North Cascades National Park
Sitting on the border of the United States and Canada, the North Cascades National Park covers an area of over 500,000 acres and ranges between 1,000 to over 10,000 vertical feet. Much of the park is designated as "wilderness," and there are few areas with developed facilities. It is quite close to Bellingham and Seattle, however, providing easy access from urban areas. The park is divided into two non-contiguous sections to the north and south of the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20).
Non-hikers are limited to the view from the highway, and a few side roads. See the itinerary for details.
The park ranges from lowland valleys to rugged alpine peaks. There are two large lakes within the complex as well, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake.
Flora and fauna
The park is home to a wide variety of species, most notably the Grizzly, the Gray Wolf, and the Canada Lynx. The extreme variation in elevation produce an incredible range of plant life as well, with the short flowering season of the alpine meadows being particularly spectacular.
The climate is typical of the Northwest. It is easy to stereotype the weather there as heavy, rainy winters and clear, mild summers. As with any outdoor recreation area, however, it is important to remember that inclement weather can occur at any time of the year. It's is not unheard of to have snowstorms in July at higher elevations!
Perhaps the most astonishing climatological occurrence in the the park is that it is home to the world record snowfall. In 1999, Mt. Baker received 1140 inches of snow. That's over 90 feet! Also Keep in mind that as soon as one crosses the Cascade crest, the climate becomes that of the eastern Washington high desert.
Most people arrive at the park on State Route 20, though this is closed during most of the winter. One can also enter the park on the Mt. Baker highway. Keep in mind that these roads will lead you to trails, but not to a park 'entrance' as one might expect at Mount Rainier National Park.
One can also take a plane or a ferry across Lake Chelan for a more adventurous route. These options will allow you to visit areas of the park that are not accessible by car.
There are no fees to enter the North Cascades National Park. Spending the night in the back country does require a free permit obtained by registering at a ranger station. Campgrounds have variable fees, often dependent on the time of year and popularity of the campground.
Most locomotion through the park is human powered, whether it be hiking, skiing, kayaking, or climbing. The wilderness designation of most of the park means that vehicle access is extremely limited.
The North Cascades National Park is a nature lover's paradise. Once can see jagged peaks, alpine meadows, rain forest, and desert. Mount Baker, one of the Cascade volcanoes, is easy to access and also provides views of Mt. Shuksan, arguably the most photographed mountain in the United States.
For the outdoor enthusiast, the park offers a nearly endless variety of activities. Mount Baker provides a world famous resort for the skiers and snowboarders. Canoing and kayaking can be had on lakes Ross and Chelan. Trails abound for countless miles, through valleys and over passes.
The North Cascades are particularly noted for offering some of the most rugged alpine climbing in the lower 48. Many world class climbers have cut their teeth there and continue to climb in the area between trips. Challenges await all skill levels, from the well-prepared novice to the seasoned veteran.
Staying in the park means sleeping in a campground or in the back country. For those who enjoy their amenities, however, there are more posh accommodations in the countless towns one drives through on the way to the park. One can find anything from hotel rooms to chateaus with hot tubs.
There are a number of campgrounds throughout the park, administered by the National Park Service . Most offer potable water, dump stations, and firewood.
Most of the park would be classified as back country. There are relatively few facilities outside of the campground, baring a few composting toilets in more popular areas.
The park offers many activities, most of which can be considered dangerous in some way. Always carry maps, extra food and clothing, a compass, water, and other emergency gear. Do not engage in any activities you are not thoroughly prepared for as any sort of rescue is improbable. Even the most benign hike can be deadly under extreme circumstances. Be prepared!