Top 10 Things to Do in North Cascades National Park

by Jon D. B.
North Cascades National Park. (Photo credit: Getty Images Archives, Outsider)

Love snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes, ancient forests, and boundless wildlife? If North Cascades National Park (NOCA) wasn’t on your bucket list before, it will be after this taste of what this Washington wilderness has to offer.

Part of a larger National Park Service Complex, North Cascades National Park preserves some of the finest mountain country in North America alongside Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and the U.S. National Forests within.

For our Top 10, however, we’re focusing on the best that NOCA itself has to offer. Otherwise, 10 wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface for this truly magnificent NPS Complex. Because if it’s scenic strolls, phenomenal hikes, and boundless beauty & solitude you seek, then this is truly the place.

But first things first: Please note that precipitation and snowfall are greatest from November through March in North Cascades National Park. NOCA’s winters are icy and wet with heavy snowfall. And this can impact visitation well into summer. Access becomes limited throughout the year as a result, so be sure to check current conditions before you head to the park. As NPS says, “Know before you go,” and let’s get to it!

10. North Cascades National Park Gem: Blue Lake Trail

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USA, Pacific Northwest, Cascades, Washington,North Cascades National Park, Blue Lake, larches. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 4.4 miles round-trip

Operated by the U.S. Forest Service in North Cascades’ Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Blue Lake Trail begins at the trailhead of the same name. And pictures do not do this place justice. Blue Lake is an excellent place to start in the park complex as it offers a taste of everything national park goers look for in North Cascades along a truly excellent, easygoing trail.

Ready to see towering granite peaks, ancient forests, and a pristine mountain lake surrounded by granite peaks? Blue Lake Trail begins directly off of North Cascades Highway (State Highway 20). There’s a paved parking area with about 20 designated parking spots, but it is often full, so be sure to park safely and off the highway. Regardless, this trail is a particularly great choice if you only have time for one stop along Highway 20.

9. Take the Suspension Bridge to Ladder Creek Falls

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 0.4 mile loop trail

Ladder Creek Falls showcases the thundering power of nature unlike any other fall in North Cascades National Park. And there’s a whole lot more to experience along the way to this gem, making it one of our favorite NOCA excursions.

Firstly, head toward the historic Gorge Powerhouse in Upper Newhalem. On the way, you’ll find the 0.4 mile (0.6 km) loop trail leading to Ladder Creek Falls. To get there, you’ll wander through manicured gardens “that have been delighting visitors to the Skagit Hydroelectric Project for over 75 years,” the park offers.

Then, cross over the foot suspension bridge to the powerhouse and follow the signs marked for the waterfall. Please note this trail also has steep steps with handrails and may not be suitable for everyone.

8. Don’t Miss Gorge Creek Falls

Looking for an enormous, stunning, and unique waterfall? Gorge Creek Falls is it. And it’s easily accessible, too. Simply follow the pedestrian walkway to view this magnificent feat of nature. Here, water cascades a staggering 242 feet down the North Cascades before entering Gorge Lake. Then, it passes through Gorge Powerhouse onto the Skagit River.

For the most impressive falls, head to Gorge Creek in spring and early summer as the snow melt feeds it. Water flows year-round, with the largest amount in spring and early summer during snow melt. And if you’re eager for more, walk the continued interpretive trail for fantastic views of Gorge Lake and Gorge Dam.

7. Mind-Blowing North Cascades Wonder: Ross Dam & Trail

  • Mile Post 134
  • 1.5 miles (5.7 km) roundtrip with 500 ft (150 m) elevation gain
  • Hike this moderate trail to walk across historic Ross Dam
  • Option for a longer hike or backpack along Ross Lake

Yes, Ross Dam is as unfathomably enormous as it looks. And yes, you’ll want to see it all for yourself. To do so, most hikers begin at the Ross Dam Trail via the parking area near milepost 134 on State Route 20. Once there, the trail drops steeply for .8 miles down to a gravel service road. Take a left on this road, then turn right shortly after to travel down an incline to the top of Ross Dam.

Once you’re there, you can cross the dam itself for mind-blowing views. Continue north along the west shore of Ross Lake if you’d like, or head to Ross Lake Resort for unique water taxi service to either Big Beaver or Little Beaver landings.

6. Cascade Pass Trail is Iconic North Cascades National Park

  • Located at the end of the Cascade River Road
  • 3.7 miles (6 km) one way / 1700 ft (550 m) elevation gain
  • A popular day hike with spectacular views of peaks and glaciers

Some will tell you that Cascade Pass Trail should be the #1 spot on this list. And they would not be wrong at all. In fact, from this point on it’s less about which is #1 and more about making sure you know these places exist in North Cascades. Each is beyond brilliant.

Cascade Pass specifically is a great day hike with spectacular views of mountain peaks and their glaciers. You’ll see Eldorado, Johannesburg, Magic, Mixup and McGregor’s peaks all from the pass. You’ll also have the best access to the alpine ecosystem of North Cascades. And do not miss the trails for Doubtful Lake. It is the park’s best hidden gem.

5. Washington Pass Overlook is a Mountain Lover’s Dream

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Mountains in North Cascades National Park viewed from Washington Pass summit on state highway 20 in northern Washington state. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A leisurely, level and paved trail of only 400 feet takes you straight to Washington Pass Overlook through gorgeous sub-alpine forests. Once you emerge, you’ll be greeted by a truly breathtaking view of Liberty Bell Mountain and Early Winters Spires.

