North Cascades National Park is an underrated gem. With just around 30,000 visitors per year on average, it is the least visited national park in Washington and the fifth-least visited in the entire United States. However, with rugged mountains, alpine lakes, wildflower meadows, and resident goats, its lack of visitors is certainly not for lack of majesty. If you are craving a weekend adventure that’s a tad off the beaten path, consider spending 1 to 2 days in North Cascades National Park.
Besides boasting stunning vistas and some of the state’s best hiking trails, it is free, and you will not have to contend with hordes of fellow tourists to get that perfect Insta shot. Before you hit the road, check out this North Cascades National Park itinerary for practical tips and inspiration on where to go and what to do.
How Many Days in North Cascades National Park?
Deciding how many days to spend in North Cascades National Park, or on any trip for that matter, depends on factors including your personal pace and preferences. But compared to some national parks, this one is on the smaller side at about 500,000 acres. Because of this, 1 to 2 days in North Cascades National Park will suffice for most people.
However, if you are tight on time, you can hit the most noteworthy highlights in one day in North Cascades National Park.
Getting To and Around North Cascades National Park
As North Cascades National Park is only about two hours northeast of Seattle, it is pretty easy to access from the Emerald City and surrounding communities.
You have a couple of options and can either take I-5 north, then WA-530 East, or I-5 north and Highway 20 East. The difference between the two is only about nine minutes; the former brings you to the north end, while you’ll arrive on the south side via the latter route.
I recommend camping on-site or staying in Winthrop, a charming, tiny old West town with a population of just over 300.
While getting there is straightforward, this being the Pacific Northwest and a park within a mountain range, the weather is a significant consideration.
The stretch of highway leading into the park is closed between late November until April or early May because of heavy snowfall and avalanche risks. Even if you could access the park, I would not recommend it because snowy with a chance of avalanche is not ideal hiking conditions.
Also, it is best to save your North Cascades road trip for late spring, early summer, or early-to-mid autumn. While July and August have the nicest weather as far as clear skies and warm temperatures, thanks to climate change:
a) some days can be swelteringly hot, increasing the risk of chafing, grumpiness, and worse, heat stroke
b) more importantly, much of Washington state has been aflame for the past few years at this time to the extent mid-to-late summer is now widely referred to as “fire season.” To err on the side of caution and avoid smoky skies, road closures, or, you know, fire, I suggest avoiding these months.
Instead, consider going in late May, when the wildflowers are in bloom, or late September when the heat and fires have subsided, but the weather is still pleasant. Mid-October will likely be cold, maybe even snowy, but you will have the benefit of gorgeous fall foliage.
As mentioned, North Cascades National Park is free, so you will not have to stop at an entrance to pay a fee or display your Discover Pass. There is, however, a Visitors Center where you can pick up hiking maps and information on the park’s history.
If you need to rent a car for your trip to the North Cascades, you can browse Rentalcars.com to find deals across major providers, or alternatively, you can search for RVs or campervans from Outdoorsy.
1 to 2 Days in North Cascades National Park Itinerary
Strap on your hiking boots, load up your backpack and set out for an adventurous 1-2 days in North Cascades National Park, which will take you on some of the state’s best hiking trails through dense evergreen forests to crystal clear lakes and spectacular views of the Cascade Mountain Range.
Day 1 – Hiking and Scenic Views
Grab a coffee and pack a lunch before heading out for day one of your North Cascades road trip, which will take you to two of the national park complex’s most alluring locations.
Thunder Knob Trail
The Thunder Knob Trail is an easy 3.6-mile roundtrip route headed across the street from the Colonial Creek Campground, the park’s most popular campsite. Like many hiking trails in the North Cascades, it is dog-friendly. At a 635ft elevation gain, the short trek takes you to views of the mountains and Diablo Lake.
Diablo Lake Overlook & Ross Lake Overlook
Diablo Lake is probably the most famous and essential stop on a North Cascades National Park itinerary. The lake, which is technically a reservoir, features stunning blue water fed by melting glaciers and encircled by evergreen forests and mountains.
Next, drive a few minutes down the road to Ross Lake Overlook, another vista similar to Diablo Lake, featuring sparkling blue water surrounded by mountains teeming with trees and wildlife.
If you have time and want to spend more time on the lake, hike one mile to the boat ramp, where you can pay $3 for a boat ride to Ross Lake Resort. Here, you can explore the grounds and rent a canoe or kayak to get a different perspective of the lake and its surroundings.
Both Diablo Lake Overlook and Ross Lake Overlook are pullouts located just off Highway 20. There’s also the Diablo Lake Trail, a 12.1 km moderate hiking route that takes you through the forest to the dam. While it’s pleasant, the views don’t match those at the Overlook, however.
Washington Pass Overlook
The last stop for day one on your North Cascades National Park itinerary is technically just outside the park complex, but it’s nonetheless one of the most beloved spots and a must-do while you’re in the area.
Washington Pass is situated on Highway 20 to the east of the North Cascades National Park Complex. It’s the high point of highway 20 situated halfway between Western Washington and Eastern Washington (which, to many Washingtonians, is essentially a Mason-Dixon Line demarking significant cultural and political differences, as well as contrasting landscapes).
To get to the Overlook, you will traverse a half-mile paved loop trail from the highway, where you will take in a stunning view of the dramatic crags of Liberty Bell Mountain.
Afterwards, head into Winthrop for provisions and to explore the quaint town center before hitting the hay for some much-needed rest before day 2. While there, consider stopping by the Rocking Horse Bakery for breakfast and the Arrowleaf Bistro or Old Schoolhouse Brewery for dinner and a drink, and Sheri’s Sweet Shop for dessert.
