Article Overview: Best Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
You hear a lot of folks talking about Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park these days – how come no one ever mentions North Cascades National Park? I’ll tell you why – North Cascades is too beautiful and too stunning with too many amazing adventures to be had and amazing things to do.
It turns out Washingtonians have been greedily hoarding away all these best things to do in North Cascades National Park hoping it will stay their little secret forever. With a place this grand, who can blame them?
After living in the Pacific Northwest for the past five years I’ve gotten to explore many of these amazing things to do in North Cascades National Park first-hand and I must say there’s not enough hype about this place.
In this article I’ll cover all of the best things to do in North Cascades (even dispel a few places that are commonly associated with the park but aren’t actually there) and provide some helpful tips so you can plan a trip to this incredible destination.
Let’s get started!
Things to Know Before Visiting North Cascades National Park
Free! But if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
Fuel up fully before you get into the park. There are no gas stations within North Cascades.
Cell Service is very spotty in the park.
The Best Guide Book for North Cascades National Park is this one.
The Best Map: I like this map best for North Cascades National Park.
Drink it. Lots of it. Don’t forget it in the car.
Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park
The Best Time to Visit North Cascades is mid-July through September.
Restaurants & Food Options
Food options are limited in the North Cascades area so I recommend getting food beforehand in Burlington and packing it into the park.
Maps of the National Parks
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps, this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay
Visiting North Cascades National Park? If you haven’t decided where to stay (yet) check out our favorite hotel in North Cascades.
Best Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
20. Picture Lake
I figured we’d kick off our list of the best things to do in North Cascades National Park with one of the top photos you’ll find featuring the national park that’s not actually taken from the national park. Sorry folks, while this photo is epic, and does in fact feature Mount Shuksan which *is* in North Cascades National Park, the lake (or small pond by my account) is actually in Mount Baker National Forest.
Well that’s no biggie, right? Let’s just drive right over… Not so fast, literally. The drive from Picture Lake to North Cascades National Park will take about 2.5 hours.
In conclusion, while this is a beautiful destination that is absolutely worth the visit (and can even be visited in winter despite receiving up to 95 FEET of snow each year!), it’s not technically not in the park and requires a long drive to reach.
19. Backpacking into the Vast Wilderness
Going backpacking is easily one of the most popular things to do in North Cascades National Park. To say that North Cascades is a backpackers paradise is somewhat of and understatement. There are nearly 350,000 acres of wilderness adventures available to backpackers via the Stephen Mather Wilderness which makes up most of the parks’ acreage.
If you’re ever in need of some epic backpacking/adventure inspiration, start your search with the seriously talented Scott Kranz whose work in the North Cascades & beyond has inspired us for years.
There are more than 45 designated cross country camping / backpacking areas in North Cascades. If you’re interested in learning more on the permits required and types of backpacking adventures available in North Cascades National Park, be sure to check out the parks backpacking page.
18. Scenic Drive on the North Cascades Highway
Have mobility issues and/or not exactly up for an intense backpacking adventure? Don’t worry. Some of the best things to do in North Cascades National Park don’t even require setting foot out of your car (well maybe at a scenic overlook or two).
As part of the greater Cascade Loop National Scenic Byway, North Cascades Highway is easily of the most beautiful drives in the world. You heard that right. This roughly 30 mile stretch of road features towering mountain peaks, pristine old-growth forests, endless waterfalls, and turquoise blue lakes.
Along the way there are many epic viewpoints such as Ross Lake Overlook and Diablo Lake Overlook (more on that below).
NOTE: Be sure to check the national park service website for current conditions before heading out as they are subject to weather changes and natural events such as wildfires. The road closes partially during winter and does not serve as a through route during this time.
17. Ross Lake Overlook
Situated along the picturesque North Cascades Highway, Ross Lake Overlook gives visitors a beautiful glimpse of the majesty that is the North Cascades. The overlook itself is located at mile 136 just past the turnout for the Happy Creek Nature Trail.
From this viewpoint you can see the southernmost end of Ross Lake which winds its way toward Canada in the distance. There are actually two overlook turnouts that are officially designated as Ross Lake Overlook so don’t worry if you accidentally miss the first one.
There isn’t much else to do from here other than admire the sweeping views so consider this one of the quicker things to do in North Cascades National Park
16. Thunder Arm
Thunder Arm refers to a large, southern turn of Diablo Lake that is less-talked about and fits into the hidden gems category of things to do at North Cascades National Park. To get here, search for Thunder Knob Trailhead on google maps.
In the summer this area is a great spot for a family picnic lunch along the rocky beach featuring epic views of the north cascades mountains across the crystal blue/turquoise lake. In the winter this area totally transforms to a winter wonderland but is typically still accessible depending on weather conditions.
The Thunder Knob Trail located here is a nice, short hike for a leisurely afternoon stroll. Sounds like an idyllic spot for a campground, right? It sure is! Colonial Creek Campground is also located here and is one that I can personally recommend!
Top 15 Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
I’ve been to a lot of national park sites in my day and I can confidently say that some of the coolest, most unique camping opportunities in the US can be found at North Cascades. As the park is fairly remote, camping is definitely one of the best things to do in North Cascades National Park.
