A visit to North Cascades National Park will be one shrouded in awe yet also sadness.
It’s a land of steep slopes converging into narrow river valleys and mountain ranges blanketed in forest and covered with glaciers and lakes.
There are more glaciers in North Cascades NP than any other USA national park outside of Alaska, including its close neighbor, Glacier National Park.
The sadness comes from knowing that all of the 330+ glaciers you have the honor of seeing throughout the park are slowly receding and in 10 years may be all gone, thanks to us.
Humans who can’t make a few simple choices to take care of Mother Earth –the very thing that sustains us.
If more people spent time in the wilderness rather than being so disconnected in urban environments and so wrapped up in their own struggles, they may see the value of taking care of Mother Earth. They’d be a witness to, not just her beauty, but to her perfection.
I’m so grateful that my daughters spend every day interacting with Mother Nature.
They’ve learned to be custodians of the planet and each new experience they have they further inspired to do more to help protect her.
Where is North Cascades National Park?
As one of the least visited US national parks, you can rest assure you can explore more quietly and wildly.
Its low visitor numbers are surprising considering it is only within 100 miles of Seattle.
There really is only one main road (Highway 20) that bisects through Cascades national park. Most of the park, which stretches north into Canada is for the intrepid explorer on foot.
The North Cascades National Park Complex includes the north and south units of North Cascades as well as Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
18 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail runs through the park leading trekkers to remote peaks with names like Mount Terror and Inspiration Peak.
We were happy to remain mostly in the main Ross Lake National Recreation area in the park exploring its many lakes, and hikes, including our most challenging, and rewarding hike yet in the USA, the Cascades Pass Trail.
Primary access to the North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area is State Route 20, which connects to I-5 (Exit 230) at Burlington.
From November through April, State Route 20 is closed from Ross Dam Trailhead to Lone Fir. The only road access to the shore of Ross Lake is via the Silver-Skagit Road (gravel) from near Hope, British Columbia.
North Cascades offers something for everyone. Take your pick from camping, hiking, climbing, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and educational programs.
Things To Do In North Cascades National Park
The North Cascades National Park Scenic Drive
Let’s start with an easy activity, and one of the most enjoyable things to do in North Cascades National Park, the North Cascades Scenic Drive.
There is basically only one road (Scenic Highway 20) passing through the park, which makes your explorations pretty easy. A road trip along the North Cascades Highway is how most people would experience this national park.
The North Cascades Scenic Highway covers 140 miles and makes up part of the Cascade Loop, a popular multi-day Washington road trip. The highway skirts the Skagit River through the park.
We recommend you go a little deeper by adding on a few exceptional North Cascades hikes, which we share below.
North Cascades National Park Visitor Center
We recommend you make your first North Cascades road trip stop at the visitor center located near Newhalem.
They can give you updated information on weather and trail conditions. They provided us excellent advice about what North Cascades national park hikes to do that would suit our time, abilities and interests. And if you want to go backcountry, this is where you get your backcountry permits.
We never would have known about the Cascade Pass Trail and attempted it without their insights.
Kids can also pick up their Junior Ranger materials here and then receive their badges at the end after completing their tasks.
Washington Pass Overlook
Starting your North Cascades drive at the Washington Pass Overlook will capture your soul.
It feels like you are part of the towering, jagged peaks and intensity of colors.
The Liberty Bell Group of nearly 8,000-foot spires rises dramatically and will inspire countless photos! There is a short quarter mile loop trail that offers you different vantage points.
Over the other side is Blue Lake, which we recommend as one of the best North Cascades national park hikes mentioned down below.
At 5,500 feet, it is the road’s highest point and the dividing line between eastern and western Washington.
Ross Lake Overlook
A pullout on the shoulder of Highway 20 will give you a beautiful view over Ross Lake.
The view is partially obstructed by trees, but you’ll enjoy the views of the snow covered peaks in the distance with that brilliant blue green color of the lake shining through.
After learning more about Jack Kerouac in San Francisco, I loved hearing about his journey into the North Cascades from this viewpoint.
He spent 63 days during the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, which you can see in the distance. He wrote about his experiences in The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels and in a collection of haiku by the name of “Desolation pops”.
Devoted fans of Jack climb the steep four-and-a-half-mile Desolation trail to see where their icon stayed at the tp of the 6,000 ft summit.
Ross Lake is one of the largest reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest. This enormous reservoir measures 23 miles in length, averages 1.5 miles wide, and spans the U.S. and Canadian border.
Ross Lake can only be reached by road on its north end in B.C. Paddlers can launch in at Colonial Creek Campground, Diablo Lake to reach Ross Lake on the east side of Diablo.
