Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park

Things to Know Before Visiting the North Cascades National Park

One of the largest National Parks in the US, the North Cascades National Park in Washington State, less than three hours from Seattle, showcases and protects one of the most pristine alpine environments. Here, you’ll find jagged peaks and glaciers, deep forests and cascading waterfalls, all away from civilization.

Less developed than some of the smaller parks, the North Cascades offer hiking and camping opportunities away from civilization. We visited the park a few times during our stays in the Pacific Northwest, and it has become one of our favorites. The following are some of the things I learned while visiting the North Cascade National Park.

The North Cascades Are Home to Both Black and Grizzly Bears

As we walked into the Visitor Center in North Cascades National Park, a ranger greeted us with two bear hides laid out on a table. Guess which one was a black bear as opposed to a grizzly, she asked visitors, especially if they came in with kids. My daughter, a middle-schooler at the time, had no problem pointing out the differences.

She didn’t tell the ranger she has seen both a black bear and a grizzly during her travels so far. She also felt bad for asking why they had bear hides in a National Park’s Visitor Center. “Those weren’t fake,” she told me when we left the ranger and entered. “Why do they have them?”. “You should’ve asked,” I answered, but we found out when we stood face-to-face with a stuffed grizzly.

In the North Cascades NP Visitor Center
In the North Cascades NP Visitor Center, we came face-to-face with a stuffed grizzly 🙁

The sign under it said something like a poacher killed this bear, but he later turned it over to the North Cascades National Park to educate people about the bear population, and how to protect them. Well, I don’t know why or how a poacher would turn over his possession, I might have read it wrong, and they confiscated it. Either way, it found a better use at the Visitor Center than it would be sitting in some collector’s room.

The North Cascades National Park is home to some of the wildest areas of the United States. Because of this, it is an ideal habitat for both black and grizzly bears. For visitors, they add an exciting and dangerous element of the wilderness experience. We learned what to do if we encounter one, but have seen none during our visit.

In the North Cascades National Park
Looking up in the North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades National Park Is Over 50 Years Old

During the same visit, a few years ago, everywhere we looked inside the Visitor Center we noticed signs about the Park celebrating its 50th anniversary. That makes it a young National Park, compared to some older ones, like Mt Rainier National Park near to it, which celebrated its 100th birthday a few years ago.

Its size makes up for its age though. Established as a wilderness park, the North Cascades National Park Service Complex is the center of about 2 million acres of protected wilderness, the largest in the US. The US Congress set aside this huge are as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

North Cascades NP
Rugged peaks, dense forests, crystal-clear lakes and rivers in the North Cascades

Rugged peaks, over 300 glaciers, old-growth forests, gorgeous volcanic lakes provide a landscape where the North American wilderness thrives with little interference from human “progress”. The biodiversity of this continent reaches its full potential in such a huge area designated as wilderness. The Park provides an opportunity for endangered and threatened species to thrive, and a home to migratory birds.

In 1968, the Congress set aside the North Cascades National Park System, naming its purpose as preserving “majestic mountain scenery, snowfields, glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, and other unique glaciated features,” for the “benefit, use and inspiration of present and future generations.”

Poets and Writers Found Inspiration As Fire Lookouts in the North Cascades

Gary Snyder, a well-known American poet was a fire lookout at Crater, Sourdough and Lookout Mountains in the North Cascades between 1952-1955. He wrote a poem that he left inside the lookout before returning to civilization.

” I the poet Gary Snyder/stayed six weeks in fifty-three/on the ridge an on this rock/&saw what every lookout sees,/saw these mountains shift about/&and end up on the ocean floor/saw the wind and the waters break/The branched deer, the eagle’s eye”.

Other poems he wrote during that time became the source ofMyths and Textspublished in 1960, with separate sections called “Logging”, “Hunting”and“Burning”.

A friend of Snyder’s and fellow poet, Philip Whalen, followed his example and worked a few seasons in the Sourdough Lookout. During this time he wrote many poems.

Perhaps the best-known author inspired by the North Cascades is Jack Kerouac. Like Snyder before him, Kerouac was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, now part of the North Cascades National Park, in 1956.

Ross Dam and Lake North Cascades NP
Almost at Ross Lake; I’d need to take a boat to a remote trailhead, then trek up the mountain for over six miles to reach the Desolation Peak Fire Lookout tower. Not something I consider doing…

This lookout is indeed isolated. The trailhead can only be reached by boat from Ross Lake, then a vertical hike of over 6 miles leads to it. For me, it was hard enough to hike down to Ross Lake and back up, I can’t imagine going up to the lookout on the Peak. Isolated in the “unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities” of these mountains, Kerouac wrote journal entries and letters. His experience, however, inspired two of his better-known works, Desolation Angels, and The Dharma Bums.

