North Cascades National Park is located in Washington, USA, and is often overlooked in favor of more famous local parks such as Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks. Despite its lesser-known status, North Cascades is a true hidden gem, offering an abundance of Washington nature and wildlife for those in the know. Renowned Canadian author Jack Kerouac even spent time in the park, staying in a secluded cabin on Desolation Peak and drawing inspiration for his writing from the beauty and remoteness of the wilderness that surrounds it.
The park covers approximately 2,042.26 kmÂ² of mountains, glaciers and lakes. North Cascades is actually home to the most glaciers – over 300 – of any national park except those in Alaska, United States. As the park is only about three hours from the big city of Seattle, it’s an ideal destination for tourists and those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The park area covers Whatcom, Skagit and Chelan counties. North Cascades sits at an elevation of 3,286 meters, its highest point being Mount Baker. This mountain is part of the Cascade Range, which runs along the border between Washington State and the Canadian province of British Columbia. This impressive range is sometimes called the âNorth American Alpsâ for its size and splendor. The ‘waterfall’ part of the mountain range’s name comes from the abundance of waterfalls that can be found in and among the sheer rocky cliffs.
The peaks of the mountain range rise up steeply from dense forest valleys and lakes below, as well as areas of subalpine grassland. This wild and unspoiled terrain is very popular with hikers and mountaineers in search of time in the heart of nature. The area’s lakes and streams are a vibrant blue, as many are fed by glacial runoff, which contains minerals that give off a sparkling and often turquoise hue. The most important body of water in the park is Lake Chelan, which is approximately 80 kilometers long and is 335 meters above sea level.
The North Cascades and much of Washington State are rich in vegetation and old growth forests. Changes in elevation, rock and soil composition have created an extremely diverse assortment of plants. It is estimated that 1,630 species of vascular plants can be found here, and the park itself contains eight different living areas. In fact, North Cascades National Park has the highest level of plant diversity of any national park in the United States.
Likewise, rainfall levels – and therefore vegetation – are very different inside the park, from the east side to the west side. In the west, precipitation is high and there is much more rain and snow. For this reason, forest giants such as hemlock, Douglas fir, and western red cedar grow in abundance. On the east side of the slopes and around the head of Lake Chelan, the level of precipitation decreases exponentially and the vegetation turns mainly to arid type plants like ponderosa pine and sagebrush.
Highly humid areas also have a large number of ferns, which thrive in moist, shady areas, such as the soil of dense forests. Ferns are extremely common in parts of the North Pacific and are among the oldest types of plants. Common types of ferns in the North Cascades include sword, deer, licorice, lace, parsley, maidenhair, fern, lady, oak, and woodland ferns. as well as various lichens such as the old man’s lungwort and beard. Wildflowers are also common in most parts of the park, from forest soils to alpine meadows, and include species such as salmonella, Indian plum, and red-flowering currant.
The rich diversity of living areas and vegetation means that there is also a wide variety of animals and wildlife in the park. About 75 species of mammals reside there, as well as 200 types of birds, 21 species of reptiles, 500 types of terrestrial insects and 250 aquatic invertebrates. Some of the most impressive species include the gray wolf, angler, and wolverine. Although present, these species can be more difficult to find in part due to their smaller numbers, but also their elusive behavior. White-tailed deer are more common and can be seen in grasslands and valleys, while Douglas-fir squirrels and pikas are almost a must-see. The park is also home to grizzly bears, which visitors should watch out for when hiking or camping in the area. These wild giants are impressive but are best seen from a distance. Some of the notable bird species in the area include bald eagles, ospreys, and harlequin ducks.
While the park doesn’t get as much visited as its famous neighbors in Washington state – North Cascades gets around 30,000 to 60,000 a year – it truly is a hidden gem of a national park. Full of life and wilderness, this secluded oasis is ideal for anyone looking to step out of the common path and absorb nature in all its unspoiled splendor.