A look at an area just outside North Cascades National Park that some advocates think should be added to the park. They call it the "American Alps."
In recognition of North Cascades National Park’s 40th anniversary, freelance writer Terry Wood recently contributed a NWWeekend cover story that was a paean to the park’s best hikes. Here, he follows up with a look at an area some advocates think should have been included in the park in 1968 — or should still be added.
Its neighborhood is so classy: A national park lies just three miles to the south; a wilderness area borders it to the north.
So why is it, some people wonder, that the land next door, which contains one of the state’s most dramatic sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, carries no similar handle-with-care designation?
Anyone who has made the day hike to Cutthroat Pass is familiar with the dazzling, far-reaching views that await at the 6,800-foot pass.
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Beyond that? Lovely Snowy Lakes basin, a stiff, one-mile uphill side trip off the PCT, lies serenely below angular, 8,366-foot Golden Horn. Along the way, the trail to Methow Pass is gouged into a cliff and resembles a Kendall Katwalk that goes on for miles.
Farther north, Grasshopper Pass stops you in your tracks with its spread of tall peaks and expansive valley views. The ridgeline walk north of Harts Pass at times resembles a stroll on a flowered skybridge.
It all lies within an “inventoried roadless area” administered by the Okanogan National Forest — a region that includes imposing Tower Mountain (8,444 feet), Azurite Peak (8,420 feet), Ballard Mountain (8,301 feet) and the forested, widescreen drainages of West Fork Methow River and Swamp Creek.
You can take it all in, as I recently did, by hiking a 32-mile segment of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs north from Rainy Pass (from a picnic area on the North Cascades Scenic Highway, Route 20) to remote Windy Pass, where the PCT finally reaches official wilderness (the Pasayten Wilderness Area).
A question of “caliber”
Unlike its federally sheltered neighbors to the north and south, this land’s roadless-area status leaves its future vulnerable to the ever-shifting tides of public and political sentiment. Roads, and even a structure, from existing mining claims are visible from the PCT north of Harts Pass.
It’s a fluke of land management that really got in the craw of late conservationist and guidebook author Harvey Manning.
In “100 Classic Hikes in Washington” (co-published with photographer Ira Spring), Manning railed against 1960s decision-makers who drew up boundaries for North Cascades National Park. When established in 1968, park borders excluded all of the passes, peaks, lake basins and valleys mentioned above.
Manning bemoaned the notion that anyone could omit such soul-stirring places by presuming that they were “not of national park caliber.” His assessment of their judgment: “Somebody in the National Park Service is not of national park caliber!”
Tom Hammond, on the board of directors of the North Cascades Conservation Council, chuckles at Manning’s bluntness. Hammond, who chairs the NCCC’s Parks and Wilderness Additions Committee, says the NCCC today refers to the area (encompassing 200,000-plus acres) as “American Alps” and is undertaking its own study of the land.
Long-term, he says, the NCCC hopes to elevate the area to wilderness status or add it to North Cascades National Park. The park’s current boundary, established on Oct. 2, 1968, lies just 2.9 trail miles from Rainy Pass.
Hammond cites a 1965 North Cascades Study Report prepared for what was then known as the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.
A.W. Greeley, then deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, contributed a thumbs-down view of the region on his agency’s behalf. His comments filled four single-spaced pages, but his key assessment was set off in double-spaced, stand-alone clarity: “We do not agree that there should be a national park.”
“That must be where Harvey got that ‘not of national park caliber’ line,” Hammond said. “That’s an incredible opinion for someone to publish.”
The immense valley views alone are worth the trip, particularly when framed by the edgy ridgelines that abruptly rise and fall like the chart pattern of a volatile stock.
With a car parked at Rainy Pass, I caught a ride with friends to Mazama and then up to Harts Pass on the part-pavement, part-gravel Lost River Road, about a 40-mile shuttle. I started at a trailhead just below 7,448-foot Slate Peak. The Slate Peak parking spaces are the highest point in Washington where you can drive a vehicle.
First I hiked north about seven miles, beyond Windy Pass to a small meadow just below 7,290-foot Tamarack Peak. I bagged the peak the next morning, then headed south for a pair of back-to-back 20-mile days.
It was a wearying but rewarding game plan. Wildflowers were abundant in early August, and in morning light the five-mile stretch between Harts Pass and Windy Pass brightly illuminated the dark hulks of Azurite and Ballard.
Other standout views: ridge-walking between Tatie Peak and Grasshopper Pass (like the trip to Windy Pass, this can be done as a day hike), the exposed cliff walk between Methow and Cutthroat passes; the unmarked side trip (easy to miss; watch for a badly sagging hitching post near a meadowy viewpoint) up to Snowy Lakes Basin and the scramble-worthy Golden Horn.
The views will likely have your heart singing and your brain wondering how anyone could think such dazzling scenes don’t belong in a national park.