As the NOCA cites, “This viewpoint is an excellent place to see the golden colored larch trees in autumn,” too. But any time of year, the trail continues on to then loop back to the parking area. But beware that both stairs and steep grades are required to travel the full loop.

Regardless, you’ll find accessible parking and restrooms, information station, benches, picnic tables and interpretive signs to bolster your Washington Pass Overlook excursion. Please note that a Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking at this location. Snow also covers this area until early-July, so be sure to contact the Methow Valley Ranger Station at 509-996-4000 for current trail conditions.

4. Hidden Lake Peak Trail will Take Your Breath Away

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Hidden Lake with the upper Cascade River Valley and Boston Basin beyond. (Photo credit: NPS, Bonnie Seifried)
  • Off the Cascade River Road
  • 4.5 miles (7.2 km) one way / 2900 ft (884 m) elevation gain
  • A steep hike to a small mountain lake and historic fire lookout

Another spot that will absolutely take your breath away is Hidden Lake Peak. This truly world-class hike is sight-seeing paradise within North Cascades National Park. You’ll begin in cool forests, then quickly travel beyond into vast, open meadows filled with wildflowers. Then it’s time for rocky slopes and heather, before ending at a steep rocky pinnacle with a historic fire lookout perched atop.

Sound lovely? That’s because it is. And sincerely, prepare yourself for that lookout. It is life-changing.

3. Maple Pass Loop is Picture-Perfect North Cascades

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Lake Ann, Corteo Peak and Black Peak from Lake Ann – Maple Pass – Heather Pass Loop Trail, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, Washington. (Photo by: Greg Vaughn /VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If you’d like the best of NOCA but with a bit more of a challenge, then the gorgeous Maple Pass is for you. This heavily-timbered area features multiple trails that lead to the pass, with the main Maple Pass Loop being an easy hike for the first mile.

You’ll also travel Heather Pass, in which there is a faint trail leading off towards Lewis lake and a possible side trip for experienced hiker and route finder. Regardless, the wildlife, wildflowers, and ancient forests here are stunning in July and August. Then, fall colors ignite the pass via golden alpine larch and red huckleberries bushes in autumn.

You can continue to hike beyond Heather Pass and Maple Pass, but know it is very steep, and the trail is above tree line in high alpine zone.

No matter what you choose, Maple Pass itself offers some of the most sensational views in all of the North Cascades National Park Complex.

2. North Cascades National Park Must-See: Diablo Lake & Overlook

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Diablo Lake. North Cascades National Park. State of Washington. Usa. America. (Photo by: Giulio Andreini/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
  • Off State Route 20, Mile 131.7
  • Stunning scenic overlook of Diablo

Few sights in nature are as stunning as a glacier-fed lake. And Diablo Lake is one of Earth’s finest, hands down. Here, crystal teal waters mark the heart of North Cascades; a sight you’ll never forget.

The best view of the lake requires tackling Diablo Lake Trail:

  • Mile Post 128
  • 7.6 miles (12.2 km) round trip / 1500 ft (455 m) elevation gain
  • Hike through the forest for peek-a-boo views of Diablo Lake.

There, rugged mountains rise around the lake, while the historic Diablo Dam looms in the distance. Bountiful forests and wildlife thrive. And in summer, the water takes on an even more turquoise tone due to particles that refract sunlight. To see Diablo Lake at its peak, the color are most vibrant on sunny days in July, August, and September when seasonal glacial melt occurs.

1. North Cascades National Park Highway: One of the World’s Best

Want to see it all? North Cascades Highway is your ticket to Washington’s wildlife paradise. This approximately 30 mile road (State Route 20) travels across the park, allowing visitors to experience the national park’s famous old growth forests, cascading waterfalls, and mountain scenery.

To tackle the entire highway, allow yourself at least a full hour to drive thru. If you do, this winding road won’t let you down. Add as much time as you can, though, because you’ll want to stop frequently for everything North Cascades Highway offers in the national park. As NOCA cites, highlights include:

North Cascades Visitor Center (Mile 119.9)

  • Explore exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the park complex
  • View the Picket Range from the Sterling Munro Boardwalk

Newhalem (Mile 120.5)

  • Visit the Skagit Information Center
  • Tour the Gorge Powerhouse
  • Enjoy the forests and creeks of Newhalem on a variety of easy trails

Gorge Creek Falls (Mile 123.4)

  • Walk along a short, interpretive trail to an overlook
  • Take in views of a waterfall, gorge, and dam

Diablo Lake Overlook (Mile 131.7)

  • Enjoy stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountain peaks

Happy Creek Forest Walk (Mile 134.3)

  • Take a peaceful, shaded stroll through a moss-covered forest

Ross Lake Overlooks (Mile 136)

  • Enjoy the view out over Ross Lake

Before arriving, however, be sure to check road conditions for seasonal closures on the highway.

That’s it for our North Cascades Top 10 Things to Do. But remember to also visit Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, as these two parks contain most of the accessible land in the North Cascades NPS Complex. For more on this, see our Top 10 Things to Know About North Cascades National Park next.

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