By Jerry Ginsberg
This remote park is revered by backpackers and climbers, but often overlooked by most other folks, even though it’s just 120 miles from the Seattle metropolitan area. Covering more than 500,000 acres, North Cascades National Park includes its namesake mountains at the northern end of the Cascade chain, virgin forests, countless alpine lakes and meadows, glaciers and more than 360 miles of wilderness hiking trails. There are very few roads within the park, so most visitors travel east and west on State Route 20. Whether folks want to hike in remote wilderness, embark on a family-friendly road trip or camping vacation, North Cascades National Park is a remarkably underrated destination that shouldn’t be missed.
The one road that pierces the heart of this park, while formally named State Route 20, is better known as the North Cascades Highway. The creation of this road was the pet project of the very first director of the National Park Service, the passionate and dedicated Stephen Mather, even as he lay on his deathbed. Portions of the road are closed during the colder months because of snow. The dates vary year to year so, unless you’re going in summer, check ahead.
The still sparse road system of North Cascades includes two distinct areas. In addition, roadless and remote Stehekin at the head of beautiful Lake Chelan offers an entirely different experience very well worth exploring.
Driving the North Cascades Highway
Head east on State Route 20 from Marblemount. Soon after entering the park you’ll come to the vintage little village of Newhalem. Spend a few minutes here in the charming visitor center. Then walk the flat and easy trail through the trees. After exploring this little forest, make sure to walk up to the enchanting waterfall near the City Lights power plant.
Continuing east, you’ll come to Diablo Lake. Stop at the parking lot above the Ross Lake dam, take your time and study the views at the Ross Lake Overlook. These can be especially good locations for big scenics, moonset, sunrise and astro compositions.
As you meander along the road, keep an eye out for small creeks and tumbling cascades right along the shoulders.
Just before reaching the eastern border of the park, you will find a great turnout / scenic area on the north side of the road (left when heading east). Here some of the classic geology of the place is on full display. The rock called the Liberty Bell provides a decent composition, but if driving the width of the park from west to east at a single pass, you will not arrive here until well after the best light of the morning is long gone.
If you can also drive this road from east to west at dawn, this should be your first stop.
Mount Baker Area
For a completely different experience, head west from Marblemount for a late afternoon and early evening shooting session. At the traffic light in Sedro Woolley, Washington, (yes, that really is the name) turn north toward the Mount Baker Ski Area. Follow Route 542 to the big parking area at its end. Here you’ll find a terrific view of distinctively shaped Mount Shuksan and its perfect reflection in a small lake. While you’re here, take in Artist Point as well.
For those among us who are into climbing, one of the best opportunities in the North Cascades is Mount Challenger near the northwest section of the park. At just over 8,000 feet, it’s no Everest, but lots of fun nonetheless.
Going to Stehekin
After you have explored the North Cascades via these various roads, a completely unique adventure awaits you in Stehekin. From the neat little resort town of Chelan, just outside the southeast corner of the park you can take a great trip on the Lady of the Lake passenger ferry to this distant settlement at the head of Lake Chelan or make it an long all day hike of the 23 miles along the shore of this scenic lake.
Once there, you will find yourself in a very different environment. With the exception of a few private vehicles, there are no cars here. Most day visitors walk a short stretch of road along the lakeshore or take the school bus on a quick tour with a stop at scenic Rainbow Falls. But these are not the best options.
To really appreciate this special place, spend one or two nights here. The venerable and convenient Lodge at Stehekin is right there near the boat dock and several secluded lodgings are just a bit up the valley.
How to get around in this isolated place? My favorite choice is renting one of the available bicycles. It’s a great solution to get you anywhere around the area. Try to get a bike with a luggage carrier on the rear fender; very handy for your pack or tripod.
All in all, devoting a week or so to this beautiful and largely untrammeled National Park will leave you with some great memories and, hopefully, a crop of new and original landscape images.
In this case, arrangements should be pretty easy. The only real choice for a gateway airport is Seattle (SEA-TAC). Renting the standard 2-wheel-drive passenger vehicle of your choice will be quite sufficient, as all of the roads that you’ll need are very well paved. I always prefer something with a rear hatch. That makes it much easier to arrange and grab your gear as opposed to leaning into the back seat of a sedan.
Both Marblemount and Stehekin offer a few lodging choices. A quick look at the map will show that in addition to North Cascades, both Mt. Rainier (NANPA eNews May, 2015) and Olympic (NANPA eNews June, 2014) National Parks surround Seattle and are close by. Adding one or even both of these can make for a spectacular photo trip.
Experience has taught me that being here in August usually provides the best chance for good weather. For most of the year this part of the globe soaks in an otherwise rainy climate.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.