North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is the best for camping and hiking adventures. The park covers more than 2 million acres, of federally designated wilderness, with plenty of things to do. North Cascades is one of the largest national parks in the lower 48 states so there is A LOT of areas to explore. Add this park to your National Park road trip!
I’ve put together this ultimate adventure guide to help you plan your perfect weekend in the great wilderness of North Cascades National Park. This vacation getaway itinerary will help you make the most of your time visiting this amazing hidden gem.
Here is your perfect weekend guide to North Cascades National Park!
Listen to cascading waters in forested valleys. Go hiking through landscapes filled with life that have adapted to moisture in the west and recurring fire in the east. The jagged mountain peaks are crowned by over 300 glaciers. This fragile landscape is especially sensitive to our Earth’s climate change. Rugged mountain peaks of the North Cascades Range, the most expansive glacial system in the contiguous United States, and numerous waterways. Go camping in forests with the highest degree of flora biodiversity of any American national park.
North Cascades National Park Info
The area is referred to as a complex, and is comprised of three National Park Service units- North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, + Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. In addition, other protected lands including several national forests and wilderness areas surround the park.
Location: Across the Skagit River from the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) near milepost 120 and the town of Newhalem. Adjacent to Newhalem Creek Campground.
Exhibits: Relief map of the park and surrounding area, exhibit room featuring multimedia exhibits on the park’s natural and cultural history.
Available Facilities: Theater featuring large format slide program and video presentation. Several short, accessible interpretive trails and restrooms. Information desk. Bookstore. – NPS
Backcountry permits are required for overnights in the park year-round and are available at an outdoor self-issue station when the center is closed during the winter season. Information desk. Sales area with books, maps, videos, and other items related to the national park and adjacent national forests. – NPS
Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health authorities, park operations continue to adapt to changing conditions while maintaining public access, particularly outdoor spaces. Before visiting a park, please check the park website to determine its operating status. Updates about the overall NPS response to COVID-19, including safety information, are posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus
Please recreate responsibly.
– North Cascades National Park Service
How to Get There
North Cascades National Park is located about 3 hours outside of Seattle. The nearest airport to the North Cascades is Seattle Tacoma International airport (SEA). You can rent a car (Click Here to Save 10%) at the airport, and make the drive to the park from there. Or you can stay in Seattle to explore first.
Other parks outside of Seattle are Mt. Rainier, and Olympic National Park. Both are worth checking out if you have the time. Save time and money with the Seattle CityPass for exploring the hip west coast city.
Don’t leave home without travel insurance! CLICK HERE for more info. Travel insurance will help protect you from any travel disasters or mishaps such as lost baggage, unexpected layover accommodations and financial costs you have paid into your trip.
Depending on what season you visit the park, dress attire will vary. In July it was summer time but we still wore long pants, sweat shirts, and long sleeves. Temperatures get lower as you ascend the mountains, and get closer to the lakes. I would recommend packing light active pants and sweater or sweatshirt in addition to shorts and a tank depending on which season you visit. Hiking boots are highly recommended due to the rocky unstable mountain terrain. My favorite pair of hiking boots are the Salomon Women’s X Ultra 3 MID boot. I didn’t need to break them in as I did previous pairs of boots. They have never hurt my feet, plus they’re waterproof!
Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park
All year round people will be backpacking, hiking, and climbing throughout the trail system. Prime hiking season starts in April and goes until October with the seasons change. The busiest time of year is during the dry summer months from mid-June until September. The higher elevation trails can stay snow covered until July or sometimes August, so make sure you pack cold weather attire if you plan on doing high elevation hiking. The rainy/snowy season is from November – March. Snowfall is heavy making the winters wet and limiting access to certain roads or trails depending on current conditions.
Camping + Where to Stay
The Wilderness Information Center is the main backcountry permit office for the North Cascades Complex which includes Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. When we visited, we drove around the back country looking for the perfect site. We found a beautiful spot on Ross Lake. Unfortunately, the visitors before us left piles of feces, toilet paper, beer cans, and garbage everywhere. So we spent the first hour we were there cleaning up other people’s waste.
As we were searching for a site, deep into the forest away from the busy/popular back country areas we found something quite disturbing. It looked like a squatter’s camper/area. There was old bikes, a broken car, and… a stick in the ground with a doll’s head skewered at the top spray painted with red symbols. It was terrifying. We immediately turned around and got as far away as we could.
