After visiting North Cascades National Park, located in the north of Washington State, you’ll wonder why it is one of the least visited National Parks in the US. Those distinctive rocky ridges and spires, mountains frosted with glaciers and deep snow, sheer-walled valleys, dramatic waterfalls, scenic lakes and all just two and a half hours drive out of Seattle…how can it be? Well congratulations, you are one of the lucky few who will experience this best-kept secret. Just follow this guide to learn how to see North Cascades National Park in just a few days.
What is North Cascades National Park known for?
There are lots of things to admire about North Cascades National Park, here are just a few:
North Cascades possesses the highest concentration of glaciers in the US outside of Alaska. There are about 300 active glaciers within the Park. By comparison, Montana’s Glacier National Park has around 25.
What a relief!
While there are many glaciers at present, there were many more in the past. They carved deep valleys through the North Cascades range creating dramatic, steep-sided peaks that look taller than they actually are. This is due to their vertical relief.
The average elevation (height above sea level) of the North Cascades mountains is between 2130-2740m or 7000-9000ft, which is lower than their Sierra Nevada or Rocky Mountain counterparts which average closer to 4400m or 14,400ft. However, the extreme relief (distance between the valleys and peaks) of the North Cascades makes them appear much higher.
Rain and shadow
The North Cascades form a barrier to those PNW clouds coming in from the Pacific. The clouds get caught on the west side of those mountain peaks and dump their load, while the eastern side falls in the Mountain’s rain shadow and is distinctively drier. This helps to create different ecosystems in which various plants and animals thrive, contributing to huge biological diversity within the Park.
While the North Cascades’ terrain isn’t great for wildlife spotting—there are few open meadows like Yellowstone National Park, for instance—there is no doubt the wildlife is out there! Deer, black bears, mountain goats, birds, salmon and trout are common, while grizzly bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves are rarely sighted but not unheard of.
Things to do in North Cascades National Park
Take a scenic drive along the North Cascades Highway running east-west through the Park. Make sure you stop at all the major lookout points including Gorge Lake Overlook, Diablo Lake Vista Point, Ross Lake Overlook and Washington Pass Overlook.
Go hiking! Here are some suggestions for day hikes in North Cascades National Park. We haven’t done them all because conditions were still snowy on our visit, however, they were highly recommended. Note that all of the below depart trailheads off Highway 20. I found when researching the best hikes in North Cascades National Park, most people don’t distinguish between the different parts of the Park when making recommendations and tend to lump them all together–be aware of that.
Rainy Lake Trail – 2mi easy hike to a scenic lake. When not under snow, this is a paved, wheelchair-accessible trail. We hiked it still under partial snow cover and with some slipping and sliding made it through in trail runners. Microspikes would have been helpful but not essential.
Lake Ann (Rainy Pass) – 5.5km/3.4mi roundtrip with 213m/700ft elevation gain. See Washington Trails Association here for full description.
Thunder Knob Trail – Short 6km/3.6mi out and back hike that is relatively easy—130m/425ft elevation gain. Pass through gorgeous forest to an opening that looks out over Diablo Lake. This trail was clear of snow in late May when we visited.
Blue Lake – 8km/5mi return journey that ranges from moderate to hard in difficulty. Learn more here.
Heather-Maple Pass Loop – 11.5km/7.2mi roundtrip with 609m/2000ft elevation gain. One of the most widely recommended trails I found in research. Departs from the same trailhead as Lake Ann (Rainy Pass) Trail.
Diablo Lake – 12.2km/7.6mi return with 427m/1400ft in elevation gain.
How many days do you need in North Cascades National Park
It is possible to drive through the Park in one day (in one direction) if you are on the way somewhere and don’t need to return to your point of origin, for example if you are doing the North Cascades Loop. Though you will really only have time for stops at the major overlooks and maybe one or two very short hiking trails.
Two Days is an accepted minimum, spending overnight in Marblemount or Winthrop (depending on your direction of travel) and passing back through the Park the next day for more sights and hiking on your return journey.
Getting to North Cascades National Park
You will need a car to visit North Cascades NP. As this Park sees relatively fewer visitors compared to the likes of places such as Yosemite and Zion National Parks, there are proportionally fewer services available to visitors. Therefore, you need to be somewhat self-sufficient.
Here are some rough driving distances measured from major cities near North Cascades National Park to the Visitor Center in town of Newhalem, just before the western Park entrance on Highway 20:
Seattle, Washington to North Cascades National Park is about a 187km/116mi 2hrs 30mins drive but allow extra if it’s a holiday. The drive can take double that with traffic.
Portland, Oregon to North Cascades National Park is roughly 470km/290mi, 6hrs.
