About the Site
North Cascades National Park  

Including Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas


Park History

Mountains and Lakes

Other Lakes

Rivers, Creeks, Waterfalls

Trees, Flowers, Plants






North Cascades National Park preserves some of North America's most spectacular alpine scenery. Located in the northwest corner of the state of Washington, it is one of America's younger national parks. The park contains spectacular mountains, 300 glaciers, forests with huge Douglas fir, red cedar, hemlock, and Ponderosa pine trees, rivers, lakes, and some 360 miles of trails.

The park itself is part of a National Park Service Complex which contains north and south national park units, the Ross Lake National Recreation Area which separates the two units, and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area which borders the south unit. The national park units are quite unusual in that they contain no paved roads whatsoever; the park area itself is actually 93% wilderness, and the wilderness is less accessible than in almost any other national park. Vehicles can enter the park itself in only one location--the rough, steep, unpaved 23 mile Cascade River Road which leads toward the Cascade Pass area. The backcountry regions contain some of the few truly untrammelled wilderness areas in the world and some of the wildest country in the United States.

As mentioned above, the north and south units of the national park are bisected by the Ross Lake National Recreation area. This area contains the Skagit River and two reservoirs formed by dams on it--Diablo Lake, and Ross Lake--which are pictured in many places below. In most of these picture the NRA portion is the lowland containing the rivers or lakes, while the mountain peaks lay within the national park boundaries.

Park History

Because of the extremes of weather and the extremely rugged nature of the landscape, the higher areas of the park have never really been inhabited on a year-round basis. However, there is evidence of intermittent human use of the area reaching back 8000 years. Indians inhabited the Skagit and Chelan valleys and frequently visited the high country in search of food--such as deer, elk, bear, and marmot--and passage to other areas. Prior to the arrival of the white man at least 5 Indian tribes used the north Cascades area: Nooksack, Chilliwack, Chelan, Upper Skagit, and Lower Thompson. However, Indian cultures were devastated by smallpox epidemics in 1780 and from 1825-1835.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

Fur traders began to visit the area in the late 1700's. One of the first Americans to visit extensive areas of the park was trapper Alexander Ross in 1814, who explored the landscape and attempted unsuccessfully to cross the mountains. From 1857 to 1859, Henry Custer surveyed the north Cascades and explored the area extensively; Henry Pierce finally breached the mountains in 1882.

Humans have left their imprint on the park lands. White settlement began and continued through the late 1800's. A couple of abortive gold and silver rushes brought many miners to the area in the final 2 decades of the 19th century. Later, between 1919 and 1949 the three dams on the Skagit River--Gorge, Ross, and Diablo--were built to supply power to communities in the lowlands to the west, such as Seattle. When the Diablo Dam was completed in 1930 it was the highest such structure in the world.

In the twentieth century the area attracted a great deal of attention from folks interested in recreation and preservation. Mountain climbing clubs, such as the Mountaineers and the Mazamas from Oregon, focused on the area and by 1942 all of the peaks in the park had been scaled. The first interest in creating a national park in the area was evident in 1892; the first act of preservation itself occurred in 1897 when the area was placed within the newly created Washington Forest Reserve. Later, in 1924, the area became part of the Mt. Baker National Forest. The first formal proposal for creation of a national park in the north Cascades was made in 1906.

Although sentiment for national park creation continued over time, the urgency of the situation was increased by threats to the resources in the area by improvements in logging and mining technologies in the 1950's and 1960's. The park was finally created when President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill establishing the park on October 2, 1968, following the completion of a report resulting from a joint study conducted by the Park Service and Forest Service. North Cascades National Park was dedicated to Senator Henry M. Jackson, one of its most influential supporters, in 1987.

Mountains and Lakes

Much of the beauty of the park is derived from the rugged, steep, alpine nature of the North Cascade mountains. Many of the peaks are extremely steep, carved in fantastic shapes by glaciers and precipitation, somewhat reminiscent of the mountains in Glacier National Park. These mountains have sometimes been termed the "American Alps." Although these mountains are much lower than those found in the Rockies or Sierras, the vertical relief is as impressive as those areas since the valleys in the park are not far above sea level. A typical example of these mountains can be seen below.

Unlike most sections of the Southern Cascade mountains, which are volcanic and sedimentary in origin, the Northern Cascades are granitic and metamorphic in nature, formed by the uplift resulting from the collision of plates of the earth's crust. In the general park area only Mt.Baker and Glacier Peak are volcanoes.

At lower elevations the mountains are heavily forested up to the tree line of approximately 5500 feet. The picture below shows a mountain covered by forest above an arm of Diablo Lake. Swaths of land on the slopes devoid of trees on many of the mountains are the result of the powerful avalanches with may occur during the winter.

Because of the latitude, amount of precipitation, and climate snow remains on the mountains well into the summer, as can be seen below. This picture, which includes Diablo Lake in the foreground and Davis Peak (7051 feet) in the rear, also shows some of North Cascade's more than 300 glaciers. In fact, incredibly, one half of all the glaciers in the United States are located in North Cascade National Park.

In the picture below some of the higher peaks can be seen behind lower hills.

Below, in the center of the picture, the glacier clad peaks of the Picket Range, which contains peaks with formidable names like Mt. Challenger, Mt. Fury, and Mt. Terror, can be seen above the heavily forested lowlands. These rugged mountains in the interior of the park are composed almost entirely of granite.

