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The Ultimate Guide to North Cascades National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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North Cascades National Park is known for its magnificent peaks, glacial lakes, old-growth forests, and cascading waterfalls. This hidden treasure of the U.S. becomes more popular every year. See how you can experience the beauty and adventure waiting in North Cascades National Park.

How To Get to North Cascades National Park

Where Is North Cascades National Park?

North Cascades National Park is in the northern part of Washington state, less than 3 hours from Seattle. This park comprises of northern and southern units stretching over 505,000 acres of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and forests. This national park is brimming with discovery and wonders just waiting to be experienced.

Nearest Airports to North Cascades National Park

Several airports make excellent choices for flying to North Cascades National Park. There are many small airports and a few major airports that can get visitors close to the park. Let’s explore the top 3 most-used airports for flying to North Cascades National Park.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

The closest major airport to North Cascades National Park is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. This airport is approximately 120 miles from North Cascades National Park. Seattle-Tacoma serves 31 airlines, including Aeromexico, Delta, Southwest, and United. With 90+ nonstop domestic and 25+ international destinations, you can find an excellent option for flying to North Cascades National Park.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR)

Vancouver International Airport is 132 miles by car to North Cascades National Park. This airport has flights to over 120 destinations around the world. Popular airlines serviced by Vancouver International Airport include Air Canada, WestJet, and United.

Portland International Airport (PDX)

Portland International Airport is another option for flying to North Cascades National Park. This airport is further than others, approximately 289 miles from the park. Portland International Airport offers nonstop flights to dozens of locations nationally and internationally. This airport services nearly 20 airlines including American, British Airways, Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit.

Driving to North Cascades National Park

North Cascades Scenic Highway Washington
Image Credit: Jasper Gronewold via Unsplash

There are a couple of routes for those planning to drive into North Cascades National Park. Visitors from areas west of the Cascades will take Interstate 5 to exit 230 and enter the park via the North Cascades Highway. Those arriving from the east will utilize North Cascades Highway to get to the park.

Silver-Skagit Road and State Route 542 are excellent for accessing many park regions, including Hozomeen, Mouth Shuksan, and Copper Ridge.

Taking the Train to North Cascades National Park

Visitors who enjoy a national park trip by railway are in luck when visiting North Cascades National Park. There are 2 Amtrak options for this park.

The Amtrak Cascades arrives twice daily in Mount Vernon a little over an hour from the park. The Empire Builder from Chicago can get visitors as close as Seattle, which is 2 hours from the park.

Taking the Bus to North Cascades National Park

There are several options for traveling to North Cascades National Park by bus. The most popular choice for arriving at the park by bus is Greyhound. Greyhound services nearby cities, including Mount Vernon, Bellingham, Leavenworth, and Wenatchee.

Other options for traveling by bus include Skagit Transit and Link Transit. These options are ideal for those who set up a base camp near the park and want to avoid driving to and from the park.

Getting Around North Cascades National Park

Most people choose to explore North Cascades National Park by private vehicle. Another popular way visitors get around is by bicycle. Personal vehicles and bicycles offer a great way to set your own pace for park adventures.

Other forms of transportation in North Cascades National Park include ferries, boats, and private airplanes that provide Stehekin access. The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps as well as places to purchase printed versions.

What To See and Do in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is bursting with things to discover and explore. From cascading waterfalls to stunning lakes, and incredible hiking trails to scenic drives, there is no shortage of activities and sights to experience. Let’s look at some of the most popular things to see and do in North Cascades National Park.

Bicycling

Bicycling is a very popular activity for those visiting North Cascades National Park. The park has specified routes for cyclists to enjoy, ranging from gentle and leisurely to steep and strenuous.

Biking is allowed on any road that welcomes automobiles, and unique trails can be found along the North Cascades Highway and in the Stehekin Valley. Cycling through North Cascades National Park is a phenomenal way to experience all the park offers.

Birdwatching

Birdwatching at North Cascades National Park
Image Credit: Jongsun Lee via Unsplash

Birdwatching is a popular activity at North Cascades National Park. This park has over 200 species of birds found in areas such as alpine meadows, forests, and wetlands.

