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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why North Cascades is Washington’s wildest park

By Gregory Scruggs Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Visiting a national park in Washington while enjoying a modicum of solitude has become a logistical feat: This summer, Mount Rainier National Park requires timed-entry reservations for Sunrise and Paradise, while visitors to Olympic National Park highlights like the Hoh Rainforest and Hurricane Ridge often endure multihour waits.

But hiding in plain sight is a third option if “national park” is on your summer bingo card: North Cascades.

Washington’s most recently established national park, founded in 1968, is also our least popular, seeing a fraction of the visitors of its peers. The proof is in the putting – up the tent, that is. When a college friend recently visited from the East Coast clamoring for an early season backpacking trip, we pulled off the seemingly impossible: a fair-weather weekend campout completely to ourselves in a national park.

On a warm, dry Friday in May, we had our pick of North Cascades backcountry campsites and spent a rejuvenating night out along Thunder Creek, a roaring stream that empties into Diablo Lake. The hummingbird-sized mosquitoes were the only drawback to an otherwise blissful two days on the trail, during which we saw fewer than a dozen hikers, all within a mile of the trailhead.

While I can’t promise similar seclusion during the peak summer season, I can promise lighter crowds than at the state’s other national parks – no tour buses toting the cruise ship crowd, no lines of cars waiting to get through the gate.

That’s intentional. North Cascades is short on so-called “windshield wilderness,” where you can drive right up to the most scenic spot, and long on actual wilderness, which is the park’s raison d’être as conceived largely by Seattle-area environmentalists. What North Cascades National Park lacks in full-service lodges, grandiose visitors centers, and name-brand attractions, it makes up for with breathtaking biological diversity, vast vertical relief and the most glaciers in the Lower 48.

“This is a park where you have to work a little bit to encounter what it has to offer,” Christian Martin of the North Cascades Institute said. “It was conceived of as a wilderness park and designed so that the best aspects of the park were going to be accessed by boot, boat and climber’s rope.”

A trip into North Cascades National Park isn’t the easiest, but that’s the point. Still, while the park’s unique wilderness character keeps the largest crowds at bay, there are signs of growing pains, as campgrounds fill earlier and key park features go dark due to limited staffing.

Least popular national park?

You might have heard the claim that North Cascades National Park is among the least visited in the U.S. That’s true – to a point.

A scant 40,351 people officially visited the national park last year. In a single month last summer, Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks each clocked over 10 times that many visitors, according to National Park Service visitation data.

But that figure only covers a strict boundary and doesn’t account for what most people consider “North Cascades National Park.” The distinction requires some clarification about boring but important land management designations.

Compared with Mount Rainier National Park, where Congress essentially drew a big square on a map with the mountain in the middle, North Cascades is a checkerboard hodgepodge.

As documented in Lauren Danner’s “Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park,” the bizarre boundaries are the product of contentious postwar congressional politics; turf battles between the Departments of the Interior (which oversees the national parks) and Agriculture (which oversees the national forests); and tensions between wilderness advocates and communities reliant on logging and mining.

North Cascades National Park, strictly defined, consists of 789 square miles. That area hardly encompasses the extent of the mountain range after which it’s named. The park’s boundaries exclude both volcanoes – Mount Baker and Glacier Peak – as well as the entire 70 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the U.S.-Canada border to Rainy Pass. All of that terrain is located in national forests, but not the national park.

What’s more, nearly all of the national park is federal wilderness that can only be reached on foot, horseback or by boat. Just a single road – 23-mile, unpaved Cascade River Road – actually crosses a boundary into the park.

If that leaves you wondering about Highway 20, or the North Cascades Highway – well, it’s not in the park either. The popular scenic drive instead runs through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area; that area, combined with the actual national park and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, forms the North Cascades National Park Complex.

Factor in the national recreation areas, which allow the use of motorboats, mountain bikes and snowmobiles, for example, and the annual visitation tallies are over 20 times higher.

So anyone out for a drive across the “American Alps” is, at points, peering into North Cascades National Park, but has not stepped foot in it. The national park complex as a whole saw over 960,000 visitors last year – not Rainier or Olympic levels, but still in the top 30 most visited among all national parks.

By boot, boat and climber’s ropeHighway 20 is a through route connecting Western and Eastern Washington, not a road predominantly serving national park tourists. That means there’s no entry gate or fee – all trailheads that start inside the complex are fee-free – just a state highway with an incredible view.

But if all you do is take in the mountains from behind the wheel, you’re not really experiencing North Cascades National Park.

While the park has plenty of day hikes and overnight trips, exploring the park’s most iconic peaks involves arduous bushwhacking, technical mountaineering, glacier travel competence, off-trail navigation skills and, above all, time.