There are a number of options for accommodations while visiting the different areas within the complex. Camping is the most budget friendly, and is my preferred accommodation type when visiting national lands. Campsites at Colonial Creek, Goodell Creek, and Newhalen Creek campground are $16 per night. Gorge Lake is $10 per night. Hozomeen campground is free. Backcountry camping (boat-in and wilderness) requires a free permit. More Information on Camping
North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin 1.855.685.4167
Ross Lake Resort 206-386-4437
Rockport, WA 98283
Click here to search for other accommodations available in surrounding communities to the North Cascades National Park Complex.
Things to do in North Cascades National Park
Diablo Lake Overlook
Drive North Cascades Scenic Highway
Boating on Lake Ross
At the Ross Lake Resort you can rent motorboats, kayaks, canoes, and other equipment to explore Ross Lake. Plus they offer a water taxi service. There are also a limited amount of paddle craft rentals at the Stehekin on Lake Chelan.
Boat-in camping is available on Ross, Diablo and Lake Chelan. See also the guide to boating on Ross Lake. Please note that boat-in camping on Ross Lake and Diablo Lake requires a backcountry permit issued from the Wilderness Information Center. Boat-in camping on Lake Chelan requires a federal dock permit.
The Skagit and Stehekin rivers are great for kayaking, especially in the summer months.
You can launch kayaks at the boat launch on Skagit river by Goodell Creek Campground at milepost 119. Enjoy 9 miles of river with class II to class III rapids for the ultimate adventure! Take caution before launching and have a safety plan in place. There are very few options for reaching shoreline along the rapids.
The other launch option is at the Harlequin Campground on Stehekin River.
Blue Lake Hiking Trail
Blue Lake hiking trail is extremely beautiful. This was my favorite thing to do when we spent our weekend in the park. The hike takes you through alpine forests, a wild flower filled meadow, and towering mountains. You’ll end below the glacier at the iridescent crystal clear blue lake.
Length: Moderate, 5.3 miles (8.5 km) roundtrip, elevation gain 958 ft (292 m).
Location: North Cascades — Stehekin, Washington
Getting There: From Burlington, drive east on Hwy 20, the trailhead will be located at mileposts 161 + 162 on the south side of the road.
Rainy Lake Hiking Trail
Length: Paved & Easy, 2.0 miles (3.2 km) roundtrip, elevation gain 124 ft (38 m).
Location: North Cascades — North Cascades Highway – Hwy 20
Getting There: To go hiking from Marblemount follow Hwy 20 east for 20 miles to Gorge Lake Bridge. Continue for another 0.75 mile to the trailhead, on your right. You will see parking across the street from the trailhead.
Thunder Knob Trail
Look up and see the ridge of Sourdough Mountain and the snowfield of Davis Peak. A short trail leads to another viewpoint, looking across toward Jack Mountain and down toward the narrow channel of Diablo Lake.
Length: Moderately Easy, 3.6 miles (5.8 km) roundtrip, elevation gain 425 ft (130 m).
Location: North Cascades — Colonial Creek Campground
Getting There: To get there, take State Route 20 to milepost 130, Colonial Creek Campground is 24 miles (39 km) east of Marblemount. The trail head is at the entrance to the campground on the north side of the highway. **Bonus if you’re camping here!
Pyramid Lake Hiking Trail
The hiking trail starts beside Pyramid Creek and a beautiful cascading waterfall. Catch some cool breezes, and then almost immediately you’ll get to work ascending. The hiking trail is difficult and slow, covered in large roots, loose rocks, some scrambling, and up hill most of the way. When under the thin canopy of lodgepole pine, you’ll hear the silence of the woods and the trees creaking as they sway in the wind.
Length: Moderate, 4.5 miles (7.2 km) roundtrip, elevation gain 1500 ft (457 m).
Location: North Cascades — North Cascades Highway – Hwy 20
Getting There: From Marblemount follow Hwy 20 east for 20 miles to Gorge Lake Bridge. Continue for another 0.75 mile to the trailhead, on your right. You will see parking across the street from the trailhead.
What camping essentials to pack for your National Park camping road trip. These are important items for your camping checklist: Tent | Sleeping Bag | Sleeping Pad | Camping Pillow | Headlamp| + all other gear essentials for what to bring camping for beginners.