History, North Cascades

The Forest Service’s Last Stand in the North Cascades

If you want to get from the Skagit River to Lake Chelan, the easiest way is through Cascade Pass. From the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit Rivers, it’s about 23 road miles to the trailhead then less than four miles to the pass itself. Once there, it’s another 23 miles to Lake Chelan via the Stehekin Valley. The grade is gentler than much of the North Cascades, making Cascade Pass one of the most popular hikes in North Cascades National Park. It’s also the only trailhead in the park proper reachable by road. Although the Park Service manages the two-unit park and its adjoining national recreation areas holistically, park geeks may want to say they’ve stood inside the actual national park. Cascade Pass is the place to do this.

Cascade Pass from the trailhead parking lot
Cascade Pass from the trailhead parking lot (Lauren Danner photo)

The pass’s popularity isn’t new. Historically, Cascade Pass is probably the most traveled portion of the North Cascades. Native peoples shaped tools and built hearths at the pass 10,000 years ago, and the area has been used consistently from that time to the present. Fur trader Alexander Ross made the first recorded crossing of the pass by a Euro-American in 1814, although his exact route is unclear and bad weather and reluctant guides forced him to turn back before he reached the Skagit River. From the mid-1850s to the early years of the 20th century, explorers crossed the pass in their quest to map the region, and miners found it an amenable route to diggings and claims. Early boosters tried to build a road through the pass; the state legislature threw money at the project for decades.

Today the pass is justly famous for its scenic splendor, which has been touted for at least 100 years. In 1916, the popular mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart crossed Cascade Pass as part of a trip sponsored by the Great Northern Railway to promote tourism.

The Rinehart party at Cascade Pass in 1916
The Rinehart party at Cascade Pass in 1916 (Lawrence Lindsley photo courtesy NPS, reprinted in WSU magazine)

Camped at the pass, Rinehart predicted the region would someday become a national park, putting “this roof of the world within reach of anyone who can sit a horse.” Twenty years later, Wilderness Society co-founder Bob Marshall traveled to the North Cascades in his role as the Forest Service’s director of recreation and lands. He recommended nearly all the land between Glacier Peak and the Skagit River, some 795,000 acres stretching north from Cascade Pass, be classified as wilderness. “I don’t know of any country that surpasses in beauty the Northern Cascades,” he wrote.

The U.S. Forest Service had managed the area since the 1897 creation of the Washington Forest Reserve (the precursor to today’s national forests), but some believed the area merited national park status. Beginning in the 1950s, the area stretching north from the pass, usually labeled the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek area or the Eldorado Peaks region, was hotly contested throughout the decade-long campaign for North Cascades National Park.

In 1960, partly in response to park proponents, the Secretary of Agriculture directed the Forest Service to manage Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek for scenery and recreation. Even so, Cascade Pass was still vulnerable to future development because the Secretary’s directive could be changed or undone later.

In 1963, furor over whether the North Cascades should be managed by the Forest Service or the National Park Service had escalated to a point where the federal government ordered a study of the entire region to determine its best use in the public interest. The study team had five members: two from the Forest Service, two from the Park Service, and a chair from the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.

In early 1965, before the study team’s findings were released, the Forest Service announced the creation of the Eldorado Peaks Recreation Area, where it proposed to build more than three dozen new campgrounds, three winter sports sites, and 59 miles of new roads to promote recreational use. The Forest Service claimed that designating the Eldorado Peaks Recreation Area fulfilled the Agriculture Secretary’s 1960 directive for the area, so it was just doing its job. But proponents of a national park were furious, viewing the move as designed to demonstrate the Forest Service could manage Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek for recreation and scenery, a task more often associated with the Park Service.

Part of the study team’s job was to make recommendations about a national park in the North Cascades. Unsurprisingly, the Forest Service saw no need for a park, while the Park Service did and proposed two national parks: one around Glacier Peak and one encompassing Mt. Baker and the Picket Range.

Interestingly, both agencies envisioned Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek as a recreation area.

NPS management proposal for Cascade Pass, 1965
National Park Service management proposal for the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek region. The light mauve area is the proposed Eldorado-Chelan National Recreation Area (NPS map from Study Report)

The Park Service wanted to name it the Eldorado-Chelan National Recreation Area and extend its borders to include the head of Lake Chelan and Rainy Pass.

The Forest Service renamed its earlier Eldorado Peaks Recreation Area plan as the Eldorado Peaks High Country, saying it would manage the area for its scenic value for also “open it up and develop it for the use and enjoyment of the large numbers of people who desire other kinds of outdoor recreation and those unable to engage in wilderness travel.” Both agencies identified Cascade Pass as a “high density recreation area.”

