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!
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. North Cascades National Park is celebrating it’s 50th birthday this year, so what better time to get out and explore it?
This itinerary focuses on sightseeing and day hikes and is focused 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 scenery truly spectacular. 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.
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.
You can do a day trip from Seattle, though keep in mind that you’ll be looking at a good 8 hours of driving, so you might want to consider an overnight trip with camping in the park or in a hotel or vacation rental in Mt Vernon (west side) or Mazama, Twisp or Winthrop (east side).
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.
Further 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.
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 her), but if you’ve decided to make a weekend of it, continue on to the east!
Once you start heading down from the mountains on the east side, you’ll soon drop into the Methow Valley and the town of Winthrop (about 40 minutes from the mountain passes). Winthrop is a town with a western theme and restaurants, a grocery store as well as a state park campground and many hotels. This area is a renowned cross country ski area during the winter months when it must be accessed from the east side as highway 20 is closed in winter.
What else 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 North Cascades National Park 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.