The marbled murrelet and spotted owl both make their home in the park and are listed as threatened by the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Camping

North Cascades National Park has an abundance of opportunities for camping in the park. There are drive-in campgrounds, boat-in campsites, and backcountry campsites.

Whether you prefer primitive camping in the great outdoors or glamping in an RV, this park has your vacation needs covered. Popular campgrounds include Colonial Creek Campground, Newhalem Creek Campground, and Goodell Creek Campground.

Climbing

Climbing enthusiasts love visiting North Cascades National Park because of its abundance of opportunities to climb rocks, glaciers, and mountains.

Viewing the park from the top of these mountains and glaciers rewards climbers with breathtaking views of North Cascades National Park. Climbing routes in this park are typically strenuous and challenging due to the park’s terrain.

Hot Tip: Mount Challenger is a feat that many climbers want to experience. Sport climbing and bouldering are available in Skagit Gorge near Newhalem and Diablo.

Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake Overlook
Image Credit: M. Bluestein via National Park Service

Diablo Lake is located in the center of the North Cascades. It is a striking turquoise glacial-fed lake that is awe-inspiring to experience. The lake is turquoise blue as a result of rock particles reflecting sunlight.

The lake has a scenic overlook and trails for guests to explore while visiting this area. The best time to visit this area is on sunny days in July, August, and September. Diablo Lake has a scenic overlook and trails for guests to explore while visiting this area.

Fishing

Fishing is a popular activity at North Cascades National Park, as there are several places to cast your line. A popular spot for fishing in the park is the Skagit River.

The Skagit River is one of Washington’s major watersheds, and there are 7 types of fish that swim upstream to spawn. There are 5 species of salmon, steelhead, and cutthroat trout that can be caught from this river.

Rainbow trout can be caught in Gorge Lake, Diablo Lake, and Ross Lake. This national park is a fisherman’s paradise.

Guided Tours

North Cascades National Park offers regularly scheduled ranger-led programs during the summer and by special request during other parts of the year. These programs include guided walks, birdwatching tours, and hiking tours. This is a great way to explore the park and have all your questions answered by a knowledgeable ranger.

Hiking

Hiking through North Cascades National Park is an excellent way to experience everything the park offers. The park has hiking opportunities for day hikes, backpacking, family-friendly hikes, and backcountry trails.

Hikes range from short scenic strolls to strenuous mountain hikes. Some of the most popular hikes at North Cascades National Park include the Trail of Cedars and the Desolation Peak Lookout Trail.

North Cascades Highway

The North Cascades Highway is a 30-mile drive across North Cascades National Park. This highway takes adventurers through old growth, forests, mountain scenery, and thundering waterfalls. The drive takes an hour, but with the opportunity to stop and see significant sites throughout the park, you will want to plan for a longer time exploring this road.

Major highlights along the N. Cascades Highway include the North Cascades Visitor Center, Newhalem, Gorge Creek Falls, Diablo Lake Overlook, Happy Creek Forest Walk, and the Ross Lake Overlook.

This road occasionally closes for weather such as snow and rain, so be sure to check for road updates before setting out on this journey.

Ross Lake

Ross Lake is a wonderful place for adventure in North Cascades National Park. This area is accessible from Hope, British Columbia, on the north. Ross Lake has no direct access from the south but can be accessed from Diablo Lake by canoe, kayak, and other portable crafts.

The lake is a beautiful place for camping, lodging, hiking, and boating. The mountains in the background and the bright green forests make a stunning backdrop while exploring the area on the lake or the land.

Stehekin

Stehekin, Washington
Image Credit: David Merrick via Unsplash

Stehekin is a lovely area in North Cascades National Park. For decades, this area has been a passageway for travelers as it links Washington’s interior wilderness to the Cascade Mountains. Today, Stehekin is a place for travelers to escape from the daily grind. Stehekin is on Lake Chelan, the third-deepest lake in the U.S.

