Washington National Parks: Mountains, Forests, and Indian Wars

Mt Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier and Reflection Lake, Washington.

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Washington's national parks are dedicated to the preservation or revival of a wild landscape of glaciers and volcanoes, coastal temperate rainforests, and alpine and subalpine environments. They also tell the tale of the Native American people who lived here, and the European-American colonists who impacted them.

Washington National Parks
Washington National Parks. National Park Service

According to the National Park Service, there are 15 parks in Washington, including trails, historic sites, parks, and recreation areas, and over 8 million visitors come to see them each year.

Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve

Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve
Historic Ferrymaster's cottage in Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island on the Puget Sound off the west coast of Washington USA. Nik Wheeler / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images Plus

Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, located on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, preserves and commemorates the mid-19th-century European settlement of the Oregon Territory on the United States' Pacific Northwest coast. 

The island was first settled in 1300 CE by the Skagit tribe, who lived in permanent villages and hunted game, fished, and cultivated root crops. They were still there in 1792, when the first European set foot on the island. That man was Joseph Whidbey and his explorations were well-publicized, inviting settlers to the area. 

The first permanent European settlers included Isaac Neff Ebey, a man from Missouri who arrived in 1851. Fort Casey, a military reservation, was built in the late 1890s, part of a three-fort defense system designed to protect the entrance to Puget Sound. 

The reserve is a cultural landscape where historic buildings and reproductions are sited in the natural maritime prairies, forests, and farmlands. 

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area

The Grand Coulee Dam
The Grand Coulee Dam spillway is almost a mile long at 5223 feet (1586 m).

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Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area includes the 130-mile long lake created by the Grand Coulee Dam, and stretches to the Canadian border along the Columbia River in northeastern Washington. 

The Grand Coulee Dam was built in 1941, as part of the Columbia River Basin project. Named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the recreation area spans three distinct physiographic provinces: the Okanogan Highlands, the Kootenay Arc, and the Columbia Plateau.

Massive ice age floods—the largest scientifically documented floods in North America—and intermittent lava flows created the Columbia Basin, and tectonic uplift and erosion sculpted the landscape as the cascades rose. 

Lake Roosevelt marks a transition zone between the desert-like Columbia Basin to the south and the slightly wetter Okanogan Highland to the north. These regions support abundant and diverse wildlife, with more than 75 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 15 species of reptiles, and 10 species of amphibians.

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park
Mt. Rainier above tarn and wildflowers at Indian Henrys Hunting Ground, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington State, USA. Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty Images Plus

Mount Rainier National Park is located in central Washington state, and the mountain is its centerpiece. Rising 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is both an active volcano and the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States: the headwaters of five major rivers are located within the park boundaries. 

Today, the landscape features subalpine wildflower meadows and ancient forests. Perhaps as long ago as 15,000 years, the first people arrived when the mountain was almost entirely draped in ice and permanent snowpack. The ice left the mid-slope between 9,000 and 8,500 years ago, developing plant and animal communities similar to what we find today. 

Native Americans who settled the midslopes then include the ancestors of the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot, Yakama, and Cowlitz tribes, who called the mountain “Takhoma.”

The park includes 25 glaciers, all of which have suffered decreases due to human-induced climate change. Glacially-carved features such as ponds, moraines, and cirque basins are found throughout the park. Each year, snow features, such as penitentes (pinnacles of snow that can be several tens of feet high), sun cups (fields of shallow hollows), bergschrunds (large crevasses), seracs (blocks or columns of ice) and ogives (alternating bands of light and dark ice), develop and fade on the glacier margins. 

The last eruption was about 150 years ago, and the park features fumaroles (volcanic vents issuing steam, hydrogen sulfide, and gases), debris flows and lahars (very large debris flows), historic mudflows, mineral springs, columnar lava, and lava ridges. 

North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park
Hikers ascend a trail in a thick, green forest en route to Mt. Redoubt in Washington's North Cascades National Park. Michael Hanson / Aurora / Getty Images Plus

The North Cascades National Park, in the north central part of the state, includes a long stretch of the Canadian border and features 300 glaciers in mountains which rise to elevations of over 9,000 feet. 

Over 500 lakes and ponds are located within the park, including the headwaters of several major watersheds, such as the Skagit, Chilliwack, Stehekin, and Nooksack rivers. The Skagit and its tributaries make up the largest watershed draining into Puget Sound. The numerous ponds are home to native aquatic life including plankton, aquatic insects, frogs, and salamanders, and the rivers house all five species of Pacific salmon and two sea-going trout.

