30 Years of Mountain School

Happy Birthday Mountain School!

MS25 Closing Circle

"Make an unselfish wish" ~ Mountain School sessions have always ended with a special closing circle around a campfire

Thirty years of sparking curiosity and engaging science. Thirty years of muddy boots and new adventures. Thirty years of hooting like owls and discovering new friends. Thirty years of inspiring a sense of wonder and falling in love with the natural world.

2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Mountain School! Over the past 29 years, more than 30,000 youth from Northwestern Washington State have traveled up the Skagit River on Highway 20, past bald eagle sentinels and berry farms, to experience an unforgettable three days and two nights in the mountains with their school class, teacher and chaperones. Mountain School is offered every spring and fall in cooperation with North Cascades National Park to introduce students to the ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains that exist practically in their backyard.


I remember my Mountain School experience 25 years ago. The full moon on the night hike, using all my senses, the evening skits at the amphitheater in Newhalem, washing dishes and helping make dinner, being wet but still happy. I also remember being asked what I thought, being treated with respect by adults. I came from a family who hiked and camped but many of my classmates had never slept in a tent. It was eye-opening for them.

Mountain School provides students with an opportunity that they would not otherwise have access to—inspiring, fostering wonder, pushing them to do more—an experience outside the classroom that’s hard to put a monetary value on. Bellingham 5th graders are lucky fortunate to have district-wide support

— Mylo Allen, Principal, Parkview Elementary School, Bellingham

“These students have the opportunity to explore and learn about their place in the natural world and the concept of sustainability. I can’t think of a more important mission.”

— Overlake School Teacher, Redmond

“These kids will remember that they did this and that they did this together for a long time. They bonded and got to experience “school” in a different way.”

— Little Mountain Elementary School Chaperone, Mount Vernon

“The students love learning by being in an outdoor classroom, where they can move and play and sit and think and explore all at the same time and in the same place.”

— Happy Valley Elementary School Chaperone, Bellingham

Since the very beginning, Mountain School has benefited from the participation of North Cascades National Park Service rangers, like in this early photograph on the Skagit River

In the Press

Mountain School: A 7-Million-Acre Campus for Kids

To truly learn about the great outdoors, one has get out into it and experience the sights, sounds and smells. Touch the bark, feel the moss, hear the birds, feel the breeze.

Children who attend Mountain School can do just that.

The school is a 7 million-acre campus with the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center serving as its lecture hall. “

We are very fortunate to be able to offer this program,” said Institute’s program coordinator Chris Kiser. “It’s an opportunity for students to make friends and learn about themselves as well as the outdoors. They learn all about producers, consumers and the ecosystem.”

Mountain School packs a lot into three days. The focus is on science, and the natural and cultural history of the North Cascades.

— Skagit Valley Herald 


North Cascades Institute Celebrates 25 Years of Mountain School

"Being a fifth-grader in the Bellingham School District comes with a coveted perk: three days at the North Cascades Institute’s Mountain School, where students spend their time outdoors, learning about the North Cascades ecosystem and the roles they play as stewards of the environment.

“For the next three days, these trails, this beach and these mountains will be our classroom,” says Mountain School instructor Dylan Klinesteker, as he greets a small group of students from Sunnyland Elementary – known now as the Ravens – on the first morning of their program. I’m tagging along with the Ravens on this day, and we don’t waste any time getting outside and experiencing nature first-hand."

—Whatcom Talk


Teach Your Children Well, National Parks As Learning Centers

Climate change. Glaciology. Sustainability.

These are not the subjects that leap to mind when you consider sending your kids to summer camp. But blend them with backpacking, canoeing, or a walk in the woods, and the result is a generation with not only a better connection with nature, but perhaps a career path. Such blending occurs at places such as the North Cascades Institute and other field schools that work in national park settings.

These settings seem to resonate with students’, teachers’, and adults’ innate thirst for nature. Saul Weisberg, who helped found the North Cascades Institute in 1986, has seen students from every walk of life positively affected by their experiences in North Cascades National Park and other public lands that the Institute uses as outdoor classrooms.

“Some of the kids who are wealthy come in with the expectation that they’re going to go to college, but they’re not particularly excited. And some of the poor kids are coming with the expectation that they’re not going to make it to college,” said Mr. Weisberg. “But they spend two or three weeks in the field with our graduate students, who are some of the core teachers of our programs, and they get really jazzed and they all come back really excited to do this. And they want to go on....“I think kids do care about nature. I think there are a lot of kids who, their world might be electronic screens, but I think when they get out in nature, they love it. And so, they want to come back and share it,” Mr. Weisberg said.

National Parks Traveler  


Environmental Education Is a Cornerstone

As a teacher, I discovered this magical place with my children and their fourth and fifth grade classmates while they attended Mountain School, just one of the many outdoor educational programs offered at NCI. We rode the school bus 105 km (65 miles) east on WA State Route 20 off I-5: a beautiful two-hour drive through the lush Skagit River Valley and thick forests before reaching the majestic mountains of the North Cascades.

NCI’s mission, to conserve and restore Northwest environments through place-based education, shines in each of their programs. The Mountain School message from day one was respect: “Respect yourself, respect each other, and respect nature. We want everyone to become friends with nature so that they appreciate it, love it, and protect it for future generations,” shares Institute Youth Leadership Instructor Matt Kraska.

— The Crossing Guide


Fueling the Fire

Mountain School offers the opportunity for students to find hope and faith in their futures. Kristin Smith, from Bellingham, Washington, participated two years in a row during high school. She came away with the following realization for her experiences: “Without Mountain School I never would have seen many of life's possibilities. To live in such a place and show others the wild world, with days off spent wandering the soaring peaks and swift rivers; what more could one ask for? Not only are the people at the learning center working towards the preservation of our planet and our future; they are having fun doing it. That is what I would like from my life, to make a difference and to be happy. Perhaps without Mountain School I never would have realized how to do that, or even that it was possible. I realize anew that this is what I desire each time I visit the learning center; my passion for the world's untamed places and their preservation is renewed, and my faith in people is restored."

— Clearing Magazine


Local Students Explore their Backyard National Park

Mist shrouded Diablo Lake’s surrounding peaks as Concrete and Darrington’s school buses drove over Diablo Dam. The overcast weather did not dampen student excitement as fifth grade students from both local schools arrived at North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center to attend Mountain School within North Cascades National Park Complex. Sixty kids unloaded sleeping bags, backpacks, and boots, well prepared to spend three days exploring the ecosystems of the park.

Institute staff members and National Park Service rangers were excited to welcome the most local schools to Mountain School last week. “It was so inspiring to teach such an excited, inquisitive, and observant group of young learners,” said graduate student and Mountain School Instructor Chelsea Ernst. Both Darrington and Concrete Schools participated in the Skagit Watershed Education Project with the Institute from 1994-2004, but this is the first year since the ‘90’s that Concrete has attended Mountain School. Concrete was able to attend with support from Washington’s National Park Fund. Darrington’s fifth graders had never attended a full Mountain School program; they attended with support from North Counties Family Services. North Cascades Institute also prioritizes fundraising to subsidize participation for public schools.

It is “hugely important” for the Institute to work with its most local schools, says Christen Kiser, Mountain School Coordinator. “Connections between their home communities and their experience at Mountain School are much more evident and integrated into their daily lives than students who travel from further away to attend.” Local students will integrate ecosystems concepts learned at Mountain School into their classes throughout the rest of the year.

— Concrete Herald


MS25 Big Green

"Big Green" ~ Before the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center opened in 2005, we ran Mountain School at Newhalem Campground in North Cascades National Park in an army surplus tent!