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North Cascades National Park Day Trip
Posted On September 12, 2018
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North Cascades National Park is a beautiful and rugged park with far less crowds than most. In fact, it is consistently one of the least visited national parks! Don’t miss out on this unique and beautiful place due to its obscurity. This North Cascades National Park day trip itinerary will help you make the most of a short visit. I do need to say that this trip really requires more than one day to really enjoy and experience it. This is EVEN BETTER as a weekend trip but if you only have a day you can still do it.
North Cascades is surrounded by other federally protected lands such as the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Mount Baker Wilderness, Stephen Mather Wilderness Pasayten Wilderness, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and the Ross Lake Recreation Area, collectively known as the North Cascades National Park Complex. It also touches the Canadian border adjacent to several provincial parks.
This North Cascades National Park itinerary focuses on sightseeing and day hikes and is based on a summer visit, when Highway 20 is open through the park (generally late May through sometime in November). The park itself has no easily accessible roads, though Highway 20 passes through the complex mentioned above, with truly spectacular scenery. Numerous short and medium length hikes take you into the park itself and the area around it. North Cascades has many opportunities for longer backpacking trips, but for this post we will focus on shorter adventures.
Throughout the year (including winter), you can still access the park on foot with skis or snowshoes as well as take the Lady of the Lake ferry from Chelan to the Stehekin area. This is definitely a weekend and not a day trip!
What is the Weather like in North Cascades National Park?
Be ready for chilly and wet weather all year, even if it’s sunny and warm in the Puget Sound lowlands…it’s called Rainy Pass for a reason! On the east side, in places like Winthrop and Chelan, it can be much hotter in summer and colder in winter than around Puget Sound, so be prepared for all weather on your North Cascades National Park Day trip.
How far is North Cascades National Park from Seattle?
It’s far and in my opinion a little too far for the ideal day trip, but it’s so gorgeous that if you just have one day you should still do it! Plan on at least 8 hours of driving round trip so plan for a long day. If you want to make an overnight trip out of it, you can try camping in the park or in a hotel or vacation rental in Mt Vernon (west side) or Mazama, Twisp or Winthrop (east side).
Morning on the west side of North Cascades National Park
Starting from the west side, you’ll be passing through farmland of the Skagit valley and along the Skagit river into the foothills. Keep your eyes out for bald eagles in this area! Next, you’ll reach the community of Marblemount (approximately an hour’s drive from Mt Vernon), which has the wilderness information center (for backcountry permits), which sells books and maps and has lots of information.
Continuing on in about twenty minutes you’ll reach the main visitor center at Newhalem (there’s also camping at the Newhalem campground). This is a great place to get books, maps and information about the current conditions and hiking recommendations.
Continuing east, you will begin climbing steeply up into the mountains and some epic views will start. You will soon find yourself alongside Diablo Lake and then Ross Lake, both are reservoirs within the Skagit River Hydroelectric project and are owned by Seattle City Light, providing electricity to the city of Seattle.
Both lakes are open to boats (Ross Lake can only be accessed from the Canadian side or through Diablo Lake with a portage around a dam), motorized as well as kayaks and canoes. There are some restrictions on the types of engines which you can read all about here and here . Fishing is also an option, following the Washington state fishing rules and regulations. There are some good hikes in this area as well, my favorite is the Thunder Creek trail, which is a long trail (you can backpack or dayhike, backpacking requires a permit from the park) through the forest along a lovely creek. You can go up to 12 miles round trip and it climbs gently (1300 feet over the entire length). Even a short hike on this trail will take you through beautiful forest and along the roaring creek with occasional views of the mountains.
Rainy Pass and Washington Pass
As you drive up and over two mountain passes (Rainy Pass and Washington Pass, about 45 minutes from Newhalem), you’ll pass through astounding views of the North Cascades all around you. In my view, this area is most magical in the fall when the larches are turning bright golden! Several jaw dropping hikes featuring sweeping mountain views (and larches in the fall!) are in this area. My two favorites are Maple Pass and Blue Lake. Maple Pass is longer and involves more climbing while constantly stopping to take photos of the scenery, while Blue Lake is shorter and takes you to a beautiful alpine lake.
Turn around at this point for a day trip (you’ve got a four hour drive back to Seattle from here.
If you’ve decided to make a weekend of it, continue on to the east and stay in one of the campgrounds on the east side or in Mazama or Winthrop if you’re looking for lodging. You can also return making a loop out of the trip by going south from Winthrop to Wenatchee and then down and over either Highway 2 over Stevens Pass back to Everett or I-90 over Snoqualmie pass back to Seattle.
What else is there to see near North Cascades National Park?
The Skagit Valley (west side around Mt Vernon) is home to lots of agriculture, bird viewing and farm to table restaurants.
The area south of Winthrop is home to apple orchards and vineyards, and is a great place to go wine tasting or pick up the best apples you’ve ever had for sale in the many roadside stands from September through November.
Lake Chelan is south of Winthrop and provides access to the park via the Lady of the Lake described above. Lake Chelan is also a popular year round recreation area (boating, swimming and hiking in the summer, cross country skiing in winter).
Another important thing to remember for a North Cascades National Park day trip is to bring a variety of clothing for rain or sun at all times. See this previous post for suggestions for what to wear during winter (or fall or spring! In the pacific northwest). It’s important to bring food and water with you for your day in the park as there aren’t really any services in the middle of it.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!