For those looking for a unique, secluded and serene North Cascades experience consider staying at Ross Lake Resort, located on the west side of Ross Lake, just north of Ross Dam.
There are no roads in, you can either hike here or take the Diablo Lake Ferry which meets up with the Ross Lake Resort Truck.
Built in 1950, the resort is a line of twelve individual cabins and three bunkhouses built on log floats on the edge of the aqua-colored lake.
The drawcard to staying here are the stunning undisturbed views of the surrounding snow-capped peaks and recreation opportunities.
Best enjoyed from a colorful Adirondack chair on your deck.
Diablo Lake Overlook
Right off the highway is the Diablo Lake Overlook, a must-not miss stop on your Cascades drive.
Created by Seattle City Light’s damming of the Skagit River in 1930, Diablo Lake is a man-made reservoir and is one of three dams (including Gorge and Ross) on the Skagit River that provide electricity to Seattle.
The stunning bluish-green tinge of Diablo Lake is a result of the glacier-ground rock silt, which is carried down via streams from the mountains that tower up to 8,000 feet above it.
That fine powder stays suspended in the lake, giving the water its brilliant color.
You can learn more about this lake and region through the interpretive signs along the perimeter of the lookout. The views are spectacular and you’ll want to snap photos from multiple vantage points.
There is ample parking, restrooms, and a covered picnic shelter.
If you have more time, head down to the lake for some kayaking or canoeing, another of the popular things to do in North Cascades National Park.
Colonial Creek Campground is situated on the lake and would be a beautiful place to stay.
Gorge Lake Overlook and Gorge Falls
At milepost 123, you’ll find Gorge Creek Falls and the Gorge Lake Overlook.
This viewpoint lets you walk out to an overlook of Gorge Lake as well as the bridge spanning the gorge.
There’s a 0.5 mile loop trail where you can see Gorge Lake and Gorge Dam. It’s partially obscured here by the trees, but a serene place to stretch your legs regardless.
From the parking lot, it’s a short stroll across a bridge to see the incredible Gorge Creek Falls.
Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park
As you travel along North Cascades Highway you’ll find many places to stop and stretch your legs with easy and scenic day hikes.
Some of the best North Cascades National Park hikes lie in wait just outside the park borders, others lay waiting down lesser known roads.
Blue Lake Trail (5.3 miles return)
Blue Lake Trail is a busy 5.3 mile return trail through sub-alpine forest and meadows filled with wildflowers to an iridescent blue lake surrounded by granite reaching up to the sky.
It’s one of the best hikes at Cascades and, with an elevation gain of about 1000 ft, is suited to most hikers.
The mix of old and new growth trees will clear a space in their density every now and then along the trail to give you glimpse of prominent landmarks like Liberty Bell and Winter Spires, popular with rock climbers.
The lake is stunning with its teal, crystal clear waters and reflections of the steep mountains from the other side and trees surrounding its perimeter.
There are plenty of rocks offering a perfect seat to enjoy a picnic and the views. Kick off your shoes to cool your tired feet. Brave ones will take a plunge in its icy waters.
Cascade Pass Trail to Sahale Glacier (7-15 miles return)
We set out for what we thought was to be the biggest hike with the kids: 7.4 mile return with an 1,800ft elevation gain – thankfully gradually over a series of 35 switchbacks.
The Cascades Pass Trail is meant to be the most popular of the North Cascades national park hiking trails with beautiful views of the surrounding mountain peaks and glaciers.
For the first time probably ever, the kids embraced the hike with enthusiasm, positive words and no complaining. This was incredible!
The hike took us through old-growth forests, that gave way to clearings with views of the surrounding glacier covered jagged peaks. A short walk across a rocky open path took us to the end of the trail at the Pass, a place where verdant meadows curved down to a saddle that offered sweeping views of nearby valleys, glaciers, mountains, and passing wildlife.
Some saw bears in the distance, others marmots.
Take a moment to reflect on the ancient footsteps of travelers that once passed through here. The Cascades Pass was a route for the Native Americans through the rugged Cascades.
Many other hikers gathered and some continued on. We heard tales of a glacier waiting to be touched about an extra 4 miles onwards. The kids were adamant we continue on.
I was a little concerned, especially considering those extra 4 miles were going to take us on a further elevation gain of 2,400ft over a much shorter distance.
But how do you curb the enthusiasm of a child to take on a hiking challenge and adventure such as this. So, after our lunch break, on we went.
The trail to Sahale Glacier started with steep switchbacks, and black bears munching berries just off the trail. It turned into valleys, forests and meadows, and stunning glacier lakes (Doubtful Lake), and even more black bears, including mother and babies.