Vancouver, Canada to North Cascades National Park is about 220km/135mi, 3hrs.
Cautionary tale: If you are using a share-car service like Gigcar or Zipcar, make sure you have your card or token activated BEFORE you even rent your car. There is no cell service in the Park and the only way to unlock and start your car will be with your card.
We rescued a fellow-Gigcar user who had not activated his card and was stuck with an immobilized vehicle inside the Park. Furthermore, he had no way to call for help because, again, there is no cell service. We gave him a ride to the closest town where he could call the helpline. He had not activated his card, and they could not do it mid-rental. The car had to be towed to an in-service location.
Navigating North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is actually a “National Park Complex”. It is made up of a 505,000 acres of National Park divided into Northern and Southern units, plus two National Recreation Areas: Ross Lake and Lake Chelan (pronounced “shuh-lan”).
So when talking about North Cascades National Park, you have to be quite specific. Also, many people including myself, have a habit of shortening the name to “North Cascades”, which is also the name of the much larger range of mountains within which the National Park sits. All this can make it quite confusing, so I’ll break it down for you.
As I mentioned, the National Park part of the Complex is divided into two units, North and South. The area we cover in this post, is basically the east-west dividing line between the two units, which follows the only paved road in the Park – Highway 20 aka North Cascades Highway. The Ross Lake National Recreation Area also extends from this part northward in a narrow strip, so you’ll see a little of that too.
The Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (not covered in this post) surrounds the fjord-like Lake Chelan. At its southern tip is the town of Chelan and one of Washington’s wine-growing areas – see this weekend guide. At its northern tip is the town of Stehekin, which can only be accessed by plane, boat or hike in.
Where to stay near North Cascades National Park
There are no hotels in North Cascades National Park per se. You’ve probably seen photos of those amazing cabins on the side of Ross Lake. Yeah, that’s Ross Lake Resort you can mostly forget that. They are completely booked up year-upon-year. Your only chance is to put your name on the waiting list at the start of every season and make sure you’re available if you get the call-up.
Camping is available, but we’re not really camping kind of travellers so you would be ill-advised to take my recommendations on anything that doesn’t have indoor plumbing.
All this is to say that lodging near North Cascades National Park can mostly be found in the town of Winthrop on the east side of the range. There are a sprinkling of options in Marblemount on the west side, but Winthrop is mostly where it’s at in terms of places to stay and eat etc.
Winthrop has embraced its gold mining history by going all in on a wild-west theme that makes it a scenic little getaway all on its own. Positioned at the confluence of the Methow and Chewuch River, you will want to allow some time to get ice cream or a coffee and sit overlooking the rivers. Wander the main street for some fun photo ops and check out the Shafer Historical Museum. On a hot, sunny day you might even take a tubing or rafting trip on the Methow River.
Best time to visit North Cascades National Park
One of the reasons North Cascades is such an under-visited National Park is the very short summer season. The Park receives huge, and I mean HUGE amounts of snow from late autumn to early spring and the melt thereafter is slow, covering roads and hiking trails. We visited at the end of May, and while there were trails still under snow, we found enough to keep us busy for a long weekend.
Weather-wise, the best time of year to visit North Cascades National Park is between about mid-June and late-September. Check with National Parks Service (NPS) before you book a trip to ensure roads are clear, as late snow and avalanches may effect timing year to year. The National Parks Service say that by the end of July, snow is typically gone from all but the highest trails.
Special mention: Early to mid-October is a great time for leaf-peepers as fall-foliage colour is in full swing.
Weather in North Cascades National Park
Weather in the mountains is highly variable and storms are frequent. Due to that rain shadow effect I mentioned earlier, the east side of the mountains is usually warmer and drier than the west side.
In one long weekend, we went from puffer jackets to tees and shorts. This is why wearing layers is essential, so you can adapt to the conditions.
See the current forecast for each side of the mountains at these links:
Final tips and advice
- Ensure you refuel your car before setting off into the Park.
- Pack plenty of water and food, there are no outlets inside this part of the National Park.
- Wear warm layers with a waterproof outer layer.
- If you are relying on a digital map, make sure you download a copy to your phone before you leave an area with cell service and that your device is charged. There is no checkpoint as you enter the National Park, so if you require a physical map you will need to stop at the Visitor Center to pick that up.
- There is no fee to enter North Cascades National Park, however, if you have any of the State or regional passes e.g. Northwest Forest Pass, take them along. They might be handy if you end up at a trail in one of the adjacent protected areas.
Enjoy exploring this beautiful part of the Pacific Northwest. If you have any questions about things to do in North Cascades National Park, drop me a comment below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,