North Cascades National Park


The temperate forests of the North Cascades are home to a remarkable variety of plant and animal life. Many life zones and habitats straddle these mountains, changing with elevation and distance from the ocean.

More than 1,700 species of flowering plants have been identified and collected in the national park's herbarium. The abundance of non-flowering plant species, including mushrooms, mosses, and lichens, rivals any other ecosystem on Earth. They have not been fully inventoried and many may not have even been discovered yet.

Which animals live in the North Cascades and how many are there? This question also has yet to be fully answered. Baseline studies and inventories are still underway, and biologists are discovering new species as they look beyond animals at the top of the food chain.

Bald eagles, wolves, grizzly bears, and other top predators require a rich diversity of plants and animals lower on the food chain to survive. Biologists are discovering more and more about the North Cascades ecosystem as they look more closely at the complex connections between different species.

We do know that 75 species of mammals are native to the North Cascades; more than 200 birds either breed in or pass through the region; and 11 species of fish are indigenous to the lakes and rivers on the west side of the Cascades. Some plants and animals are considered "indicator" species, because they are sensitive to problems in the ecosystem. Salmon, for example, use a variety of habitats and are thus good indicator species; they require healthy watersheds, from forests to streams to oceans.

As you explore the North Cascades you may be lucky enough to see some of the wildlife that lives here. Wildlife sightings cards are available at all ranger stations to report animals you may see. Books and other resources to help you identify and learn about plants and wildlife are available through all National Park and Forest Service visitor centers. Rangers lead guided walks most weekends and provide other naturalist services.

The animals below require large amounts of habitat to survive. Protecting the resources they need also protects the resources for thousands of smaller, less wide-ranging animals. Remember that these charismatic "mega-fauna" share habitat with many other animals, both large and small—including humans.

Mountain Lions

Seeing all but seldom seen, the stealthy mountain lion prowls the forests and mountains of the North Cascades. The solitary mountain lion, or cougar, is the largest cat in Washington and the second largest in North America. Mountain lions once ranged across much of North America but large-scale eradication programs decimated the animals' numbers in many regions. Today, substantial populations of the great cat are limited to parts of western North America.

Adult mountain lions vary in size, but average about seven feet long (including the long tail) and weigh between 80 and 200 pounds. Mountain lion habitat is characterized by rocky cliffs, ledges, and other areas that provide cover. They are afraid of humans and, consequently, gathering information on the cats is difficult. No one knows how many mountain lions are in the North Cascades or whether the population is increasing, declining, or stable. The chances of seeing a mountain lion in the wild—even if you lived your entire life in mountain lion habitat—are very slim. So if by some chance you catch a glimpse of the beautiful and mysterious mountain lion, consider it a gift.

Mountain Goats

Scrambling across high cliffs and remote peaks, casually edging along precipices inaccessible to other animals, the mountain goat is the ultimate mountain climber. This remarkable animal is actually not a goat at all, but a type of antelope. Their hooves have slightly curved pads that extend beyond the outer shells, which provide them with greater traction and maneuverability than other hoofed animals. Mountain goats have true horns that continually grow and are never shed. Their pelage (the hair or fur that covers mammals) is white or yellowish-white, with a dense undercoat of soft wool.

During the summer mountain goats are very conspicuous as they stand out against the rocky terrain, but during winter they blend in with the snow and become nearly invisible. The pelage keeps the mountain goat warm in cold, dry weather, but is not as effective when it's cold and wet; during heavy rains mountain goats often seek shelter under rock ledges or trees. Mountain goats choose to spend most of their lime above timberline near rocky outcrops, where they can withdraw to safety in case of danger. When the snow is deep, however, mountain goats will head for the relatively balmy environment of lower elevations.

Black and Grizzly Bears

Whether they are regarded as monsters lying in wait or cute, bumbling teddies, bears are often misunderstood. Maybe we are so fascinated with bears because they have so much in common with us.

Bears standing on their hind legs look human; they eat the same food people do; and they are very intelligent. Black bears are fairly common in the North Cascades, but grizzlies are much rarer. The two species are different in some ways, but they also share some traits. Both are omnivorous—like people, they eat everything. A recent study determined that 10 percent of the scat material from 120 North Cascades bears was animal parts, mostly ants. The rest consisted of berries, leaves, seeds (including pine nuts), and flowers.

Bears also eat food left out by people, including camping supplies, horses' oats, and dog food. And what we see as garbage, bears see as an easy meal. Bears need to eat a lot, because they have to eat a whole year's worth of food in seven or eight months. During the winter they enter into a highly specialized and unique form of hibernation. While they are in the den, bears do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. Cubs can even grow while "sleeping" in the den; a person's bones begin to deteriorate after only 96 hours in bed. Black bears typically den under fallen trees or in other existing nooks just large enough for a bear to crawl into or under. Grizzly bears typically dig a new den each year. That's why they have those big foreclaws and shoulder muscles: Grizzlies are like animated bulldozers.


Feared by some, revered by others, and demonized in myth, the wolf has never failed to stir people's imaginations. For much of this century the clear, haunting howl of the wolf has been absent from the North Cascades. Trapping effectively extirpated the wolf from the Northwest by the 1930s. In the United States wolves have been reduced to a fraction of their former range, and as a result have been listed as an endangered species.

However, there is evidence that during the past decade wolves have begun to return to the Washington Cascades. Just last summer an adult and pup were seen in the Pasayten Wilderness and there have been other observations as far south as the Columbia River. Wolves are highly social animals and live in family groups (packs) of between two and 12 members. The pack is headed by an alpha pair, which is usually the only breeding couple. There are very strong bonds among the pack members; without these bonds, each individual wolf would go his or her own way and the pack would disintegrate.

Wolves primarily eat large mammals such as deer and elk. Wildlife researchers believe that by killing the sickest and weakest of the herd, wolves are helping maintain the vitality of the prey species. Many people form their notions about wolves from story characters such as "The Big Bad Wolf," but in reality wolves do not attack humans. Graceful, intelligent, and wild, the wolf is a symbol of the North Cascades.


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions