Exploring the Harsh Beauty of the Cascades

The North Cascades aren’t exactly user friendly. There are no drive-up views for the minivan crowd.

The North Cascades, one of the least-visited national parks in the country, abuts Washington’s border with British Columbia, a mere two-and-a-half hours from downtown Seattle. So why doesn’t anybody go?

Well, the North Cascades aren’t exactly user friendly. There are no drive-up views for the minivan crowd. Plush lodges and charming hamlets are few and far between. Stray kids looking for a gift shop might get swallowed by a patch of thorny devil’s club. The price of entry is almost always steep (literally). Rangers usually spend a lot of time telling you what a miserable time you’ll have if you put yourself at the mercy of the park’s capricious and violent weather.

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But they just want it for themselves. With some grit and serious sweat, adventurers who press through those barriers reap major rewards. You’ll see serrated ridges that end at the horizon, the southern toe of a wild country that stretches all the way to Alaska. Sixty percent of all the glaciers in the Lower 48 drape these mountains, making it an alpinist’s wonderland. From epic rock routes to 10,000-foot volcanoes, the peaks here are spoken of in reverent tones: Mt. Baker, Liberty Bell, Bonanza, Mt. Terror, the Pickets. The superlatives stretch into the winter, where ski mountaineers and on-piste shredders alike rack up blower days in the snowiest place on Earth.

But you don’t have to be a technical dirtbag with more climbing hardware than pairs of underwear to enjoy all the park has to offer. Pick a trail, any trail, and just put one foot in front of the other. Before long you’ll end up in a big-river valley choked with 200-foot-tall trees and more eagles than you can count, or on a knife-edge ridge covered in blueberries. (And make strategic use of them, like we did in slide 16.) Just go get lost.

Chris Burkard is a self-taught photographer and artist based in Central Coast California. His work covers surfing, the outdoors, lifestyle and travel, with images punctuated by energized landscapes and moments of bliss, by adventure-seeking and the lifestyle that ensues. Learn more about his life and photography at burkardphoto.com and follow him on Instagram @chrisburkard.

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