National Park Complex
"No where do the mountain masses and peaks present such strange, fantastic dauntless and startling outlines as here", wrote Henry Custer, who worked his way through the North Cascades as assistant of reconnaissances for the International Boundary Commission in 1859. He strung together several adjectives and comparisons, but words finally failed him. This wildly mountainous region, he admitted, "must be seen, it cannot be described". Though Custer felt tongue-tied, he was the first to extol this region in writing. In subsequent years a few others were captivated, too, by the terrain. But the area was not set aside as parkland until the establishment in 1968 of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, composed of:
- North Cascades National Park,
- Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and
- Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
The Cascades rank among the world's great mountain ranges. Extending from Canada's Fraser River south beyond Oregon, they contribute greatly to shaping the Pacific Northwest's climate and vegetation. The North Cascades National Park Complex sits deep in the wild, nearly impenetrable northernmost reaches of the Cascade Range in northwestern Washington. Few people were familiar with the wonders of this area before the parklands were established.
Recent historic exploration began in 1814 when Alexander Ross crossed the present national park's southern unit. 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 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 early recognized. Between 1924 and 1949, Seattle City Light built three dams on the river.
Mountains do not stop at the park boundaries. The park complex is flanked on the south, east, and west by national forest lands and on the north by provincial lands of British Columbia, Canada. West and south lies the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. To the south is the Wenatchee National Forest. To the east are the Okanogan National Forest and the Pasayten Wilderness. The Glacier Peak Wilderness covers parts of Mt. Baker, Snoqualmie and Wenatchee National Forests. Only an invisible boundary separates the two national park units from the two national recreation areas and the adjoing forest lands.
Even though early Indians and their ancestors left some imprints on the land, history has touched little of the park complex. Readily reached areas are heavily visited, but some remote locations have yet to feel the boots of today's backcountry traveler. Forest giants of western red cedar and Douglas-fir dot the deep valleys. Off the trail, tangled growths of vine maple, stinging nettles, and devil's club still defy cross-country hikers. Glaciers scoured by crevasses, permanent snowfields, and sheer-walled cliffs, spires, and pinnacles challenge the mountaineer. From the North Cascades Highway, on clear days, you may get glimpses of alpine wonders that lie just beyond.
North Cascades National Park:
Breathtakingly Beautiful Mountain Scenery
North Cascades National Park contains some of America's most breathtakingly beautiful scenery—high jagged peaks, ridges, slopes, and countless cascading waterfalls. Hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering are the most popular activities in the park. The park's 204,000 hectares (505,000 acres) encompass some 318 glaciers—more than half of all glaciers in the lower 48 states. There are few roads into the park, but views into the park can be had on clear days from the North Cascades Highway at Goodell Creek, Diablo Lake Overlook, and other places. The Cascade River Road, 40 kilometers (25 miles) of improved dirt and gravel, gives summer and fall access into the park and to the Cascade Pass Trailhead.
From many park trails endless views unfold of glacially sculpted valleys, glaciers, and snowfields. Rumbling sounds frequently interrupt the sub-alpine stillness as icefalls crash into the valley floor from glaciers that seem precariously perched on steep mountain slopes. At Cascade Pass, over which Alexander Ross is presumed to have traveled, flower-sprinkled hillsides and meadows enhance spectacular views of the Cascade and Stehekin Valleys. Here, as at other passes and high elevation viewpoints, you can best see the rock ridges, glaciers, snowfields, cascading waterfalls, and other alpine and sub-alpine features against their occasional backdrop of cool blue sky.
Most hikers enter the national park from trailheads along the North Cascades Highway. Others enter from trailheads along the Cascade River Road, the Stehekin Valley, and via U.S. Forest Service trails surrounding the park.
Camping is popular throughout the park complex. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight use. The permit system helps prevent overcrowding and destruction of the fragile mountain environment. Climbers should register before attempting any ascents or other technical mountaineering procedures.