The Mountains Inspire Us To Protect It

The beauty of these mountains inspired generations of poets, writers, and artists like the ones mentioned above.

Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park
The wilderness in the North Cascades inspired generations of artists, poets, and writers.

They also inspired and continue to inspire generations of visitors to enjoy and protect this rugged landscape. When you stop in the middle of the forest, you truly feel your place in nature. Your ego dissolves as you enjoy your surroundings, the deep green of the forest, the clear water of the streams, the sounds of nature around you.

Sometimes you might find yourself in surreal,out-of-this-world surroundings.

Moss-covered rocks and tall trees in the North Cascades
Moss-covered rocks and trees in the North Cascades make me feel like I landed on The Hill, filled with hobbit-holes. I’m expecting Bilbo Baggins to open a door and wish me “good morning”.

You realize that long after we are gone, these woods will bring joy to future generations. At least they should if we don’t destroy them. And you might feel an overwhelming need to leave them as they are, to step lightly and leave no trace of your passing, to protect them from development, from those who might not understand their significance.

Spend Time in A Forest - North Cascades NP
We all need to spend time in a forest to reevaluate our priorities. The North Cascades is a perfect place for it…

Everyone who even thinks of destroying a forest should spend time alone in one. They would lose their greed, they would see the insignificance of all the material things they own, they would understand years from now nothing they collected would matter. But the forest will help our children and future generations thrive.

The North Cascades is Home to Endangered Wildlife

The expansive wilderness in the North Cascades is home to wildlife uncommon in more populated areas. Grizzly bears and grey wolfs, both endangered, live in these rugged areas. Both species need large undisturbed wilderness areas to roam and survive, something the North Cascades National Park offers, but few others, smaller.

Another species on the endangered list, the Canada lynx, also lives in these mountains. The Cascade Red Fox and the fisher seem to have disappeared from the Cascades though they were once abundant. They used to trap and kill both for their fur. Now the fisher is on the endangered list while the Cascade red fox is a species of concern.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen to all these animals if the Endangered Species Act would disappear. Are we ready to let wildlife live without interference? Are these animals going to be safe from us if we don’t have regulations that stop those who try to hurt them?

Not all wildlife in the Cascades is endangered, however. Black bears, wolverines, cougars, river otters, lynx, and bobcats live there.

Mule deer are the most common animals seen in the North Cascades, but elk, moose, and mountain goats live here, too.

Hiking Trails Abound in the North Cascades National Park

As much as I think I’d love to take time to live in the wilderness, it is not something I can do. Instead, my family and I visit National Parks and wilderness areas and take short day hikes through amazing scenery. We end up on short or easy hikes, close to either a Visitor Center or a well-traveled trailhead.

On the River Loop Trail by the North Cascades Visitor Center
On the River Loop Trail by the North Cascades Visitor Center

Still, if we are inside the forest for any amount of time, we feel far from civilization, the noise of the highways and human habitats disappear. The forests in the North Cascades are so dense, Big Foot lurking close to us in the middle of them doesn’t seem far-fetched.

As we walk on one of the more remote trails, my daughter tells me she feels someone or something watching her. We stop and look around, but see nothing. Still, it could be any small animal, watching the intruders, trying to decide if running or fighting would be an option, or just let us pass.

In a dense forest in the North Cascades NP
The forest is so dense in the North Cascades, even Big Foot lurking close-by doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

I understand the feeling, have it often when I find myself alone on a trail in a dense forest. I can’t see what’s even close in the dense underbrush or behind the trees. It could be anything or nothing at all. Still, nothing ever jumped out at me. Other than a deer, squirrels or chipmunks, I have seen nothing else on a trail. Maybe marmots and pikas, but never any predators. Then again, these are well-traveled trails, even if they seem deserted.

The North Cascades Offer a Quiet Environment, Devoid of City Noise

After spending time, however short, in the North Cascades, towns and cities seem extremely noisy. We learned to live in this noisy world, to expect it. We function within its boundaries. I know I can’t live without the amenities that generates all this noise, very few people can. But as long as we have the wilderness to spend even a short time in, we can recharge, and maybe someday find a way to incorporate nature into our lives.

In the North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades NP

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