The community of Stehekin enjoys a slower-paced life, surrounded by the beauty of nature. Stehekin is only accessible by foot, boat, or plane. There are many activities for guests to enjoy in this park area, including cultural, historical, and outdoor activities. Camping, hiking, lodging, and more are available at Stehekin.

Visitor and Information Centers

Several places are scattered throughout North Cascades National Park where visitors can learn about the park’s culture, history, and geology. There are 7 visitor centers where guests can learn and have questions answered by park rangers, including the North Cascades Visitor Center, Wilderness Information Center, Golden West Visitor Center, and Skagit Information Center.

Each center showcases exhibits, artifacts, and informational videos teaching adventurers about North Cascades National Park. Park rangers are also available at each center to help you plan your day and answer questions.

Wildlife Viewing

Another popular activity for visitors to North Cascades National Park is wildlife viewing. The North Cascades area has a diverse ecosystem, one of the most varied on earth.

There are over 75 mammal species, 21 species of reptiles and amphibians, 28 fish species, 500 types of land insects, and 250 aquatic and invertebrate species in North Cascades. These animals can be found in the forests, in and near the lakes and streams in the mountains, and in the meadows.

The gray wolf, fisher, and wolverine can be occasionally spotted in the wilderness in small groups. The Columbia black-tail deer, pikas, and Douglas squirrels are always a treat to see and are spotted in great numbers throughout the park.

Best Times To Visit North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park has so much to offer its adventurers. The most popular times to visit this park are from June to August. If you are hoping to visit for a specific activity or to avoid crowds, there are ideal times to plan a trip to this national park. The best times to visit North Cascades National Park are described below.

Best Time To Visit North Cascades National Park in the Winter

North Cascades National Park in the Winter
Image Credit: Art Litvinau via Unsplash

Winter is an enchanting time in North Cascades National Park. The best month to visit this park in the winter is in March. While the temperature is still snowy and cold, warmer daytime temperatures make exploring the park a lot more comfortable. There are lots of winter activities available at North Cascades National Park, including snowshoeing, winter hikes, and skiing.

Best Time To Visit North Cascades National Park To Avoid Crowds

Planning a trip to North Cascades National Park in December is an excellent idea for those wanting to avoid crowds. Winter is in full effect in December, so cold weather deters many visitors from exploring the park.

Bottom Line: If you wish for a snowy, magical, solitary experience at North Cascades National Park, December is an ideal time to plan a visit.

Best Time To Visit North Cascades National Park for Wildlife Viewing

For wildlife enthusiasts, July is an incredible time to visit North Cascades National Park. Near the Fourth of July, the Alpine landscape is snow free. This time of year is springlike and many animals can be spotted in different areas of the park.

Cheapest Time To Visit North Cascades National Park

The winter is a great time to visit North Cascades National Park if you hope to save money. The best time to visit and save in the winter is December, as it is relatively quiet and several activities are available before the bulk of the snow comes in.

December through February is the slowest time of the year, so prices for accommodations and flights will be lower.

Annual Events in North Cascades National Park

Many events take place in and near North Cascades National Park throughout the year. From music festivals to strenuous races through the park, this area has plenty to offer for entertainment and recreation during the year. Check out some popular events near North Cascades National Park to see if something piques your interest.

North Cascades Bluegrass Festival

The North Cascades Bluegrass Festival takes place each year on Labor Day Weekend. This festival has activities and workshops for guests of all ages, incredible live music, open mic nights, a beer and cider garden, and incredible foods to sample. This festival is a fundraiser for a local parks and recreation foundation.

North Cascades Traverse

Running enthusiasts will love the opportunity to explore North Cascades National Park in this 3-day, 80-mile race. North Cascades Traverse takes place each year in September and sends runners on a course that crosses North Cascades National Park from east to west. Runners can experience the park through the incredible valleys and along the rivers, creeks, and lakes of the North Cascades.

Skagit Eagle Festival

The Skagit Eagle Festival lasts an entire month from December to January. Hundreds of eagles flock to the area to feed on the chum salmon that come to the area to spawn. This event is a magical time to see many of America’s majestic national birds.

