North Cascades National Park
I grew up with Yellowstone National Park in my back yard. Well, that is not literally true. If we were driving, it was 80 miles to the Northwest entrance to the park at Gardiner, Montana or 120 miles to the Northeast entrance at Cooke City. The nation’s first National Park is mostly in Wyoming, but three of the park’s five entrances are in Montana. What made us feel like the park was in our back yard, however, was that our family business provided aviation services to the park, including fire patrols, which meant that our father made regular flights over the park and I was fortunate to go with him on a lot of those flights. Our routine was to fly up the Boulder Valley over the Slough Creek Divide and over the center of the park’s northern boundary. From there we would fly a loop, following the grand canyon of the Yellowstone to Yellowstone Lake, turning towards Old Faithful, flying over Norris and Mammoth, returning home up the Paradise Valley of the Yellowstone as we looked for any signs of smoke. I learned to tell the difference between smoke and steam from the airplane and I learned the locations and relationships between the park’s iconic features.
One of the treats in our family was a winter visit to the park. We would make Chico Hot Springs in the Yellowstone Valley our base for the exploration and drive in through the northwest entrance. The steam from the Mammoth Terrace was always more intense in the winter and a walk around the area gave great views of the Elk who make that place their home. We’d usually see bighorn sheep and sometimes got to witness the males crashing head long into each other with the resounding crack of impact. There were always deer and antelope to see. In the winter the bears were hibernating, but the buffalo were truly impressive as they showed their power plowing through the snow. We liked to drive across the north of the park, which was kept plowed, because the Cooke City highway from Red Lodge to Cooke City was not plowed, meaning that the only winter access to Cooke City was through the park. At tower junction, we could often make the hike to the falls, which was spectacular when covered in snow and ice. In those days there was a large rock that had not yet fallen right in the middle of the top of tower falls. We used to say, “Someday that rock is going to fall over the falls.” It did.
Since Glacier National Park is also in my home state, I also had many opportunities to visit that park both by car and by air. The drive up the Going to the Sun Highway always afforded close views of mountain goats as well as lots of other critters. We visited Glacier in the summer, which like Yellowstone was a good place to spot bears.
With my Montana bias, I believed that the most beautiful national parks were Montana’s two. They were, after all, where the concept of National Parks was first begun with Yellowstone being the first national park in the world.
Since then, we’ve had the blessing of visiting many other national parks and marveling at the beauty and grandeur of nature. I no longer think it is fair to compare the parks. There is no one that is the best. The most famous, like Yellowstone suffer a bit from so many people and there is great joy in visiting some of the less famous ones. You can really get away from people in all of the national parks by walking and that is the best way to really get to know the parks. We learned early on how to find places in Yellowstone that most tourists never see. A short walk or canoe trip will take you away from the crowds and into the wild country.
Living next to Badlands National Park these days is a real blessing. It is a place where it is very easy to get away from the crowds and see some incredible vistas.
This morning we are camped in North Cascades National Park, an incredible piece of alpine heights, waterfalls and temperate rainforest. It doesn’t make the list of the most famous of our national parks, but, like the others, it is a real gem and well worth the visit. The main driving route through the park is Washington State Highway 20, and there is a lot that you can see by driving the switchbacks and steep road through the park. Like other parks, however, there are real treasures for those who take the time to park the car and get out to walk. Last night we took a short hike on a trail that led through a fire scar, down alongside the Skagit River, and through a forest of ancient old growth cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock. The forest floor was filled with ferns and lush vegetation and the huge trees were simply incredible to see. I’ve lived most of my life in relatively dry places, where a tall tree is perhaps 60 feet high with a trunk whose diameter may reach a couple of feet. These forest giants are so much bigger and more grand. When a giant tree falls, it become a nursery for new trees and the younger trees wrap their roots around the fallen giant as they grow. The forest dampens the sounds of the outside world and you hear mostly the wind and the drops of moisture falling from leaf to leaf.
North Cascades has towering snow covered granite peaks that rival those of Glacier, where we have also visited on this trip. Two national parks in as many days have inspired us and reminded us that the greatest cathedrals are not buildings crafted by human hands, but rather the woks of the Creator.
It is a real gift to be in this place and to walk among the giants of the forest, who have been here for thousands of years. I am still learning lessons in humility and this place is an excellent teacher. How fortunate we are to be in this place.