The Best Things To Do in North Cascades National Park: Summer Guide for a Quick Trip
September 5, 2021
North Cascades is an incredible park full of jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, old growth forests and so much natural beauty. Out of the three national parks in Washington, North Cascades is the least visited but is still only about three hours from downtown Seattle.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
- Most areas of North Cascades do not have cell service, so be sure to download offline maps before your trip.
- While the national park is free to visit, many of the trailhead parking lots are on national forest land and have a parking fee. You can display your America the Beautiful pass or other interagency pass, or purchase a parking permit using cash envelopes at the trailheads.
- There are multiple dams and power plants inside the park boundaries that pre-date the park to power the city of Seattle.
- Portions of the park were closed due to wildfires during my visit in early September. Be sure to check the national park website for current conditions and always follow the rules when it comes to fire safety.
- You may experience heavy fog and low visibility in the mornings in North Cascades. Usually the fog clears up by mid-day!
There are not many places to stay within North Cascades National Park, but you still have options!
If you enjoy camping, North Cascades offers multiple great campgrounds. This option will give you a central location close to many hiking trails. You can reserve your campsite on Recreation.gov.
The national park has two lodges - the Ross Lake Resort and the Lodge at Stehekin. Note that the Stehekin Lodge is in a remote town and only accessible via boat. The Ross Lake Resort is a great location if you can snag a room, but it books up quickly and is expensive.
If the national park lodges are booked up or too expensive, there are two towns that will get you closest to the park: Marblemount and Winthrop. Marblemount is on the west side of the park, while Winthrop is on the east. Winthrop is much bigger and has multiple options for hotels and cabins.
I opted to stay in the Buffalo Run Inn in Marblemount because it is on the side of the park closer to Seattle. I had a great experience at the Buffalo Run Inn, it is very quaint and I really appreciated the self check-in and check-out. The fridge even came stocked with muffins, cookies, juice and more. There was also cute moose decor around the room.
Although Marblemount is very small, there are a couple good restaurants within walking distance of the inn (as a hotel guest, you even get a discount for dining at the Buffalo Run Restaurant). I would definitely recommend staying at the Buffalo Run Inn for your trip!
The peak season for visiting North Cascades is in the summer and early fall, from June to October. The main road through the park, State Route 20 or the North Cascades Highway, typically closes in mid to late November and reopens in April or May.
If you visit in the early summer in June, the roads will be accessible but many of the trails will still be covered in snow and require microspikes and proper preparation. The best time to visit without snow is between July and September. While it will be colder, visiting in late September or October, will get you views of the famous golden larches and beautiful fall foliage.
I visited in early September and thought it was the perfect time of year in terms of weather!
The best thing to do in North Cascades National Park is to go hiking! The park has hundreds of miles of trails at all difficulties. Many of the trails involve steep mountainous portions, so make sure to be prepared with proper hiking shoes and the other hiking essentials. Trekking poles are also helpful to have for steep climbs. If you are new to hiking, I have a post sharing tips to get you started!
If you are new to hiking, check out my beginner hiking tips to get started!
- 7.4 Miles, 2,191 feet of elevation gain
- Rated Hard
- Restrooms at Trailhead
- Dogs Allowed on Leash
- $5 Parking Fee if you don’t have a pass
- Very popular trail so arrive early to get a parking spot
The Maple Loop Pass is one of my most popular hiking trails for good reason. It is a loop trail that offers incredible views of an alpine lake and the surrounding mountain ranges. I completed the hike counterclockwise, which provides a more gradual ascent. Essentially, when you travel counterclockwise you will climb up for 4 miles and down for 3 miles.
When you begin and end the trail, be sure to sign your name in the trail log at the trailhead! This is important in case of an emergency.
The trail begins in a forest, where there is beautiful greenery and many picturesque mushrooms. About a mile in, you will walk through a meadow and enjoy a small taste of the views that are to come. At about a mile and a half in, there is a spur trail that will lead right up to the shores of Lake Ann. I skipped the spur trail but saw that some hikers carried in kayaks to explore the lake.
Not long after the spur trail, you will get your first view looking down at Lake Ann and the next several miles will be full of non-stop amazing views. The last half mile to the top of the trail is the steepest section going up, but there is no difficult rock scrambling. You will get the best view of Lake Ann right before reaching the top, and at the top you’ll get the best view of the surrounding mountain ranges. You will also see a sign for the North Cascades National Park boundary near the top.
As you descend back down going counterclockwise, you will hike through several switchbacks, a few of them quite steep. Be sure to never take a shortcut to skip a switchback, as it contributes to erosion and can damage the fragile alpine landscape. We actually passed two rangers on the trail who were making a point to talk to every hiker and remind them not to shortcut switchbacks.
