Situated just a two-hour drive north of Seattle, North Cascades National Park is a spectacular place to head for a long weekend. This vast wilderness of heavily timbered mountains, glaciers, and lakes are the homelands of the Nooksack, Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Colville, Yakama nations, and the Sto:lo and Nlakapamux of British Columbia.
You can take off on Friday afternoon, leaving behind the bustling streets of Seattle. Before dark, you'll be gawking up at the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Range, aptly nicknamed the "American Alps."
Spend the next three days exploring and playing in one of the wildest places in the country, and then be back at work by Tuesday.
Solitude and Serenity in the North Cascades
May through September is the time to plan a weekend getaway to this legendary park. The area is covered in heavy snowfall most of the year, and many roads and trails are inaccessible. Even if the forecast looks good, check-in at the National Park Service (NPS) visitor center for unexpected weather updates due to the park's high elevation. It is also important to note there isn't much phone service in the park, so it's best to plan ahead on meals and accommodations.
Start your trip by heading north on I5, but the drive really gets interesting once you exit the interstate. While cruising up Highway 530 and Highway 20 before reaching the park entrance, you will be surrounded by its many vibrant turquoise lakes and glaciers, forested valleys, and stunning cascading waterfalls. Stop in the quaint town of Sedro-Woolley for any last-minute supplies and get ready to spend a weekend of solitude in this Pacific Northwest hikers' wonderland.
The incredibly scenic State Route 20 will carry you directly through the center of North Cascades National Park Complex. There are 684,000 acres of rugged peaks, alpine lakes, more than 300 glaciers, and astounding wonders of geologic time.
The area is best broken down into three primary units. North Cascades National Park is the largest of the units, with Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area hosting most of the amenities in the area. The Mt. Baker Wilderness borders the North Cascades National Park east and the Canadian border to the north. The remote location of the Northernmost region of Washington state has helped protect the surrounding ecosystem and keep the crowds relatively small compared to other UU.S.National Parks. So definitely keep your eyes peeled for moose, black bears, grizzly bears, and mountain goats.
Day 1: Driving and Day Hikes
Spend your first day driving through the park and checking out the absolutely mind-boggling views along the way. You will find many small hikes and pull-offs throughout the main road into the park. Be sure to stop at Diablo Lake, easily accessible from the North Cascades Highway, making it a definite must-see if it's your first trip through the Northern Cascade mountains.
Visit the overlook above for an expansive view of the stunning turquoise lake surrounded by jagged peaks. Or, if you want to opt-in for more fun, you can park down below for a dip or hike. This is where you can find epic camping spots only accessible by hiking or paddling.
Maple Pass is an incredibly scenic hike that is a relatively easy 7.2-mile loop if you aren't up for a full day of hiking but want to experience the views. The trail takes you through a dense section of cedar and pine national forest before opening up to a lovely view of Ann lake and the surrounding mountainscape.
Day 2: Backpacking and Day Hikes
The best way to experience the park is to lace up your boots and get out on the trail. This park has some of my favorite hikes in North America.
Suppose you are up for a full day of backpacking to experience the best views in the entire park. In that case, I highly recommend dedicating a whole day to hiking the Cascade Pass Trailhead. Be prepared for a bumpy but beautiful drive-in, which brings you to the base of Johannesburg Glacier, where you'll have several trail options.
Choose the slightly shorter hike or continue to Sahale Glacier (10.9 miles), which boasts expansive and panoramic views of the North Cascade mountain range. This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite hikes in the entire UU.S. surely to transport you to an Alaska backcountry without the long journey. In spring and early summer, this high country explodes with wildflowers. Both Cascade Pass and Maple Pass trails will be a paradise for flower lovers.
Day 3 in the North Cascades
Save this day for the hike you didn't get to the day before, or revisit an area of the park you liked best. If by now you're a bit worn and weary and looking to head back towards civilization, you should make one last pit stop on your way home. The old western town of Winthrop has a lot of little shops and places to eat. After a few days of challenging backpacking, there's nothing better than a good restaurant meal.
Don't forget to leave the land better than you found it and always be considerate of posted signage and guidelines.
Campsite & Lodging Accommodations
- Pearrygin Lake State Park - stop here for a swim or camp -Winthrop, WA
- Winthrop/N. Cascades National Park KOA Campground - Winthrop, WA
- Early Winters Campground - Mazama, WA
- Lone Fir Campground -Mazama, WA
- Newhalem Creek Campground- Marblemount, WA
- Goodell Creek Campground -Marblemount, WA
- Colonial Creek Campground - Rockport, WA
- Hotels in Okanogan, Wenatchee, or Winthrop
Wynn?" Weddell is a proud member of the Ihanktonwan (Yankton Sioux) nation who lived in the Pacific Northwest. She is on the team at Diversify Vanlife, a platform dedicated to amplifying BIPOC voices in outdoor spaces and advocating for environmental consciousness within the nomadic community. Instagram: @rainbowmountain_
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