Each year, only a handful of in-the-know alpinists, backpackers, and wilderness enthusiasts enter the depths of Washington’s North Cascades National Park. The park saw just 38,000 visitors in 2019, making it one of the country’s least-visited parks. It’s also the most deadly, with its untamed wilderness seeing the greatest number of deaths per visitor.
Yet the park can be enjoyed safely and arrived at easily. In just two hours by car, you can trade out the drizzly coastal streets of Seattle for the snow-capped crags of granite that form the Cascade Range and hide electric-blue glaciers and vast swathes of pine forest. To fully appreciate the beauty of the park, you’ll need to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails, because you won’t get the true experience if you treat North Cascades as a “drive-thru” park. This itinerary highlights the best way to do just that.
How to plan a trip to North Cascades National Park
Highway 20 meanders slowly through the heart of the landscape, past all the noteworthy landmarks and exceptional alpine vistas. The North Cascades National Park Complex comprises over 684,000 acres of rugged mountains, alpine lakes, and more than 300 glaciers, and is divided into three “units.” North Cascades National Park itself is the largest of these, encompassing 500,000 acres. The other two units are the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Most amenities are located in these two areas, which are officially part of the complex but not the park itself, and see closer to 900,000 annual visitors between them.
There is no fee to enter North Cascades National Park. If you’re not the adventurous type, you can drive through the park along Highway 20 in two hours. But don’t be fooled by any who tell you that the lake districts — although amazing and worthy of a visit — are all that is worth the effort here. You can’t truthfully say you’ve been to the park without actually going into the main complex.
This slice of wilderness claims lives because it remains rugged and untamed. Its remote location in the Northernmost region of Washington has protected the landscape from the droves of tourists that challenge the ecosystems and crowd the roads of nearby parks including Glacier and Olympic National Parks, both of which saw over three million visitors in 2019.
Elevation changes quickly here, with sharp peaks topping 9,000 feet shooting up from the park’s base elevation of about 400 feet. Preparation is key in this volatile environment. Much of the year the park is covered in a thick and heavy layer of snow and the trails, although well-maintained, can be long and arduous. It’s vital to always check the elevation gain in addition to the mileage before beginning a hike in the North Cascades. Also, stop into the visitor’s center and ask a ranger for information on the day’s trail conditions. Pack for changing weather, with multiple layers including a waterproof jacket and long pants. See Matador’s backpacking gear guide for a rundown of what to bring.
Your journey to North Cascades National Park will likely begin in the seaside metropolis of Seattle. Cruise two hours northeast into the cool mountain air on Interstate 5 and Highways 530 and 20 before reaching the park gate. Note that cell service is often unavailable within the boundaries of the park and, if you plan on eating in restaurants, you’ll be limited to the few diners scattered across the sparsely populated mountain towns around it. It’s best to opt for pre-packed meals instead, supplemented by high-calorie snacks like trail mix or energy bars in-between.
Day One: Hiking and sightseeing among glacial lakes
Plan to hit the ground running and hike early in the day as the views over the park’s glacial lakes are best in the morning — and, on weekends, the tiny parking lots in the park fill up fast. For a quick return for your time, the Ross Dam Trail is a clear winner. Although traversing only 1.5 miles and 350 feet of elevation, the trail guides you to the man-made summit of Ross Dam and allows for spellbinding views of the green water and snowy mountains on a clear sunny day. Be wary that on Alltrails.com there are two separate Ross Dam Trails. The other is an 11.8-mile path that curves around the lakeshore across small bridges and past gushing waterfalls to Ross Lakes’ north end. The trails connect and if you’re physically able you can combine them for a long day-hike.
After the hike, stop at Diablo Lake Overlook. Often shrouded in mist, this highway viewpoint provides an aerial view of the neon turquoise waters of Diablo Lake. Framed by forested mountains on all sides, this glacial lake gets its color from what is known as “glacial flour” — small rocks from the surrounding mountains pounded into a fine dust by the powerful flow of water from the melting glaciers themselves. This huge pullout is complete with a restroom and water fountains and makes for a great impromptu campsite if you’re road-tripping with an RV or campervan. Another picturesque viewpoint of the bright blue lakes and surrounding emerald forests is the Ross Lake Overlook. It’s very similar to the views at Diablo Lake but is still worth a quick stop.
Spend the night at Colonial Creek Campground, reserving your spot in advance at either the north or south end. This site is very close to the famed electric blue lakes you’ve become familiar with today and offers an unrivaled off-the-grid camping experience. It also offers water access and riverside camping for cooling off on hot summer days.