There are several different kinds of camping experiences available at North Cascades National Park including drive-in, walk-in, boat-in, and backcountry. Currently there are 8 designated front country campgrounds available in North Cascades National Park including:
- Newhalem Creek Campground, Gorge Lake Campground, Goodell Creek Campground, Lower Goodell Creek Campground, Colonial Creek North Campground, Colonial Creek South Campground, Hozomeen, *Stehekin
All of these are accessible by car except for Stehekin (more on that below) and Hozomeen which is only accessible by boat for this season due to road maintenance.
Boat-in camping at North Cascades is a real treat as the park is really geared toward it. There are 25 camp sites available on Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, and Lake Chelan open for this kind of experience. For more helpful information on these opportunities, visit the NPS boat-in camping site.
14. Mountain Goats
For wildlife lovers out there (who isn’t?) spotting a mountain goat in its natural habitat is easily one of the top things to do at North Cascades National Park. In fact, North Cascades National Park is one of only a handful of places in the US where you can see actually see a mountain goat in the wild.
During the summer months mountain goats tend to stay above 5,000ft hanging out in alpine meadows and rocky snow patches.
There’s actually a program going on now to relocate the non-native mountain goats that have made their way to the Olympic National Park back to North Cascades National Park which is part of their native habitat.
Two great places where you can spot mountain goats in the park are the Cascade Pass Trail and Maple Pass Loop.
13. Hozomeen (Canadian Border)
North Cascades National Park is one of only two US National Parks that shares a border with Canada (the other being Glacier National Park in Montana). Hozomeen is a remote campground area located on the northern end of Ross Lake and situated right on the Canadian border.
The only way to access Hozomeen is either by boat or a drive through Canada as there is no road access to the campground directly from the US side. Despite being less than 30 miles as the crow flies from Diablo Lake Vista Point, the drive would be about 192 miles, require a border crossing, and take about 4.5 hours to complete.
From the Canadian side, however, access is a breeze being marked only by a small sign with no entry station.
Beyond the logistics of getting here, Hozomeen is remote and remarkable with epic views of the dramatic north cascade peaks in the tranquil setting of Ross Lake.
One of my favorite parts of visiting North Cascades is waiting for that sun to go down and the stars to come out. Stargazing is one of the best things to do at North Cascades because of its remote location, far from the light pollution created by urban life.
For this reason, North Cascades National Park is one of the best places in Washington state to see the night sky. As a rule of thumb, the further east & north you go into the park the better your night sky viewing opportunities will be.
11. Boating in the Lakes
According to the National Park Service, there are over 500 lakes and ponds located within the boundaries of North Cascades National Park. Of these 3 provide outstanding opportunities for boating including Lake Chelan, Diablo Lake, and Ross Lake.
Kayaking, canoeing, and motorized boating are all popular activities in these lakes. If you’re looking to put in your own craft, there are boat ramps and launches at Gorge Lake, Diablo Lake, the north end of Ross Lake at Hozomeen, and Lake Chelan.
North Cascades Boat Rentals
10. Whitewater Rafting
At 120 miles long flowing from southern British Columbia to the Puget Sound, the Skagit River is the third largest in the Western US in terms of volume. It is fed by over 3,000 streams which creates some great whitewater conditions.
If you’re looking for those kind of adventures there are a number of guides in the North Cascades Region happy to help you out.
If you’re looking for angling opportunities then add fishing to your list of things to do in North Cascades National Park. Starting with the basics, anyone fishing in the park will need to first obtain their Washington fishing license.
According to the National Park Service, the following fish can be found within North Cascades National Park:
- Gorge Lake, Diablo Lake, Ross Lake: Rainbow trout, eastern brook trout, cutthroat trout
- Skagit River: Steelhead, coastal cutthroat trout, golden trout, eastern brook trout
- Lake Chelan: Burbot (fresh-water cod), golden trout, lake trout, west slope cutthroat trout, kokanee (land-locked salmon), largemouth bass, smallmouth bass
- Stehekin River: Cutthroat trout, rainbow trout
The Skagit River is the only river in Washington that has all 5 species of salmon including Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye.
Guided fishing trips are available on the Stehekin River via Stehekin Fishing Adventures where an all day float will run you about $550.
NOTE: Anyone interested in fishing at North Cascades National Park should first check out the NPS website for fishing rules and regulations.
8. Desolation Peak
Made famous by the poet/writer Jack Kerouac who notably stayed here as a fire lookout for 63 days in the summer of ’56, Desolation Peak features a picturesque fire lookout and sweeping panoramic views of the North Cascades.
The best way to get here is starting with a roughly 45 minute boat ride from Ross Lake Resort which makes this hike doable for day hikers. From here the accounts of just how long the trail is vary from 8 miles to 14 – quite a range! I’d plan for at least 10 miles and about 2.5 – 3 hours getting up and another 2.5 hours coming down.
“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all.
