North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the US, but it’s clearly not for any lack of splendor. The more likely explanation is the park’s unclear boundaries. It’s entirely possible to plan a trip in the North Cascades without ever once crossing into National Park land.
That’s because North Cascades is unusually divided down the middle into a North Unit and a South Unit, with Diablo Lake, Ross Lake, and Gorge Lake all falling within a wilderness area somewhere in between. Well known hikes like Fourth of July Pass only briefly cross into North Cascades. And it’s really only on long backpacking routes like the Beaver and Thunder Creek Trail that you really get into the wilderness and see the glaciers and creeks that North Cascades National Park is known for.
In some ways, the unique complex of National Park, National Forest, National Recreation Area, and State Parks is one of the best parts of North Cascades. It feels more free. Unlike most parks, there’s not even a pay station. You can pass through on a whim on your Pacific Northwest road trip. While many parks limit water access, kayaking and intertubing on Diablo Lake are the norm (and some of the most fun things to do in North Cascades, if you ask me!). The crowds never really pile up at any one place and you can make this into a National Park trip that feels just as chill as any camping weekend.
Looking for a sweet little adventure into a real secret of our National Park system? Here’s a guide to North Cascades National Park including things to do, hiking trails, how to get there, and campsite recommendations.
AT A GLANCE
The North Cascades are often referred to “The American Alps”. I’m a skeptic of these kinds of nicknames, but I have to admit… North Cascades National Park really lives up to the reputation. Snow clings to jagged ridges year-round. In the summer, it’s all about wildflowers and grassy meadows. On top of that, you’ll find more than 300 glaciers here, making the park more Alp-like than most.
Amazingly, entrance to North Cascades National Park is TOTALLY FREE. That said, much of the surrounding areas may require a Northwest Forest Pass ($30) or Discover Pass ($32). Keep this in mind as you pick your trailheads and be sure to display any necessary permit on your dash during your visit.
If you’re planning to visit 3+ other National Parks that aren’t so free, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands. Read more about why you should get an America the Beautiful pass here.
When to visit: Like most of the Pacific Northwest, the best time to visit North Cascades National Park is between April and October. That’s not only because winter rain is unpleasant, but because snow or avalanche risk closes off many roads and hiking trails outside of this window.
July and August are the busiest season, but you don’t necessarily need to plan around crowds. These months are really the only time you can hike certain high passes that are impassable for the rest of the year.
BEFORE YOU GO
You can get a map from the Visitor Center but if you’re looking to do some backcountry travel, don’t forget to pickup a more detailed topographical map. As usual, National Geographic is the go-to here!
- North Cascades National Park Map (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map) ($14.95)
THINGS TO DO IN NORTH CASCADES
HIGH VISIBILITY HIKES
There are tons of summits in North Cascades where you can climb above treeline and get open views of glacial lakes, old-growth forests, and surrounding peaks.
One of the most iconic views in the park can be had if you make the grueling hike up Sourdough Mountain, but you’ll get some It’s damn near impossible to find a hike that gains less than 500m, but if you’re up for a bit of a climb, the payoffs are huge.
GLACIERS & GLACIAL LAKES
With 300 glaciers, North Cascades National Park is one of the most glaciated places in the lower 48. Boston Glacier is the largest in the park, stretching nearly 6km.
But the glaciers are more than just big, beautiful hunks of ice. They also play an important role in mountain ecosystems! And like most glaciers, those at North Cascades are disappearing at a rapid rate with climate change.
You’ll find several of the trails in North Cascades lead up to or give you views of a glacier. Keep in mind that glacier-carved trails tend to have a lot of scree and talus (small rocks) so bring the right shoes for underfoot and ankle support!
BIKING OR DRIVING THE MOUNTAIN LOOP HIGHWAY
Highway 20, also known as Mountain Loop Highway, is a roughly 80km stretch of highway between Granite Falls and Darrington. The road cuts between the North and South Units of North Cascades with excellent views of the lakes and plenty of scenic viewpoints. The drive is less of a loop than the name might suggest, but it’s so nice you won’t mind driving it twice.
The drive is open seasonally with closures during the winter. If you’re up for a ride, there’s also one day a year (just after the snowplows pass through! ) that the road stays closed to cars bikes can have the road to themselves.
