Covering more than 500,000 acres in northwest Washington State, North Cascades National Park is big.
Here’s a quick guide to visiting North Cascades National Park.
Things to Do
Hiking and backpacking are the main draws in the park, especially because there are few roads. But because it’s so darn big, there’s still a huge variety of non-hiking-related activities to fill your visit.
In the summer, whitewater rafting is a popular activity on the park’s Skagit and Stehekin rivers. Several guides operate rafting trips through the park, ranging from very active paddles through Class III rapids to sightseeing-focused tours with very little chance of bouncing out of your raft. Reliable outfitters include Orion River Rafting and Cascadia Rafting, among others.
Take a Boat Tour
Sign up for a tour aboard the Alice Ross IV. The boat cruises Diablo Lake several times a day in the summer, offering the chance to sightsee and learn about the human and natural history of the mountains. Tours include a picnic lunch.
Explore on Two Wheels
If you’ve got fairly decent cardio strength and don’t mind having sore legs the next day, why not explore the park by bike? All roads that are open to cars are also open to cyclists, and the park even has two bike-in campsites at Newhalem Creek and Colonial Creek campgrounds. The most popular ride is the Marblemount-to-Mazama route, which travels along Highway 20 through the park (74 miles, 5,500-foot gain). You can rent bikes in Stehekin, just south of the park, but most travelers from the west will find it easier to rent their wheels in Seattle or Bellingham if not bringing their own.
Best Hikes and Trails
North Cascades has more than 400 miles of trails, so you’ll need to narrow down the type of scenery you want to explore.
If you’re looking to pack in as much beauty (and elevation) as possible, take the Cascade Pass Trail to the Sahale Glacier. The park’s signature hike, it’s 12 miles round trip and gains just under 4,000 feet of elevation. Throughout the hike, you’ll get a taste of all the park offers: a single-track trail along mountain ridges, sections through meadows and forest, views of glaciers, and the chance to spot wildlife like grizzly bears and mountain goats. There’s a campsite at the bottom of the Sahale Glacier if you’d prefer to do it as an overnight trip. Oh, and a helpful tip: Don’t bother trying to hike it before June. In fact, there’s usually snow along the trail into early July. The trail gets busy; don’t expect solitude.
For something totally different, consider taking a short stroll at the Happy Creek Forest Walk. It’s a 0.3-mile-long boardwalk through the forest with informational signage along the way. The gain is very gradual and the trail is wheelchair accessible. It’s a great spot to take a few photos or relax, read, or sketch on a bench under the trees.
Want something in between the two? Head out on the Thunder Creek Trail, which starts in the Colonial Creek Campground. The trail can be 10 miles or longer depending on your terminus, but most people turn around at the picturesque hanging bridge, about 2 miles in. You’ll be in an old-growth forest most of the time, so expect lush canopies, moss-covered trees, and massive trees upward of 1,000 years old.
The three sites open in the winter are first-come, first-served outside of that window.
Newhalem Campground: This is the biggest campground in the park with more than 100 sites, including family sites and ADA-accessible sites. Running water and restrooms are available, and the park often hosts ranger talks in the nearby amphitheater.
Gorge Lake Campground: At 9,000 feet in elevation, this is a cold site at night, even in the summer—bring extra layers. There’s no potable water and only eight sites, but it’s ideal if you’re planning to do longer hikes in the Diablo Lake area like Sourdough Mountain or the Stetattle Trail.
Goodell Creek Campground: Open year-round and at an elevation of only 500 feet, this is the best option for campers who want privacy but don’t want to be super-remote. It feels quite secluded with only 19 sites, but it’s near many of the trailheads in the Newhalem area. It’s a lush, beautiful campground surrounded by old-growth forest.
Colonel Creek North and South Campgrounds: This large campground is near Diablo Lake and has many sites with lake views, as well as several tucked into private sites in the forest. Restrooms are available year-round, although potable water can be limited in the winter. It’s usually open year-round.
There’s also the Hozomeen Campground in the north of the park, but it’s only accessible by entering through Canada.
