Despite being only a couple hours from Seattle, North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited national parks annually. Nicknamed the American Alps, this area of craggy, snow covered peaks is astoundingly beautiful and offers a great way to escape from the crowds. In addition to the national park area, the complex also includes two national recreation areas, and it’s actually one of these that the majority of visitors spend their time in. In fact, the actual national park receives the fewest visitors annually out of the three separate units. Have I confused you yet? Keep reading for a geography explanation in addition to my favorite things to do in North Cascades National Park.
Getting the lay of the land
For logistical purposes, I decided to include all three previously mentioned units in this post about things to do in North Cascades National Park due to the fact that once you’re on the road, there’s really no difference between them. However, it’s important to know the distinction between them when planning. Ross Lake National Recreation Area runs along the main visitor route cutting east-west across the park and swings north on the east side of the park all the way up to the Canadian border. Most of the popular visitor areas are located here. The other National Recreation Area – Lake Chelan – is located at the southern end of the North Cascades complex. It’s not accessible via road and visitors must arrive via hiking, plane, or boat. The actual North Cascades National Park area is split into two separate areas – the North Unit and South Unit – with limited access via dirt road. The majority of the national park is backcountry, which explains why it receives so few visitors. Good news though: admission is free to each unit, so you don’t have to worry about fees crossing from one to the other and you’ll notice few distinctions between them.
Things to do in North Cascades National Park
Are you ready for some jaw-dropping scenery? You’ve come to the right place. With spectacularly-colored lakes, craggy mountain peaks, and an impressive collection of glaciers (well, what’s left of them anyway), North Cascades National Park is a dream come true for outdoor enthusiasts. You can hike, bike, boat, or just enjoy the scenery from your car window if that’s more your speed.
Drive the North Cascades Highway
The main visitor activity in the North Cascades National Park Complex is driving the scenic North Cascades Highway, also known as State Route 20. This stretch is the most commonly visited area and contains most of the scenic viewpoints you’ve likely seen in guidebooks and on Instagram. This road bisects the complex, running through Ross Lake National Recreation area right between the two units of the national park. The drive is winding, but not too technically difficult and takes you through some truly spectacular scenery. Note that while you’ll find bathrooms along the way, there is no food service, so it’s recommended that you pack your own lunch and enjoy it at one of the numerous scenic picnic spots.
This was my favorite area of the park and one of the rare places that actually lives up to the overly filtered pictures you see on Instagram. The water in this manmade lake really is as turquoise as it looks in photos – but the color is going to be substantially brighter if you catch it on a sunny day. If it’s overcast or if you visit super early or close to sunset when the sun is below the surrounding peaks, you may find it disappointing compared to the photos you’ll see of it. The Diablo Lake Overlook, marked on your park map, features a large parking area and offers the best overhead views of the lake for those that don’t have the time or inclination to hike. In the Colonial Creek area, southwest of the overlook, the road drops down to water level and you can paddle kayaks or wade along its rocky shores. (This is also a phenomenal area to camp if you’re looking for a place to stay.) Trails like the Diablo Lake Trail and Thunder Knob Trail will also offer fantastic views if you’re up for some hiking.
Another manmade lake, further east along State Route 20, Ross Lake is less dramatic than Diablo Lake in terms of appearance, but it’s also substantially larger, reaching all the way across the Canadian border. There are a couple marked overlooks along the road that offer great views, as well as numerous trails like the East Bank Trail and Happy Panther Trail. Ross Lake is also home to the only non-camping accommodations in this part of the park with an adorable little cabin lodge nestled along its shores. Note: This is one of the hardest reservations to snag in the entire state of Washington – maybe the whole country – so you’ll have to plan very, very far in advance and have a little bit of luck on your side if you want to book a cabin here.
Gorge Creek Falls
Just inside the park as you enter from the west side, you’ll come across Gorge Creek Falls. There’s a parking area on the south side of the road, and from there you can walk out onto the bridge over the creek. You’ll be treated to views of narrow Gorge Lake to one side and the narrow band of Gorge Falls to the other.
This is cheating a little even for this post as Washington Pass is located east of the North Cascades Complex but it’s worth the extra drive for the scenic views – and if you’re entering or exiting from the east you’ll be passing by it anyway. The overlook here has a large parking area and offers dramatic views of several named peaks towering above the roads. It may not be one of the best things to do in North Cascades National Park, but it’s certainly one of the best stops you can make in the vicinity.
