft (2,700 m) vertical feet, the park has one of the largest ranges of biodiversity found in any U.S. national park.
The flora in North Cascades National Park is significantly influenced by the great vertical relief, the amount of moisture an area receives, the slope and soil types as well as the fire ecology. This wide array of ecological niches has allowed a great biodiversity to evolve. Few if any other North American national parks have recorded as many vascular plant species as have been documented in North Cascades National Park. With 1,630 species documented, experts estimate adding non-vascular plants and fungi could more than double the number of known plant species.
The park contains an estimated 236,000 acres (960 km2) of old-growth forests. As little of the park was previously logged, significant stands of old growth forest can be found in the valleys and lower slopes up to the timberline at 7,000 ft (2,100 m). From the lowest valley floors to about 2,000 ft (610 m), virgin stands of western hemlock, red cedar and Douglas fir are common. These species are heavily dependent on deep soils, and red cedars 1,000 years old and towering over 200 ft (61 m) can be found on Big Beaver Creek. These lowest elevation forests can be accessed by trails, such as the Happy Creek Forest Walk off State Route 20, the Shadows of the Sentinels at Baker Lake, Thunder Creek Trail at Diablo Lake and the Horseshoe Bend Trail from Highway 542. In openings in the forest canopy, red alder and bigleaf maple can be found but throughout this dense forest, ferns, shrubs and mosses abound.
Between 2,000 and 5,500 ft (610 and 1,680 m) the forest is dominated by the pacific silver fir tree which can be driven to on State Route 20 at Rainy Pass. Also at this elevation, the western hemlock is replaced by the mountain hemlock as a dominate species. At elevations between 4,000 and 7,000 ft (1,200 and 2,100 m) in the subalpine zone, the forest gives way to meadows dominated by grasses and flowering plants and shrubs. Above 7,000 ft (2,100 m) lies the alpine zone where few plant species survive aside form some sparse grasses, the occasional shrub and lichens. However, a warming climate has led to an altitude adjustment for many flora species, with the timberline reaching 415 ft (126 m) further up the mountain slopes since the 1960s.
The biodiversity of the area is threatened by climate change and invasive exotic plant species. These exotic plants have spread across the park through the inadvertent redistribution from human activities, attaching themselves to cars and hikers. These invasive plants include the diffuse knapweed and reed canary grass. True grass species number nearly 150 in the park, but half of those are considered exotic and nonnative to the ecosystem.
Whitebark pine is native to the park, is a stabilizing species for other species of high altitude flora, and provides food source for birds such as the Clark's nutcracker, and mammals including bears. Scientists believe that increasing temperatures will have a negative impact on the habitat necessary to support whitebark pine, and therefore impact a wide array of other species. Of immediate impact to the whitebark pine that may be of a greater concern than climate change, is that of white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetles, both of which have devastated whitebark pine populations in many regions. As of 2018, "28 percent of whitebark pine trees are dead, 30 percent are infected with blister rust, and 1 percent have died from mountain pine beetles."
The park has a diversity of animal species, including 75 mammal species such as the timber wolf, coyote, bobcat, Canada lynx, cougar, moose, elk, river otter, hoary marmot, pika, mountain goat and black bear. Additionally 10 species of bats have been recorded as have rare species such as the American mink and fisher. Among mammals found in the park, the gray wolf is listed as endangered, while the grizzly bear is listed as threatened.
The park is prime habitat for grizzly bear, but the species was essentially extirpated from the region by 1860. Only two grizzly bear sightings occurred in the decade before 2015, but even these were outside the park boundary in Canada. In 1991, a decision was reached by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a U.S. Government land management agency committee, to make efforts to restore self-sustaining populations of grizzlies in the North Cascades region, which included the national park and surrounding national forests. In 1997, the North Cascades region was added to the National Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan; however in 2017, more than 25 years after grizzly recovery plans had been initiated, the environmental impact statement for grizzly bear restoration was still in the public comment stage. Various action plans had been proposed to reestablish a viable self sustaining population of 200 grizzlies throughout the region.
Wolverines are one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in North America. They are seldom sighted in the park, both due to the limited numbers of the species and the habitats they prefer, which are difficult to access snowy high-altitude regions far removed from human encroachment. Approximately nine wolverines were captured in the national forest east of the park and fitted with transmitters that were tracked by Argos satellite telemetry. Four of the wolverines frequented the southern sections of North Cascades National Park, and of those, two spent the majority of their time there; however, researchers were unable to determine if these study animals had reproduced offspring in the park. A warming climate may impact any wolverine recovery efforts implemented due to the loss of snow cover this species needs to reproduce. Research indicates that wolverines den in deep snow at least 5 ft (1.5 m) deep that lasts well into the month of May, and as climate warms, these regions are becoming less common, especially in the lower 48 states.
