Once Upon a Time in the North Cascades

North Cascades Visitor Center
Has your curiosity been piqued, like ours, by a roadside trail or sign inviting you to stop and investigate? Hank and I had driven the North Cascades Highway, through the North Cascades National Park, many times. Near the Seattle City Light company town of Newhalem, we always noticed a narrow road leading into the woods with a sign pointing to “North Cascades Visitor Center.” We wondered what might be there and finally took time to check it out.

We were surprised to find a one-lane bridge spanning the green Skagit River, complete with traffic light signaling when we could cross. We followed the road back to a welcoming stone-and-timber Visitor Center hidden among the trees. Inside, rangers answer questions. We wandered through a beautifully designed multi-media center with displays and videos about the park’s wildlife, plants, geology, and early inhabitants. The North Cascades National Park is one of our more lightly used parks, a real treasure that deserves to be much more widely known. The Center here and the displays at nearby Newhalem are good places to start.

We checked out a map of nearby walking trails. One, only 300 feet in length, followed a boardwalk behind the Center to a spectacular view of clouds lifting over the Pickett Range.

The Pickett Range
Part of the rock shelter

We took time for another short walk, this one also wheelchair accessible although steeper. The Rock Shelter Trail starts just past a bridge over Newhalem Creek, near where it empties into the Skagit, and climbs a mossy hillside to another boardwalk, which also leads to an overlook. It looks down on an area the Upper Skagit Indians called “Duwaylib,” or “goat snare.” Later comers wrote it down as “Newhalem.” People hunted mountain goats nearby, then camped beneath the huge overhanging boulders to cook the meat and process the wool. They also
caught salmon migrating upstream to spawn and dried them beside Newhalem Creek.

Archaeologists carbon dated mountain goat bones and other artifacts found in the rock shelter to 1400 years ago. They found rock chips and broken points left from tool making. Traces of campfire smoke can still be seen on the rock ceiling.

Newhalem Creek

The photos don’t give a true picture of the scale of the scene. Thick blankets of moss hide traces of the old trails. Trees grow up, break off, rot back into the forest floor. Frost pries chunks of rock from the overhangs to litter the floor of former campsites. Still, one can call his or her imagination into play and people this quiet place with women cooking over a campfire, children playing along the edge of the creek, hunters coming down a trail carrying their trophies on their shoulders.

Native Americans climbed to the high mountain valleys every summer to pick berries, dig roots, and hunt. It gives us pause to think that where cars and trucks now whiz over  paved highways from one side of the mountains to the other, trading parties from both east and west once labored over the passes on foot to bargain for goods they could not find at home.

What else waits to be discovered in beautiful North Cascades National Park?