Water Cascades Down the Mountains in This Breathtaking National Park
And pools at the bottom in emerald lakes.
About two hours from Seattle, a spectacular land awaits. Amid the greenery of Northern Washington, Highway 20 veers through a valley of fertile fields and quiet farmlands. Onward, the road meanders between gently rolling foothills along the icy-green waters of the upper Skagit River (where you might spot a bald eagle or two). Then suddenly, right around the puny town of Marblemount, something magnificent appears ahead: the land shoots up to the sky with the lush forests and snow-capped peaks of the North Cascade Mountains.
Here, the highway gains elevation fast, curving past the Diablo Dam at Newhalem—the last clutch of habitations for more than 200 miles—and by the time you come upon the expansive, green surface of Ross Lake, you’re really up in the thick of it: the North Cascades National Park. There are dramatic mountain peaks left and right. Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Western Red Cedar abound as far as the eye can see. And around just about every turn in the road there seems to be another gush of water cascading down the slope. These are the bursts of glacial runoff from which the region takes its name.
Having arrived at this natural wonderland, you’ve got a full buffet of outdoor activities to feast from. Hiking through world-class trails spanning quick jaunts to extensive backcountry treks, perhaps? Or maybe you prefer small-craft water fun on the many lakes and rivers scattered about the area. Or if you like to cruise on two wheels (whether via motor or pedal power), you’ll quickly find out why bikers and cyclists come from all over the globe to blast over the pass. Maybe you’d prefer simply to kick back at camp and enjoy the stars sans light pollution, for the closest city is a long ways away. Whatever the case, North Cascades delivers an outstanding outdoor experience. Here’s what to do once you’ve climbed the road to the peaks.
Pick your season
Washington State is rather famous for its unpleasantly drizzly weather in fall and winter, meaning that late-spring and summer tend to be the best time to visit—but that statement comes with a few caveats.
First of all, winter is certainly not off-limits. While Highway 20, which passes through the national park, closes annually once the heaviest snows hit, many winter sport enthusiasts elect to drive the long way around to the rear of the park via Highway 90 to take advantage of the remote, relatively untouched powder.
And while summer is prime time in the Cascades, these days it’s advisable to come somewhat earlier in the season. After about mid-July the fire danger looms, and while that likely poses no direct danger to visitors, burn bans do go into effect. In other words, if you’re eager for roasting s’mores, then you should shoot for the time between mid-May and mid-summer.
If you’re flexible with your campfire needs, however, the period spanning mid-May to mid-September tends to be generally glorious.
Drive to sweeping vistas
Perhaps the most common way visitors experience the park is simply by spending the day road tripping through it. Along its roughly five-hour round-trip route, you’ll encounter numerous opportunities to pull off and take in the splendors of nature from well-placed viewpoints. These are, simply put, a photographer or nature-lover’s dream.
Standout stop-offs include the Gorge Lake Overlook, Diablo Lake Vista Point, and the sprawling views of the Ross Lake Overlook. From this last option, you can get a glimpse of Desolation Peak, which became famous after Jack Kerouac spent a summer working on it as a fire watch, an experience he immortalized in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. You can actually hike your way to the peak itself, though it is something of an undertaking (more on that below).
At the apex of the park—well, really just east of its bounds, but we’re going to go ahead and lump it in, because it’s an essential part of the experience—is the Washington Pass Overlook. With its expansive view of one of Highway 20’s key hairpin turns and Liberty Bell Mountain looming gorgeous off in the distance, it’s a must-see. The short, paved path to the viewpoint also makes for a pleasant place to get out of the car and stretch your legs.
Stroll through pines and peaks
The entirety of North Cascades National Park is crisscrossed with hiking trails of widely varying difficulty levels from short, easy jaunts to extensive backcountry roams. Do your research to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you hit the trails, but here are a few suggestions ordered from easiest to most difficult.
On the western edge, Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk is a flat, short trail (a mere third of a mile) that will bring you through old-growth forest along the Skagit River. Further up the highway, the two-mile-long Rainy Lake is a paved path that will bring you to a lovely viewpoint from which you can look over the diverse landscape of the upper-Skagit. A little further up the road, Thunder Knob clocks in at just under four miles, and with its moderate climb in elevation, it makes for a solid family hike through the thin cedar forest that emerges at a vantage over Ross Lake.
Maple Pass Loop—which is the longer route that breaks off Rainy Lake—steps up the difficulty with a 7.2-mile route of rapid ascension. Pack your fitness with you, because it’s a real leg-acher. But you will be rewarded with mind-blowing views of the entire park.
The aforementioned Desolation Peak hike is definitely no slouch. When Kerouac did it, he had the help of pack mules. Much of it can be simplified by taking a boat across Ross Lake, but things get steep for 10 miles from there. If you decide to forego the boat shortcut, you tack on another 16 miles. It’s a great hike for literary and nature enthusiasts who are prepared to put in some hard walking.
If you’re willing to work even harder for some of the best views in the park, the 12-mile stretch of Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm will provide. But be warned: with its rough, uneven terrain and rapid ascent, this is for more experienced hikers.
Go boating on glacial lakes
If you feel like hitting the water, boating—on a small scale—is an option.
Ramps at both lake Diablo and Ross allow you to put in smaller, quieter launches like kayaks, canoes, or boats with small-bore engines (four-stroke max) that can be used for exploring and camping along the far shores, or fishing. Speaking of fishing, the season spans July 1 to October 31, during which you’ll have the opportunity to catch some of the region’s native rainbow trout.
Ross Lake Resort will provide portage for the duration of your visit, and rents out small motorboats if you don’t have your own.
Where to stay in North Cascades National Park
When it comes to accommodations, you basically have two options: shack up in one of the small towns on the eastern or western edges of the park, or camp in one of the handful of campgrounds within it.
A number of campgrounds can be reached via boat on Ross Lake, while others require extreme backcountry hiking, but there are several attractive options that are easily accessible along the highway. Colonial Creek Campground is the most popular of these. Not only does it have a well-planned camping area with forested sites that provide reasonable privacy, it also provides central access to trails, viewpoints, and nearby lakes and streams.
There are zero hotel accommodations in or directly adjacent to the park itself, but lodgings can be found a short drive away in Marblemount on the west side, or (more desirably, in my humble opinion) to the east in Winthrop and Twisp. The trifecta of Winthrop, Twisp, and Mazama (otherwise known as the Methow Valley: and that’s “met-ow,” not “meth-ow”) is a charming area that serves as the ideal jumping-off point for whatever outdoor activity happens to be your pleasure.