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North Cascades National Park is so beautiful it made a park ranger cry

by Staff


Brenda Oates cried the first time he saw North Cascades National Park.

“It was my first day working North Cascades, before I was working at a park in Kansas,” the park ranger told USA TODAY. “And I just started, I think, openly weeping in front of my brand new supervisor.”

It’s that beautiful.

“There were these super tall mountains that were like 6,000 feet higher than I was, and I remember having to lean all the way back to see them,” he said. Like many people, Oates had seen plenty of mountains before. “It was so much bigger and so much more rugged than I anticipated.”

Here’s what else travelers can expect at North Cascades, the latest national park in USA TODAY’s yearlong series

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What is special about the North Cascades National Park?

“North Cascades is often called the American Alps. It’s also often referred to as a sea of peaks, and I think it is just incredible how many mountains are here as well as how many glaciers,” Oates said, noting there are hundreds of each across the North Cascades National Park Complex, which also includes Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.

“When folks come here – either you’re hiking through the park or if you’re driving along Highway 20 or if you’re taking a boat to Stehekin – there comes a point where you round a corner and just see these really crazy rugged peaks covered in glaciers, and it’s that whoa moment.”

Is North Cascades National Park free?

Yes. There are no entry fees for the park.

Is North Cascades worth it? 

“I’m biased, right? I love this place, so I absolutely say it’s worth it,” Oates said with a laugh.

He acknowledged the park is often considered an adventurer’s park because most of it is only accessible by foot. 

There are more than 400 miles of trail and popular activities include hiking, biking, rock climbing, canoeing, rafting and year-round backcountry skiing. But photography is also popular and there are lots of places to simply take in the views.

“No matter what you want to do, there’s a spot to do it in North Cascades,” he said.

Why is North Cascades not visited?

“We’re a very seasonal park, so we have this more narrow window for folks,” he said.

The visitors centers and several major roads close for the winter and don’t reopen until late spring or early summer. 

Just over 40,000 people visited the park last year, making North Cascades one of the least visited national parks in the country, according to the latest National Park Service data. However, Oates noted many more people visit the overall North Cascades National Park Complex.

Is there a scenic drive through North Cascades National Park?

Yes. North Cascades Highway spans roughly 30 miles of the park. 

The park’s website recommends budgeting at least an hour to drive along the windy, scenic road and stop along the way. 

“You come across lakes like Diablo and Ross. You go through multiple mountain passes,” Oates said. “You see glaciers, but you also get this incredible change of biomes and ecosystem … It feels like you’re in (the) Olympic Peninsula, and then you’re in the mountains, and then it feels like you’re teleported to like Colorado, where it’s drier and you get more ponderosa pine trees.”

What not to miss in North Cascades National Park

One of Oates’ favorite views is of the Picket Range, which he explained was one of the last mapped places in the Lower 48 states.

“It’s called the Pickets because it does look like a picket fence. It’s these really sharp and steep-looking mountains,” he said. “You can’t often see it from the highway.”

Visitors can view the range from Sterling Munro Boardwalk near the North Cascades Visitors Center.

What is the closest city to North Cascades National Park?

Bellingham, Washington, is about an hour and a half away from North Cascades National Park by car. It’s also home to the closest airport, Bellingham International Airport. 

Seattle and its larger airport are two hours away by car. Smaller towns like Marblemount, Mazama and Winthrop are much closer. The park is also very close to Canada. 

“We even have park rangers that, if you’re based in Hozomeen, you are working like right on Canadian boundary, and they work with British Columbia park rangers, so it does get international pretty fast, depending on where you are,” Oates said. 

How long do you need in North Cascades?

“A day (trip) from Seattle is definitely doable,” Oates said. “It’s a good chunk of driving, but as you know, in the summer, we have a lot of daylight so I do feel like you have plenty of time to experience the park.”

He said travelers who want more of a backpacking experience typically spend three to four days in the park. 

Who are the Native people of the North Cascades?

“These are the traditional lands of Coast and Interior Salish Peoples – the Colville, Lummi, Nlakaʼpamux, Nooksack, Samish, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Stó꞉lō, Swinomish, Tulalip, Upper Skagit, Yakama, and other Tribes,” according to the National Park Service’s land acknowledgement.

“We’re 93% designated wilderness,” Oates said. “But that doesn’t mean no one was here.”


Discover these hidden National Parks rich with Native American history

If American Indian history intrigues you, check out this trio of hidden gems within the National Park System.

Scott L. Hall, USA TODAY

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