North Cascades park a hidden gem for hikers, campers

Joanna Harrison of Seattle, her dog Valentine, and Marsea Harrison of Virginia start out on a two-night trip to Ross Lake in 2005.
Joanna Harrison of Seattle, her dog Valentine, and Marsea Harrison of Virginia start out on a two-night trip to Ross Lake in 2005. The Bellingham Herald file

With summer underway, visitors are trickling in to the North Cascades to camp, hike and take in the scenery.

North Cascades National Park, accessible from Highway 20 in eastern Skagit County, is a hidden gem with a wealth of beauty.

Each year, the National Park Service, North Cascades Institute and Seattle City Light partner to share the North Cascades and the upper Skagit River with visitors through Skagit Tours, which begin Thursday.

According to the National Park Foundation, the North Cascades is one of the least-visited national parks.

About 980,000 visitors came to the park in 2016, according to a park report. That’s one-sixth as many as visited the Grand Canyon.

Yet the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, which includes the park and the recreation areas of Ross Lake and Lake Chelan, has a lot to offer.

Hidden gem

Visitors who want to take on a challenging hike can embark on a trek to the top of Sourdough Mountain. Those looking for a more leisurely activity can take a tour boat on sparkling green Diablo Lake.

The park complex was established in 1968, park spokeswoman Denise Shultz said.

It remains largely rugged wilderness, with 94 percent of its 684,000 acres designated as a wilderness area. Shultz said that means much of the park is accessible only by foot.

north cascades institute
The North Cascade Institute, consisting of 16 buildings, is in the North Cascade National Park near Diablo Lake. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

The North Cascades Institute has been teaching visitors about the natural history, environment and wildlife of the mountainous region since 1986. The institute today offers a variety of programs that help make the North Cascades accessible to visitors of all ages.

The institute’s learning center was built not far from the banks of Diablo Lake in 2005. It offers lodging and a home base for activities such as guided hikes and canoe trips.

The center also houses full-time staff and students who are working toward master’s degrees in environmental education through Western Washington University.


Seattle City Light has had a presence in the North Cascades since the early 1900s, environmental affairs manager Colleen McShane said.

The power company established the towns of Newhalem and Diablo, and built the Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams between 1917 and 1957, according to Seattle City Light.

Those dams continue to provide electricity to the city of Seattle, and company employees who operate and maintain those dams still live in Newhalem and Diablo.

The Gorge Inn and the Gorge Dam Powerhouse each feature new exhibits this summer detailing the history of Seattle City Light’s work on the upper Skagit River, life in Newhalem and Diablo, and how the dams use the churning power of the river to produce electricity.

diablo lake
Nick Corson and his cousin Kaity Elliott, both from California, brave the cool waters of Diablo Lake. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

McShane said the interactive exhibit and a detailed timeline that spans a wall of the powerhouse were installed in 2016.

The interactive exhibit in the Gorge Inn in Newhalem, which was installed earlier this year, features pictures, artifacts and interactive items.

One such item is a phone that plays soundbites from the town’s radio station, which in the 1990s broadcast notices about local dances, births of babies and the status of wildfires.

On the hillside towering over the town on the north side of Highway 20, charred trees are evidence of the recent Goodell Fire that burned about 6,700 acres in August 2015.

North Cascades National Park spokeswoman Katy Hooper said the trail and camping area closed as a result of the fire may reopen this summer.

The Goodell Fire in Newhalem spread quickly Wednesday, Aug. 19, and surrounded the Gorge Powerhouse on the Skagit River, but quick action by firefighters and Seattle City Light employees prevented the fire from reaching the structure. For more on