The North Cascades Highway

A Roadside Guide to America's Alps

Available in local book stores or order online: University of Washington Press.

  Majestic peaks, sunset and migmatic orthogneiss. What's not to love?   Colonial and Pyramid Peaks,  milepost 131.7   

Majestic peaks, sunset and migmatic orthogneiss. What's not to love?  Colonial and Pyramid Peaks, milepost 131.7

 "Far, far downstream from Eldorado's alpine heights, the Skagit River deposits specks of Eldorado Peak at your feet. Pick up a fistful of sand and hold the North Cascades in your hand."

Available in local book stores or order online: University of Washington Press.

Trailer (by Molly McLeod)

Everett science teacher Jack McLeod broke the mold with his guidebook on the North Cascades Highway. – Mike Benbow, The Herald

McLeod is also a visual artist with the camera: Among other virtues, his book is also gorgeous.  – Mike Dillon, City Living Seattle

Alternately poetic and scientific, McLeod takes us on a journey, mile for mile, providing insider tips on hikes and informing us of the intricate geological background of glaciers, mountains and rock. - Alexandria Bordas, Portland Monthly Mag

If there’s any truth to the idea that ownership in fact derives from knowledge and appreciation of a place rather than in property deeds and titles … then Jack McLeod’s eloquent and visually stunning guide to The North Cascades Highway gives him ownership. And it puts him among a select few with such knowledge and passion, folks like Saul Weisberg, Jon Riedel, Harvey Manning and Rowland Tabor. McLeod manages to meld Weisberg’s eloquent and lyrical style and Tabor’s detailed earth observations, quite a feat in itself. I’m envious of his photographic and writing skills and how perfectly they come together in this beautiful book, equally at home on the coffee table and in the passenger seat.   – Philip Fenner in The Wild Cascades

On the University Book Store best sellers list, December 2013.



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p.XI Invitation
High on the rim of Sourdough Mountain, evening light replenishes my soul. This is why we visit the North Cascades. To slow down, to decompress, to revive. I watch summer's glow illuminate sepia cliffs and a kaleidoscope of blossoms while across the valley, steep, snow-covered pinnacles soften in warm pastels. The tiny road I left five thousand feet below twists around turquoise Diablo Lake. Alpine fragrances hang in the air -- sun-baked fir mingles with ephemeral aromas of wildflowers and the earthen smell of sixty-nine-million-year-old Skagit Gneiss trail dust. I've arrived. I've walked into a miraculous convergence of August sun, a thousand blooms, and a North Cascades ridge looking over the world.

p.15, mile 103. Skagit Valley: Tales Below
Concealed Diaries of Ice

Icy invaders once inched from their hideouts in the hills, bringing riches down to the valley. You're driving across their remains. Glaciers are geologic escalators with one direction: down. Their passengers? Rocks and sediment. Creating a reversal in topography, these fragment-filled tributaries of ice scrape at alpine heights then transport their captive stones to valleys far below. About fifteen thousand years ago, they spilled out like fifteen million dump trucks leaving their loads. As the last ice age ended, the glaciers melted away, leaving behind deep deposits of sand and gravel -- former mountaintops relocated to future floodplains. Excavated all across the northern United States, these glacial deposits are now used as a resource to make roads, like the one transporting you back up the glaciers's path.

p.25, mile 131.7. Colonial and Pyramid Peaks
Incomprehensible Time

Geologic time and human time are hard to reconcile. The road has been here for decades. A motorcycle zooms by in seconds. The rock behind the motorcycle has been here seemingly forever -- since long before our ancestors' ancestors. The ribbons of white in the rock are essentially unchanged after millions of years but nothing is permanent in geologic time. The mountain is wearing away at a pace not noticed by human beings in a few trips across the mountains -- or in the many lifetimes of generations.

Another incomprehensible time line exists inside the rock. Inside each individual grain. It is the micro world of quantum mechanics. Atoms vibrate. Electrons frenetically circuit nuclei. Quarks decay. All in billionths of trillionths of seconds. The rock, unchanged in human time, virtually unchanged in tens of millions of years, is thrumming with trillions of interactions every second. All this activity takes place in rock that is still as stone.

p.54, mile 160.5. Cutthroat Peak
Part of the View

I sit on a prominent outcrop. There's space up here. Dark oxidized cliffs loom above and miniature cars silently glide below. The kaleidoscope of meadow flowers is gone, pollinators have flown away, seeds have dispersed, and dried husks are ready to recycle back into the thin soil. Slim, green firs cluster in front of me; golden larches watch my back. The firs up here are diet-thin, streamlined to shed winter's snow; larches prepare by stripping bare. Deciduous needles will soon carpet the ground.

Winter will muffle it all in deep white. Marmots in dark tunnels will hibernate on stored fat. Pikas under rock piles will live on their stashes of chewed-off plants. In another month the road will close and trillions of exquisite six-sided crystals (no two alike) will descend. For now, I'm content to sit in this cirque and soak up the mild autumn sun, being a dot in the scene before descending to my little toy car, where I'll watch flickering fifty-miles-per-hour views through my window.

p.67, mile 172. The Needles
The Place in Between

It's the approach... the transition...This stretch of road is the portage between North Cascades wilderness and a string of arid towns along the Methow River, dots leading to the vast open landscape of eastern Washington. Neither high peak nor lowland valley, it's a place of anticipation or relief depending on the traveler's direction and taste for alpine heights. 

The dry Methow Valley is, geologically, the extroverted cousin of the rain-soaked Skagit Valley west of the mountains. Like two reverse images in film, they have similar but converse appearances. Through both, the road and river meander together, leaking out of the mountains. But while the west side is hidden in green, the east is a sidewalk sale of geology, with goods easily visible for all pause to look.

...  East of mile 171 are layered sandstones, shales, and conglomerates, the geologic refuse carried by rivers draining an ancient pre-North America. This river-plain environment in the Methow Valley preserved something that is absent from the core of the North Cascades: fossils.

Appendix F: Erosion
Gravity is the unrelenting 24-hour a day erosion captain. Trying to smooth the earth to a billiard ball, gravity pulls highs to lows. Planets and stars are round because gravity always wins. Even ski posters slyly say "Obey the law", because everything must go down.

Gravity doesn't work alone though. Water cocaptains the erosion team -- it would be unbeatable in the game of rock-paper-scissors. Each item can beat another, but add water as a choice and the game is over. Water fractures rock. Dissolves paper. Rusts scissors. Water beats them all. As water freezes, it expands, splitting rock into smaller pieces. Gravity topples the newly unbalanced rocks. Water carries the fragments toward the sea (pulled by gravity), its streams joining together like airport conveyors whisking luggage away. The Skagit River carries an average of more than seven thousand tons of sediment into Puget Sound every day.


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