Natural Notes National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior


North Cascades National Park
Service Complex
NPS logo
Mount Shuksan
Rugged Mount Shuksan stands tall and white with snow beyond Picture Lake. Photo: Robert Morgan

The North Cascades: a unique and treasured ecosystem

The rugged landscape of North Cascades National Park is home to a unique collection of plants, animals, natural processes, and cultural resources.

Here over 300 glaciers carve peaks that tower above deep valleys dark with ancient forests. Old growth cedar, pine, and fir contrast with subalpine meadows full of colorful flowers. Animals as common as ravens and as rare as grizzly bears are at home in the many different habitats of the range.

These treasures and more lie within the North Cascades ecosystem. Assuring its health is the central goal of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, comprised of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. The park complex is located in the heart of the North Cascades ecosystem that extends from Snoqualmie Pass in Washington to the Fraser River in British Columbia.

Straddling the crest of the Cascade Mountains, the park encompasses a great variety of life zones. Elevations soar from 400 feet to more than 9,000 feet above sea level. Dramatic rainfall differences from 25 inches on the east side of the range to well over 100 inches in some areas on the west result in diverse vegetation and wildlife. The presence of more than 1,600 vascular plant species and an estimated 3,000 or more kinds of fungi gives some idea of the diversity of life in this place.

To know if the park is being adequately protected, the National Park Service must assess its ecological health. Park scientists are learning to do this by monitoring "vital signs." Ecosystem vital signs range from the growth versus shrinkage of glaciers to the presence or absence of certain aquatic insect larvae in the park's watersheds and trends in the populations of particular birds and mammals. The presence and quantity of airborne pollutants in glaciers and the lakes they feed can provide a measure of the impact of distant human activities. These indicators and more will allow scientists to determine the overall health of the park's ecosystem and which way it is headed.

The benefits that people receive from North Cascades as a protected area are many: clean air and water, spawning areas for salmon, opportunities for challenge, relaxation, and inspiration, and more. Measuring the vital signs of ecosystem health and then taking action as needed to protect park resources will ensure that these benefits continue.

Be a steward!
Help preserve our Natural Heritage:
  • Tread lightly on the land
    and leave no trace.
  • Respect the wilderness,
    wildlife and fellow visitors.
  • Be aware of and avoid
    revegetation areas.

What's Inside?

Life zones, water, mountains, glaciers and more.

Defending against alien invaders and harnessing the power of fire.
From tiny lichen to giant trees and restoring natural habitats.
Bats, bears, birds, fish, ducks, wolves and goats that aren't goats.

Last Updated: 18-Sep-2002