Forest Service management proposal for Cascade Pass, 1965
U.S. Forest Service management proposal for the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek region. The light yellow-green area is the proposed Eldorado Peaks High Country (USFS map from Study Report)

This didn’t settle the national park question, though, and the study team chairman had to forge a compromise. He proposed a 698,000-acre national park from the Canadian border to upper Lake Chelan, including the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek area (which the Park Service had proposed as a national recreation area).

Team members had the opportunity to comment on the final report before its publication. The Park Service agreed to the larger park Crafts proposed, including the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek region. But the Forest Service wanted to delay publication of the report’s recommendation as long as possible to give it one last chance to try to keep the North Cascades within its jurisdiction. It submitted yet another addendum to the study team report, proposing the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek region and Ross Lake be designated the 537,000-acre North Cascade National Recreation Area. It retained its plans for extensive recreational development, including three dozen new campgrounds and three winter sports resorts complete with trams for skiers and sightseers. A national recreation area required congressional approval and would provide a “national name” without requiring a different agency (the Park Service) to manage it. “We think national emphasis can be given to the recreation and scenic values of this area,” the Forest Service wrote, “without establishing a duplicating organization and administrative unit.”

Forest Service proposal for Eldorado Peaks High Country, 1965
U.S. Forest Service “Eldorado Peaks High Country” proposal for recreational development in the region between Cascade Pass and Ruby Creek. In a last-ditch effort to retain management of the region, the agency proposed essentially the same development plan of campgrounds, resorts, and trams as the North Cascade National Recreation Area (USFS map from Study Report)

The study team chairman was furious, seeing the Forest Service plan for a national recreation area as a last-ditch, desperate attempt to forestall a national park by undermining the compromise proposal he had worked hard to create. He warned if this new idea was given credence, it would “destroy any hope for a national park.” The report was published in early 1966 with the compromise proposal intact, including Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek inside the national park.

The Forest Service did not give up easily, developing a public relations campaign to promote its proposals as expressed in the study team report. Throughout spring and summer 1966, the agency conducted slide shows for local groups, took local officials on show-me trips, gave out free maps, and sent news releases.

Doubtful Lake from Sahale Arm, above Cascade Pass
The Agriculture Secretary argued that scenery in the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek area wasn’t national park caliber. President Lyndon B. Johnson and thousands of citizens disagreed (Lauren Danner photo)

In September 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson requested that the Agriculture Secretary and Interior Secretary visit the North Cascades to try to reach an agreement about who should manage it. They flew from Seattle over the Glacier Peak region north to the Cascade Pass – Ruby Creek area, over the Pickets and Mts. Shuksan and Baker, seeing most of the area proposed for a park. The Agriculture Secretary, apparently unmoved by the mountain wonderland unfolding beneath the plane, declared, “I have been looking for reasons why there should be a park. …I’m still looking.”

But public sentiment wanted a national park. In January 1967, President Johnson called for North Cascades National Park legislation, and the Forest Service fell into line. It stopped its anti-park effort, swallowed hard, and supported the president. On October 2, 1968, North Cascades National Park was established.

Just as the study team report predicted 50 years ago, Cascade Pass is a locus of heavy recreational use. To be sure, there are no trams, no resorts, no ski lifts, and no complex of campgrounds. But there are lots and lots of people.

I hiked there recently along with at least 100 other mountain-lovers. At the pass, you can peer at the United States Geological Survey marker placed in 1896.

USGS marker at Cascade Pass
Cascade Pass USGS marker. Note the scratched-out elevation in the lower right corner and the correct elevation stamp below it (Park Ranger photo via Flickr)

It initially gave the elevation as 5,423 feet, but the next year it was changed to 5,392 feet, and you can still see the scratched-out area and the correct elevation stamped below it.

Despite many signs warning people to stay off the subalpine meadows at the pass, which have been the focus of a four-decade revegetation project, a few folks were lounging on the plants because they found the seating area “too cold.” (To their credit, when I pointed out the signs, they did move—although I encountered them later on the trail, smoking a spliff on federal lands. Sigh.) When I returned to the parking lot around 4:30pm, cars filled every spot and clogged the road shoulder for several hundred feet.

It’s hard to say whether things would be different if the Forest Service had been able to retain management of Cascade Pass. I suspect the area would be just as popular, perhaps more so if those campgrounds and resorts had been built. The national park label adds undeniable cachet, and it’s a big part of the reason folks brave the 17 miles of gravel road to get to the Cascade Pass trailhead. The Forest Service tried everything it could think of to keep Cascade Pass in its jurisdiction but was ultimately unsuccessful. I’m not sure it matters in the end. People have used Cascade Pass for 10,000 years, no matter who manages it, and that’s not going to change.

People at Cascade Pass
A parent introduces pint-size hikers to Cascade Pass (Lauren Danner photo)