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Originally published August 8, 2014 at 3:11 PM | Page modified August 12, 2014 at 12:53 PM

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High, wild and free in the North Cascades

North Cascades National Park and its recreation areas are an outdoor wonderland.

Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times

Kayaking on Ross Lake: In the saddle between the hills is the Big Beaver trail in the North Cascades National Park Complex.

Seattle Times outdoors editor

Is it a park? A rec area? It’s a complex

North Cascades National Park has a complex.

It’s true, literally and (kind of) figuratively. The sprawling park, accessed by only one (unpaved) road, is almost all wilderness, reached only by trail. When the park was established in 1968, adjacent areas were designated as Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, both under the aegis of the National Park Service. But because they encompassed features such as hydropower dams that didn’t fit well within the strictures of a modern national park, they remained separate in name.

The whole caboodle became known as North Cascades National Park Service Complex, taking in 684,000 acres between the Canadian border and Lake Chelan.

While eastbound motorists on the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) pass an impressive “North Cascades National Park” sign built from a pile of rock that mirrors the rugged landscape ahead, few may realize that the highway never touches the actual national park. Rather, it threads through Ross Lake Recreation Area, a roughly two- to five-mile-wide corridor surrounded on both sides by the park.

So it’s the park’s guilty secret: Most people who think they’ve visited it by car or boat have never actually been inside the park. At best, they’ve seen its peaks.

It’s enough to give a national park a complex.


National parks seem made for personal memories. For me, a recent visit to Ross Lake, in Washington’s North Cascades National Park complex, became a personal pilgrimage to see my very own grove of 1,000-year-old cedars.

I was a lanky ninth-grader in Bellevue in the early 1970s when a social-studies teacher told my class about a Seattle City Light proposal to raise Ross Dam by 125 feet, which would have flooded the ancient cedars on Big Beaver Creek.

At that age I’d been fishing and camping on Ross Lake with my dad and brother — we stuck a little Sears outboard on our home-built 18-foot sailboat and trolled for trout. I’d not been up Big Beaver Creek, so classmates and I made a study of it. We offered brief remarks at a City Light hearing and earnestly waved “Save Big Beaver” signs for news cameras. Responding to such protests (and, no doubt, the fervent efforts of the North Cascades Conservation Council), City Light shelved the proposal.

More than four decades later, this June, I finally got to see what I, in my own little way, helped save.

On a beautiful summer morning I parked on the side of Highway 20 and headed steeply down a wooded, mile-long trail past a perfect waterfall. At a rocky outcropping I looked straight down at the curving concrete comma of Ross Dam. From the lake’s edge, a water taxi from Ross Lake Resort picked me up for a 45-second trip across the water to the resort, where I rented a kayak for the day.

After telling the rental clerk of my destination and when to expect me back, I paddled solo five miles up the lake, at times ghosting along the steep, rocky shore to get a closer look at orange paintbrush and bluebells blooming at the waterline. I waved as other paddlers passed in canoes, but at times the only sign of another human on the lake was a jet contrail high in the sky.

At one spot I grabbed my camera as I watched a mama merganser herding a clump of 17 awkward youngsters — 17, I counted them — paddling at her tail.

After tying up to the dock at Big Beaver Campground, I hoisted a knapsack filled with the 10 Essentials and set out for what folks at the resort had described as a four-hour round-trip hike along Big Beaver Creek to see the cedars.

The hike was uneventful. With my long legs I did it in three hours, encouraged to keep moving by hungry mosquitoes swarming from creekside marshes that grew skunk cabbage big enough to win a ribbon in Puyallup. At trailside bloomed dainty white stars of bunchberry dogwood and tangerine-hued trumpets of columbine.

I found one bug-free spot for a lunch stop. From a steep, open hillside in bright sunshine I looked across the valley to the base of a snowfield and a wide waterfall whose roar I could hear even though it was easily two miles distant. Hummingbirds divebombed my red shirt as I munched a PB & J.

I wondered, would a sign indicate when I’d reached the old cedars? No. But neither was one needed, I realized after lunch, when I soon found myself in a grove of gray giants whose pointy tops towered toward the sun.

A moss-covered rock the size of a troll’s cabin marked the start of the grove. I kept walking for 10 more minutes, and there weren’t just a few big cedars, but hundreds. Some leaned against each other as if looking for support in their old age. The trunks didn’t seem huge, but some would take me 10 paces to circle. I was reminded of California’s Muir Woods, a cathedral-like grove of redwoods where you quickly get a kink in your neck as you crane to see the treetops.

I roamed, and marveled, and then skedaddled back down the trail. The only other living beings I encountered were dragonflies, buzz-bombing hummingbirds, one large green bullfrog and about a gazillion mosquitoes.

Back at the dock, I finally met other humans: seven boys and two leaders from Seattle YMCA, on Day 5 of an eight-day backpacking adventure.

While they helped me cast off my kayak, we chatted about the beautiful place we were on this perfect day. I asked these city kids what they liked best about their North Cascades experience.

“It’s really fun because when you wake up every morning you have that great smell of fresh air,” said Jason, 12.

“I like the views when we’re hiking,” said Dillon, 11. “Even when the pack is really heavy I look around and enjoy it.”

“I like to be free out here and see all the wild animals,” said Kaden, 13. “I wish my family could be here to see this.”

Kelvin Washington, one of their leaders, summed it up: “This is a place where happiness comes naturally.”

I agreed with all they said, and I was happy as I paddled back down the lake. I finally got to see “my” cedars.

Brian J. Cantwell:

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