Where To Stay in North Cascades National Park

From primitive campgrounds to rustic cabins, lake homes, and resorts, the most challenging part of planning your trip will be choosing where to book your fantastic stay. There is no shortage of places to stay in and around North Cascades National Park. Let’s explore the lodging options for your North Cascades adventure.

Inside the Park

There is a variety of options for lodging inside North Cascades National Park. Most lodging options offer camping, but there are options available for visitors who want to stay in the park with a roof over their heads. Let’s look at the 6 campgrounds and other options for lodging in North Cascades National Park to see what they offer.

Colonial Creek North Campground

Colonial Creek North Campground
Image Credit: National Park Service

Colonial Creek North Campground is a remote campground in an old-growth forest. This campground is on the north side of State Route 20 near mile marker 130. Colonial Creek North Campground has 41 sites nestled in the woods and on Diablo Lake.

A wide variety of activities are available for those staying at this campground, including fishing off the pier, boating, and hiking.

Colonial Creek South Campground

Colonial Creek South Campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis in the winter. The rest of the year requires advance reservations. This campground is remote and nestled into a mature forest on the south side of State Route 20 near mile marker 130.

There are 10 walk-in campsites available for tents only. There’s a lot to do for adventure in this area, including fishing, boating, and hiking.

Gorge Lake Campground

The Gorge Lake Campground is found on the banks of Gorge Lake, right next to Stetattle Creek. This campground is a primitive area that does not have water available for campers.

There are numerous opportunities for entertainment and recreation in the Gorge Lake area, including boating, hiking, and fishing. Gorge Lake Campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis during the winter. Summer month stays should be reserved in advance.

Goodell Creek Campground

Goodell Creek Campground is located in an old-growth forest on the banks of the Skagit River. This campground is ideal for tents and small RVs.

There’s plenty of activity available for adventurers to participate in near the campground, including rafting, fishing, and kayaking on the Skagit River. Goodell Creek Campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis in the winter, and reservations should be made in the summer.

Lower Goodell Creek Group Campground

Lower Goodell Group Campground is the perfect choice for those camping in groups. This campground can occupy up to 50 people per site with up to 20 vehicles.

This campground can accommodate RVs but does not have hookups or water. Lower Goodell Group Campground can hold 2 large groups at a time. Each group site features tent pads, fire grates, and a pavilion with picnic tables. The campground also has vault toilets and garbage services provided.

Newhalem Creek Campground

Newhalem Creek Campground is close to Newhalem and the Skagit River. This campground is nestled in lush forests and offers many hiking trails.

Newhalem Creek Campground has 2 group sites and many individual campsites. Camping here is the perfect opportunity for lodging in a secluded place that isn’t too far from town and other amenities.

North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin

North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin is an incredible option for lodging at North Cascades National Park. This facility is accessible by ferry boat and is a rustic lodge on the shore of Lake Chelan. This lodge has a wide variety of rooms available for guests, including standard rooms, private cabins, and lake houses.

Lodge at Stehekin is the perfect place for guests to enjoy some stress-free time in nature. This lodge is only accessible by boat, foot, or plane. Enjoying the slower pace and beauty surrounding the lodge is an ideal way to reset and rejuvenate.

There is also an on-site restaurant and general store at Lodge at Stehekin. The restaurant is closed throughout certain parts of the year. Still, it has options for a grab-and-go selection at the general store.

Hot Tip: There’s also a shuttle service that can take guests to the surrounding areas in the Stehekin Valley.

Stehekin Campgrounds

There’s also lots of camping available in Stehekin. This area is not accessible by private vehicle and requires using a public ferry.

Many lakeside sites are available for those who prefer to camp in this area. There’s also backcountry and wilderness camping available in the Stehekin area. October to May allows guests to use the south permitting station outside the Golden West Visitor Center.

Visitors need to obtain a backcountry permit for the rest of the year in advance. Many backcountry camps highly favored in the Stehekin Valley include Tumwater, Bridge Creek, High Bridge, and Rainbow Bridge. Popular campgrounds in the Stehekin area include Purple Point, Lakeview, and Harlequin Campgrounds.

