North Cascades National Park is one of the most beautiful National Parks in the United States National Park System. We decided to visit the North Cascades National Park after drooling over many pictures of the park in guidebooks and online. This place will not disappoint. There are so many things to do in North Cascades National Park, but we have included our favorites here.
About the North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is located about 3 hours north of Seattle. This area is a perfect weekend trip away from Seattle. It is one of the least visited national parks in the United States National Park System. The park is intertwined with Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and many wilderness areas.
North Cascades officially became a national park in 1968. Most access areas are closed for a large portion of the year due to heavy snowfall in the winter. However, regardless the time of year you go, there are so many things to do here. It is often called the “American Alps,” which rings true as you see all the many mountainous views of the park.
How to Get to North Cascades National Park
The best way to get around North Cascades National Park is by car. Access to the main part of the park is most common on State Route 20. The closest big airport (and the easiest to find flights to) is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. There are numerous car rentals from the airport or in Seattle. We chose to rent a truck from a rental location in the city and Uber to-and-from the airport since it was much cheaper this way.
How far is North Cascades National Park from Seattle?
The drive from Seattle (including the airport) to the main part of the North Cascades is about 2 hours and 30 minutes without traffic. Along the way there are many small towns that you can stop in.
It is important to note that once you are in the park, there are not many facilities or any gas stations, so it is very important to stock up on gasoline or any camping gear that you may need before arriving to the park. Cell service in the park is very limited as well, so make sure you have downloaded any information, reservations, or hiking maps that you need for your time in the park.
Where to Camp in North Cascades National Park
Goodell Creek Campground
Our first night in the park, we stayed at Goodell Creek Campground which is a really nice campground. It is only a few minutes from the Newhalem visitor center. We were in site 9 at Goodell Creek which was super private and had its own private beach on the river! It was also close to the bathrooms which were really clean for drop toilets. There is a water source, even though the toilets were drop toilets.
The campsite area was huge and had a bear box. Beautiful mossy trees surrounded the campsite and made us feel like we were all along in the forest. We went out to have a dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on our private beach and watched the bright blue water rush by as the sun set over the pine trees. It was a beautiful campground and one of my favorite sites we have ever stayed at.
Mineral Park West Campground
Mineral Park campground is actually located in the Mount-Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, but is less than 2 miles from the Cascade Pass Trailhead which is in the National Park. We stayed here because we had originally planned to hike up to Cascade Pass and Sahale Glacier, but were unable to due to the weather. Regardless, we were super happy with this campground and is the cleanest campground that I have ever stayed at.
There is no running water, so make sure to bring adequate water for your stay here. We stayed in site 17 here and it was nice. They area was flat and the tent space area somewhat private from other campers. It felt very peaceful as the air was filled with the constant sound of a raging glacial river just below the campground. It is about 15 miles from Marblemount, but totally worth the little extra drive.
Some other campsites within the National Park and nearby National Forest areas include Colonial Creek, Newhalem creek, Gorge Lake, and Marble Creek. These all can be found on recreation.gov which is the best place to find camping lodging in any National Park or National Forest.
Where to Stay if Not Camping
The only official lodge in the portion of the park along State Route 20 is Ross Lake Resort. Bookings tend to fill up very quickly here. They also have boat and kayak rentals available for usage on Ross Lake.
On the west side of the park (the Seattle side), Marblemount is the closest town. In this town there are few local lodging options, such as the Buffalo Run Inn which is located at the main intersection of the town. Other nearby towns include Darrington, Rockport, and Concrete.
On the east side of the park, the towns of Winthrop and Twisp have several different lodging options.
What to See in North Cascades National Park
There are so many beautiful things to see within North Cascades National Park. The best way to see the park at first is by driving through the entirety of the park via State Route 20 and make stops at all the various overlooks and short walks. After driving through the park, you can then decide what area you would like to hike at or spend more time at!
Quick Stops (In order from driving west to east)
Ranger Station in Marblemount, WA
North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center is the main place in the park to go for maps and any questions you have regarding trail conditions, current weather in higher areas of the park, and backcountry permits. Most backcountry hiking and camping permits are picked up from here. The rangers here were super helpful to us when we had to change our backcountry plans due to extreme weather changes. There are also restrooms and good phone service here (full bars LTE with Sprint). This is one of the last places you will find phone service as you go into the park.
Newhalem Visitor Center
This is the main visitor center of the park and is about 20 minutes from Marblemount. Be sure to stop here. There is more basic information on trails, a small gift shop, and an informational area about the park (unfortunately this was closed while we were visiting). Right behind the visitor center is the Sterling Monroe trail which is only 300ft long. This trail weaves through beautiful pine forest on a wooden boardwalk and ends with a view of the distant mountains. This was the first view of snowcapped peaks we saw when in the park and is worth a stop.
Trail of the Cedars
This stop is shortly after the Newhalem Visitor Center in the town of Newhalem. There is a parking area on the left and a small store on your right. The trail begins past the store in Newhalem with a large suspension bridge crossing the Skagit River. The bridge itself is cool to walk across and you can pear over the edge of the bridge into the blue water below. The Trail of the Cedars begins on the other side of the bridge. The Trail of the Cedars is 1.9 miles long and has informational placards along the way.
Ladder Creek Falls
Ladder Creek Falls is shortly after the Trail of the Cedars stop and will be located on the right side of the road. Here another longer and narrower bridge crosses the Skagit River. Once crossing, you will follow a short path following Ladder Creek until you reach the falls. There are many steps on this trail, but is only around 0.5 miles round trip from the parking lot.
Gorge Creek Falls and Gorge Lake Overlook
Gorge Lake is the first large blue lake you will see on this gorgeous drive. This stop will be on your right. The overlook of Gorge Lake is not far from the parking lot. In total, it is about a 0.5 mile trail paved trail.
