Having skirted the worst of the smoke, we entered the North Cascades National Park from the west, up wind from the nearest wildfires. Although the air quality was improved – it smelled like a 24/7 campfire but it didn’t hurt to breathe – the skies were still smoky and views obscured. Oh, and add to the wildfires a record breaking epic heat wave torturing the Pacific Northwest. We’d figure out how to turn this into an adventure…
North Cascades National Park is quite different from all of the other NPs we’ve visited (sound familiar?). For about 100 years, competing interests petitioned the US government (sound familiar?) for different designations to protect the rugged beauty of these wild, glacially carved mountains. Although the distinction between these designations can get quite complex, here’s a one-line description: Wilderness (remain primitive with no roads, only hiking and fishing allowed), National Park (remain undeveloped except for roads and structures to enable the public to enjoy the beauty), National Recreation Areas (protect beauty and historic sites while promoting outdoor recreation, e.g., water sports near dams), National Forest (preserve but allow reasonable development including resource extraction, logging, resort operation, etc.)
Enter Bob Marshall (of ‘The Bob‘ fame, who favored wilderness designation), facilitating an interesting (and somewhat biased) solution… the North Cascades National Park Complex. The two main areas of land that are technically the ‘National Park’ within the Complex are more like wilderness areas (just 6 miles of dirt roads in over 1,000 square miles), while the thin line of developed area between the two (including the North Cascades Highway and 3 pre-existing dams owned and operated by Seattle City Light) is a National Recreation Area.
Anyway, during the time of our visit, residents were being encouraged to stay inside and use air conditioning if possible – the wildfires were clearly impacting air quality. Our RV is the next best thing! So we spent a day driving the North Cascades Highway taking ‘artistic’ photos (translation: pretending the smoke would serve as special effects) and short hikes from our air conditioned truck. We spent another day connecting all of the nature/interpretive trails from the campground, and carefully checking out all of the exhibits at the air-conditioned Visitor Center, and another wandering all the dirt roads around camp, technically putting our feet into the north NP/wilderness area. When we signed up for the Dam Good Chicken Dinner (or in our case Really Dam Good Veggie Lasagna) and slide show on the history of Newhalem (a joint presentation by the Park Service and Seattle City Light, owner of both the dams and the town of Newhalem) we didn’t know that it would be held in an air-conditioned building, nor that the culminating light show at Ladder Falls would be held within the spray of glacially fed waterfalls.
Despite the smoky air, we did devote one day to a longer hike. Technically, our Easy Pass hike allowed us to put our feet into the south NP/wilderness area. But Easy Pass? Ha! The pass was named by the Native Americans who were using this route while most thought the mountain range was impassable. After meandering through a moist, lush forest, the trail opens into a rocky meadow with a view of Mesahchie Peak, the pass above, and the steep switchbacked talus slope we’d have to climb to get there. From the top of the pass, we briefly enjoyed the (alleged or imagined?) views of Fisher Peak and Mount Logan. (Actually, we could just barely make out the silhouettes of mountains through the smoke, so the views we imagined were quite spectacular and probably reasonably accurate…)
Our sanctuary was a fantastic campsite on the Skagit River. Gigantic red cedars and big Douglas firs provided shade all day while the the glacier-sourced, 40-degree, swift-moving water cooled the gentle breeze along with the nearby campsites.
Why didn’t we just get in our trusty air conditioned truck and head elsewhere? Wildfires were burning everywhere in the northwest. We’d have to drive back to Wyoming or all the way down to California to escape the smoke. And we just wouldn’t pass up visiting friends and family in Washington and Oregon.
Despite the smoke-obscured teaser views, we enjoyed those hints of the profiles we knew were there. Somewhere. And we added yet another place we’ll be back to visit.