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A Weekend Itinerary for North Cascades National Park, WA

Washington Road Trips National Parks Hiking
by Geena Truman Jul 19, 2021

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 (mostly due to drownings).

Turquoise water of Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park.

Photo: LHBLLC/Shutterstock

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.

North Cascades National Park Itinerary

Day 1, Morning: Hike above an alpine lake

The view from the top of the longer Ross Dam trail in North Cascades National Park

Photo: RonaldL/Shutterstock

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 the tiny parking lots in the park fill up quickly on weekends. Plan to hike around Ross Dam, which gives you two options depending on whether you want a shorter or longer hike.

For a quick trip, the Ross Dam Trail is a clear winner. Although it covers only 1.5 miles and 350 feet of elevation, it has spellbinding views of the lake’s green water and snowy mountains as it leads to the man-made summit of Ross Dam.

For a longer hike, take the 11.8-mile path that curves around the Skagit River and Ross Lake, crossing small bridges and passing gushing waterfalls to Ross Lakes’ north end. You can also connect the two trails for an even longer route. Be sure you’re looking at the right one on AllTrails when figuring out where to park.

Day 1, Afternoon: Relax at a stunning overlook

Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park

Photo: Danita Delimont/Shutterstock

After the hike, slip on your sandals, grab some snacks, and cold drink (water or otherwise) and stop at the 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 water flowing from melting glaciers. The huge pullout has 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.

Day 1, Evening: Camp off-the-grid

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. If it’s warm enough, you can watch sunset while dangling your feet in the river (or jump in if you’re sweating after your day of hiking). Try to get site 66 at the south campground to be closest to the water.

Day 2, Morning: Explore shorter hikes on Highway 20

Maple Pass Loop trail near Mount Baker in North Cascades National Park

Photo: Dmitry Kovba/Shutterstock

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. And if you have a DSLR with a long lens, bring it: Highway 20 cuts through a densely timbered landscape, and moose or bear sighting aren’t uncommon.

Starting from the east side of the park (which is where you’ll be if you stayed near Ross Lake), the first spot to stop is the Blue Lake Trail, a great option for a moderately challenging hike. It’s one of the few dog-friendly routes in the park and covers five-mile (round-trip), gaining 1,000 feet in elevation. The halfway point offers stellar views of Blue Lake. You can also access the crystal-clear lake, in case you fancy a morning dip in its glacial waters.

Next — or first, if you want to start with something easy and close to the Blue Lake Trail — is the paved Rainy Lake Trail, the single most popular trail in the park. It’s partly due to its accessibility, as its requires only a half-mile of walking — doable in sandals — to reach the lovely lake. But it’s also popular because of how lovely Rainy Lake is, with azure waters framed against a backdrop mountains frosted with snow. It’s a good started walk if you’re feeling a bit stuff from hiking the day before and need to get your legs moving again — and want maximum beauty for minimal effort.

A fall scene at Maple Pass at north Cascades National Park

Photo: Roman Khomlyak/Shutterstock

Finally, just a few miles down the road is Maple Pass, which offers equally dramatic views as it climbs high above the surrounding landscape. 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, but fit hikers should be able to do it in around four hours.

The trail passes Rainy Lake as well as but past Lake Ann, a hidden alpine jewel. This hike is typically only accessible from July through September when the snow has melted at this elevation and the wildflowers have bloomed.

All three trails are in the same area, so they can be done in any order.

Day 2, Afternoon: Get a final look at the park and head east or west

The view from Washington Pass in North Cascades National Park

Photo: Ayan2019/Shutterstock

Hopefully, you’ve packed a picnic lunch and worked up an appetite from a morning of hiking. Considering tossing it in your backpack and taking a short walk to the Washington Pass Overlook. It offers sprawling dramatic views at the end of the half-mile walkway. The end point is a rocky outcropping hanging over the cliff that faces massive granite fingers protruding from the earth over a carpet of green, with the hairpin-turn-covered-highway at the bottom. This natural rock shelf also allows for panoramic views of the terrain you’ve traversed over the past two days and will give you a sense of just how expansive the national park is.

This is likely as far as you’ll venture on a two-day weekend road trip through the North Cascades. if you’re headed east, consider stopping in the recreated western town of Winthrop. While it’s a little cheesy, it’s also quite fun and near fantastic hiking, paddling and rafting. If you’re headed west, you’re likely bound for Seattle, but may want to consider spending an extra night n your return to Seattle, consider camping near Mt. Baker. Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has several rentable cabins with stunning views of the volcanic landscape, plus equally beautiful hiking for the morning of day three.

Day three add-on

Marmot on sahale glacier trail in north cascades

Photo: Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

If you have an extra day to spend in the park and want 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. This is pure backcountry camping, so if you pack it in, pack it out. Make sure you have a permit before setting out.

The North Cascades National Park units

Spouses walking together on meadows in North Cascades National Park. Cascade Mountains. Winthrop. Washington. The United States., North Cascades National Park

Photo: Marina Poushkina/Shutterstock

North Cascades National Park is crossed by one road: Highway 20, which meanders slowly through the park and past all the noteworthy landmarks and exceptional alpine vistas. But the entire North Cascades National Park Complex comprises over 684,000 acres of rugged mountains, alpine lakes, and more than 300 glaciers, divided into three “units.” North Cascades National Park is the largest of the units, covering 500,000 acres. The other two units are the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Most amenities (like campgrounds and kayak rentals) are in these two areas, which are officially part of the complex but not the park.

There is no fee to enter North Cascades National Park, and 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 park’s lakes are the only thing worth visiting — the mountain summits are stunning, remote, wild, and any number of other appealing adjectives. You can’t truthfully say you’ve seen North Cascades National Park if you haven’t hiked any of the mountainous trails in the main complex (i.e., the national park).

And travelers who do make it to the park will be rewarded not just with beauty, but solitude. The remote location in the northernmost region of Washington is just far enough away from major cities to deter 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.

Weather and packing

Rainy and misty day in north cascades national park

Misty, overcast days are common in North Cascades year-round. Photo: CK Foto/Shutterstock

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, even in summer, with multiple layers including a waterproof jacket and long pants. See Matador’s backpacking gear guide for a rundown of what to bring.

Getting to North Cascades National Park

Your journey to North Cascades National Park will likely begin in the seaside metropolis of Seattle, from which you’ll 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. Just have a box of snacks in your car, and you’ll be set — but make sure to properly store food at night if you’re camping, since the park is home to black bears.

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