Ross Lake National Recreation Area:
Corridor for the Scenic North Cascades Highway
Ross Lake National Recreation Area divides the two units of the North Cascades National Park. Its 44,000 hectares (107,000 acres) encompass all three of Seattle City Light's power projects and provide the corridor for the popular and scenic North Cascades Highway. This scenic route across the Cascade Mountains affords travelers many recreational opportunities. From trailheads, hikers may heed off into the park's far reaches. At roadside locations are self-guiding trails, exhibits and information and camping facilities.
Seattle City Light sponsors regular, scheduled tours of Diablo Lake and Ross Dam hydo facilities. The reservoirs provide spectacular water gateways to the more remote areas of the park complex. Ross Lake, 39 kilometers (24 miles) long and 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) at its greatest width, covers about 4.900 hectares (12,000 acres). Diablo Lake is 370 hectares (910 acres) and Gorge Lake 85 hectares (210 acres). Food, lodging gas, boat and motor rentals, tackle, licenses and basic camper supplies are available in the recreation area.
The only launch facilities on Ross Lake are at its north end, at Hozomeen, reached by a 63-kilometer (39-mile) dirt and gravel road from Canada. Bald eagles are occasionally seen in mid-winter feeding on salmon along the Skagit River between Newhalem and the Ross Lake recreation areas boundary near Bacon Creek.
The North Cascades Highway is generally closed by snow for part of the year. The date of the opening and closing may vary, but it is generally from mid-November to April, depending on the weather and on snow depths and avalanche hazard. In all seasons, please watch for fallen rocks in the road.
Lake Chelan National Recreation Area:
A Natural Lake, Threshold to Backcountry Wilderness
You can hike, boat, or fly to Stehekin, at the head of Lake Chelan, but you can't drive there in your car. This wilderness community, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) uplake from Chelan, Washington, is popular with hikers and backpackers. It is the threshold to a magnificent wilderness. The Stehekin Valley, surrounded by towering mountains, enjoys a rich history of fur trapping and mining, both short-lived, and homesteading and recreation. It was recognized early this century that the Stehekin area's greatest importance lay in its recreational and scenic values. About 1900, hotels and summer cabins began to be built. The few year-round residents at that time depended on fruit farming, timber, and recreation for making a living.
Travelers find refreshment in the coolness and beauty of Rainbow Falls. A touch of nostalgia surrounds the log school house, still in use since its construction in 1921, and the historic Buckner Homestead. In season you can take the shuttle bus to up-valley campgrounds, or to the valley road's end within the North Cascades National Park. Most people take the commercial uplake boat trip to Stehekin from Chelan. The four-hour trip provides shoreline views of private residential and farming development on the lower lake; rugged mid-lake shorelines and national forest lands and the lake's upper 6.5 kilometers (4 miles), within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Charter floatplane service is available from Chelan.
Lake Chelan, a natural lake, rests in a glacially carved trough. At 460 meters (1,500 feet), it is one of the nation's deepest lakes, and its bottom lies about 120 meters (400 feet) below sea level. A dam built at Chelan in 1927 raised the lake 6.5 meters (21 feet) to increase power production. Lodgings and meals, postal service and some basic supplies for campers are available at Stehekin Landing.
The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.
A geology photo album for this park can be found here.For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.
Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.
Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout
The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!
Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.
The National Park Service, in cooperation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, have prepared a draft Mountain Lakes Fishery Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement(Plan/Eis) for fishery management.
The Plan/EIS addresses issues and management of natural mountain lakes within the Park Complex, including North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The Plan/EIS presents and analyzes four alternatives for management of the mountain lakes fishery, including actions such as fish stocking and removal of reproducing, self-sustaining populations of fish. The decision-making process now underway will lead to one alternative becoming the final “Mountain Lakes Fishery Management Plan,” which will guide future actions for the next 15 years.
Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.
For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.
The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.
A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.
NPS Geology and Soils PartnersAssociation of American State Geologists
Geological Society of America
Natural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
U.S. Geological Survey
General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.