American Alps

The Insider's Guide to Visiting North Cascades National Park

Where to hike, camp, and explore in the most remote and possibly most spectacular public lands in Washington state.

By Allison Williams

Hiking near Stehekin in North Cascades National Park. Photograph by Justin Bailie.

We love North Cascades National Park for what it’s not: It’s not easy to get to, it’s not all that busy, and it’s not a simple park. The top part of the state’s Cascade spine is a patchwork of protected lands: a spread of national park here, a finger of national recreation land there, and a sliver of hydroelectric dams and powerhouses in the middle. The surrounding buffer of national forests and Canadian provincial parks makes for a large, wild chunk of the Pacific Northwest.

Still, the North Cascades are more welcoming than they seem, with a beautiful highway winding from western greenery to the burnished colors of Eastern Washington, with boats ferrying up Ross Lake and Lake Chelan, with trails springing from every one of the region’s few roads. One note: More so than in any other natural space in Washington, the North Cascades demand a good look at the weather before any visit. Many parts are closed for whole chunks of the year, and snow is visible in some parts year-round. But once you've explored Mount Rainier and the Olympics, the North Cascades are a must.

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What to DoWhere to Hike | Where to Stay | What to Know

What to Do
Do the Drive

Not all the beautiful scenery on the North Cascades Highway is actually in the national park, but that doesn't make it any less stunning. A road trip from Marblemount to the Methow Valley (when it's open!) means a route through thick forest, by scenic overlooks (halt for Diablo Lake and Washington Pass), and past ragged snow-covered peaks. Expect no cell service and endless splendor.

Highway 20 curls through the North Cascades.

Get Electric

The national park complex includes the region around Ross Lake, a manmade but dramatic 23-mile-long reservoir. It was formed by a dam that now produces electricity as part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project for Seattle City Light. The town of Newhalem, not far outside national park boundaries, has a walking trail to Ladder Creek Falls and a seasonal light show, plus visitor centers around the historic buildings.

Explore the Lakes

As part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, Seattle City Light runs a seasonal Diablo Lake Ferry and a Diablo Lake Boat Tour—learn about when the area had an island full of monkeys (really). The ferry goes to Ross Lake Resort, but that hotel also operates its own water taxi. Just be prepared that there is not much to do there besides rent a boat, a great way to hop onto the islands and rugged shoreline of Ross Lake.

Sojourn to Stehekin

It's a town, but it's not a road. It's in North Cascades National Park, but it's accessed through the dry Central Washington town of Chelan. Stehekin is a strange and beautiful settlement at the top of Lake Chelan, and while it's a lot of work to get there, the sights (and bakery) are worth the trip.

Where to Hike

While the North Cascades includes some of the most remote peaks in the state—maybe even the Lower 48—there are plenty of mellow routes. Trails around Newhalem are even available year-round. The list of our favorite North Cascades hikes sticks to routes within the national park proper, like two historic lookout cabins. Just outside park boundaries are other spectacular hikes like Maple Pass; bonus, those trails mostly allow dogs. One paved path to Rainy Lake is even on our list of the best accessible hikes in the state.

Where to Stay

For all its acreage—more than half a million acres—there aren't many places to stay in the North Cascades. The North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin has rooms in the quaint town, but areas like Ross Lake and Washington Pass will be days away. A few campgrounds sit within park borders, and Colonial Creek Campground makes our list of the state's 30 best drive-in spots. Ross Lake Resort, a series of floating cabins accessible by motorboat, is as remote as indoor accommodations get. Consider a backcountry site (with a permit!), or check out a list of campgrounds, from the easily accessed to way out there.

I'm on a float: cabins at Ross Lake Resort.

What to Know
Check the Weather

Unlike Mount Rainier and the Olympics, the North Cascades has a rather limited season. Some, like backcountry skiers, use the lands year-round, but most visitors enter the park in summer months. The highest section of Highway 20 is open only from about mid-May to late fall, and even when it opens, many trailheads are still buried deep in snow. Year-round parts of the park include Stehekin, whose ferry goes up Lake Chelan through the winter.

Read Up on Literary History

Here's one name you may not have expected to hear in the remote Cascades: Jack Kerouac. And he wasn't even the only beat poet to live in a mountaintop cabin here. Gary Snyder also took up residence as a paid fire lookout, and both writers produced works that spoke to the isolation (and, by Kerouac's description, desolation) of the region.

Know the Wildlife

The North Cascades are one of the only regions in Washington that contain grizzly bears, though most bear sightings are of less dangerous black bears. The woods are also filled with high-alpine pikas and bald eagles and shaggy mountain goats.

Look but don't engage: a mountain goat in the North Cascades.

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