More than 200 species of birds that either pass through or use the park as a breeding ground have been recorded. These bird species include both golden and bald eagle as well as northern spotted owl, harlequin duck, Clark's nutcracker, trumpeter swan and seasonal appearances of western tanager, Cassin's vireo, pine grosbeak, woodpeckers such as the pileated woodpecker and primarily ground dwelling bird species such as the sooty grouse. The peregrine falcon is the only species federally designated as an endangered species, while the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl are listed as threatened.
There are at least 28 species of fish documented, including all five species of Pacific salmon: pink, chinook (king), sockeye, coho and chum. Various trout species including rainbow, lake and brook trout can be found as can the largemouth bass and longnose dace.
Seven species of reptiles and another dozen or so species of amphibians have been documented. Reptiles such as the northern alligator lizard and the common garter snake and amphibians such as the western toad, Pacific giant salamander and rough-skinned newt reside in the park.
In North Cascades National Park, fire was used by Native Americans in the region near present day Ross Lake to clear out brush, to ease foot travel, and possibly to flush animals out of the foliage. Evidence found in the patterns of tree growth as well as from tree ring analysis indicates human caused fires were created for many hundreds of years. Similar evidence is found in the Stehekin Valley, where both smaller low intensity fires and larger fires are suggested by the growth patterns and burn scars in tree ring evidence. The low intensity fires that were likely human induced were only found in the easternmost regions of the park. In the subalpine regions such as the Thunder Creek area, the studies concluded fire occurs at frequencies ranging from as little as 30 years to as long as 400 years.:8
Across the entire North Cascades National Park Service Complex, between the years 1973 and 2003, there were 113 human caused fires that burned 106 acres (43 ha), and 264 lightning caused fires that burned 11,672 acres (4,723 ha).:13 During this period, the largest fire consumed 4,118 acres (1,666 ha), mostly in Ross Lake National Recreation Area. North Cascades National Park Complex has three different zones that have varying ratings for fire potential and severity. The park is managed as the Skagit Fire Management Unit (FMU) and has a low frequency of large natural fires that occur on average only every 50 to 400 years.:36
North Cascades National Park has a condition type that shows "...natural (historical) range of variability of vegetation characteristics; fuel composition; fire frequency, severity and pattern; and other associated disturbances.":22 This condition type, in keeping with the wilderness designation applied to most of the park, equates to a natural "let it burn" policy overall, so long as persons and historical property are not threatened and the fire was lightning caused. As part of the management plan, the few historic structures in the FMU are prioritized for fire protection including backcountry shelters like Beaver Pass Shelter, and fire lookouts such as Sourdough, Desolation and Copper lookout, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.:42
The Cascade Range is tall enough to cause a significant rain shadow on the eastern slopes. The western slopes receive 76 inches (190 cm) more moisture than the eastern slopes, which works out to more than 400 in (1,000 cm) of snow falling in the west more than the east. On the western slopes, at elevations between 1,000 and 4,000 ft (300 and 1,220 m), snowfall depths range from 50-to-75 in (130-to-190 cm) annually. Above 4,000 ft (1,200 m) snowfall depths of 400 to 600 in (1,000 to 1,500 cm) are normal. Snow depths peak in early March and range from 10 to 25 ft (3.0 to 7.6 m) depending on the altitude.
Snow covers the ground more than six months out of the year, even at lower elevations, and Washington State Route 20, the only highway through the park, is generally closed from about late-November until late-April. Numerous avalanche chutes, as many as traverse any state or federal highway, and including some over 2,000 ft (610 m) long, cross the highway and make snow removal during that period infeasible. Heavy snow and frequent avalanches are common, especially on the western slopes, from autumn to spring. The high elevation trails are generally open by mid-summer and the majority of tourism is in the summer between mid-June and late-September. The east side of the park is generally warmer and drier, especially in the summer with highs reaching 90 °F (32 °C) on the warmest days. Since the 1950s, there has been a 5 °F (-15 °C) mean winter minimum temperature increase at elevations above 4,000 ft (1,200 m). This has led to a reduced winter snowpack as the mean winter freezing level is now 650 ft (200 m) higher in elevation.
Overall the relative proximity of the Pacific Ocean moderates temperatures in the park, and it is warmer than other regions at a similar latitude further inland. Winter generally sees a high of 30 °F (-1 °C) and low of 18 °F (-8 °C), and the summer high is usually at 70 °F (21 °C) with a low of 45 °F (7 °C). Altitude and whether one is in the eastern or western sections of the park can greatly influence the overall mean temperatures.
