Best North Cascades National Park Itinerary: Day Trip or Weekend
Posted On September 12, 2018
North Cascades National Park is a beautiful and rugged park in northern Washington State with 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 relative obscurity. This North Cascades National Park itinerary will help you make the most of your visit. One important note: even though North Cascades National Park is less visited than many others, you will still experience crowding on weekends in summer and fall, especially at trailheads and in campgrounds.
Visiting North Cascades National Park in a day trip from Seattle is doable but you will definitely be spending long hours in the car with less time for other activities. If you have the option of staying even one night you’ll get to see so much more! This post includes a day trip itinerary as well as a weekend itinerary. Use the jump links below to get to the information you most interested in first!
North Cascades National Park is a group of federally protected lands including wilderness areas as well as Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and the Ross Lake Recreation Area, collectively known and managed as the North Cascades National Park Complex. It is surrounded by additional wilderness areas such as the Mt Baker Wilderness and the Pasayten Wilderness. It also touches the Canadian border adjacent to several provincial parks including Manning Park, the northern end of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The North Cascades National Park Complex has a deep and long history of people who have and still call this land home. This land is home to the Nlaka’pamux First Nations People, Okanagan, Wenatchi, Chelan, Methow and the Skagit and other Coast Salish people.
This post focuses on scenic driving, boating 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 and managed by the National Park Service, with truly spectacular scenery. Numerous short and medium length hikes take you into the park itself and the area around it.
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!
How far is North Cascades National Park from Seattle?
Depending on exactly where you go along the North Cascades Highway in North Cascades National Park, expect it to take 3-4 hours of driving from Seattle. This makes it a bit long for an ideal day trip, but it’s so gorgeous that if you just have one day you should still do it!
What is the Weather like in North Cascades National Park?
An important thing to note about the weather in North Cascades National Park is that it can change very fast, it can be very different in different parts of the park (especially between the east and west side of the mountains) and it can be quite different from the weather that Seattle is experiencing.
Be ready for chilly and wet weather all year, even if it’s sunny and warm in the Puget Sound lowlands…Rainy Pass is called that 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 in North Cascades National Park.
Some hikes have areas without shade so also be prepared for hot sun during the day. Temperatures get cold at night even in mid summer, so be ready for anything, especially if you’re hiking!
When is the best time to visit North Cascades National Park?
The best time to visit North Cascades National Park depends a lot on what you’re looking for. The main access road, the North Cascades Highway, is open seasonally. It generally opens in late May and closes sometime in November with the first big snowfall.
If you’re planning on hiking, plan for a visit no earlier than mid July. Trails still have significant snow cover well into July. In my opinion, September and early October are the best times for hiking in North Cascades National Park.
Fall colors both along the highway and on hiking trails are spectacular in late September and early October. Wildflowers along trails are incredible in late July and August and those months have longer days with (generally) warmer weather.
Early season (whenever the road opens until 4th of July) is still beautiful for driving and good for going out on Diablo or Ross Lake, but high country trails will be snow covered.
Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park
There are five National Park service campgrounds in North Cascades National Park and four of them are reservable in advance (highly recommended!!). You can reserve them on the federal government’s reservation site. All of them are easily accessed from the North Cascades Highway.
In addition, there are several forest service campgrounds on both the west and east sides of the park near the highway.
A unique option in North Cascades National Park is boat in camping! You can kayak or take a power boat to a campsite along Diablo or Ross Lake. This is discussed in more detail in the backcountry section below.
Lodges, Hotels and Vacation Rentals
There are no lodges that you can drive to in North Cascades National Park! The Ross Lake Resort can be accessed by foot and a short water taxi ride, or by boating. The resort has adorable cabins and kayak and canoe rentals but does not offer any dining or groceries. You must have advance reservations and bring all your own supplies for this adventure!
The North Cascades Lodge in Stehekin is in a completely different part of the park at the head of Lake Chelan. The Lady of the Lake ferry from Chelan can take you there if you are interested in going to that part of the park. Note: Chelan is a 90 minute drive from Winthrop or a 3.5 hour drive from Seattle.
Most people who are not camping will want to look for lodging in nearby communities on either the west or east side of the park. On the west side, there are hotels and vacation rentals available in Concrete about 45 minutes away from the park. On the east side, look for a hotel in Winthrop or a vacation rental in the surrounding Methow Valley.
Eating in North Cascades National Park
There are no food and no services available in North Cascades National Park and the North Cascades Highway is very remote. There are nearly 80 miles with no services or cell phone service!