Backcountry camping is available in designated backcountry campsites only. The NPS requires that you have a reservation, which you can book by first entering an early-access lottery system through Recreation.gov. The lottery opens and closes in and around mid-March, with each winner given a timeslot to reserve their site sometime between the end of March to the end of April. If you aren’t successful, you can try to snag a site during the general on-sale following the lottery; these open spots can be reserved up to two days before your trip.
Note that backcountry campers are required to have a permit, which is not the same thing as a reservation. You can apply for one via e-mail between October and May; the rest of the year, you can pick yours up in person on the first day of your trip.
If all else fails, summer visitors without a reservation can attempt to get a walk-up permit from The Wilderness Information Center. About 40 percent of permits are reserved for walk-up guests.
Guests have two options for where to stay inside the park. The floating Ross Lake Resort is the more adventurous of the two, requiring a ferry ride or a hike followed by a shuttle to reach the hotel. It’s open mid-June through October and has a campground (for which a backcountry permit is required) as well as basic rooms. There’s no on-site restaurant so be sure to bring in everything you might need.
The second lodging option in North Cascades National Park is the Lodge at Stehekin. It’s also only accessible by ferry, but it has amenities like a seasonal camp store and restaurant, plus lodging ranging from rustic cabins to cushier rooms with microwaves and fridges. Some rooms are open year-round. Don’t expect to have cell coverage, and while there is Wi-Fi in some common places, it’s quite slow. Prepare to disconnect and enjoy the experience.
Outside the park, the closest hotels are in Marblemount (about 6 miles from the west park entrance) or in the recreated Western town of Winthrop. Winthrop is about an hour east of the park via the North Cascades Scenic Highway, which closes in the winter. So stay on the west side if you’re visiting between November and April.
How to Get There
The park is bisected by State Route 20, which runs from Seattle all the way to the border with Idaho. That makes it quite easy to reach regardless of where you’re coming from: just aim for Route 20 and you’ll drive directly through the park. North Cascades National Park is about two hours east of Seattle, three hours south of Vancouver, and 4.5 hours northwest of Spokane. The closest airport is Bellingham, though travelers from outside the West Coast will likely have to fly into Seattle.
Four visitor centers are accessible (North Cascades Visitor Center, the Sedro-Woolley information station, the Wilderness Information Center, and the Golden West Visitor Center) and several campgrounds have ADA-accessible sites and restrooms.
Fortunately, the park works with dozens of guides, tour operators, and private businesses licensed to provide activities in the park. So whether you want to take a boat cruise, a park tour, or go fishing, you’ll probably be able to find a tour or operator that can accommodate any needs.
Tips for Your Visit
If there’s one tip to overstress, it’s this: research the weather. The North Cascade Range gets serious snow each year and many roads in the area close during storms. You may need snow tires or chains on your car to get around at times, and nearly all hikes in the higher elevation will be impassable in the winter. Higher points in the park may have snow going into July. However, the lower areas of the park are insanely stunning when covered in snow, opening up a whole season of scenic winter drives, snowshoeing, and even backcountry skiing.
Rain is very, very common, so you’ll want a solidly waterproof jacket year-round.
Many services in the park close during winter, so check in advance to see what will be open during your visit.
North Cascades National Park is one of the few national parks without any entry fees (probably because a major east-to-west state road runs through the park). However, there are fees for services within the park, like campground stays, backcountry permits, or boat shuttles.
Be aware that there are black bears and grizzly bears within the park. It’s your responsibility to know how to act around them, and that means more than just protecting yourself in case of a very rare attack. You’ll need to store food properly and take certain precautions at your campsite.
At the end of the day, appropriate wildlife behavior comes down to this: Keep wild animals wild. Don’t get close to them. Don’t feed them (even squirrels). Don’t leave food they could eat. And don’t get in their way—if they have to move or at all change their behavior because you’re nearby, you’re too close.
The park is extremely kid-friendly and has a fairly robust “Junior Ranger Program,” plus frequent activities, talks, and events for kids and families.
Pets are not allowed in most areas of the park, with only a very few exceptions.