Towards the end of the trail, you will re-enter the forest and get a viewpoint of Rainey Lake, another lake you can hike to from this trailhead. The very end of the loop is paved. Rainey Lake is a great add on to this trail or a great hike on its own. Overall, Maple Loop is a must when visiting North Cascades and one of my most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done.
- 10 miles, 2,024 feet of elevation gain
- Rated Hard
- Restrooms at Trailhead
- $5 Parking Fee if you don’t have a pass
Cutthroat Pass is another incredible hike that begins right across the street from Maple Pass but is much less trafficked. You can hike to Cutthroat Pass via a couple of different routes. You can either hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from the west beginning across from Maple Pass, or begin on the other side of the mountain range from the east (15 minutes away driving).
If you have two cars, it would be great to park one at each parking lot and hike it all the way through.
The hike from the east is slightly longer with slightly more elevation, so I opted to hike in from the west via the Pacific Crest trail. The first 2.5 miles of the trail are in a forest and there are some short and easy stream crossings along the way. Carefully placed rocks meant that we didn’t get our feet wet along the way.
I encountered several backpackers while on this trail but very few other day hikers. It was much less crowded than Maple Pass. There are also several campsites right off the trail for backpackers and some have amazing views!
At around the 2.5 mile mark, you will cross through a meadow and get a taste of the amazing surrounding views. You will then reenter the forest for a bit before ascending above the trees. The second half of the hike has some long gradual switchbacks as you head up into the pass. With each switchback, the views of the mountains behind you get better.
When you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible view of the Cutthroat Pass. You’ll see jagged mountain peaks and Cutthroat Lake down below. There is plenty of space to spread out, find a sitting rock and enjoy a snack with the view in front of you.
- 0.3 miles
- Rated Easy
- Restrooms nearby in town of Newhalem
The Trail of the Cedars really surpassed my expectations! This short and easy trail will take you through an old growth forest full of moss covered trees that are reminiscent of the Hoh Rainforest inside of Olympic National Park.
You will begin in the town of Newhalem and cross a pedestrian suspension bridge over the Skagit River. The trail then loops through the forest and there are several signs that provide information on the plant life and history of the area.
At one portion of the nature trail, you will even see living evidence of a forest fire that occurred in 1922. Halfway through the loop, you’ll see the Newhalem Powerhouse, which is still operational and contributes electricity to the town.
It is also worth walking or driving over to the main Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem, where you can walk across another suspension bridge and see Ladder Creek Falls.
These are day hikes that I didn’t have time for but are top on my list for next time:
- Easy Pass trail: 7.7 miles, 2,923 feet of elevation gain, rated hard
- Hidden Lake Lookout: 8.4 miles, 3,392 feet of elevation gain, rated hard
- Cascade Pass trail: 6.5 miles, 1,781 feet of elevation gain, rated moderate
- Blue Lake trail: 4.6 miles, 921 feet of elevation gain, rated moderate
The last trails I hiked are located on the outskirts of North Cascades National Park in the Mount Baker Wilderness. This area is located about 3 hours away from the main portion of the national park, but I highly recommend you take a day to explore this area if you have time!
When you arrive in this area, you will need to display an America the Beautiful Pass, Northwest Forest Pass or other interagency pass in your vehicle. We did not see any obvious fee envelopes to self pay before the visitor center was open, so come prepared!
- 0.4 miles
- Rated Easy
Picture Lake is a short, paved loop trail that offers one of the most photographed views in Washington! If conditions are right, you can see Mt. Shuksan reflecting down onto Picture Lake. It was too windy during my visit to see the reflection, but it’s a beautiful spot no matter what.
- 2.9 miles, 853 feet of elevation gain
- Rated Easy
The Heather Meadows and Artist’s Point trails will take you through a gorgeous meadow that is full of wildflowers at certain times of year.
To reach Artist’s Point on foot, you will ascend up several areas of steps. There are beautiful views along the way of the surrounding mountains. Note that we hiked past a few parking lots on the way up, so you can also drive up to Artist’s Point and begin several different trails from there.
If you don’t have time or are unable to hike, the North Cascades Scenic Highway still offers several incredible views that are just feet away from your car.
The Diablo Lake Overlook is certainly the most famous overlook in the park. Diablo Lake is an eye popping turquoise color due to the “glacier flour” that feeds into the lake. The name comes from the process of glaciers grinding up rocks into a fine powder that feeds into the water.