It is imperative to bring your own food and water with you for your day in the park or your weekend if you’re camping! If you’re coming from the west, stock up on your food supplies in Arlington, Sedro-Woolley, Mt Vernon or Burlington. If you’re coming from the west, stock up in Winthrop or Twisp.
Eating and Drinking in Winthrop
If you’re looking for a great place to eat in and near Winthrop, check out:
Mazama Store: Tasty coffee, sandwiches, bread and some grocery items
North Cascades National Park Day Trip Itinerary from Seattle
If you’re doing a day trip to North Cascades National Park from Seattle, you can either go straight to one destination and return the same way or you can make a loop.
I recommend doing the loop if you are doing scenic driving and picture stops only. If you are planning to hike or take a boat out on Diablo Lake, then I would recommend driving straight to that spot and then back again the same way. If you want to follow the loop on the way back, follow the directions in Day 3 of the weekend itinerary below.
The loop keeps the driving more interesting and you get to see more things but it is about 100 more miles of driving than if you go to Rainy Pass or Washington Pass and then return to Seattle the same way. If you do an out and back, you’ll have more time for hiking or boating.
Out and Back Itinerary for a hike or kayak in North Cascades National Park
Start your day by heading north and east, following your gps for the best route. It may guide you through the Skagit Valley, or it may guide you further east through Oso and Darrington. Either way, in about two and a half hours you’ll arrive at the North Cascades Visitor Center at Newhalem. The visitor center is a good place for a bathroom stop and to get oriented to the park. You can also check in on current conditions for your day.
Your next stop is your hike or kayak destination! This will be 15 minutes to an hour beyond Newhalem, depending on exactly where you go. Some suggestions (I would only do one of these if it’s a day trip!) for how to spend your day:
Boating (Kayaking, Paddleboarding or Canoeing) on Diablo Lake
If you have your own kayak, paddleboard or canoe, you can launch it from the Colonial Creek Campground boat launch which is about 10 miles east of the visitor center. Enjoy paddling around and taking in the impossibly clear blue green water and the epic mountains of North Cascades National Park!
No boat? No problem! Take the water taxi to the Ross Lake Resort where you can rent kayaks and canoes. The water taxi is $3 for those who are renting boats from the resort (remember, to stay here you must have a reservation and there are no dining or food options here or anywhere else in the park and you cannot drive to the resort). You can rent fishing gear and motorboats too!
Thunder Knob: 3.5 miles, 600 feet of elevation gain, dogs allowed on leash. This trail heads to spectacular views of Diablo Lake and the surrounding mountains. Start from the Colonial Creek Campground
Thunder CreekTrail: Up to 12 miles round trip with 1300 feet of elevation gain. Even a short hike on this trail will take you through beautiful forest and along the roaring creek with occasional views of the mountains. Start from the other side of Colonial Creek Campground. Dogs are NOT allowed on this trail.
Maple Pass: 7.5 miles, 2000 feet of elevation gain, dogs allowed on leash. This is one of the most spectacular hikes in Washington State and is particularly amazing in fall when the larches turn golden. You can add a short side trip to Lake Ann as well, or be content to view the lake from all sides from above as you hike the loop. Expect to have lots of company on this very popular trail on weekends, especially in late summer and fall.
Blue Lake: 4.5 miles round trip, 1100 feet of elevation gain, dogs allowed on leash. This is another gorgeous mountain and larch hike to a lovely lake. It’s much shorter and easier than Maple Pass and far less crowded.
Cutthroat Lake: 4 miles round trip, 400 feet of elevation gain, dogs allowed on leash. An even easier, even less crowded view of mountains, golden larches in fall and a lake!
After your boating or hiking adventure, you’ll return back west the way you came to complete your North Cascades National Park day trip!
North Cascades National Park Weekend Itinerary
This North Cascades National Park weekend itinerary is intended for two nights and two and a half days, giving you lots of time to explore! It is also set up as a loop drive to make it more interesting and avoid backtracking.
Day 1: Half Day or Friday Evening, Seattle to Concrete or Newhalem
On your first day (you could do this Friday evening), you’ll head up closer to the park so you’ll have more time to explore the park the next couple days. Start your drive by heading north and east, following your gps for the best route. It may guide you through the Skagit Valley, or it may guide you further east through Oso and Darrington.
If you’re not camping, book a room or AirBnB in advance in Concrete (you’ll have to backtrack a few miles west if you go through Darrington). If you’re camping, plan to stay at the Newhalem Creek Campground near the visitor center.
Whether you are camping or not, make sure to get all the food and supplies you need on this day for your weekend in Arlington or Burlington! You will not have another chance to get supplies until you get to Winthrop. Make sure you also have a full tank of gas.
