North Cascades National Park
Spanning from high mountains on the north side to all the way to Lake Chelan in the south, North Cascades National Park Service Complex is a unique complex of three sections. North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan Recreation Area together form this complex with numerous options to enjoy the natural beauty. North Cascades National Park is a vast wilderness filled with thickly forested valleys, snow-clad peaks, pristine glacial lakes, subalpine meadows, gorgeous waterfalls, and meandering rivers. North Cascades is called American Alps and rightly so. Over 300 glaciers make this park awe-inspiring and incredibly scenic.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit the North Cascades National Park depends on your preferences. If you want to indulge in water activities, summer is the best time. It is also a great time to hike mostly snow-free trails and enjoy long days. If you are looking for outrageous fall colors, visit during late-September to mid-October for an absolute visual treat. Come prepared for some rain and wind. If you want to watch wildlife, spring is the best time when animals are out with their young ones.
I have visited North Cascades National Park in summer as well as autumn, and still have to decide which season was the best.
Where to Stay and Eat
Inside the Park Complex boundaries, you have two options of lodging – Ross Lake Resort and Lodge at Stehekin. Ross Lake Resort is open from summer till October and is located on the west side of Ross Lake. Lodge at Stehekin is next to Lake Chelan. This glacial lake is more than 50 miles long and about 1500 feet deep. Both the facilities are remote, accessible via boat, plane, or hike only.
North Cascades National Park Complex offers five campgrounds located at prime locations near the river and lake.
Outside the park, there are several lodging options on both sides – on the east side is the town of Lake Chelan that has everything you need to make your visit perfect – restaurants, hotels, waterpark, wine tasting, and a charming shopping complex.
On the west side of North Cascades National Park, two quaint towns Marblemount or Rockport have a handful of decent accommodations and restaurants.
If you are staying on the west side, a visit to Cascadian Farms is a must! Located in the foothills of the park with a backdrop of soaring peaks, it has the best coffee and ice-cream, besides freshly picked seasonal fruits. We gorged on delicious raspberries and blueberries in July.
There is no fee to enter North Cascades National Park. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass when parking at the USFS trailheads.
Check the National Park Service website for more details, roads, and trails conditions.
Park Visitor Centers
Park Complex has two visitor centers – one of them is not accessible via road.
North Cascades Visitor Center
It is closer to the west side and just off the North Cascades Highway. The visitor center has many exhibits to help orient with North Cascades National Park Complex as well as understand the park’s natural and cultural history.
Golden West Visitor Center
Located near Lodge at Stehekin at the north end of Lake Chelan, it can be reached via floatplane, boat, or hike only. It also has a gallery featuring local artists and craftspeople.
Wilderness Information Center
It is close to Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Backcountry permits are issued here, which are required for overnights in the park year-round. Bring cash or check for self-service during the off-season (Nov – mid-June) when it is close.
Another Ranger Station is located near Marblemount from where you can pick your backcountry permits and bear canisters, both are free.
Things to do
Kayaking, canoeing, SUP, and motor boating are popular activities in Lake Ross and Lake Chelan Recreation Areas. You may rent motorboats, kayaks, canoe, SUP at Ross Lake Resort, and at Stehekin on Lake Chelan.
Jet skis, water skiing, or tubing is not allowed within North Cascades National Park Service Complex.
Whitewaters of Skagit and Stehekin rivers have options for rafting and kayaking.
Bicycles are permitted on the roads and not on trails. North Cascades Highway, the road running through the park complex is popular among challenge-seeking cyclists. Reaching 5,477 feet at Washington Pass, it offers adventure, beauty, and excellent leg-workout.
Stehekin Valley Road is a favorite among families due to its less aggressive elevation. You also have an option to get your bikes transported to High Bridge and ride a 13-mile mostly downhill road back to the lower valley.
The rugged terrain of North Cascades National Park offers plentiful climbing opportunities to all who are looking for adventure and solitude. Check at the visitor center for a detailed climbing map and conditions.
Most of the trails throughout the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and a few on the west side are open to stock use.
Hiking and Backpacking
North Cascades National Park has some of the most beautiful and adventure-packed hikes. From day hikes to multi-day hikes, from easy to strenuous, there are hundreds of miles of trails to explore the rugged and breathtaking beauty of this park.
If you are thinking of backpacking, check Wilderness Trip Planner to find out park regulations, backcountry permits, current road and trail conditions, and more.
Kids are fun to hike with, read useful tips to start hiking with kids and share your love of the outdoors with them.
Maple Pass Loop Trail
This seven-mile loop trail goes through thick forest, subalpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers, open ridgelines, over the pass with sweeping vistas of jagged peaks, and glacier-dappled Glacier Peak and Lake Ann. I prefer to hike it clockwise.
Cascade Pass Trail
Cascade Pass trail is a perfect sampler of North Cascades beauty with relatively low grades hiking. It climbs steadily about 1,800 feet in 3.6 miles. From the pass sweeping views of nearby valleys, glaciers, mountains, and passing wildlife are incredible. Continue to Sahale Arm if you want to add some extra oomph to your day.
Thornton Lake and Trapper Peak Trail
I have hiked this 9-mile trail in summer and autumn. Trailhead is reached via a bumpy road with some potholes. It starts with an old road grade for the first half and then climbs steeply onto forested slopes. Climb up the steep spur trail to Trapper Peak for 360 views.
The backcountry camping spot is next to the lake, just a steep half-mile down from the top.
Hidden Lake Lookout
This 8-mile round trip trail is utterly beautiful. It starts through dense moss dappled trees and opens into meadows that are carpeted with wildflowers in July-August. Gradually vegetation gets shorter and the trail gets steeper. Soon it is only bare granite and you see the lookout perched at the top of a near-vertical face. Lookout is with the forest boundary and Hidden Lake is in the park. You will need a backcountry permit to camp near the lake. Lookout can accommodate four persons and is on a first-come-first-serve basis. Read this backpacking gear guide to select the right gear for your backpacking trips.
Desolation Peak Trail
A strenuous 9.4-mile roundtrip trail passes through open meadows and ridge. Your hard work is rewarded with spectacular views of Little Jackass Mountain, Hozomeen Mountain, Skagit Peak, Nohokomeen Glacier, and fjord-like Ross Lake, and a historical fire lookout where Canadian author Jack Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire spotter in 1956. He wrote about his experiences in Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.
Enjoy your North Cascades National Park visit responsibly. Here is a fun National Parks Quiz for you.
Happy and safe travels!