While North Cascades National Park is in a remote region for the most part, the prevailing westerly winds bring various pollutants into the park from the industrialized region around Puget Sound and the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia. These pollutants deposit onto plants and glaciers which are then carried by rainfall or ice melt and dispersed into the riverways and lakes. The industrialized regions around Puget Sound and the Fraser River Valley have had a more noticeable negative impact on water and air quality than at Mount Rainier National Park well to the south due to the prevailing winds. Lakes at higher elevations show a higher level of acidity due to this phenomenon; however, the current and long-term impact on the ecosystem of the park has not yet been fully assessed.
Mercury and other toxins from pesticides have been detected in the park, as has ozone; however, these have not been demonstrated to be at sufficient concentrations to greatly impact the ecosystem. Sulfur, nitrogen dioxide and ozone as well as increased dust and fine particulates from farming and construction are dispersed into the atmosphere, reducing long range visibility. Visibilities of up to 150 mi (240 km) have been reduced to less than 50 mi (80 km) on the worst days due to the increased haze.
Climate change will impact the temperatures of high altitude lakes and streams, which in turn will have an effect on the fish that can thrive in these waters. Additionally, retreating glaciers reduce the amount of glacial ice melt available in warmer months that kept streams and lakes cold, even in late summer.
North Cascades National Park is approximately 100 mi (160 km) northeast of Seattle, Washington. Nearly all of the national park is protected as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, so there are few maintained buildings and roads within the two units of the park. The park is popular with backpackers and mountain climbers. One of the most popular destinations in the park is Cascade Pass, which was used as a travel route by Native Americans. It can be accessed by a 3.7-mile (6.0 km) trail at the end of a gravel road. The north and south Picket Ranges, Mount Triumph, Eldorado Peak and the surrounding mountains, are popular with climbers due to glaciation and technical rock. Mount Shuksan, in the northwest corner of the park, is often photographed, and at 9,127 ft (2,782 m) is the second highest peak in the park.
Unlike most U.S. national parks, there are no places within North Cascades National Park where one can drive to a campground. However, there are many vehicular access camp grounds in Ross Lake National Recreation Area and in surrounding national forests. All overnight camping is considered backcountry camping, and camping areas are strictly regulated as are the size of parties allowed. This is done by way of a permitting system and most permits can be obtained at the Wilderness Information Center near Marblemount. Since the vast majority of the park is designated wilderness, the goal is to ensure all hikers and backcountry travelers enjoy the opportunities for solitude. Group sizes are limited to parties of less than a dozen individuals on what are known as trail and camping corridors, and in more remote areas off trails, groups larger than six individuals are not permitted. Backcountry camping spots can be reserved ahead of time in early spring only but all persons must obtain a permit for that reservation by visiting the Wilderness Information Center.
There are nearly 400 mi (640 km) of hiking trails in the park. Two National Scenic Trails, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail, pass through the park. Unlike most national parks, there is no entrance fee at North Cascades, and hiking trailheads accessed by vehicle do not require a parking pass; however, trailheads on some national forest properties adjacent to the park may require a pass.
Bicycles are allowed in the park but only on the same roads that vehicles are allowed on. There is no mountain bike access allowed on hiking trails. Hiker/biker camping is available at Newhalem Campground, Colonial Creek and near Stehekin.
The sturdy quality of the rocks, numerous cliffs, ice and other challenges make the park a favorite destination for many mountaineering enthusiasts. While some peaks and cliffs can be accessed fairly easily, the most remote ones entail a multi-day excursion, challenging for even the most experienced mountaineers. The park has banned the installation of any new fixed point anchors such as pitons, and only removable anchors such as chocks and cams are permitted. This clean climbing has been implemented to help protect the resource, since fixed point anchors deface the rock and are considered intrusive.
In addition to cliff climbing, ice climbing and bouldering are also popular. With much of the rock climbing and mountaineering done above the tree line, the effort to protect alpine ecosystems is of paramount importance. Leave No Trace policies are strictly enforced and encouraged, such as camping only on bare rock, using only a camp stove, storing food safely where animals cannot get to it, and carrying out or properly burying human waste as necessary. Mountaineering in the North Cascades was first popularized by renowned climber Fred Beckey, when at age 15 he as the first to reach the summit of Sinister Peak in 1938, in 1939 was the first atop Mount Despair, and then the following year also the first to summit Forbidden Peak. Beckey was the first to summit at least two dozen peaks in the North Cascades, and his exhaustive three volume Cascade Alpine Guide books, first published in the early 1970s, are so well regarded they have been called the "Beckey Bible".