BEST HIKES & BACKPACKING
Hiking and backpacking are some of the best things to do in North Cascades, and there are SO MANY good options. I’ve outlined a few below, but you can find plenty of other hikes in the North Cascades by searching on AllTrails or Washington Trails Association.
SOURDOUGH MOUNTAIN TRAIL (18KM)
Sourdough Mountain Trail is pretty tough. Over the course of the hike, you’ll gain over 1550m. But once you get to the top expect some of the most killer 360* views including the best view in the park of Diablo Lake. Read more on AllTrails.
HEATHER-MAPLE PASS LOOP (12KM)
Heather-Maple Pass Loop offers huge payoffs for a 12km hike.
While you can hike the loop either way, the best route is to cut right from the trailhead towards Heather Pass. You’ll hike along well-maintained trails through the forest. You’ll come to a junction with Lake Ann where you can add on a 2km detour to the lake, but if you stay to the right, you’ll eventually hike high above it and get the awesome views of the lake anyway.
Continue to climb at a comfortable grade until the trail comes to Heather Pass. This is where the trees start to thin out for all kinds of views. The best section of the hike is while you’re climbing along a ridge between Heather Pass and Maple Pass where you can see the Cascades on all sides. Take your time up here, because after the highpoint, you’ll lose visibility and start down switchbacks back to the parking lot. This hike definitely ranks high on the effort to reward ratio! Read more on AllTrails.
CASCADE PASS AND SAHALE ARM (19KM)
The Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm hike is a long beautiful day that gets you at eye level with some of the many peaks in North Cascades.
At a glance, it’s 19km and 1219m elevation gain. After your initial ascent, you’ll come to a crest. Continue left and the scenery becomes more spectacular, transitioning from forest to one of those high visibility hikes I keep mentioning. In summer, the trail is lined with tall grass and wildflowers. Because of the many glaciers, expect a lot of pockets of snow throughout the summer. The glacier itself is far from the paramount of this hike (it looks more like a large patch of snow?) but it’s worthy as an endpoint if only for the 180* views you’ll get from the top. Read more on AllTrails.
COPPER RIDGE LOOP (55KM)
Copper Ridge is a 55km backpacking loop. It is one of just a couple long-distance loop hikes in North Cascades, but it’s supposed to be incredible. Copper Ridge Loop is best hiked counterclockwise over the course of 3 days with overnights in US Cabin Camp and Copper Lake campgrounds. Read more on Washington Trails Association.
HOW TO GET TO NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
The closest major airports to North Cascades are Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and Vancouver International Airport (YVR). It’s about 2.5 hours drive from either, but you’ll need to factor in time for a border crossing if you’re coming in from Canada.
The only practical way to access North Cascades National Park is by private vehicle. There are a few ski buses run by Baker Bus and Skagit Transit that will get you close, but you’ll absolutely need a car to get around once you arrive. Your other option is to book a tour that includes transport.
Read more: How to Plan your Pacific Northwest Road Trip
GETTING AROUND THE PARK
It’s pretty impossible to get around North Cascades National Park without a private vehicle. If you’re traveling without one, your only choice is to rent one or book a tour.
Ross Lake Resort: Ross Lake Resort refers to the 12 floating cabins and three bunkhouses on the West side of Ross Lake. The cabins are simple-yet-comfortable, but this stay is all about location! Starting from $220.
Colonial Creek: Colonial Creek is a 93 site campgrounds located beside Diablo Lake. The area is beautifully forested and every site is remote with a parking spot, tent pad, picnic table, and fire pit with grate. The campsite also has plenty of bathroom facilities and a water source. While the lakefront sites are good for obvious reasons, don’t overlook the sites on the outer loop pushing into the forest. Walk-up sites available on the Northern Loop. Sites from $16.
Godell Creek: Godell Creek is a smaller site near the North Cascades Visitor Center with 19 campsites. Similar to Colonial Creek, every site has a parking spot, tent pad, picnic table, and fire pit with grate, and the site has flush toilets and running water. All sites first-come-first-served, but the group sites (for 12+) require a reservation. Free.
Newhalem Creek: Newhalem is the largest campground in the park with 107 sites. The sites are well equipped with a parking spot, tent pad, picnic table, and fire pit and you’ll also have access to flush toilets. And the location is great from a convenience standpoint, situated between Newhalen and the North Cascades Visitor Center, but Newhalen itself is little more than some eerie dam employee barracks at the base of the Cascades. Sites from $16.