At any time of year the weather in the park is changeable. The mountains may be bathed in sunshine or covered in a think blanket of clouds or fog, as can be seen in the picture below.

Other Lakes

The Ross Lake National Recreation Area contains two reservoirs--Diablo Lake, formed by the Diablo Dam, and Ross Lake, formed by Ross Dam. The electricity from these dams supplies the needs of users in the Seattle area. The shores around the lakes are heavily forested, as can be seen below. The right portion of the visible water leads upstream toward Ross Dam; the left portion is formed from water flowing into the reservoir from Thunder Creek.

Diablo Lake has a beautiful turquoise/green color which is especially striking in the bright sunshine. This color results from suspended particles of rock "flour"--bits of rock which have been ground by glaciers and deposited into the lake.

Below is another look at the eastern section of the lake not far below the Ross Dam. An unfortunate characteristic of the Skagit Valley in the recreation area is the presence of power cables carrying electricity from the dams to the heavily inhabited coastal area. In the picture below some of these wires can be see in the lower center of the picture, just above the green waters of the lake.

An additional view of Diablo Lake can be seen here.

This picture provides a good look at the western end of the lake.

The largest lake in the park, also a reservoir, is Ross Lake. This lake runs in a north/south direction on the eastern edge of the park, extending for 22 miles to just across the Canadian border at its northern end. The picture below shows a section of the lake. The mountain in the background is Mt. Prophet, which at 7579 feet is covered by several glaciers.

Rivers, Creeks, and Waterfalls

As might be expected given the heavy amounts of precipitation in the north Cascades area and the northwest in general, the park contains quite a few rivers, streams, waterfalls, and lakes. The largest river is the Skagit, pictured below from just east of the Newhalem area, looking east.

A view of the river facing west is shown below.

This picture shows Happy Creek, south of Ross Lake.

There is an extraordinary number of waterfalls in the park, although many are visible only to visitors willing to travel in the back country. The Cascade Mountains, in fact, are named for the many waterfalls they contain. Many of the waterfalls are quite spectacular. Below is a picture of Gorge Creek Falls. Gorge Creek runs into the Skagit River just below these falls, right at the location of the Gorge Dam on the Skagit River, the western-most of the Skagit dams.

Below is another shot of the Skagit River as it flows toward Puget Sound. The area's major waterway features rainbow, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden trout, as well as salmon. Once featuring violent rapids, the dams on the river have largely tamed it.

Trees, Flowers, and Plants

As might be expected given the amount of precipitation the northwest section of the United States is known for, much of the park is heavily forested. Actually, the Cascade peaks in the park act as a "rain shield" and create a large difference between the amount of rain received in the western portion of the park (about 110 inches per year) and in the east (35 inches per year). As a result, the varieties of trees present are also quite different; in the drier east Ponderosa pine is prevalent at lower altitudes and lodgepole pine above; in the east, western red cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir at lower altitudes and Pacific silver fir higher up. Below is a shot of a heavily forested area on the western slope.

The three pictures below provide closer views of several species of trees. First is a Douglas fir, the largest of the great trees of the northwest.

Next are some lodgepole pines, seen in many national parks of the west.

Below is the Western red cedar, used by Indians for houses, clothing, baskets, and many other items essential to their lives and culture. The red cedar may reach a height of 230 feet in this climate.

One of the more common trees in the park is the western hemlock. These trees are easy to identify by their drooping top branch, as can be seen in the picture below, with the Picket Range peeking through on the left.

At higher altitudes the trees sometimes create ghostly shapes in the fog or through the clouds. Below is a scene near Cascade Pass.

Wildflowers and plants of various types are also plentiful in the park. Plants grow so quickly in the moist climate that some trails have to be cleared each year. Some of the parks vegetation is shown below; that's vine maple in the first picture.

Aster is shown here.

The next picture is lupine.

More wildflowers are pictured below. These are probably yellow groundsel.

The white wildflowers below may be bedstraw.


There are lots of animals in the mountains and valleys of North Cascades National Park. These animals include black bear, mountain goat, marmot, several species of deer, and many varieties of birds. The smaller animals are easily viewed; below is a golden mantle ground squirrel (without stripes on the cheeks).

And below is a chipmunk (with stripes on his cheeks).

Deer are also plentiful in the park. Far away from highways and inhabited areas, as along the Cascade River Road below, the animals may be quite unafraid of human beings. This curious fellow, a white-tailed deer, watched in the rain while the photographer changed lenses to capture him on film.


Until fairly recently there was no highway which permitted vehicular traffic to cross the mountains in the North Cascades area. In 1972 the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20), which runs through the Ross Lake National Recreation area, was opened, providing outstanding vistas of Cascade peaks, Ross and Diablo lakes, and the Skagit River. The road itself is covered by snow for much of the year, being closed from mid-November to mid-April. The highway can be seen below cutting through the upper center of the picture.


North Cascades Park has one of the nicest visitor's centers in the national park system, actually located near the Skagit River in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The center contains a number of exhibits of various ecosystems, park history, a boardwalk providing a spectacular view of the park's mountains, and an exquisite "multimedia" photographic slide show with many views of the park itself. This picture shows the North Cascades Visitor's Center, opened in 1993.


Information about North Cascades National Park has been drawn from personal experience, data available in the park itself, and a number of other sources, including:


  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

  • Commercial use of the images contained in this document without express written consent is strictly prohibited.

  • Comments and other remarks can be sent via e-mail to parkvision@shannontech.com