As conservationist Harvey Manning wrote in “The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland,” a 1964 book that galvanized the movement to establish the national park, a “respectful” North Cascades excursion from low valley to summit and back required at least five days.

The famously curmudgeonly Manning would perhaps scoff at today’s adrenaline-powered adventurers, like the ski mountaineers who took eight days to ski a single peak in the 2021 film “Finding Fury,” or the Washington women who linked multiple alpine traverses into a 120-mile weeklong trek in 2022. But they all share a common appreciation of just how demanding the North Cascades can be. (Manning’s contemporary, Seattle-born alpinist Fred Beckey, summed those demands up in his seminal climbing guide, “Challenge of the North Cascades.”)

While grunting through Type-2 fun to scale Mount Shuksan or traverse glaciers in Boston Basin, however, the natural rewards are tremendous.

“Nowhere else in the entire U.S. Northwest do you have everything from the top apex predators down to salamanders,” said Martin, ticking off a list of fauna that flourish in the North Cascades wilderness: butterflies, peregrine falcons, herons, eagles, bats, merganser ducks, all five types of salmon, gray wolves, wolverines, black bears – and, as the result of a federal decision announced in April, soon to include grizzly bears.

Alpine adventures also provide a front-row seat to a changing environment: glacial retreat and wildfires, like last summer’s 4,500-acre Sourdough blaze inside the park.

Growing pains

While park managers contend with the shifting natural landscape, they are also facing elevated pressure to keep the park’s infrastructure open for human visitors.

Earlier this year, the park debuted a new interpretive film, “North Cascades: An Elevated Journey,” filled with natural eye candy. See all 18 minutes this summer at the park’s Newhalem Visitor Center. One place you won’t see it? The Golden West Visitor Center in Stehekin. The center, renovated in 2001 for $2.7 million, will remain shuttered this summer. Due to budget constraints and staffing shortages, no park rangers will greet arrivals fresh off a 55-mile boat ride to the park’s most remote hamlet at the northern end of Lake Chelan.

In a March announcement, the park stated that visitor numbers have stayed constant in Stehekin while the park has seen rising visitation elsewhere. The North Cascades Conservation Council, a Seattle-based organization whose advocacy was instrumental in securing the park’s establishment and which continues to watchdog park operations, disputed the rationale.

“Pointing to low visitorship shows a real misunderstanding of the mission of the Park Service in Stehekin,” said the council’s Carolyn McConnell, a third-generation Stehekinite. “You’re not running a regular business. Your job is to serve the people regardless of whether it pays. There is no replacement for good public servants.”

Beyond Stehekin, curtailed operations are cropping up around the North Cascades National Park Complex this summer in a park that has relatively few frontcountry amenities. Three dozen campsites at Colonial Creek, a popular campground on the shores of Diablo Lake, are closed due to “hazard trees.” That limited inventory is putting the squeeze on the park’s most popular campgrounds. Between the more than 250 campsites at Colonial Creek, Goodell Creek and Newhalem Creek, the park’s only drive-in campgrounds, the number of available nights left in July and August hovered around a few hundred as of this writing.

Climbers are noticing an uptick, too. Jason Martin is the executive director of Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute, which guides clients on skills courses and summit attempts to peaks like Shuksan, Eldorado and Forbidden. Increasingly, his guides must prepare backup plans for clients who book trips on short notice because permits for overnight camps are full.

“We do face overcrowding in some areas, but managing access beyond our current permit and reservation systems is challenging, as we don’t have entrance stations and the highway is a through route to the other side of the state,” park spokesperson Denise Shultz said via email. “We are working on long-term planning for future visitation which we hope will help us.”

Want to get creative and approach the park from British Columbia? No dice. The Hozomeen campground at the north end of Ross Lake is shuttered for the third straight summer due to the aftereffects of a November 2021 atmospheric river that flooded parts of the province and wiped out the only access road. The road reopened on April 15, but Hozomeen remains closed.

While North Cascades National Park doesn’t fit the mold of your classic national park – think drive-up attractions like Old Faithful at Yellowstone or Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier – the North Cascades Conservation Council doesn’t let the current staff off the hook for not fully operating the park’s limited frontcountry infrastructure.

“There is a failure of leadership in this park,” McConnell said. “The withdrawal of National Park Service support for visitor enjoyment of the park is not what Congress intended.”

While Jason Martin has not observed any downturn in the park’s capacity to meet American Alpine Institute’s needs for permits, his experience working with other federal land managers gives him pause.

“Historically, working with the National Park Service has been easier. Is it going to feel like the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management in a couple years, where it’s hard to get a response from somebody?” he said. “The Stehekin closure was unexpected and it gives you a little bit of a gut-wrenching feeling. If that’s closed, then what’s next?”