The North Cascades features diverse landscapes, from lowland forests and wetlands to alpine peaks and glaciers, from temperate rainforest of the wet west-side to the dry ponderosa pine on the east. Old growth forests of Douglas fir and hemlock are found in patches throughout the park. Wetlands along the lower stretches of the Chilliwack River are maintained by a colony of beavers that dam the streams with freshly cut alder boughs, stream debris, and packed mud. 

Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park
Old-growth temperate rainforest wilderness in the Olympic National Park, Washington, USA. Bill Koplitz / Moment / Getty Images

Olympic National Park, located south of Puget Sound, features montane forests and subalpine meadows, rocky alpine slopes and glacier-capped summits. Eight contemporary Native American tribes—the Hoh, Ozette, Makah, Quinault, Quileute, Queets, Lower Elwha Klallam, and Jamestown S'Klallam—claim ancestral roots within the park.  

Rain forests in the Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Bogachiel valleys are some of the most spectacular examples of primeval temperate rain forest in the United States, fed by 12–14 feet of rainfall every year. The forests include huge centuries-old Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Douglas fir, and red cedar trees festooned with mosses, ferns, and lichens. 

San Juan Island National Historic Park

San Juan Island National Historic Park
Cattle Point offers views of rugged beaches, sandy bluffs, and nearby islands. Part of the San Juan Islands National Monument on San Juan Island, in the Haro Straits of Washington state. Lidija Kamansky / Moment Open / Getty Images

San Juan Island National Historic Park is located in two separate units on San Juan Island, in the Haro Straits of Puget Sound: the American Camp on the southern tip and the English Camp in the northwest. Those names reference the political history of the island.

By the mid-19th century, the United States and Great Britain were wrestling over where the border for what would become Canada should lie. They had agreed to the 49th parallel for the major portion of the two countries, but the broken coastline of what would become the northwestern corner of Washington and southeast British Columbia were less clear cut. Two separate colonies were based in San Juan between 1846 and 1872 and tensions between the colonists ran high. 

According to legend, in June of 1859, an American colonist shot a pig belonging to a British colonist. Infantry was called in to settle things, including warships and 500 soldiers, but before a war could break out, a diplomatic solution was brokered. Both colonies were put under joint martial law until the boundary question was resolved. In 1871, an impartial arbiter (Kaiser William I in Germany) was asked to resolve the dispute, and by 1872, the boundary was set northwest of San Juan Island. 

The island features extensive saltwater access and the most diverse and fragile marine ecosystems in the world, especially significant given the rich terrestrial and water resources. Marine wildlife visiting San Juan Island include orca, gray and minke whales, California and Steller sea lions, harbor and northern elephant seals, and Dall's porpoises. Bald eagle, osprey, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, and streaked horned lark are among the 200 species of birds; and 32 species of butterflies, including the rare Island Marble butterfly, are also found there.

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Whitman Mission National Historic Site
Whitman Mission National Historic Site at the former Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu, commemorates the Whitmans and the challenges encountered when two cultures meet. Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty Images Plus

The Whitman Mission National Historic Site, located in the southeastern part of the state, at the border with Oregon, commemorates an altercation between European Protestant missionaries and Native Americans, an incident in the U.S. government's Indian Wars that represented a turning point for all the people living on the Columbia Plateau. 

In the early 1830s, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were members of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a Boston-based group responsible for Protestant mission operations around the world. The Whitmans arrived at the village of Wheeler in 1832 to minister to the small Euroamerican community living there and the Cayuse living at nearby Waiilatpu. The Cayuse were suspicious of the Whitmans' plans, and in 1842, the ABCFM decided to close the mission. 

Marcus Whitman headed back east to convince the mission otherwise and returned guiding a train of 1,000 new settlers along the Oregon Trail. So many new white people into their lands was threatening to the local Cayuse. In 1847, an epidemic of measles struck both Indians and whites, and Marcus as a physician treated both communities. The Cayuse, led by their leader Tiloukaikt, considering that Whitman was a possible sorcerer, attacked the Wheeler community, killing 14 European-Americans including the Whitmans, and burning the mission to the ground. The Cayuse took 49 people captive and held them for a month.

A full-out war broke out when militia attacked a group of Cayuse who were not involved in the Whitman massacre. After two years, the leaders of the Cayuse surrendered. Weakened by disease and subject to continuing raids, the remainder of the tribe joined other nearby tribes. 

The Indian Wars continued throughout the late 1870s, but in the end, the United States government set up reservations and restricted the movement of Native Americans across the plains.