Washington: North Cascades National Park, Mt. Bacon, Bacon Peak
Washington: North Cascades National Park, Mt. Bacon, Bacon Peak
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by Lee Foster

In many ways the North Cascades is the park in Washington most hospitable to the hiker in search of wild nature without a human presence. While the drive along the Skagit River presents some of the loveliest views in Washington, the actual park is beyond the roadway and does not present itself fully to the automobile-bound traveler.

Hiking, camping, fishing, and skiing are popular here. The summer season is short, confined to July-September. At that time much of the park is accessible because the snow has melted along the lower trails. Just west of the park, at Mt. Baker, a celebrated July 4 Skiing Competition goes by the name The Slush Cup. The existence of this event suggests the extended presence of snow here, even during summer, at high elevations. The North Cascades encompass some 318 glaciers, more than half of all glaciers in the lower 48 states.

Getting to the North Cascades

North Cascades National Park is an easy three-hour drive north from Seattle. The Highway 20 road that leads east to the park from Highway 5 also leads west to the San Juan Islands, a completely different adventure. Anacortes is a fitting destination for a look at the San Juans. You’ll glimpse the ferry system and boating life that is so much a part of daily existence for many people in Washington.

Highway 20 heads east at Sedro Woolley along the Skagit River, named after the main Indian tribe in the region. Sedro and Woolley were two of the early settlers here. This valley gives you a good picture of cattle ranching with sweeping Cascade vistas in the background. Larger scale agriculture will be apparent after you pass the spine of the Cascades, moving eastward. Apples and wheat are among the main crops on the east side of the mountains. The scenery becomes stunning at Marblemount and beyond. After crossing the road summit at Rainy Pass, where the Pacific Crest Trail meets the road, you enter the Metho Valley, whose aridity is a sharp contrast to the Skagit Valley. This short road trip offers one of the best illustrations of the fundamental wet west vs dry east geography of Washington state, created by the unbroken and relatively high crests of the Cascades, which prevent many rain clouds from passing inland. Because of the heavy winter snowpack, the road east from Marblemount is closed from roughly November to April.

North Cascades History

From time immemorial the Skagit River has been one of the main steelhead and salmon spawning grounds in Washington State. Only a few Indians and a large number of eagles lived in the area, surviving by harvesting the fish. The Indians also found game, seeds, and berries at the lower elevations.

The higher elevations in the North Cascades National Park, which lies on both the north and south sides of Highway 20, were explored little by the Indians, who had no incentive to leave the more hospitable lowlands.

Even in the era of European and American dominance in the area, the population level has been low. Dairy and beef cattle raising, tulip farming, berry agriculture, and tourism are the main industries. The most impassioned visitors to the region are the steelhead fishermen of winter.

North Cascades Main Attractions

As you approach the park, the Skagit River runs quietly in summer, but is lined with fishermen in winter. Some of the most intriguing fishermen are bald and golden eagles, which migrate here in great numbers December-January from British Columbia and Alaska to feed on the carcasses of salmon that die after spawning. East of Rockport you will find an eagle sanctuary, some 1500 acres set aside for one of the larger concentrations of eagles to be found in the lower 48 states. About 150 eagles are counted here each year.

The decline of the salmon population is one of the most perplexing and controversial stories in Washington, with profound effects on eagles, sport fishermen, and the massive commercial salmon fleet. Erosion from logging, overfishing in the ocean, manipulating of rivers with dams, and allowing the Indians to net half of the stream catch are some of the causes of this decline. The matter of the Indians is especially delicate and divisive within the state. The famous Boldt court decision of 1974 allowed the present Indians to harvest with gill nets half of all the salmon swimming up the river. The legal basis for this political decision was an 1852 treaty allowing whites and Indians equal fishing access.

Once you reach the park, be sure to stop at the National Park ranger station in Marblemount for orientation. The ranger station is a mile north of the town along Ranger Station Road. There you’ll find good maps, advice on the local weather and trail conditions, and abundant literature on the park.

For a first trail, consider a drive and hike into Cascade Pass, which will reward you with a typically sweeping view of the mountains. The North Cascades sometimes resemble a sea of peaks, with each rugged mountain a towering wave.

Washington: North Cascades National Park, Mt. Bacon, Bacon Peak
Washington: North Cascades National Park, Mt. Bacon, Bacon Peak

Several trails into the North Cascades leave right from the Highway 20 roadside. Although visually the area is cut of one cloth, there is a legally differentiated corridor, the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which forms a corridor between the north and south portions of the park. Campgrounds exist at Goodell and Newhalen, as well as at Diablo Lake, which affords good fishing.

The town of Concrete is the final major supply point and jumping off point for hikes into the North Cascades back country.

Rockport offers some vacation facilities and an excellent state park camp.

Further along Highway 20, at Newhalen, you’ll see the huge Diablo Dam, an example of the hydro-electrical projects that have made electricity so plentiful and cheap in Washington and Oregon, spurring such industries as aluminum production. A picnic area overlooks the dam. You can tour the Ross Dam if you make arrangements in advance through Seattle City Light’s main office.

East from Newhalen you’ll cross high Washington Pass. The forest changes from the fir and hemlock trees of the wetter environment to the ponderosa and lodgepole pines that flourish in a drier climate.

Nearby Trips from the North Cascades

The San Juan Islands present an interesting place to visit when you are north of Seattle exploring the North Cascades. To get to the San Juan Islands, leave Interstate 5 west at Mt. Vernon and proceed to the small town of Anacortes.

There are 192 islands in all, mostly wooded with fine beaches. Ferries travel to the four larger islands–Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, and San Juan–from Anacortes. These islands have limited roads. Boats access many of the smaller islands. Camping, fishing, biking, kayaking, resort relaxation, and boating are all popular in the region.

San Juan Island includes an historic park dedicated to the so-called Pig War, a time of dispute in 1859 between the English and the Americans over boundaries here. The incident involved the release of an English pig, which uprooted an American potato patch, and nearly led to bloodshed. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was called in to mediate between the two English speaking powers and awarded the islands to the Americans. At the park you’ll see the English troop garrison and the American camp. The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau provides visitor information for the island region.

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North Cascades: If You Go

The initial information source for travel here is the National Park Service website for the park at http://www.nps.gov/noca.

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