Looking to get a taste of spectacular mountain scenery without a major time commitment? This North Cascades National Park itinerary is perfect for a day trip from Seattle – it’s only a two-hour drive – or as part of a longer road trip through Washington or the Pacific Northwest. The drive is easy and barring bad weather, the roads shouldn’t be too challenging, which makes this relatively accessible to any traveler with access to a vehicle.
This itinerary takes you through the center of the North Cascades complex, which includes the national park and national recreation areas – you can find the full explanation here – and mainly focuses on the Ross Lake unit. I’ll work it from west to east (as you would if you were coming from Seattle or the coast) since that’s how we did it, but it can easily be reversed if you’re coming from the east side of the mountains.
Beginning your one-day North Cascades National Park itinerary
First things first – get an early start. You have limited daylight to fit in a lot of scenery as well as a few hours worth of driving. You can make it all work (while still being enjoyable) with a one-day North Cascades National Park itinerary, but this is not a day to sleep in.
From Seattle, you’ll head north out of town on I-5. From Bellingham, you’ll take I-5 south. From Anacortes, you’ll pretty much just head east. You have GPS and maps so I won’t bore you with the turn-by-turn steps, but you should point yourself toward the National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem off SR 20. I highly recommend having a full tank of gas as there is none available inside the park. Newhalem does have an electric vehicle charging station, but the last gas is a few miles back in Marblemount. Both of these towns also have limited food available, and none is sold inside the park, so it’s recommended to bring plenty of snacks and/or a picnic lunch.
I always recommend starting a national park visit at the closest visitor center. Rangers there will have current information about road conditions, weather, trail closures, and educational programming that isn’t easy to find elsewhere. You can also grab one of the classic park maps for your drive, which you’ll rely on heavily as there is extremely limited cell service inside the park. You’ll also find bathrooms and a small gift shop here. Get a peek at the official map here.
Your North Cascades National Park itinerary will follow SR 20 through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area portion of the complex. If you’re returning the same way you came, you’ll drive to the end and then backtrack along the same route. If you’re passing through the park from one side to the other, you won’t have to retrace your steps. The good news if you’re directionally challenged is that with no real crossroads, it’s very hard to get lost while driving.
Gorge Falls Overlook
As you head into the park, you’ll find yourself driving along the vibrant Skagit River. The first big stop you’ll hit is the Gorge Falls Overlook. There’s a decent sized parking area, but on busy days you might have to wait for a spot to open up or cross the bridge ahead of you and look for parking on the other side. From either lot, you can take a short walk out to the bridge to see thin, wispy Gorge Falls on one side and the end of manmade Gorge Lake on the other.
From the west side of the bridge, you can also take the short, partially-paved Gorge Lake Overlook trail. At only half a mile round trip, it’s an easy, quick walk that will offer you better views of the lake as well as some perspective on the dam that created it – and still provides electricity to the Seattle area.
As you leave the parking area heading east, SR 20 will parallel long, narrow Gorge Lake and you’ll have lots of peeks at pretty views as you drive. Eventually, you’ll pass another dam and approach Diablo Lake. It’s spectacular and definitely the highlight of this itinerary, but the best viewing is still a little further down the road.
As you’re heading toward Diablo Lake, the road takes a hard right, seemingly taking you away from the lake in a large U-shape. You’re actually winding around a narrow stretch of Diablo Lake, and at the end of the U, you’ll find yourself at water level. Colonial Creek has limited parking, but it’s a great spot to hop out of the car and enjoy the water. You can picnic along the rocky shores here, launch a kayak, or splash in the water.
If you have extra time, the Thunder Knob trail is a fun, relatively easy hike that climbs a ridge for great views of Diablo Lake. It starts with a walk through the campground and a stream crossing via a narrow bridge. The hike was enjoyable and well worth it, but don’t worry if you don’t have time (or the energy) to make the climb. You’ll be able to access views just as good by continuing up the road a bit.
Diablo Lake Overlook
If you only have time for one stop on your North Cascades National Park itinerary, it should be the Diablo Lake overlook. With excessively filtered and edited pictures everywhere, it’s one of the few places I’ve been that was just as brilliant in person as it looks in photos. It looked bright teal in pictures when I was planning the trip and when we got to the overlook the water was as beautifully teal as pictured. The color comes from the glacial water that forms the lake, and while the lake itself is manmade, the vibrant hue is natural. Note that it’s at its most brilliant when the sun is out, so if you visit on a cloudy day or when the sun is low in the sky you may not be as wowed so factor that into your planning if you have any flexibility.
Ross Lake Overlook
A little further east on SR 20, you’ll find the Ross Lake Overlook. This area is much smaller and less established with just a couple of pull-offs for parking. Ross Lake, another manmade creation, is long and narrow, stretching all the way up to the Canadian border. It’s much more difficult to access than Diablo Lake if you want to hit the water, but does boast one of the most sought-after resorts in all of Washington along its shores.
This is the last stop in the national park complex, but if you continue a few miles further down SR 20, you’ll be treated to plenty more scenic views as well as numerous trailheads if you’re looking for some hiking.
Washington Pass Overlook
Located several miles east of the national park complex, this is a perfect turnaround point if you’re heading back to Seattle or one of the coastal towns. This overlook has a large parking area and a short pathway that offers views of the striking, unique peaks across the road. It’s an incredible viewpoint that’s well worth the extra drive.