Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Washington's North Cascades National Park

The lesser-known national park has vast wilderness and great hiking.

River flows near North Cascades National Park

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North Cascades National Park is a truly remarkable place. The park’s wilderness is vast, with dense forests, high-mountain lakes, waterfalls, and jagged peaks crowned with glaciers. Mountain goats and black bears roam the landscape and cell service is practically nonexistent. Visitors can sleep under impossibly dark skies sprinkled with constellations or hike hundreds of miles of trails in absolute solitude. 

Even though North Cascades National Park is just three hours from Seattle by car, it welcomed a mere 17,855 visitors in 2021 — a staggering number when compared to the 14.1 million people who visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park that year. It is the perfect destination for travelers who would rather come across a family of deer on the trail than a fellow hiker. 

That said, travelers who don’t want to veer too far off the beaten path can still enjoy North Cascades’ exceptional beauty. There are a host of scenic drives with views around every corner and hiking trails that take off from the visitor center. And it’s worth noting that the park is just one part of a larger complex that includes two national recreation areas: Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. 

All combined, it makes for almost 700,000 acres of wilderness that is free to access year round — no park pass required.


West side entry sign for North Cascades National Park on state highway 20 in Washington.

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The Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park

To really experience the wilderness of North Cascades National Park, you have to leave the comfort of your car behind and hit the trails. But don’t worry, you won’t be scrambling up any peaks (although there’s plenty of that too) — the park has something for everyone. 

North Cascades’ most popular route, Cascade Pass Trail, is the shortest and easiest way to get up high in the alpine. On this spectacular, seven-mile route, you’ll be treated to views of numerous peaks and glaciers. If your legs are up for the challenge, you can hike to the base of one of the park’s 300 glaciers on the Sahale Arm Trail.

Further afield, you can hike through old-growth forest on the Fourth of July Pass or test your strength on Easy Pass Trail, with mountain views enhanced by wildflowers in the spring and summer and changing leaves in the fall. (It’s worth noting that Easy Pass Trail is by no means “easy,” and the seven-mile roundtrip journey is rated as strenuous.)

Hikers looking to stay closer to civilization can explore the two-mile River Loop Trail, which starts near North Cascades Visitor Center and meanders through lush forest before coming to a spot with beautiful river views. Another popular option for those looking for an easier day hike is Thunder Knob Trail, which sets off from Colonial Creek Campground and has plenty of bench seating along the way.


Mountain peak at North Cascades National Park

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Camping in North Cascades National Park

There’s no shortage of camping in North Cascades National Park. Along State Route 20, there are six drive-in campgrounds that welcome tents, RVs, and trailers: Goodell Creek, Lower Goodell Creek (a group site), Gorge Lake, Newhalem Creek, Colonial Creek North, and Colonial Creek South. All are open during the summer, and after being winterized, Goodell Creek (19 sites), Gorge Lake (eight sites), and 10 walk-in sites at Colonial Creek South remain open. 

Services vary depending on the campground and the season, and nightly rates range from $20 to $75. Sites should be reserved in advance here.

There are also boat-in campsites off of Diablo Lake (accessed by the boat launch at Colonial Creek Campground) and a plethora of backcountry campsites. All backcountry campers and boat-in campers on Diablo Lake must obtain a permit — most are available to reserve in advance, while some are walk-up permits offered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Backcountry permits are $26 and can be reserved here. There's also plenty of camping — including boat-in and backcountry camping — at Ross Lake and Lake Chelan Recreation Areas.


Body of water surrounded by trees at North Cascades National Park

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Things to Do in North Cascades National Park 

Exploring the park’s plentiful trails and camping under pristine dark skies are at the top of most visitors’ to-do lists, but there’s more to do in North Cascades than hiking and camping.

In the Gorge and Diablo Lakes, fishers will find plentiful rainbow, eastern brook, and cutthroat trout, while the Skagit River is rich in steelhead and other trout species. 

Above water, visitors will find one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Sightings of Columbia black-tailed deer, pikas, and even black bears and mountain goats can be common in certain areas, and there are over 200 species of birds living in the park. North Cascades National Park is also home to rare land animals, including gray wolves, grizzly bears, Canadian lynx, and wolverines.

In addition, the park has various cycling routes, rugged climbing and mountaineering opportunities, and both day and overnight horseback riding journeys. 

Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park 

The park is open year round, but because winter can be wet and cold, most visitors come between mid-June and late September when the weather is warm, but not hot. The spring wildflower season and beautiful fall tend to be the most colorful times to visit the park, while hikers will want to wait until July, when the trails are clear of snow.

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