Ross Lake Resort

Ross Lake Resort
Image Credit: Ross Lake Resort

Ross Lake Resort is an incredible lodging opportunity in North Cascades National Park. This resort is made up of 15 floating cabins and a marina. Ross Lake Resort offers cabin rentals, boat and paddle equipment rentals, a water taxi service, and more.

This resort is located on Ross Lake and can be accessed by foot or ferry. Ross Lake Resort is open seasonally from mid-June through October. If you’re looking for a place to embrace nature and the beauty of the park, look no further than Ross Lake Resort.

Towns Near North Cascades National Park

Several towns near North Cascades National Park make a wonderful place to set up a home base. Many areas around the park have a variety of lodging, dining, and recreational experiences available for those traveling to North Cascades National Park.

Whether you’re looking for a place to retreat in a natural setting or a place for excitement and adventure, you will be able to find what suits your needs in these surrounding towns.

Burlington, Washington

Burlington is one of the closest cities to North Cascades National Park. This city is approximately 5.5 miles from the park. Burlington has lots to explore and experience. There are several accommodation options available, from affordable budget motels to luxury resorts, campsites for tent camping and RVs, and private rentals.

Several types of adventures are available for those visiting, including the Dyberg Aviation Scenic Tour over Skagit Valley, museums and galleries, casinos, golfing, and more. Shopping enthusiasts enjoy the incredible shopping opportunities in downtown boutiques and artisan shops, outlets, and malls.

Burlington also has many restaurants for visitors, including over 40 restaurants serving various dishes from Asian cuisine to Mexican, Italian, and American.

Concrete, Washington

Concrete, Washington is another great option for staying near North Cascades National Park. This town is 30 minutes away from the park and has a variety of places for lodging, dining, and recreation. Concrete is filled with historic buildings in landmarks and has so much charm and character for you to discover.

Adventure is awaiting you in Concrete, Washington. The area has numerous parks and lakes that provide plenty of hiking, fishing, boating, and wildlife viewing opportunities. Another popular activity in the town of Concrete is exploring historic landmarks and buildings and going on haunted ghost tours.

Sedro-Woolley, Washington

Sedro-Woolley is the closest option for lodging near North Cascades National Park, as it is the city where the park is located. Sedro-Woolley is known as the Gateway to the Cascades.

It has many accommodations, restaurants, and activities for guests who want to make this town their home base during their national park vacation. Sedro Woolley has everything your heart desires, from wineries to museums and antique shops to tours of the Cascades.

Where To Eat in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park has several options for dining with restaurants serving delicious dishes featuring local and regional fare. Let’s look at the restaurants in the North Cascades National Park area.

The General Store at the Lodge at Stehekin

The General Store at the Lodge at Stehekin is open from May to October daily from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The General Store sells grocery basics, including milk, eggs, cheese, beer, wine, and candy. This option is perfect for those packing a picnic or planning to cook at campsites or in guest rooms.

The Lodge at Stehekin Restaurant

The Lodge at Stehekin Restaurant is open seasonally from October to May with daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It offers gourmet sandwiches, burgers, and chicken and fish dishes. This restaurant also has various options for gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian diets. Guests can enjoy a delicious meal inside or outside on the deck overlooking Lake Chelan.

The Restaurant at Stehekin Valley Ranch

The Restaurant at Stehekin Valley Ranch is excellent for stopping and grabbing a bite while exploring North Cascades National Park. This restaurant is set up in a rustic, log ranch home, serving buffet dinners featuring hamburgers, ribs, steak, fish, salads, and desserts. Guest favorites include the New York steak and grilled salmon.

Making the trek by ferry to this family-friendly restaurant will have you wanting to come back for more. They even offer dishes for guests with food sensitivities and special diets.

The Stehekin Pastry Company

The Stehekin Pastry Company is another option for dining in North Cascades National Park. This restaurant is located in the Stehekin Valley on the way to Rainbow Falls, only accessible by ferry.