Day two: Highlights of Highway 20
This half of the North Cascades has fewer easy-access pullouts but is home to more seldom-seen trails than you could complete in a lifetime. Below are a few key places that are well worth a stop to stretch your legs. Highway 20 cuts through a densely timbered landscape, so keep your camera in hand and an eye out for a stray moose or bear while en route to each one.
The paved Rainy Lake Trail is the single most popular trail in the park. This is due partly to its beautiful azure lake that features a backdrop ring of mountains frosted with snow, and partly to its easy accessibility. You can reach the lake after only a mile of walking, making it an easy option if you’re feeling fatigued or got a late start.
Blue Lake Trail is a great option for a longer morning hike. One of the few dog-friendly routes in the park, this five-mile round trip path climbs 1,000 feet in elevation and climaxes with stellar views of Blue Lake itself. Backed by more mountains, this crystal clear lake is pristine and offers an ice-cold dip for anyone brave enough to slip into its fresh glacial waters.
If you want to leave Highway 20’s more trodden trails behind, Maple Pass offers equally dramatic views than the hikes above. This seven-mile loop begins at Rainy Pass Trailhead and climbs outside the park boundaries, showing off the sharp mountain peaks and old-growth forests that define the region. It’s a tough climb of about 2,000 feet and will take up the majority of the day even for fit hikers. Not only will your hike guide you past Rainy Lake, but past Lake Ann, a hidden alpine jewel. You’ll also Hike the trail counterclockwise for a more gentle incline. This hike is typically only accessible from July through September when the snow has melted at this elevation and the wildflowers have bloomed.
Washington Pass Overlook offers the sprawling dramatic views for which the North Cascades are known. After following the half-mile paved walkway to a rocky outcropping hanging over the cliffside, you’ll face massive granite fingers protruding from the earth over a carpet of green and a hairpin-highway curve carved into its base. This natural rock shelf also allows for panoramic views of the terrain you’ve traversed over the past two days and paints a picture of just how expansive this national park is.
This is likely as far as you’ll venture on a two-day weekend road trip through the North Cascades. On your return to Seattle, take a detour down the seasonal Cascade Pass road to one of the most scenic campgrounds in the North Cascades. Remote, lush, and paired with views of Mt. Baker on a sunny afternoon, this riverside campground is one of the best for travelers seeking peace and quiet after a day on the park’s trails.
Make it a long weekend by backpacking to Sahale Glacier
A long weekend allows time for two spectacular side trips not on Highway 20. Begin with Artist Point. Quite the detour from the main route, Artist Point sits at the end of State Route 542, commonly known as the Mount Baker Highway. Access requires a white-knuckled drive. Along the way be sure to stop at Picture Lake, named for the reflection it casts of the surrounding mountains. At the summit, you’ll stare at the peaks of Mt. Baker and North Cascades’ tallest peaks, including Mount Shuksan, Mount Larrabee, and Goat Mountain. This is a great place to watch the sunrise before embarking on either the 6.5-mile Chain Lakes Loop or the 2.8-mile out and back trail to Table Mountain.
If you’re up to backpack or dedicate an entire day to one big hike, make it Cascade Pass to Sahale Arm. Just reaching the trailhead of this arduous hike can be quite an adventure. An ungraded rustic dirt road undulates through the thick forest for half an hour before you reach the paved lot of the Cascade Pass Trailhead at the foot of the Johannesburg Glacier. From here you can choose to navigate the switchbacks of the peak above to either Cascade Pass (7.2 miles), Doubtful Lake (9.2 miles), or Sahale Glacier (10.9 miles), depending on how far you want to go.
If you can press on to Doubtful Lake, you’ll see not only the Sahale Glacier from a distance, but also Doubtful Lake and panoramic views of the endless northern Washington forests. You’ll cross lush meadows filled with wildflowers, bears, and marmots and have the option to graze on wild huckleberries. If dramatic views are what you’re after, then this is the single best hike in North Cascades National Park.
Spend night three backcountry-camping at Doubtful Lake. About five miles and 40 switchbacks from the Cascade Pass Trailhead, this scenic campground breaks up the long hike into two days and allows you to say you backpacked in North Cascades National Park. It’s also the perfect spot to watch the sunset and sunrise behind the Sahale Glacier and its bright blue alpine lake. Note that this site is bare bones and requires that you pack in all your overnight supplies with you.