Visiting North Cascades National Park
With jagged peaks, panoramic views, and alpine lakes, North Cascades National Park is often referred to as the American Alps.
Tucked away in the state’s northwest corner, the park includes more than 300 glaciers and a seemingly endless inventory of waterfalls from which the Cascade Range gets its name.
One of the lesser-visited national parks in the country, the North Cascades makes a great destination for those looking to disconnect in nature while still being within easy reach of cities and amenities.
Getting to North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is part of a complex managed alongside neighboring Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation areas in Northwest Washington. The park is about 2 hours north of Seattle and 3 hours south of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Primary access is by vehicle from the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). From the west, North Cascades Highway connects with Interstate 5, while from the east it connects with U.S. Route 97 and State Route 153.
Important Note: North Cascades Highway closes seasonally (generally November through April or early May) between the Ross Dam Trailhead and Lone Fir Campground due to avalanche danger. This is the only highway through the park, so plan accordingly is visiting during these months.
Things to Do
From boating and hiking to camping and birdwatching, North Cascades has plenty to keep you busy.
Take a Hike
Offering hundreds of miles of trails — including portions of the famous Pacific Crest Trail — the park is a haven for backpackers, mountain climbers, and recreational day hikers. From short strolls to strenuous climbs, visitors will find a trail for every activity level.
The popular hiking season extends from late April through October, with the driest and busiest months spanning late June through September. Trails at higher elevations often remain snow-covered into July. For spectacular fall foliage and fewer crowds, consider visiting in mid to late fall.
Experience some of the park’s jaw-dropping scenery at perfect-perfect Diablo Lake, with its glacier-fed azure waters. Stop for a quick view from the overlook, or explore the lake from Colonial Creek. Nearby, the 3.6-mile round-trip Thunder Knob trail rewards hikers with a stunning view of the water, plus snow-covered Pyramid Peak and waterfalls cascading down Sourdough Mountain.
Hit the Water
Those looking to get out on the water have multiple lakes to explore. Kayaking, canoeing, paddling, and boating are all popular activities. Visitors will also find plenty of fishing opportunities throughout the park. Just be sure to obtain a fishing license before you arrive, as they are not sold in the park.
For an up-close and educational experience, consider a boat tour of Diablo Lake with Seattle City Light or the North Cascades Institute, an organization that promotes environmental stewardship through experiential learning.
Watch for Wildlife
The North Cascades is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, home to elusive mammals such as the gray wolf, fisher, and wolverine.
Birdwatchers can keep an eye out for more than 200 bird species in habitats ranging from alpine meadows to wetlands. Two species (marbled murrelet and spotted owl) are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. Please be sure to keep your distance and do not feed or approach wildlife.
Where to Stay
Ross Lake Resort boasts cabins built on floats and connected by boardwalks along the lake. Due to their idyllic setting, these cabins can book months, and even a year, so plan accordingly.
If you're looking for a serene, remote retreat on the shores of a lake, look no further than North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin. Located on the far side of Lake Chelan, the lodge is only accessible by boat, plane, and hiking trails. Be sure to arrange transportation before your trip. The most common way to arrive is via the Lake of the Lake passenger ferry.
While lodging options near or within the park are sparse, visitors can easily explore North Cascades National Park during a day trip from cities and towns such as Bellingham, Mount Vernon, and Sedro-Woolley on the west side of the mountains and Winthrop and Twisp in the Methow Valley on the east side.
The national park complex has three main drive-in campgrounds along Highway 20: Goodell Creek, Newhalem Creek, and Colonial Creek.
For trip ideas, camping reservations, visitor centers, weather conditions, and alerts, visit the NPS website.