Photograph by Cliff Leight/Getty Images
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Washington's North Cascades—the “American Alps”—have snow-topped mountains, rivers, and valleys. A true wilderness, the park is home to a diverse ecosystem that includes wolves, lynx, and moose.

Photograph by Cliff Leight/Getty Images

Venture Into the Wild 'American Alps'

Washington's North Cascades National Park offer a mix of recreation and true wilderness.

Location: Washington
October 2, 1968
684,000 acres, includes two recreation areas

With glacier-clad peaks rising almost vertically from thickly forested valleys, the North Cascades are often called the American Alps. The national park forms one unit of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. The two other units—Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area—contain most visitor facilities.

The park complex preserves virgin forests, fragile subalpine meadows, and hundreds of glaciers. Mule deer and black-tailed deer graze the high meadows, where black bears gorge on berries and hoary marmots sunbathe. Mountain goats clamber on rock faces. Mountain lions and bobcats, seldom seen, help keep other wildlife populations in balance.

The wildness and ruggedness of the park especially lure hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers. "A more difficult route to travel never fell to man's lot," complained trapper Alexander Ross, who came here in 1814. But today the main road (through Ross Lake NRA) and easy access into the park—on some of its nearly 400 miles of trails—also allow more casual visitors to experience the peaceful forests and the drama of the mountains.

The region forms part of the Cascade Range, named for its innumerable waterfalls. The range extends from British Columbia to northern California. A geological theory proposes that the mountains began as a micro-continent several hundred miles out in the Pacific Ocean. Over the eons a series of islands floated on their plate toward North America. About a hundred million years ago, the plate smashed into the North American continent, folding and crumpling into a mountain range as it lodged against the landmass. Those mountains eroded; the Cascades you see today rose only five or six million years ago.

The western part of the park differs markedly from the east. Moisture blows in from Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It hits the western slopes and rises, condensing to rain and snow. Western red cedars, hemlocks, and Douglas firs luxuriate on slopes that receive 110 inches of precipitation a year. When the winds reach the east, they are mostly wrung dry: Only 35 inches of precipitation fall in Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan. Arid-dwelling sagebrush and ponderosa pine grow in the peaks' rain shadow.

Did You Know?

In 1956, Canadian author Jack Kerouac found solace (and inspiration for two novels) in a cabin on Desolation Peak, where he worked for the Park Service as a fire spotter for 63 days. In The Dharma Bums, he writes, "I went out in my alpine yard and there it was ... hundreds of miles of pure snow-covered rocks and virgin lakes and high timber ... Below, instead of the world, I saw a sea of marshmallow clouds."

Fun Fact

With over 300 to its name, North Cascades has more glaciers than any other U.S. park outside Alaska.

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Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks articles featured in "Cutting Loose" in National Geographic Traveler.