At Stehekin Pastry Company, you’ll find gourmet sandwiches, hearty soups, fresh salads, and plenty of desserts including pies made with fruits picked from local orchards. On top of all the delicious foods, Stehekin Pastry Company offers incredible espresso drinks and café items.

North Cascades National Park Facts

North Cascades National Park
Image Credit: Radu Lin via Unsplash

1. North Cascades Was Established in 1968

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill on October 2, 1968, establishing North Cascades as a national park.

2. The Skagit Are the Original People of the Area

The first people in the North Cascades National Park area were the Skagit tribe. This Native American group lived in settlements on the park’s west side, near Puget Sound.

3. Natural Resources Provided Early Careers in the Park

Mining and logging initially occurred in the park as early as the 1850s. Miners were searching for gold and then silver. Logging took place later on in the park area but was a challenge due to the rough terrain.

4. Goode Mountain Is the Tallest Peak

The tallest mountain in North Cascades National Park is Goode Mountain. This magnificent peak rises 9,199 feet above sea level.

5. North Cascades Is a Glacial Park

There are over 300 glaciers in North Cascades National Park. These glaciers feed lakes and streams throughout the park, and as they melt, their waters help to carve out the park’s landscape.

6. Invasive Species Have Threatened North Cascades National Park

Aquatic invasive species have been found in the park in the past. These species include zebra mussels, mud snails, and quagga. These species put the waters in North Cascades National Park at risk and can negatively impact the waters in the park. Currently, these species are not present in the park, but it is essential to be alert, check your boat, and follow all precautions to keep this problem at bay.

7. North Cascades Is Nicknamed the American Alps

North Cascades National Park is part of the Cascade Mountain Range. These magnificent mountains are called the American Alps because of their snow-covered peaks.

8. Pineda-Geres National Park Is North Cascades’ Sister Park

North Cascades National Park has a sister park in Portugal called Peneda-Geres National Park. These parks were declared sister parks in 2019 because of their similarities. The 2 parks work together to share ideas and best practices to ensure that each park runs as well as possible.

9. North Cascades Has a Long Winter

Winter lasts much longer in North Cascades National Park than you might think. Because of its alpine elevations, winter begins in October, and snow can still cover the upper areas of the park as late as June and early July.

10. The Power of Fire Protects the Park

North Cascades National Park regularly uses fire to prevent and protect the parklands. The park utilizes prescribed burns to preserve the wilderness and thin out the dense brush areas. These prescribed burns help to prevent forest fires that may occur due to lightning and create space for new growth.

11. North Cascades Is Among the Least-Visited National Parks

While North Cascades National Park isn’t the top least visited park, it does rank pretty high on the list. As of 2021, North Cascades was the fourth least-visited national park in the U.S.

Before 2000, this park received hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. In 2021, the park received a total of nearly 18,000 visitors. The park system hopes to restore the high numbers of the past and bring more visitors to the park.

Final Thoughts

North Cascades National Park is a fantastic park that showcases some of America’s most beautiful and diverse landscapes and ecosystems. A trip to this national park can create amazing memories that last a lifetime. Come and see what North Cascades National Park offers for your next national park trip.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many days should I plan to visit North Cascades National Park?

Visiting North Cascades National Park for a full day will allow you to see the major attractions in the park. For a more adventure-filled trip, a 5-day stay would be ideal. A more extended stay will allow for a few days of hiking, sightseeing, and participating in some of the activities in the park.

How much does it cost to enter North Cascades National Park?

There is no fee for entering North Cascades National Park. There are some activities where a payment is required. Still, the entry fee is complimentary for general visiting and exploring the park.

When is the most popular time to visit North Cascades National Park?

June through September are the most popular times to visit North Cascades National Park — and the busiest times. If you plan to visit the park during these months, be prepared for heavier crowds and more traffic throughout the park.

What is the weather like in North Cascades National Park?

The weather varies over the course of the year at North Cascades National Park. Winter temperatures can get as low as 15 degrees and summer highs can reach up to 82 degrees. These temperatures can change quickly throughout the day, so it is crucial to plan for all kinds of weather when packing.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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