Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 13, 2011

What Rough Beast?

In my previous post, I described one of the primary pleasures of travel: being surprised. On our recent trip to the state of Washington, Dad and I had many surprises. Although Washington has many fine cities and towns, we didn’t go there to admire the state capitol in Olympia, to see big fish tossed around at the Pike Place Market in Seattle or for other urban adventures. We went to see wild mountains and forests, rivers and animals. We encountered one of our biggest surprises there in the wild: a rarely seen animal neither of us had expected to add to our “spotted” list. Dividing the week-long trip into three phases, the sighting of this elusive creature came during the first phase, in North Cascades National Park.

North Cascades National Park occupies the northernmost portion of the Cascade mountain range, right up to the Canadian border. The park is nearly all wilderness, and it’s difficult to access much of it unless you hike in.

Early Winters Spires - Liberty Bell Brad Nixon 7396 680

There are only a couple of east-west roads that cross the region, and none travel north-south. There are some places to pull off, there’s a visitor’s center, and few small developed areas around the lakes in the region. Other than that, it is extremely rugged, remote terrain. All these factors make it far more difficult to enjoy the park in depth than more-visited national parks including Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone.

It was interesting to contrast the craggy landscape of the Cascades with our previous trips to Denali and Glacier National Parks. Denali is vast, open tundra and taiga, with broad vistas spread out at the foot of the mountain ranges to the north and south.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 1950 300 680

There, the mountains spring up from only a couple thousand feet above sea level, and they loom immensely at the edge of every vista, dominated by Denali — Mt. McKinley — itself.

Glacier National Park is mountainous, with steeper, narrower valleys than Denali, but, compared to Glacier, the Cascades are even more vertiginous and narrow. The Cascades feel as if they’ve just begun to erode, with steep, stark ravines that are constantly closing in the views as you wind along over Route 20. Snow-capped mountains with hundreds of glaciers (far more than Glacier National Park) tower almost directly overhead, and you crane your neck to catch glimpses of the peaks.

Picket Range Brad Nixon 7338-2 (640x468)

We did not hike far into this beautiful but forbidding wilderness. We did our best to explore the edges of the dense forest from some accessible trails. On the eastern edge of the park, we found a local road that took us into the shoulders of the high country for vistas of the tallest peak in the park, Mt. Baker, 10,781 ft. It’s an active volcano, like its taller member of the cascades, Rainier, to the south.

Mount Baker Brad Nixon 7279-PS1 (640x468)

One can never count on clear views of big mountains, especially in the rainy Cascades in late October. That evening, however, we had a spectacular vista. In the following panorama, Mt. Baker is in the left of the frame. The peak on the right is almost certainly Mt. Shuksan, 9,131 ft.

Mt Baker Panorama Brad Nixon (640x175)

Driving east and beyond the boundary of the national park, the mountains continued, rank on rank. At its highest point, Route 20 crossed Washington Pass at 5477 feet. To the west, now behind us, the Cascades were piled range after range, while the eastern slopes descended steadily through Winthrop and Twisp into the Columbia River basin and the drier inland parts of the state.

We stopped at an overlook at Washington Pass. At that elevation, water in the potholes in the granite outcroppings was frozen. Clouds alternately obscured and then cleared from the face of Reynolds Peak, while the road wound through an ancient glacial lake hundreds of feet below us.

Cascade Loop Brad Nixon 7394-2 (640x480)

It was during this memorable drive that we encountered what I consider to be one of my most impressive wildlife sightings. We are no stranger to spotting the big game. In Denali, on one memorable day, we sighted all of the Big Five: moose, brown (Grizzly) bear, caribou, Dall’s sheep and — incredible luck — a pack of wolves.

But, that day in the Cascades, we pulled off two-lane Route 20 to look back westward behind us for a better look at some of the peaks. That view out to our left was something like this:

North Cascades Brad Nixon 7361-2 (640x480)

We got back into the car. Dad was driving. I looked out at the rocky cliff face to the right. And, there, I saw it. A creature so elusive and so limited in range to these cold, rocky heights that I never expected to see it.


A Pika! There were several of the little guys, darting between the rocks. Even at close range, I needed my field glasses to get a good look at them and determine that they weren’t chipmunks or ground squirrels. The rounded ears are the giveaway. This was, specifically, the American Pika. (Pronounced PIE-kah.) Pikas are not rodents, but comprise a family in the order of lagomorphs, which also includes rabbits. I kept the glasses on the rocks, spotting the little guys so that I could direct Dad to where they were. He managed to zoom in and get the shot above. They didn’t stay in one spot very long.

There, amidst towering crags, active volcanoes, ancient forests, vast glaciers and daunting wilderness was one of the great surprises of the trip: a small, furry creature that I had always assumed I would never see other than in a few minutes of film in some National Geographic special.

Keep your eyes open, my friends. Wonders abound.

To see the first post in this series, CLICK HERE.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2018. Pika photograph © Willard Nixon 2018, used by kind permission.


  1. Amazing photos and great travelog! And thanks for the education. Never had heard of a pika. Pikers, yes! But pikas (except in Boston, maybe), no.


  2. Well-spotted, well-written and great photos! I really enjoyed this post.


    • Spotted? Spotted? Were there leopards there, too? Or other little spotted animalae?

      BTW, what’s with the weird You-Tube Ad at the end? More flora and fauna?


  3. Great photos! Thanks for sharing them. I may never hike or travel there, but feel from your photos like I was there.


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