The National Park Service is Abandoning a North Cascades Jewel


Six decades ago, the Sierra Club seeded a successful campaign for a new national park in Washington by publishing a memorable, beautiful book entitled North Cascades: Forgotten Parkland. Our mountains made it onto Congress’ radar screen with creation of the North Cascades National Park complex. It comprises nearly 700,000 acres, a park, and two national recreation areas set aside for protection, reflection, and outdoor recreation.

Alas, that was then. The National Park Service is quietly abandoning — or at least looking away from — the North Cascades National Park. The park’s superintendent announced recently that there will be no staffing of rangers this summer at Stehekin, at the head of Lake Chelan, and that the Golden West Visitor Center will not open. The Park Service is pleading poverty and pulling out.

A proclamation by the city of Chelan, where folks board the Lady of the Lake tour boat bound for Stehekin, sums up what awaits them: “No rangers to greet visitors, give directions, point out trailheads, issue camping permits, explain the hazards of wilderness experience, direct visitors to bathrooms, or assist with emergencies.”

Forget about exhibits at the visitor center, curated by local artists. If you want to make a camping reservation, or learn about the park, you’ll have to go on line or find a talkative staff member at the North Cascades Lodge.

Stehekin is gateway to the southern portion of the 505,000 acre North Cascades National Park and lies within the 62,000-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. It has been staffed by the National Park Service for 55 years.

“The pattern has been that as visitor use has gone up, budgets have come down,” said Carolyn McConnell, vice chair of the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C). The N3C, founded in 1957 — when McConnell’s parents were among its leaders — fought to create the park as well as the adjoining Glacier Peak and Pasayten Wilderness Areas, both managed by an equally budget-strapped U.S. Forest Service. In a press release announcing the Stehekin pullout, Superintendent Don Striker reported: “The park’s overall staff has decreased 28 percent in the past decade due to funding challenges.”

North Cascades lags far behind Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks in use. Still, its visitor count has climbed 36 percent over the recent decade.

Stehekin is reachable only by boat, plane, or trail, however, and Supt. Striker has opted to “focus limited resources where they do the most good for most visitors.” This means continuing to staff the visitor center outside Newhalem, a five minute drive off the North Cascades Highway.

With federal agencies starved for money — even as outdoor recreation pours millions of dollars into our state’s economy — a management crisis has arisen just as trails and backcountry have experienced a surge in popularity. Olympic National Park has topped the list in national surveys of parks with the greatest number of attractions. The Enchantment Lakes above Leavenworth are the most sought after permit destination in our National Forest system.

At the same time, however, trails and campgrounds go unmaintained  Such volunteer groups as the Washington Trails Assn. have taken on the task of keeping up paths put in by CCC crews nearly a century ago. Huge backups of cars near Rainy and Washington Passes, on the North Cascades Highway, appear on fall weekends when needles on larch trees turn gold. A few other areas such as Cascade Pass, the one NCNP trailhead accessible off the North Cascades Highway, get hammered. At Mount Rainier National Park, managers are struggling to limit visitor traffic.

By contrast, the Park Service has gradually pulled out of the Stehekin Valley. It used to run vans and shuttle buses up valley to access trailheads. No more.

The upper section of the old mine-to-market road experienced a washout more than a decade ago at (appropriately named) Carwash Falls. The Park Service has resisted relocating the road. Hence, fabled destinations in the “American Alps” — Park Creek Pass, Goode Ridge, and North Fork-Bridge Creek Cirque — were already stiff hikes. Now they require putting boots on trail for five to seven days.

The Park Service has done good deeds. It has put in large tent spaces at a campground at Newhalem as an inducement to multi-generation Hispanic families settling in the Skagit Valley. Along with volunteers, it has worked to restore once-trampled meadows of Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm.

But Stehekin suffers neglect. It’s a pity. In the 1960s, as part of the campaign for a park, a film “The Wilderness Alps of Stehekin” featured families on a horseback trip up to 6.100-foot Park Creek Pass, a defile flanked by the 9,000-foot summits of Mrs. Buckner, Goode, and Logan.

Scrambling over a ridge at the pass, I once came upon (at a safe distance) a mother bear and three cubs. Multiple cougars were once photographed at a bridge on the park-recreation area boundary.  In a climb of McGregor Mountain, myself and two buddies were buzzed by a rattlesnake at the valley-bottom start and looked out at a vigorous glacier from the summit.

“Park rangers have a duty to strategically implement resources where they make the most sense,” Striker said in his release. The “fiscal climate” just won’t permit staffing “remote sites.”

Hmmm! Our congressional delegation churns out daily news releases announcing millions in infrastructure projects and social spending in the state. What about parks? If we could lay in an infrastructure during the Great Depression, you’d think we could afford to maintain it now.

A backcountry ranger won’t break the bank. The park promised, in one past ad, pay of $18 an hour for a season lasting April thru September.

Summer park jobs have always been sought after. “I cannot imagine people not wanting to work up there,” said a friend who’s spent years giving out permits and patrolling the backcountry of Olympic National Park.

N3C isn’t giving up. A “Don’t Abandon Stehekin” petition has so far collected more than 1,100 signatures. In response to the park’s press release, the venerable conservation group asked: “if Stehekin’s numbers have ‘remained constant,’ why hasn’t the National Park Service presence there remained constant?”

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Stehekin is a jewel of a place and visitors need the Park Service to provide assistance – especially in the form of a Ranger!

    The Golden West Lodge is a beautiful building and is even more stunning inside…keep it open and allow more people learn about and treasure the Stehekin Valley.

  2. Joel, Thank you for bringing this topic to the attention of the public. I want to clarify that there are shuttles running in Stehekin. Stehekin Valley Adventures has been operating the shuttles since 2022, and will continue this year. People coming to Stehekin will still have transportation to High Bridge and access to tours of the valley. We enjoy helping the visitors!

  3. Wow! I thought the National Park Service had been given an increased budget. We will be hiking in the Park this summer. More people, less staff. Doesn’t make sense. By the way, I remember you from Western Washington University in the 1960s. Loved your columns over the years.

    • The NPS is currently operating under a provisional budget, but it’s looking like it will be at least a 15 percent cut, plus increased wages to all federal employees (while a good thing on its own) taking a bite out of each individual park’s operating budget.

  4. I got married at Stehekin and am planning a backpacking trip there this July. Thank you for the coverage in the article. Would like to support the advocacy efforts to see a Ranger supported there. Do you have a link to the organization you reference?

  5. What a shame. My family has enjoyed the park for years. While camping, hiking and the boat trip are increasing in popularity they say they don’t have the funds to continue services. It seems our dreams, wishes and money goes elsewhere.


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