The overlook area can get crowded but is definitely worth the stop. There is a decent amount of parking, a restroom and some picnic tables. Note that you’ll be able to best photograph the turquoise color in the afternoon when the sun is shining down onto the water.
Washington Pass is a roadside overlook located not far from the Maple Pass trail. This viewpoint gives you a fantastic view of a dramatic bend in the North Cascades Highway. When you arrive, there are restrooms and a good amount of parking available. You will then take a short paved trail to reach a couple of fenced areas that will give you amazing views of Washington Pass and the surrounding area.
The Colonial Campground and the area across the street has beach access to Lake Diablo. This is likely where you will go to enter the water if you bring your own kayak or paddle board to explore the lake. Here you can get up close to the milky turquoise lake and will have a beautiful lake level view of the mountains above.
The Gorge Creek Overlook is a stop with a couple of beautiful views. There is a metal grated bridge over the gorge here and you can park on either side to explore. The west side has more parking available. Be sure to walk across the bridge along the main road, listen to it sing and gaze down into the gorge at the tall and skinny waterfall.
In addition, you can take a paved trail that is 3 quarters of a mile and get a fantastic view overlooking the Skagit River and the Gorge Dam. The trail includes signage with information about the dam and it’s beautiful to see the bright turquoise color of the river down below.
Newhalem is a small town located within the national park that houses employees for the powerplant. There is a visitor center with exhibits and artistic sculptures inspired by electricity around the town. There is also a cute general store that was unfortunately closed due to the pandemic during my trip.
While in Newhalem, you can walk across two different suspension bridges. One will lead to the Cedar Nature Trail and one will lead you to Ladder Falls. If you would like to visit Ladder Falls, cross the pedestrian bridge right next to the powerplant. You can actually hear electricity buzzing from the wires above, which is a bit unsettling.
As you approach, you’ll see signage about the history of the plant. I learned from the signage that when the plant was first built, the owners wanted to show off the power of electricity to heat the ground and grow palm trees in the area. It is quite the contrast to see the powerplant inside of a national park, but it’s an interesting piece of history and still in operation today.
Picture Lake is a gorgeous lake located in the Mount Baker Wilderness area. I recommend going at sunset for the best photography! When you visit, be sure to drive up the road a bit further and see Artist’s Point and consider some of the many hiking trails in the area.
Stehekin is a tiny town located on the banks of Lake Chelan, surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. It is not connected to the main highway with any roads, meaning you can only reach the town via boat, seaplane or by a long hike. If you only have one day, you can take a day trip on the Lady of the Lake ferry and spend 1.5 hours in the town. While there, you can rent a bike, visit an apple orchard, go horseback riding or a variety of other adventures.
Kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding are allowed on the Gorge, Diablo, Ross and Chelan lakes. There are no rentals available at Diabo and Gorge Lakes, so you will need to bring your own vessel. There are however rentals available from the Ross Lake Resort for usage on Ross Lake. Note that Ross Lake can be windy, so come prepared and know your abilities!
While I like to pack my own breakfast and lunch on hiking trips, it’s always nice to enjoy a hot meal at the end of the day! There are some great restaurant options in the nearby towns of Winthrop and Marblemount.
- Sheri’s: For a treat after a day of hiking, Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe has ice cream, milkshakes and candies. There is a lot of outdoor seating and even a mini golf course on the property.
- Old Schoolhouse Brewery: Old Schoolhouse Brewery serves a variety of beers and bar snacks like soft pretzels and wings. The indoor portion is a pub atmosphere and an outdoor patio overlooking the river.
- East 20 Pizza: If you crave pizza after a hike, East 20 is a must! They serve an extensive pizza menu with the option to build your own. For something unique, try the Thai Pizza.
- Rocking Horse Bakery: If you are staying in Winthrop, Rocking Horse Bakery is a great spot for breakfast sandwiches!
- Methow Valley Ciderhouse: The Methow Valley Ciderhouse serves cider made from local orchards along with an extensive menu that includes BBQ and pizza.
- Copper Glace: If you enjoy cocktails, Copper Glace offers craft cocktails and small plates. They serve a mix of creative and classic cocktails with a focus on quality.
- Buffalo Run Restaurant: The Buffalo Run Inn is a cute restaurant in Marblemount that has indoor and outdoor seating and a menu full of variety.
- Mondo: Mondo is a local Marblemount restaurant that serves a mix of American and Asian food. I appreciated that they had multiple veggie burgers options here!
If you are traveling to Washington, North Cascades is an amazing destination to have on your list. It truly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its mix of mountain peaks, old-growth forests and turquoise lakes. No matter what you do here, you’ll be left in awe.
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