North Cascades National Park

Thunder Creek Bridge in North Cascades National Park
Thunder Creek Bridge in North Cascades National Park (E. Cristofferson/courtesy, National Park Service)

Until 1984, it was thought that native peoples made little use of the North Cascades Complex, called NOCA for short. However, beginning in 1984, there has been a rapid accumulation of a large body of archaeological data. Today there are 260 inventoried sites (237 prehistoric and 23 historic). Although ongoing, the archaeological research and inventory at NOCA are still in their infancy, and only about 5 percent of the total 684,000 acres of the park complex has been surveyed to date.

The lands in today's park complex were occupied by human groups for at least the last 8,400 years, based on radiocarbon dated archaeological sites within the park complex. Distinctive styles of a few spear points, though they offer less certainty than the radiocarbon dates, suggest that humans may have utilized the North Cascades for approximately the last 10,000 years. It is most probable that these people were the ancestors of today's Coast Salish and Interior Salish-speaking peoples, most particularly the various bands of today's Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Nooksack, Chilliwack, Nlakapamux (Lower Thompson), Chelan, Methow, Entiat, and Similkameen tribes.

Most of the archaeological sites in NOCA consist of the below-ground remains of camps and resource use areas where Indian people processed and cooked food, collected specific kinds of rocks and minerals for tools, and hunted, fished, and collected plants. Some sites have above-ground remains, and appear as rockshelters, rock art, bark-stripped trees, rock alignments and piles, and pits dug into the ground.

These sites are found throughout all environmental and elevational zones of the park complex, from the densely forested valley bottoms to above, where trees can grow in the alpine tundra. Because some of these locations are so remote and so interior to the steepest portions of the mountains, it is clear that prehistoric people were more than just traveling through; rather, they explored all portions of the mountains and used the locally available resources during their stay. However, some parties traveled across the mountains for purposes of trade and social relationships, which lent great significance to the lowest passes, such as Cascade Pass, as these provided the main travel routes across the range.

Although large and permanent villages have yet to be found in the park complex, remnants of these are likely to exist along the lower valleys of the largest rivers. Most of the camps that have been found represent short-term or seasonal occupation by relatively small groups of people. Some of these camps have been occupied recurrently for thousands of years. The geographic distribution of camps within interior valleys shows a clear settlement pattern: Not unexpectedly, camps are asymmetrically located in mountain valleys and tend to cluster in those parts of a valley offering maximum solar insulation and minimum exposure to avalanche slopes. This pattern is most clearly expressed in the Skagit River valley and Stehekin River-Lake Chelan valley.

A small display of prehistoric artifacts from the park complex is available to the public at the North Cascades Visitor Center, located a short distance south of Hwy. 20, just before Newhalem. The display shows original artifacts from eastern, western, and subalpine landscapes of the North Cascades, as part of a larger exhibit explaining the natural history of the park complex.


Recent historic exploration began in 1814 when Alexander Ross crossed the present national park's southern unit.

Henry Custer, passing through as assistant of reconnaissance for the International Boundary Commission in 1859, wrote "No where do the mountain masses and peaks present such strange, fantastic dauntless and startling outlines as here." Custer was the first to extol this region in writing but admitted that words failed him.

The handful of explorers who followed Ross also commented on the region's rugged, isolated nature. Miners prospected for gold, lead, zinc, and platinum here from 1880 to 1910. They recorded moderate strikes, but transportation proved to be arduous and profits so limited that mining was abandoned. Some logging and homesteading occurred around 1900. The electricity-generating potential of the Skagit River was recognized early. Between 1924 and 1961, Seattle City Light built three dams on the river.

In 1968, Congress, with the approval of President Johnson, established North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. In 1988, Congress designated approximately 92 percent of the three areas as the Stephen Mather Wilderness to provide additional legislated protection.


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