Day 2 – Beautiful Lakes & Maple Pass Trail
If you have two days in North Cascades National Park, you will have the opportunity to hike one of the state’s best trails and see even more gorgeous crystalline lakes and imposing mountains, along with a bevvy of native flora and fauna.
Your first stop of the day is the creatively named Blue Lake, not far from Washington Pass. As parking is limited here, you’ll want to set out early to get a spot.
At an elevation of 6,254 feet, Blue Lake is just a short 2.25-mile forested hike from Highway 20 (4.5 miles roundtrip). You will pass through the trees into wildflower fields, then to the lake, which, true to its moniker, is incredibly blue, the water reflecting with astounding clarity the surrounding granite peaks.
Just a four-minute drive from Blue Lake is Rainy Lake, featuring more pristine waters skirted by snow-dusted mountains.
While not as iconic as Blue Lake, it’s still well worth a visit. Plus, as the 2-mile roundtrip path from Rainy Pass Trailhead to the lake is paved, it’s an easy walk.
Maple Pass Trail
The final stop on your North Cascades itinerary is Maple Pass Trail, along with Diablo Lake, one of the park complex’s most treasured spots.
Despite the park not attracting throngs of visitors, Maple Pass Trail is widely regarded not only as the park’s best hike but one of the most attractive routes in Washington state. Arrive bright and early (by 9 a.m. at the latest) to get a parking spot and avoid crowds, especially if you’re going in peak season.
The 7.5-mile roundtrip route ascends 2,000 feet and is a steady uphill climb through dense woodland. It’s beautiful at any time of year, but especially in autumn, when the larches are aglow with stunning foliage in a cornucopia of colors.
At the 1.3-mile mark, you can take a side trip to the shores of Lake Ann, which is well worth the time if you have some to spare. Otherwise, you will get a stunning view of Lake Ann, with the Cascades in the background, when you reach the trail’s high point.
Note: Since the hike begins at US Forest Service land, rather than in the park complex proper, you’ll need to display a Northwest Forest Pass on the dashboard to avoid a parking ticket.
Have more time?
If you have three or more days to spend on your North Cascades road trip, consider trekking another trail (or two or three).
Thunder Creek Trail
One option is Thunder Creek Trail. The whole route is 12 miles roundtrip, but you can cut it short after stopping at the bridge over Thunder Creek a few miles in.
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail
North Cascades National Park also encompasses 18 miles of the world-famous Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, or Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
If you have not read Wild or just aren’t familiar, the PCT is a massive hiking and equestrian route from southern California to Canada that travels through some of the west coast’s most magnificent natural areas, including the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges.
Within the North Cascades complex, the PCT cuts in via the Okanogan National Forest, near Rainy Lake, and just north of Stehekin. The PCT is an adventure of its own but hiking even a sliver of it is worthwhile. If you want to camp on the PCT, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit.
Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm
Another of the state’s most beloved hiking areas is Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm. A 12-mile roundtrip route ascending 4,000 feet, it originates near Marblemount, WA, and traverses the Cascades through mystical forests and idyllic wildflower meadows.
Climbers heading to Sahale, Boston, Magic Peaks, Mixup, or the Ptarmigan Traverse into the Glacier Peak Wilderness also often start here.
You don’t have to do the entire 12 miles if you don’t have time or simply do not have the energy for a 12-mile hike after two days of hiking (totally understandable).
Reaching Cascade Pass, a route indigenous people used to cross the Cascade Mountain Range, requires a moderate hike of 3.7 miles. And from here, you can go east and down to camp at Pelton Basin or check out Horseshoe Basin, a gorgeous cirque with wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, and a historic mining site.
Or, to reach the mountaintop Sahale Glacier, you’ll need to traverse 5.9 miles and put in a lot more work. This route is strenuous and may be best reserved for experienced hikers.
The route to the small Cottonwood Campground is the longest of the main paths, at nine miles, but moderate.
Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park
If you’re looking for the perfect place to stay near North Cascades National Park, then the town of Winthrop is likely your best option. There are lots of options in the town and its proximity to the park entrance make it the perfect base for your North Cascades National Park itinerary. If you’re wondering where to stay, have a look at these suggestions:
Mt Gardner Inn — If you’re after a cute, cosy and comfortable place to stay in Winthrop, then this quaint inn is an excellent choice. Well-located in the central area of town, they have a range of rooms available to suit all kinds of travellers and a number of amenities to make your stay a great one. Click here to see their availability
River’s Edge Resort — If you’re looking for something a bit more high end to take the edge off of your outdoor exploration in the national park, then this lodge is a great option. Comprised of a number of cottages and chalets, there is something to suit everyone and its downtown location in Winthrop means that you’re never too far from any necessities. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — If you’d rather have your own place to stay over a hotel, then consider a private home or apartment rental. There are lots of options near North Cascades National Park that will suit all kinds of travel styles, like this beautiful home near Winthrop. Click here to browse private rentals in Winthrop
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Winthrop hotels!
The North Cascades National Park may not boast the incredible and well-deserved fame of Olympic National Park or Mt. Rainier National Park, but it is still quite a magical place.
Here, you can soak up the serene, rejuvenating atmosphere and breathtaking views the Western Washington wilderness is known for, without the crowds. Plus, you’ll have the joy of knowing you’re in on one of the region’s best-kept secrets.
Are you looking for the perfect North Cascades National Park itinerary? Have you visited this park before? Let us know in the comments!