And the views. 360 degree panoramic views of jagged mountain peaks and glaciers. I’ve never seen anything like it!
Had I known just how hard that trail would have been I never would have agreed. It ended with a very steep, slow and slippery rock scramble at the end to reach the glacier.
Each step up felt like I was dragging a bag of lead on my foot. The kids scrambled on up, inspiring me to keep going.
We had to make that glacier and touch it. We did. The kids cheered and slid down it and some even ate its purity. It was a magical experience.
It was only when we’d reach the top and I collapsed onto the glacier that I thought about what was to come.
Oh no, we have another 6 miles still left to walk back down. There certainly wasn’t a zip line taking us the quick way home.
Our food and water supplies were low, the sun was beating down on us, and we were all exhausted. How on earth is little 8 year old Savannah going to make it all the way back? How am I going to?
But she did and I did it.
I was able to summon a little strength to piggy back her some ways down the switchbacks right at the end when she began to break.
I feel like I broke a million times before she did.
We weren’t the only ones breaking. On the way back down we heard the tremendous noise from the hanging glaciers breaking loose and booming down the mountainside.
You just never know what your children are capable of until you give them the permission to show you.
Sure, if we had of thought about it a little more, we probably would have decided it was too much of an epic adventure for the kids. But we got caught up in their enthusiasm to take on a hiking challenge and touch a glacier.
As a result, we saw what strong, confident, capable beings they are.
They hardly complained. Their bodies were tired and a couple of times they all got a little weepy, but that is to be expected when you push yourself beyond what you thought your limits were.
I was weepy too.
It was their sunny attitudes that helped me push on through when my legs kept telling me no more, and my body felt unbalanced and dizzy.
The youngest child in our group was 6 and the oldest 11.
Well if they could do it, then surely I could too. This is who we must lean on in life – the ones who can show us what is possible by their own displays of courage, strength and determination,
They’ll help you overcome the obstacles to keep on moving up.
Cascade Pass is located within the boundaries of North Cascades National Park and is accessed via a narrow, curvy mountain road.
From Marblemount, WA on Route 20, turn onto the Cascade Loop road for 23 miles to the parking lot. The road is initially paved.
But once you pass mile marker 10, the road becomes primitive. Two-wheel drive cars are fine. Start early! It gets busy and the parking lot will fill up.
Family-Friendly Trails in North Cascades National Park
We were so busy taking on the challenging hikes that we didn’t have time for the easy family-friendly hikes.
But the park has plenty to choose from. Here are a few for you to enjoy with a little more time:
- Trail of the Cedars – The Trail of the Cedars nature walk in Newhalem is a family-friendly 0.3 mile loop through a dense cedar forest. Moss covers everything in sight, from the rocks to the tallest trees. The trail begins at the end of Main Street past the General Store
- Ladder Creek Falls – A hilly 0.4 mile loop trail located across a footbridge over the Skagit River and behind the Gorge Dam Powerhouse in Newhalem. A set of steep steps leads you further up under a canopy of trees following the many layers of the grotto-like falls located in a slot canyon. You may want to visit at night. Colored lights are projected onto the falls, turning this natural feature into an awesome lights show!
- River Loop Trail – The 1.8 mile River Loop Trail starts at the North Cascades National Park visitor center.
- Thunder Knob Trail – An easy 3.6 mile (round trip) trail. Gaining only 425 ft. in elevation. At the start you’re hiking through a typical northwest rain forest. But, as you continue, the vegetation changes. Incredible views of the nearby Pyramid and Colonial Peaks appear. Before you know it, you’ve reached the lookouts at the end. Overlooking Diablo Lake and Davis Peak, there are multiple benches where you can breathe in the view.
Camping in North Cascades National Park
There is a full range of North Cascades national park camping experiences on offer including those accessible from a car or RV to those requiring a strenuous trek into the wilderness.
We camped at Newhalem Creek campground, which was a gorgeous campsite in forests of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir and set alongside the glacial melt Skagit River.
It’s midway in the park so close to all amenities and trails. You could reserve sites in advance here.
Other campgrounds include Goodell Creek campgrounds, Colonial Creek, Gorge Lake and Hozomeen. Check here for further details.
Best Time to Visit North Cascades NP
Summer will be optimal with most trails open and warm conditions.
Snow can still block trails in July. Winter is a much quieter experience and is great for those who love cross-country skiing.
More National Parks Tips
Love national parks? Check out these posts:
- 16 incredible things to do in Olympic National Park
- 18 amazing things to do in Yosemite National Park
- 8 awesome things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
- 9 things to do in Death Valley National Park
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