Is It Worth Visiting North Cascades National Park?

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Did you know that Washington State is home to three national parks? While Olympic and Mount Rainier get most of the attention, farther north is a stunning wilderness at North Cascades National Park.

Only about 30,000 people visited in 2022, compared to the 2.4 million who went to Olympic and the 1.6 million who explored Mount Rainier.

But today, we’re sharing why this remote wilderness is worth experiencing. Let’s learn more about North Cascades National Park!

Where Is North Cascades National Park?

North Cascades National Park is less than three hours north of Seattle, Washington. The park sits at the Canada-U.S. border, east of I-5. The international border at I-5 is less than two hours northwest.

Ross Lake National Recreation Area borders the central-eastern area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area borders the park’s southern end. The North Cascades Visitor Center sits along Highway 20, which runs west to east through the center of the park.

Pro Tip: Are the Washington National Parks Worth Visiting?

A view of north cascades national park showing the valley with mountains and a lake.

When Did North Cascades National Park Become A National Park?

Conservation groups worked for years to keep logging companies out of the region. However, economic interest groups prevailed repeatedly.

Finally, the U.S. Forest Service created the Glacier Peak Wilderness area in 1960, which made logging illegal, but the area was only about 458,000 acres. In 1963, the North Cascades Conservation Council conducted a study and released a report proposing a transfer of land from the Forest Service to the National Park Service and a purchase of additional land from private interests. That same year, the federal government began its own study, including dialogue among locals.

The introduction of a bill to establish North Cascades National Park was hotly debated. Both sides had valid reasons why this should or shouldn’t happen. In the end, conservationists won, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill creating North Cascades National Park on October 2, 1968. 

What’s So Special About North Cascades National Park?

Outside of Alaska, North Cascades has more glaciers than any other park, with over 300. It’s a breathtaking landscape of jagged mountain peaks, lush valleys, forests, and waterfalls.

Because of its diverse ecosystems, North Cascades National Park is home to various plant and animal life, including many rare and endangered species.

This area also has a rich history, including Native Americans, fur traders, explorers, homesteaders, and miners. Over 200 prehistoric sites have been uncovered, providing insight into life more than 8,500 years ago. There are also the remnants of mines, mining camps, fire lookouts, sheepherder camps, sawmills, and homesteads.

North Cascades is a unique park complex. It comprises the national park, with a northern and southern unit, and two national recreation areas. The national park itself covers 505,000 acres. Camping, hiking, rock climbing, boating, fishing, and horseback riding are popular outdoor activities.

Stunning mountain peaks with a cloudy background.

There is so much to do in North Cascades National Park. Because of the two sections – the northern and the southern – it’s impossible to visit the entire park in a day. We recommend spending at least three days here.

The weather is also extreme. From fall to late spring, the park is usually covered in snow. Consequently, we suggest visiting from mid-June to late September.

However, even during these more accommodating months, mountain weather is unpredictable, and summer storms are common. Come prepared for wet weather no matter what time of year you visit.

1. Drive the North Cascades Highway

The 30 miles of Highway 20 cut through the heart of North Cascades National Park. Begin at the North Cascades Visitor Center on the western end.

Then, stop at Newhalem to tour the gorge, walk a short trail to view Gorge Creek Falls, stop at the Diablo Lake Overlook for Instagram-worthy photos of epic scenery, and visit the Ross Lake Overlooks at the eastern end of the highway.

It’s important to note that the North Cascades Highway closes for several months in the winter. This is another reason we suggest visiting during the summer.

A road in north cascades national park with mountains in the distance and trees lining the road.

2. Hike the Easy Pass Trail

The Easy Pass Trail is an excellent option if you’re looking for glacial peaks, beautiful open meadows, and panoramic vistas. However, it’s strenuous; the trail into Fisher Basin is steep. But the views, plant life, and wildlife sightings make this hike one of the best in North Cascades National Park. It’s 3.5 miles one-way and connects to other trails at Junction Camp, or you can return the way you came for a 7-mile roundtrip hike.

For other less strenuous options, the Thunder Knob Trail is about 3.6 miles roundtrip and offers views of Diablo Lake, and the Thunder Creek Trail is an easy 4-mile walk through old-growth forests. You can find other day hiking options on the national park’s webpage.

3. Book A Ferry Ride To Stehekin

Two ferry companies provide passenger service to Stehekin since no roads lead to this area of North Cascades. The Lake Chelan Boat Company provides roundtrip service between Chelan and Stehekin, and the Stehekin Ferry provides roundtrip service between Fields Point and Stehekin.

This area of North Cascades National Park provides solace, an escape from busyness. Stehekin is a beautiful valley that links the Washington wilderness to the rugged Cascades.

Pro Tip: When you’re done exploring North Cascades, head down to Olympic. Here’s How To Tackle Olympic National Park in 3 Days!

The ferry at north cascades national park on lake chelan.

Visit This Hidden Gem In North Cascades National Park

If you want to explore the Skagit River, our country’s largest National Wild and Scenic River system, we suggest booking a whitewater rafting trip with Cascadia Rafting or Alpine Adventures. July and August are the best months for whitewater rafting because of all the snowmelt.

These rafting trips are ideal for beginners, families, and thrill-seekers. However, children must weigh at least 50 pounds. You’ll experience mainly Class II and III rapids and have opportunities to see bald eagles, bears, songbirds, and salmon.

Best Places For Camping Near North Cascades National Park

Inside the park, RVers have several drive-in campgrounds along Highway 20 to choose from. Reservations can be made six months in advance on Boat-in camping is available on Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, and Lake Chelan.

Rasar State Park is about 50 minutes from the North Cascades Visitor Center. It offers partial hookups with electricity and water and access to a dump station. The state park is also good for fishing, hiking, shellfishing, biking, and enjoying the beach. 

About 20 minutes from the visitor center is Glacier Peak Resort and Winery, which can accommodate rigs up to 40 feet long. This is an excellent option near North Cascades National Park if you’re looking for full hookups.

Is Visiting North Cascades National Park Worth It?

North Cascades National Park is a breathtaking landscape. Nowhere else in the continental U.S. can you see the concentration of glaciers that you can see in this national park. The vast wilderness, dense forests, and high-mountain lakes provide homes to abundant wildlife and outdoor recreational opportunities.

You could spend weeks exploring the beauty and wonder of this Washington park. Whether you enjoy paddling, biking, hiking, backpacking, or horseback riding, there’s plenty to do, see, and experience at North Cascades!

Have you visited this northern wilderness in Washington State?

Pro Tip: Want to keep exploring our beautiful national parks? Check out The Best National Parks in the USA!

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