Stehekin is a small town located in the Lake Chelan NRA portion of the North Cascades Complex. It can’t be accessed via road, and visitors must hike in, fly in via seaplane, or arrive via boat. However you choose to arrive, the trek in will be a scenic experience in and of itself. The town is open year round, but you’ll find few services outside of the busier summer season so plan accordingly. Stehekin can be visited as a day trip with a “layover” between ferry trips, but if you really want to enjoy the area and make the most of your travel time, plan on spending a couple nights there at minimum.
From Stehekin, you can explore plenty of hiking trails that run along the lakeshore or lead up to higher peaks. There are ample opportunities to play out on the water as well. Though there are no roads into town, there is a paved road that connects to other trailheads, including access points to the Pacific Crest Trail. Bright red shuttles run up and down the road a couple times a day. Bikes can also be rented in town or brought over on the ferry if you prefer to pedal.
Hike the Pacific Crest Trail
One of the most famous trails in the United States, the Pacific Crest Trail winds its way through Lake Chelan NRA and the South Unit of North Cascades National Park. The trail runs from Canada to Mexico through Washington, Oregon, and California along the Cascades and Sierras, so the part running through North Cascades is just a tiny portion of it. If you’re doing the full trail, you can through-hike, or you can hike portions of it from several access points in different areas of the park. Just east of the complex, the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with SR 20, which makes for a very easy jumping off point.
Take the Cascade River Road
This rough dirt road is accessed off of SR 20 in Marblemount, just west of the park complex. It follows the North Fork of the Cascade River and winds up into some of the lesser-visited areas in the South Unit of North Cascades National Park and offers access to several trails. From the trailheads here, you can get up close to glaciers, enjoy scenic lakes, connect to the Pacific Crest Trail, or head into Stehekin.
How to get to North Cascades National Park
While there are a few guided tours available, most visitors drive themselves, so be prepared for some mountain driving. If you’re heading from Seattle, SR 20 can be accessed from the west off I-5 in Burlington. From the east, you can pick it up in Mazama. You can also take I-5 to SR 530 and follow that east and then north until it intersects with SR 20 in Rockport. This route will be slightly more scenic and will shave a few miles off your drive, though there will be fewer services along the way. Without traffic, you should be at the entrance in approximately 2 hours.
The Stehekin ferry that was previously mentioned can be accessed from Chelan at the southeast end of Lake Chelan or Fields Point on the west side of the lake. The town is located just off US-97. From Chelan, day parking is free, but there is a charge for overnight parking. From Fields Point, there are charges for both day and overnight parking. You can book one way or round trip tickets on the ferry.
When to visit North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park and the NRAs included in the area are open year round, but note that SR 20 and other roads partially close during winter from November or early December through April or early May depending on when the snowfall necessitates it. This cuts off access from the east side. Late May through early Fall are the ideal times to visit. Plan a trip later in the summer if you’re planning higher elevation hiking as snow can linger on trails well into July in some areas.
What to bring to North Cascades National Park
Your full packing list is going to depend on what specific things you’ve chosen to do in North Cascades National Park, your mode of transport, and your length of stay, but here are a few items you won’t want to miss:
- Bring lots of water, even if you’re not planning on doing a lot of hiking. There are very few services in the park, and being at higher elevations tends to make you thirstier.
- Along those same lines, bringing lots of snacks or a picnic lunch is also highly recommended. There is no food service inside the park and you’ll need to drive for miles to get to anywhere with food from most parts of the complex.
- Sturdy hiking boots are a must if you plan on hitting any of the trails
- Wear layered clothing and pack for rain. Temperatures can vary widely from morning to night and from high elevation to low elevation. It’s best to wear layers that can be removed or added as needed to maintain comfort throughout the day.
- I never travel without my portable phone charger. I burn through a lot of battery taking pictures and almost always need to top it off when traveling. We road tripped, so I had easy access to a charger all day on this trip, but if you’re camping or doing a lot of hiking you’ll want a portable battery for it.
- Paper maps are essential because there is little to no cell service inside the park areas. If you’re driving it’s pretty straightforward and hard to get lost because there’s only one road east to west, but you’ll want info on the scenic locations. If you’re hiking, you’ll want a more detailed map that shows trails and topography. You can grab these at one of the National Park Visitor Centers or online ahead of your trip.