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February 10, 2010

North Cascades National Park: An Enviro-Revival in the "American Alps"

View out over North Cascades' Mount Arriva, the "Ragged Ridge" behind, and Pickets in the distance (Tom Hammond)

Over the past five years, Washington state's North Cascades National Park has recorded some of the lowest visitor numbers of any National Park Service (NPS) unit, this despite its stunning natural beauty and relative proximity to the Seattle metropolitan area. With an average of fewer than 19,000 visitors per year, 684,237-acre North Cascades ranks behind only Isle Royale and the remotest Alaskan parks and preserves as the nation's best undiscovered gem. And while these stats belie the fact that many visitors flock through the area on scenic North Cascades Scenic Highway (SR-20) without technically setting foot in the park, the park still gets only about a third as many visitors as Washington's other park jewels, Olympic or Mount Rainer, even if you include those who just drive over SR-20.

"North Cascades was left like a Swiss cheese by the government when it was founded 40 years ago, leaving out huge sections of spectacular scenic and eco value due to then-powerful hydro, logging, and mining interests," notes Philip Fenner of The American Alps Legacy Project, a conservation group comprising the original activists who fought for the park's establishment back in 1968 and a new generation of Pacific Northwest conservationists.

Mesahchie (left) and Kimtah peaks, part of North Cascades' "Ragged Ridge" (Tom Hammond)

The American Alps Legacy Project (whose key partners include The Mountaineers Club, The North Cascades Conservation Council, Seattle Audubon Society, and Republicans for Environmental Protection) aims to protect North Cascades' currently fragmented ecosystem as part of a single unit. The coalition's proposal calls for placing much of the Ross Lake National Recreation Area corridor under the NPS banner, along with currently unprotected roadless areas like the north side of the Cascade River, the lower stretch of Baker River near Baker Lake, and the "Scenic Highway Corridor" through which SR-20 traverses. Not only will this expansion keep a million-acre swath of land intact for future generations, it stands to offer new economic benefits to local communities like Marblemount and Winthrop by positioning them as true east-west visitor gateways for the park.

Oddly, most visitors to the North Cascades never actually enter the North Cascades National Park, typically staying on SR-20 within Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the scenic highway corridor to the east, which lies outside NPS jurisdiction. The only car-accessible area of the park is along the upper Cascade River Road leading to the Cascade Pass trailhead. The American Alps Legacy Project seeks to expand the park to include an additional 343,000 acres of protected land, a proposal that would protect important watersheds, glaciers, and old-growth forests, as well as provide innumerable new recreation opportunities for the Pacific Northwest's legions of outdoors enthusiasts.

From being one of the country's youngest national parks, North Cascades National Park enters its midlife years with a renewed sense of environmental vigor. As The American Alps Legacy Project's Philip Fenner notes, "We hope that within ten to fifteen years North Cascades National Park will be as famous and popular as the other two of our 'golden triangle' of national parks in Washington state. Certainly we believe our AmAlps program, when adopted, will help balance the load."

For updates regarding the proposed expansion of North Cascades National Park, follow the North Cascades Conservation Council's American Alps blog.

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Related Topics: National Parks · Outdoor Adventures · Travel News


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Those who hike and climb the North Cascades; and those who live in the Methow do not want the park to become famous.

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