After the summer concerts are over and before the winter powder falls, it's the perfect time to get away—with the family, with your buddies, with your heartthrob. 

Mount Shuksan from Picture Lake

North Cascades

Relax and feed your head

Try these mountains. Misty and steep, heavily forested with old Douglas firs reaching heights of 200 feet and seemingly impenetrable, North Cascades National Park is probably the least user-friendly of America's national parks—there are no four-star restaurants, zip lines, few self-guided nature trails or ranger campfire talks and none of the resort and Disneyland-type attractions that dumbs down communing with Nature in other parks and mountain areas. This is more wilderness than Wasatch.

The best vacation from a stressful job is to replace mundane cares with new ideas. Instead of trying to relax by blanking your brain, fill your head with something fascinating. Sometimes we forget that humans are designed to learn and how satisfying that can be. 

Hidden away in the upper Skagit River Valley is the Cascades Environmental Learning Center, a place that re-connects you with Nature by acquainting you with it. The Family Getaway program provides housing, meals and season-based nature educational programs for any size group. "The Getaways offer an outdoor adventure combines with learning the natural and cultural history of the Northern Cascades," explains spokesman Christian Martin.

The main building at The Learning Center

North Cascades Environmental Learning Center

The city of Seattle started tapping the Skagit (pronounced SKA-jit) River for power in the 1920s and built a series of dams—in 1930, the just-completed middle dam was the highest in the world. Today, Seattle City Light manages the dams which provide a quarter of Seattle's electricity.

As conservation concerns grew, the practice of mitigation evolved and in 1989, City Light formed a partnership with North Cascades Institute and the National Park Service to construct the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center—a model of how unlikely entities (a federal agency, a public utility and a nonprofit organization) could work together to preserve wilderness. That's the backstory.

The result is a 16-building campus, a kind of camp where you can stay for a few days in a LEED-certified dorm, enjoy three locally sourced meals a day in the lakeside dining hall, research the area's flora, fauna, culture and history in the library and learn about it first-hand from Institute naturalists, scientists and even artists.

Kids experience hands-on learning

Togetherness, with Options

The Learning Center is suited for a multi-generational family vacation, with ADA-designated trails for those who need them, crafts, short hikes and storytelling for younger children as well as more challenging hikes and in-depth courses.

"We're seeing more and more grandparents with grandchildren," says Martin. "Beacause it's quite affordable, families spend their entire summer trip with us and sometimes take up a whole lodge. We encourage them to leave their camping gear at home and free up the time they usually spend cleaning camp and cooking for enjoying their time with each other. The accommodations are rustic, but comfortable."

Courses and experiences range from paddling a huge double canoe on Diablo Lake to studying wild edibles or local dragonflies in the center's cheerfully lit labs. Learn to construct a cob oven, take photographs of the night sky or how wildfires shape a landscape. "Every activity has education woven into it," Martin says.

Split up according to your needs and interests, then come back together at mealtime to share what you've done and learned. If you've ever visited a national park and wondered how to get the kids interested in something beyond the ice cream and souvenir shop, the learning center's individualized courses—why does Diablo Lake have that incredible turquoise color, what senses come into play on a night hike or what is happening in nature right now—are a way for them to fully experience the wonders of the wild.

Making Connections

For life-long Utahns, the center presents an extreme change in orientation. The northern Cascades get 200-plus inches of rainfall annually. Compare that to Canyonlands' 5-8 inches. From lizards and arid red rock to newts and moss-covered ravines is a leap, but courses and experiences at the center offer understanding into the giant forces that shapes the areas so differently.

One mountain's top was under glacial ice, rounding it off. Another's was an island and its peaks remained jagged. Looking at a glacier makes it easier to see how differently ice and water carve a landscape. Alders grow in a circle because they root in the decaying trunk of a huge Douglas fir. But the center also instructs visitors in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

Hone your observational skills by drawing the landscape, or putting your thoughts about it into words.

Adults and kids learn together

Base Camp

North Cascades Environmental Learning Center offers courses and camps in a variety of formats for adults, children, families and students. For a first taste, sign up for Base Camp, a drop-in option available when the center isn't fully booked with other camps and classes. 

"Base camp is a flexible way to come to a national park and get an interpretive experience before you go in or when you come out," Martin says.

Base Camp includes lodging, three meals a day and activities. Rooms have two sets of bunks and gender-specific showers and toilets. Bring your own towels and bedding or pay a rental fee of $10 per person for provided linens. Sign up for activities with staff—they can help you find something geared to your specific interests—or head out on your own.

Rates range from $150 for a private room to $290 for a foursome. Call 360-854-2599 or email nci@ncascades.org for details and a schedule.