Day 2: Newhalem to Winthrop over the North Cascades Highway
Start your day at the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center near Newhalem. Here you can use the bathrooms, get oriented to the park and check the current conditions.
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, a reservoir within the Skagit River Hydroelectric project and are owned by Seattle City Light, providing electricity to the city of Seattle.
Make sure to stop at the Diablo Lake overlook which has impressive views of the whole area and the insane greenish bluish water of Diablo Lake. See above in the day trip itinerary for where to launch your kayak, canoe or paddleboard if you want to get out on the lake! Fishing is also an option, following the Washington state fishing rules and regulations.
If you plan to stay on land, at the Colonial Creek Campground there are a couple of excellent hikes, Thunder Knob and Thunder Creek (see above under day trip hiking for details).
Rainy Pass and Washington Pass
As you drive up and over two mountain passes (Rainy Pass and Washington Pass), you’ll pass through astounding views of the North Cascades all around you. This area is just magical with incredible alpine scenery (and golden larch trees in the fall)! Several jaw dropping hikes featuring sweeping mountain views (and larches in the fall!) are in this area. See above for details about three of them, Maple Pass, Blue Lake and Cutthroat Lake.
Even if you’re not a hiker, make sure to stop at the Washington Pass viewpoint where a short walk takes you to a jaw dropping view. There are also picnic tables here and pit toilets.
After Washington Pass, you’ll begin to descend into the Methow Valley, home of world class cross country skiing in winter. In about 30 minutes you’ll arrive in the historic western style town of Winthrop, your home for the night.
If you’re camping, look for a campsite in the Methow Valley near Mazama such as the Lone Fir Campground or Early Winters. There is also camping at Pearrygin Lake State Park, closer to Winthrop. If you’re not camping, look for a hotel or AirBnB in or near Winthrop. Make sure to reserve in advance!
Grab dinner and try some local beer at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery, and spend some time walking around the funky town, or the trail along the river.
Day 3: Winthrop to Seattle (Blewett Pass and Snoqualmie Pass)
Start the morning with coffee and a breakfast sandwich or pastry from Rocking Horse Bakery in downtown Winthrop. If you’re not in a big hurry to get home, you might be able to fit in another hike or stroll around town.
I recommend returning to Seattle a different route to make a loop. It is 50 miles longer to go this way so feel free to go back the way you came! If you want to fit in one of the other North Cascades National Park hikes, that might also be a reason to return the way you came. Expect it to take about 4 hours either way, plus hiking or food stops.
If you’re taking the loop, continue east on Highway 20 and then follow the signs for Wenatchee, taking your along the scenic Methow river to meet up with Highway 97 in Pateros. From here, you’ll head south along the Columbia River to Wenatchee. In Wenatchee, follow signs for Seattle going west on highway 2 and then south again on Highway 97. In this area there are lots of fruit stands with local fruit pretty much all summer. Cherries in June and July, then stonefruit like peaches and apricots in August and September and apples and pears in September and October! Don’t miss out on the chance to grab the freshest fruit you’ve ever had.
You’ll head over Blewett Pass and then down through the Teanaway Valley to meet up with I-90 in Cle Elum for the final leg of the journey back to Seattle.
Backcountry Camping in North Cascades National Park
One of the unique things about North Cascades National Park is that there are a number of boat in campgrounds along Ross Lake stretching all the way up to the Canadian border! These also require a permit which you can learn more about at the park service link above.
Backpacking is also amazing in North Cascades National Park. From the Pacific Crest Trail to wilderness trails with complete solitude there are lots of options. The backcountry permit site along with Washington Trails Association‘s trip reports and trail guides are the best sources of information for planning your trip in the backcountry.
Thunder Creek mentioned in the hikes earlier in this post makes for an excellent backpacking trip and is especially good for beginners since it never gets too steep. It’s also forested so stays cooler on hot summer days and the creek means there’s always water readily available!
What to bring on your visit to North Cascades National Park
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Even if you are not doing either of those things, make sure to bring:
YOU MUST BRING YOUR OWN FOOD AND DRINKS FOR THE DAY OR WEEKEND! There are no services available in the park.
Rainjacket – this is my faithful rainjacket that I absolutely love. A rainjacket is critical even if the forecast doesn’t include rain in the Pacfiic Northwest!
Chargers for your devices – you’ll be taking lots of photos! Make sure you can charge
Essential phone photography essentials: If you’re relying on your phone as your camera, I highly recommend bringing along a back up battery supply. Your battery will go down quickly if you’re taking lots of photos and video. In addition, there’s no cell signal here which also drains your battery faster (put it in airplane mode to prevent this).
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!
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