Pyramid Lake Trailhead
We didn’t hike to Pyramid Lake (which is supposed to be gorgeous), but the area around the trailhead makes a beautiful spot for a picnic or to relax for a little bit. Cross the road to the trailhead and there is a rocky shore of Pyramid Creek with rocks the perfect size for sitting. You can sit and watch the Pyramid Creek fall down over mossy covered rocks and be surrounded by green forest. It is a short stop and somewhere to stop only if you have the time, but we were very happy to stop here.
Diablo Lake Overlook
If you keep driving on the road, you will eventually come to Diablo Lake Overlook, which was my favorite overlook of the entire drive. Here you can see the bright blue Diablo Lake along with the mountains surrounding it. It is truly gorgeous. There are several different viewpoints and informational signs here.
Ross Lake Overlooks
There are two Ross Lake Overlooks that can be found shortly after Diablo Lake Overlook on the left. They are little pull-offs of the road where you can see glimpses of Ross Lake.
Washington Pass Overlook
This is the last main overlook on your drive. Technically this is not in the national park, but rather in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. From the parking lot, there is a short walk to the viewpoint (some sources say around 0.2 miles or less) and it is mostly paved. The view from here is stunning. You can see Liberty Bell Mountain and Early Winter Spires to the right and Silver Star Mountain to the left, along with the highway running between these mountains. It is so beautiful and worth the stop.
Hikes to do in North Cascades National Park
Rainy Lake Trail is a beautiful 2 mile round-trip paved hike that ends up at a gorgeous bright blue lake. We were a little skeptical of how pretty it could be, especially with the large parking lot and paved trail, but we were blown away. This lake has the brightest, bluest water I have ever seen. It is surrounded by mountains and had two giant waterfalls cascading down on the opposite side.
The walk was very gentle and rolling with little elevation gain. At the end of the trail there even some benches to rest before you turn back. This trail is great for everyone and would be great to bring kids on. Overall, we loved this hike and think its one of the best short hikes you can do in the park.
Blue Lake Trail is a 4.6 mile hike with almost 1000 feet of elevation gain. We did this hike in the evening, hoping to catch some alpenglow on the mountains around the lake. The trail is nice, with only gradual elevation change. The most difficult part of the trail is actually the first 400m as it’s a little muddy and there are some logs to go around or climb over. From there it is a gradual walk on a wide path through a Silver Pine forest. There are several narrow stream crossings, but by the end of the season they may be even easier to cross.
When we arrived to the area around the lake, we stumbled upon a mountain goat. This was our first time ever seeing a mountain goat in the wild and we were so excited! We backed away and watched him a while before making a wide route around him. The lake was so beautiful. This lake was more of a lighter blue, but the water was so incredibly clear. Gray, rocky mountains framed this gorgeous lake. It’d be a perfect place for a picnic or to chill for the afternoon. We would have loved to stay longer, but it was getting darker and some fellow hikers had aggravated the goat, so we decided to descend.
Thornton Lakes Trail is around 11 miles round trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. There is a gravel road up to the trailhead that took us about 20 minutes with a 4-wheel-drive truck. There was only one point where we had to switch it into 4-wheel-drive so you could probably make it, but we would recommend 4 wheel drive if possible. We went at the very end of June and there was still a lot of snow on the trail, especially higher up on the trail.
A little after the first mile, you will have to cross a waterfall/stream. Depending on the water levels at the time, you may be able to keep dry if you have waterproof boots, but when we were there I got soaked up to almost my knees. It is a pretty trail winding through the forest for most of the way, until at the end you finally break above the trees. Most of the trail is in the national forest and then switches to the national park closer to the end of the trail.
There is an overlook of the lake from up above (unlike the other lake trails I’ve recommended so far). You can see the lake and the surrounding mountains. If you’re up for the challenge, there is the optional trail spur near the top where you can go to the top of Trapper’s Peak. We did not do this as it was a very hot day and needed to head back down. It is a great day hike, but prepare to be exhausted!
Cascade Pass and Sahale Glacier
Just a quick note on these. We had planned our entire trip here around this hike and scored backcountry passes to camp at Sahale Glacier, but the weather didn’t cooperate. However, if the weather is good and the roads are open when you are at North Cascades, these hikes should definitely be on your list of places to go!
Places to Eat near North Cascades National Park
Most of our meals in the park were camping meals like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tuna packets with chips, but there are some nice restaurants in the area too. The Marblemount Diner is supposed to be very good. There are also restaurants on the west side throughout Concrete, Darrington, and Marblemount. Towns that would have restaurants on the east side are Winthrop and Twisp.
My favorite place we stopped for food and coffee was Moe’s Darrington in Darrington, Washington. They have so many different delicious coffees, sandwiches, and ice cream. I got their iced white mocha americano and a pesto grilled cheese that was so good. They recently opened and have many indoor and outdoor seating options.
Important Notes for Planning Your Trip
- The area around North Cascades National Park is rural, so don’t expect to find a lot of cell service.
- Be prepared that the weather can change at any time, so make sure you have appropriate gear and layers.
- Most things in the area (as of early July 2021) are closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. This includes the visitor center (but not the wilderness information center), restaurants, and stores in the surrounding towns.
- There’s an entire other part of the park called Stehekin that you cannot drive to and can only access by boat or by hiking in. We wish we could’ve been to this part of the park, but the boat tickets and accommodations were all booked up when we were planning our trip. Make sure to plan in advance if you plan on visiting this part of the park. More info on Stehekin can be found here.
We loved the North Cascades National Park and hope that we can make the trip back sometime soon! I hope you are able to visit! Let us know down below in the comments if you have any questions or other recommendations for the park!
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