The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”Jack Kerouac “The Dharma Bums”
7. Visit Stehekin
Stehekin is a naturally blessed, intimately secluded, small community located on the shores of the third deepest lake in the United States, Lake Chelan. There are only 75 permanent residents of Stehekin and no roads that connect them to the outside world. The only way to access Stehekin is by boat or plane.
Given this seclusion and its prime location deep within North Cascades National Park, visiting this town makes for an incredible adventure.
Getting to Stehekin via the Stehekin Ferry
The Stehekin Ferry launches from Field’s Point Landing (technically on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest) toward the southern end of Lake Chelan and provides year-round daily service to Stehekin. Current each-way rates run $39/adult & $20/kid (3-12 years old).
Getting Around in Stehekin
There is a lone main road in Stehekin (Stehekin Valley Road) that connects the community and facilities here and a bus that runs seasonally to help folks get around. Bicycling is a great mode of transportation here for the 5 miles of the road that are paved as well as the hard packed gravel portion (depending on the bike).
You can either bring your own bike over on the ferry or rent a bike in Stehekin.
Stehekin Hotels & Campgrounds
There are a handful of campgrounds located off of the main road in Stehekin where bear protocols must be strictly followed as there is a healthy population here.
You’ll find three hotels located in the valley: North Cascades Lodge (most popular), Silver Bay Inn Resort, & Stehekin Valley Ranch. Not to worry if the hotels are booked up as there are several rental cabins as well.
6. Sourdough Mountain
I’d argue that some of the most epic and alluring views in all the North Cascades come from the hike up Sourdough Mountain. Sometimes epic views can be achieved with relatively minimal effort. This is not one of those times.
Almost everyone who makes it to the top of the trail will tell you it was worth it but expect a bit of stiffness on the car ride home. At 10.4 miles round trip with over 4800 feet of elevation gain, this hike falls into the difficult category.
The ascent is steep and the trail pretty grueling but the payoff speaks for itself. For a full trail review check out what our friends at WTA have to say about the hike.
Top 5 Best Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
5. Cascade Pass
If you’re looking for the most popular thing to do in North Cascades National Park then Cascade Pass is for you. While the trail does get a bit crowded in the summer (never too bad in my opinion compared to the likes of Yosemite or Zion, anyway) it’s for a good reason. The views here are sensational.
Hikers have the option to do this as a 7.4 mile out and back to Cascade Pass or an 11.8 mile out and back to Sahale Glacier (totally worth it if you’re up for it).
4. Blue Lake
As this list of the best things to do in North Cascades winds down we find ourselves left with the real cream of the crop here. Blue Lake is one of the most beautiful hikes in all of the national parks featuring truly jaw-dropping views of the cascades.
The best part (other than the views) is that unlike most of the other trails in the park, Blue Lake is relatively short and easy at 4.4 miles round trip and a paltry 1000 feet of elevation gain.
Once you get to the top of the hike you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.
3. Ross Lake Resort
Moving into the relaxing category of things to do at North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake Resort offers tranquil lakefront bliss. I’ll admit when I first saw a photo of this place I thought it was a hoax, like something from Northern Italy or Switzerland. But I can attest to the fact that it is both true and as incredible as the photos.
The rates for such a place must be astronomical though, right? Nope. At just $245/night you can sleep in a floating cabin on Ross Lake with a staggering backdrop of the north cascades. Doesn’t get much cooler than that.
It does get somewhat cool at night though so do pack a jacket!
2. Maple Pass to Lake Ann
We’re down to my favorite hike and one of the absolute best things in North Cascades National Park. This is one of those choosing which is your favorite kid types of situations but if I’ve got to give an answer then the Maple Pass hike to Lake Ann is the best in North Cascades.
The total length of the hike is 7.4 miles with just under 2,200 feet of elevation gain but that all washes away with the sublime scenery. Well you still might feel the incline but oh the views.
Go in the fall for even more spectacular grandeur as the larches turn into a blazing golden yellow lighting up the landscape in an unforgettable way. The views of Lake Ann are just the icing on the cake for this stunning hike.
1. Diablo Lake Vista Point
The Diablo Lake Overlook may not be as adventurous as other activities on this list but the views are sublime and it can be accessed by everyone including those with mobility issues. You can pull right up to the viewpoint with your car and look out upon the breathtakingly turquoise Diablo Lake below.
In the winter parts of the lake freeze over and the color of the lake changes to a darker blueish black color making for slightly less stunning views.
Map of the Top Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
Summary of the Best Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
- Diablo Lake Vista Point
- Maple Pass/Lake Ann
- Ross Lake Resort
- Blue Lake
- Cascade Pass
- Sourdough Mountain
- Desolation Peak
- Whitewater Rafting
- Visit Hozomeen
- Mountain Goats
- Thunder Arm
- Ross Lake Overlook
- Scenic Drive
- Picture Lake
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Parks
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, USDA, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
If you’d like to follow along our journey we’d be delighted to have you!
Helpful Related Links for Things to Do in North Cascades National Park
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Olympic NP Guide: Comprehensive Guide to Olympic National Park
Best Hikes Olympic NP: 9 Epic Olympic National Park Hikes
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