North Cascades National Park Overview
|Inspiration Glacier, North Cascades National Park (James Martin/Photodisc/Getty)|
Desolation Peak, Mount Fury, Jagged Ridge, Mount Terrorthe names on the map strongly hint at the character of the North Cascades National Park Complex. This is the largest and most rugged alpine wilderness in the contiguous United States, with scores of 8,000-foot peaks, upwards of 400 glaciers, virgin Douglas fir and Western red cedar forests, and wildlife that includes gray wolves and grizzlies.
You have to really want it to dig your way in to the heart of this wilderness. One lone road, the North Cascades Highway, crosses the spine of the Cascades in the hundred-mile stretch from Canada to U.S. 2, and it's open only from May to November. Aside from this highway, entry into this country is a matter of long, slow drives down abysmal forest-service roads, circuitous detours, ferry rides, and even floatplane drop-offs.
Our advice? Just get there, by any means necessary. At the end of the road lies the best of America's big outdoorsspectacular day hikes and off-the-radar wilderness backpacking, a mountaineering playground that has reared climbers from Fred Beckey to Galen Rowell, big-water kayaking, and world-class backcountry skiing. All in all, you won't find another spot in the Lower 48 that's this raw and wild.
Cycle the North Cascades Highway
The North Cascades Highway (Wash. 20) traverses enough high-country terrain to make a mountain goat giddy. This is seriously scenic pavement, and its wide shoulders make it an appealing cycling route. But if you're going to ride this road the hard way, you best have some mighty horsepower in your thighstwo-thirds of the three-day ride from Rockport to Winthrop involve lung-busting climbs. The highlights are worth it, though; they include the mind-boggling views of Liberty Bell and Early Winters Spires from Washington Pass, an off-bike tramp to Rainy Lake, and of course the long, delicious trip down the eastern slope. Spend your first night at Colonial Creek Campground on Diablo Lake, your second night at Lone Fir Campground amid old-growth western hemlocks and silver firs, and be sure to toast your deeds at Winthrop's fine brewpub.
More on the North Cascades Scenic Highway
More on biking in North Cascades National Park
Backpack Whatcom Pass
As out-there as you can get in the Lower 48, this five-day trip has it all: old-growth trees; wildflower-spangled alpine meadows; tricky river crossings; expansive views of the snaggle-toothed, glaciated Picket Range; perhaps even a midnight wolf-howl or two. In 46 wild miles, you'll walk from the meadows below Hannegan Pass up into the high country, down into the Chilliwack Valley, up and over Whatcom Pass, and finally down again along Big Beaver Creek to Ross Lake. Through most of the first three days, you'll follow ridgelines with nearly constant eye-popping views; the last two days take in beaver ponds and massive old-growth trees. You'll camp on the edge of turquoise alpine lakes, beside icy-cold creeks, and at Twin Rocks Camp, set in a waterfall-drenched cirque in view of Challenger Glacier. A word to the wise: Hang your food highthere are black bears aplenty in these parts, and grizzlies are rumored to be around as well.
Summertime in Stehekin
There are only three ways to get to Stehekinby arduous trek, by floatplane, or by ferrying up spectacular, sliver-thin Lake Chelanand there are no phones. As far as we're concerned, that alone makes the place a gold-star summer vacation. But Stehekin is also an outdoor-recreation mecca where you can get out and play in the wild, heady landscape of the North Cascades in more ways than you've got fingers to count on. Within Lake Chelan National Recreation Areawhich comprises the upper end of Lake Chelan, Stehekin Village, and the first 11 miles of the 23-mile Stehekin Valley Roadthere's whitewater to run; horse trails to ride; fabulous singletrack to mountain-bike; boat-in campsites to kayak to; and lake trout, kokanee, and landlocked chinook to troll for. Continue up the Stehekin Valley Road (which is regularly traveled by shuttle buses) into national-park land, and you'll reach trailheads for superlative day and overnight hikes into the alpine realm of marmots, pikas, jagged peaks, and glaciers. One more thing about Stehekin: Its lodges, cabins, developed campgrounds, and relative panoply of diversions make it a wonderful family retreat; many families return here year after year to vacation.
More on Stehekin and Lake Chelan
Climbing Mount Shuksan
No less an authority than climbing legend Fred Beckey has said that 9,127-foot Mount Shuksan is "one of the finest mountaineering objectives and epitomizes the jagged alpine peak like no other massif in the North Cascades." Steep-walled Shuksan is adorned by the most becoming features of an alpine environment, including hanging glaciers, heathered arms, and alpine tarns; it's one of the most photographed peaks in the Northwest. Among the four common routeswhich range from nontechnical and relatively easy to severely challengingis a route up the Sulphide Glacier. This is definitely no "tourist route," but it's within the reach of most climbers. Different climbing problems must be overcome at different periods in the season, and there is always a variety of challenge on both rock and ice. Make the summit and you'll enjoy views on par with any in the Cascades.
Kayak-Camp Ross Lake
This lake, a reservoir formed by the Ross Dam, is a finger of glacier-fed water that winds nearly 25 miles through howling wilderness; sea kayaking here is one of the great unsung outdoor experiences of the Northwest. Rugged peaks, clad by old-growth forests that have never seen a logger's ax, rise steeply from the lakeshores. Osprey, deer, black and grizzly bears, and a resident pack of gray wolves will be your only neighborsthere are no communities here, only a hike-in floating lodge at the south end of the lake. And loons call across the lake all summer; between the loons and the wolves, camping at one of the lakeside sites can come with some pretty rarified night-music. You'll want a kayak with a low wind profile here; furious winds occasionally blast down the lake's tunnel-like environs, stirring up whitecaps and playing havoc with paddlers. And you'll do well if you can score one of Lightning Camp's alder-canopied sites; on days when the wind kicks up, you can fish for wild cutthroat and rainbow trout or clamber up the brutal but rewarding trail to Desolation Peakthat's right, the very spot where Jack Kerouac served as a fire lookoutexperiences recorded in Desolation Angels.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication