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The 9 Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is the least-visited of the three spectacular national parks in Washington State. While we do love Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park, the North Cascades have a special place in our heart.

There’s something special about the North Cascades. Well, actually, there are quite a few things that are special about the North Cascades. Rugged, rocky mountain peaks towering thousands of feet above blue-green alpine lakes.

Hikes that ascend through meadows of dense wildflowers and emerge into the rocky subalpine terrain that you only find at higher elevations. Spectacular viewpoints with views of mountain ranges that seemingly never end. 

If all of that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then North Cascades National Park is going to be paradise for you. And, for what it’s worth, you’ll probably love Mount Baker too – we certainly do. 

We’ve been up to the North Cascades a few times now, not including the time we tried to go one June and realized none of the hiking trails in the North Cascades open until later in the summer due to snow. Lesson learned. 

This guide to the best hikes in North Cascades National Park has nine amazing hikes to add to your North Cascades National Park itinerary, along with all the information you need to plan an amazing hiking adventure. 

Below, we’re going to go through nine great North Cascades hikes that will introduce you to some of the most amazing views in the entire Pacific Northwest. 

We’ll give you the important information for each trail – the trailhead location, distance, elevation gain, and more – plus a brief trail report to help you understand what you’re getting yourself into so that you can tackle each hike safely and confidently. 

Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you click on one and purchase something, we make a small portion of the sale at no additional cost to you. It goes without saying that we would never recommend something we wouldn’t use or do ourselves.

Wondering what to wear on a hike? Check out our guide to what to wear hiking for our exact hiking wardrobe, and recommendations on what to wear in each season.

When to Go Hiking in the North Cascades

Hiking season in the North Cascades is relatively short. There are two things to keep in mind when you’re planning your trip: weather and road closures. 

Weather in the North Cascades is notoriously unpredictable, and can change in an instant. However, it’s a pretty good bet that hiking trails, especially those at higher elevations, will be covered in snow through June and into July. 

We know because we tried to go to the park in mid-June one year, and had to basically reschedule our trip despite already having flown to Seattle from the Bay Area. Whoops. 

Peak hiking season is mid-July through September, when the weather is warm, relatively dry, and the snow has melted from most, if not all, hiking trails.

At some point in October, the famous larches of the Cascades start to turn a brilliant yellow color, and the ground starts to light up with hues of orange and red as fall color starts to come in all over the place. 

It gets crazy busy in the Cascades as everyone and their entire family head out in search of the fleeting fall color, but it’s gorgeous and well worth braving the crowds for. 

As that fall color starts to fade, usually in the second or third week of October, the weather transitions to winter, when it’s cold, rainy, and sometimes even snowy. 

A Note on Road Closures

Highway 20 (aka North Cascades Highway), the main thoroughfare through the park, closes between Ross Dam and milepost 171 on the other side of the Washington Pass Overlook in late November most years, and reopens sometime in the late spring (usually May). 

That means you’ll be able to make it as far as Diablo Lake in the winter and early spring, but won’t be able to go much further than that. Consequently, most of the hikes below are inaccessible between November and May, depending on the year. 

Before you leave, check current road conditions here

A Complete North Cascades National Park Hiking Guide

Some of the best hikes in Washington State can be found in the North Cascades, and it’s an underrated hiking destination that is often overshadowed by the two more famous national parks in Washington, Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier. 

Here’s the information you need to know to plan a hiking trip to North Cascades National Park. 

If anything is missing, you can probably find it over in our North Cascades National Park itinerary.

Have another question? Don’t hesitate to get in touch, or leave us a comment below. We’re more than happy to chat!

Here are nine hikes that you’re going to love in the North Cascades. 

For the purposes of this post, we also included hikes that are just outside of the park, either in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on the eastern edge of the park, or on the western side near Baker Lake. 

All of them are off of Highway 20, the scenic drive that runs through the Cascades from Sedro-Woolley to Winthrop, so they are easily accessible to anyone visiting the park, even if they’re not inside the boundaries of the park itself. 

The Heather Pass / Maple Pass Loop Trail

  • Length: 7 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,100 ft.
  • Trail Type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate / Difficult
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: Northwest Forest Pass

In our humble opinion, the Maple Pass loop is the best hike in Washington State, at least in terms of bang-for-your-buck. It’s somewhere between a moderate and a difficult trail, but the views along the way are simply spectacular. 

The trailhead actually has plenty of parking, but it still manages to fill up on summer weekends. Plan on arriving at the trailhead by 9:00 am at the very latest to get a spot and hit the trail before the crowds arrive. 

The hike actually starts on US Forest Service land, not inside the national park, so you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass to avoid getting a parking ticket. 

We strongly, strongly recommend doing this hike counter-clockwise, which means a steadier climb and a steeper descent. If you have bad knees, consider doing it the other direction, but know that the switchbacks climbing up that direction are absolutely brutal.

The hike starts with a steady uphill climb through the dense forest. At 1.3 miles in, there’s an offshoot trail to the left that takes you to the shore of Lake Ann, and you should definitely do it. 

Then continue along the trail, climbing above Lake Ann until you’re looking east, with Lake Ann in the foreground and the snowy peaks of the Cascades in the background. Around this point is when you are inside the national park boundaries, although only briefly. 

Take a breath and pause at the high point of the pass, which is four miles in and 2,000 feet higher than the trailhead, and take a break to grab a snack and some water before making the descent back down to the trailhead. 

The Cascade Pass / Sahale Arm Trail

  • Length: 12 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,000 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: None

Unfortunately, we actually haven’t personally done this hike because the 23 mile “loose gravel” road scared us and our Honda Odyssey off. We figured it would take us over an hour each way to get to the trailhead, and spent our time elsewhere. Next time, we’ll bring a higher clearance vehicle. 

The road is doable for regular vehicles, but you’ll have to take it slow and it will take a looooong time. 

From the trailhead, you’ll spend the first 2.5 miles of this hike steadily climbing switchbacks through the forest. You’ll emerge into the open meadows, which is where the views really start to become good. 

The trail flattens out a bit, giving you some time to marvel at the peaks surrounding you as you make your way to Cascade Pass, which is at 3.7 miles. 

This is a good turnaround point if a 12 mile round trip hike seems aggressive for you, but the trail only gets better from here (at a steep cost). 

Take the trail on the left side of the fork towards the Sahale Arm, which immediately starts a steep, rocky climb that lasts about a mile before leveling out a little. After a steep final mile, you’ll arrive at the Sahale Glacier. You’ll probably see mountain goats and marmots along the way, which is a nice distraction from your burning thighs. 

The Hidden Lake Trail (+ Hidden Lake Lookout)

  • Length: 9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,900 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: None

This was the first hike we ever tackled in the North Cascades, and it kind of set up a crazy high bar for the rest of the hikes that followed. This hike is spectacular, and is worth every hard-fought foot of elevation gain to get there. 

Let’s start with the payoff. At the end of this hike, there’s a perched lake waiting for you. You’ll have the lake in the foreground, and the snowy peaks of the Cascades in the background, making for one of the most incredible views in the entire state. 

The trail starts at a small parking lot at the end of a dirt road that is a little bit bumpy and narrow. 

Lucky for us, we had an SUV, because I’m not sure our minivan would have made it. That being said, there was a Prius in the parking lot, so if you have a regular passenger vehicle and you take it slow, you should be fine.

The trail takes you through three different landscapes as you make the climb to the lake.

You’ll start in the forest for about a mile, then you’ll emerge into a meadow full of wildflowers, at least in the early summer (July), where you’ll climb a long series of switchbacks up the face of the mountain before the trail starts to turn rocky.

Eventually, you’ll climb over a ridge and be rewarded with the picture-perfect view of Hidden Lake to the east. The lookout is a short climb up the ridge to your right. 

The Blue Lake Trail

  • Length: 4.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 900 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Easy / Moderate
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: Northwest Forest Pass

If you’re looking for a moderate, family-friendly hike in the North Cascades, we think this hike is a great choice (it’s high on our list of the best easy hikes in Washington).

It’s on the easier side of moderate, climbing 900 feet over two and a half miles to reach a gorgeous alpine lake.

When the sun hits the lake, it shimmers and turns a bright blue-green color, which is pretty spectacular. 

The trailhead for Blue Lake is near the Maple Pass trailhead, in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

There are only enough parking spots for maybe twenty cars in the parking lot, so make sure you get there early, or be prepared to either wait for a spot to open up or park on the side of Hwy 20. 

The climb is pretty boring, to be honest. There’s one or two spots where you have views of the surrounding landscapes, but for the most part it’s a gradual climb through the forest. 

Once you arrive at the lake, make sure to take some time to walk along both shores. There are some spectacular views to be had that are along the trails on both sides. 

Cutthroat Pass

  • Length: 10-11 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,500 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: Northwest Forest Pass

This is a spectacular hike in early October, when the larches light up the surrounding landscape like golden fire. 

There are a couple of ways to do this hike, and we’d go with the route that follows the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s not super difficult, but it’s also not particularly easy either – we’d put it firmly in the moderate category, despite the length. 

The trail meanders for a couple of miles before you take a left at a fork and come to Cutthroat Lake, which is a great spot for lunch or a snack on the way back down. 

From there, the only thing standing between you and the pass are a series of long but relatively doable switchbacks. 

From the top, the view is worth the effort to get there, especially when the larches go golden. You’ll be above the lake you passed on the way up, with the various peaks of the Cascades in nearly every direction. 

Easy Pass

  • Length: 7.0 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,800 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: Northwest Forest Pass

The hike to Easy Pass is NOT easy. Let’s get that out of the way first. It’s a difficult hike that climbs 2,800 feet over three and a half miles to reach the pass. 

You’ll start in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which means you need your Northwest Forest Pass for the trailhead (or pay $5 cash in the envelopes provided…sometimes). 

The hike itself starts by crossing a river, which doesn’t have a bridge, so your feet are going to get wet. We always recommend trekking poles and waterproof hiking boots for hiking in the Pacific Northwest, but they’re particularly useful here, where the water will likely reach mid-shin, if not higher. 

From there, you’ll climb through the forest before the trail takes a turn and you begin the steep climb up loose rock and gravel (be careful – especially coming down), which continues until you reach the pass. 

The Thornton Lake (+ Trappers Peak) Trail

  • Length: 10.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,400 ft. (plus 500 ft. if you head down to the lake and back)
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: None

The payoff for this hike depends on the route you choose. You can head all the way up to Trappers Peak, where you’ll have sweeping views over the Lake below and the peaks of the North Cascades beyond. Or, you can skip the hike up to the peak and head down to the lake instead, which is a peaceful lunch spot. 

If you head up to Trappers Peak, it’s an additional mile each way, and roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The views might be worth the climb, which includes a few sections of full-on scrambling to reach the peak. 

The trailhead is on the western side of the park, 11 miles east of Marblemount, which is west of Newhalem. There is a five mile gravel road leading to the trailhead which is, for the most part, passable by all kinds of vehicles. 

It’s a small parking lot, so plan on getting there as early as possible, as there’s not a whole lot of room to park along the narrow forest road leading to the trailhead. 

The Thunder Knob Trail

  • Length: 3.6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 650 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Easy 
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: None

Looking for an easy hike in North Cascades National Park? This is one of your best bets. It actually makes our list of the best easy hikes in Washington State

It leaves from across the road from the Colonial Creek Campground, which makes it a perfect trail for campers staying there (that’s how we did it) because you can walk to the trailhead. 

The trail itself climbs gently through the forest before arriving at a nice viewpoint, where you’ll be able to look over Diablo Lake from the west, which is the opposite direction you see it from the viewpoint off of Highway 20. 

Take some time to explore the different viewpoints at the top. Several have benches, and are a good place for a snack before you return back to the campground (or your car). 

The Park Butte Trail

  • Length: 7.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,200 ft.
  • Trail Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead Location
  • Pass Required: Northwest Forest Pass

This hike is actually near Baker Lake, outside the park boundaries on the western side, near the town of Concrete. But it’s worth a quick detour if you find yourself with some extra time. 

The payoff at the end of this hike is a spectacular view of Mt. Baker’s southern face, with blankets of blooming wildflowers in the summertime. 

The trailhead is at the end of a nine mile gravel and dirt road that is a little bumpy in places, but we did it in our minivan. Albeit, very slowly. 

From the trailhead, where there are multiple vault toilets, the trail itself climbs gently at first, crossing a creek and winding through the forest.

Then you hit a series of switchbacks that climb aggressively for about a mile before you’re dumped into a wide open meadow, which is where the views of Mt. Baker begin to materialize. 

You’ll climb through a meadow, blanketed with lupine and other wildflowers during the summer, before the terrain turns rocky. The views of Baker are nothing short of spectacular basically the entire way through. 

The end point of the hike is a fire lookout that looks north at Mt. Baker. Spend some time up there, and find a good spot for a snack before descending back the way you came. 

Backcountry Hiking in the North Cascades

Above, we’ve covered the day hikes in North Cascades National Park. But what if you want to do an overnight trip? You’ll need a backcountry permit, and there are two ways to get one. 

  • Reserve In Advance: They open up summer backcountry permits for advance reservation in the spring – usually mid-March through mid-April. Then, there’s a lottery, and they allocate the number of permits that are available to people at random. 60% of the permits are released through this system. More info here.

  • Walk-up Permits: The other 40% of permits are first-come-first-served, held at ranger stations. You’ll have to head to a ranger station either the day of your trip, or the day before to see if they have availability. Go early, and be prepared to be flexible in terms of timing and what trail you choose. More info here.

There are several locations where you can pick up a backcountry permit, including the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount and North Cascades Park Headquarters in Sedro-Woolley.

Note: All overnight permits for routes off of Cascade River Road, which includes the Cascade Pass Trail / Sahale Arm Trail, are issued exclusively at the Marblemount Wilderness Information Center. 

Entrance Fees for the North Cascades

I have good news for you! Despite being a national park, which usually comes with a $30 entrance fee that is good for seven days, entering the North Cascades is free! 

However, it’s worth noting that you will need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the trailheads in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. We’ve noted where you need that pass in the detailed hike sections above.

What to Pack for Hiking in North Cascades National Park

If you’re new to hiking in the Pacific Northwest, there are some things you should know to help you navigate the trails in this part of the world. 

The first thing to know is that, many times, hikes in Washington are straight up and straight down. You’ll start at the base of a mountain, hike up to a viewpoint often on steep switchbacks or stairs, and hike right back down the way you came.

The second thing you should know is that you’re likely to encounter water in some form, usually either in the form of rain (even in the summer, though it’s definitely more rare) or a creek / river crossing. 

For those reasons, there are a couple of things that we would say are essentials for hiking in the Pacific Northwest (aside from the ten essentials, which you should bring along on every hike, regardless of which state or region you’re in). 

  • Sturdy hiking boots / shoes: Preferably waterproof. We’re partial to the Adidas Terrex Swift GTX shoes (Alysha has had two pairs that she has hiked in for almost a decade) and Columbia Newton Ridge Boots (a great entry-level waterproof hiking boot).

  • A rain jacket: Self-explanatory. There’s always a chance that the weather turns to rain when you’re in the mountains, and we never hit the trail without a rain jacket in our backpacks. I like my Columbia rain jacket, which is a nice affordable waterproof jacket, perfect for Washington. Waterproof pants are nice too – there is absolutely nothing in the world worse than soggy pants.

  • Trekking poles: Hear us out. We thought they were lame too (or only for older hikers), but now we never, ever do a tough hike without them. You know the part where we said that you’re going to be hiking up and downhill a lot? Trekking poles help in both directions. On the way up, they give you more leverage and help you set a nice pace. On the way down, they’ll save your knees. We both have these REI trekking poles, though the buckles are failing (and have been for awhile) and we’ll be investing in a pair of these Black Diamond poles next, which have a different three-piece setup that is more durable.  

There are also some other things to pack for your hike, like a good daypack (we like Osprey backpacks for their lifetime guarantee, particularly the Talon / Tempest, which is what Alysha currently has), a reusable water bottle (we each carry two of these collapsible water bottles, which are perfect for both hiking and travel), and snacks. 

Planning a trip to the North Cascades? You won’t want to miss our complete North Cascades National Park itinerary for all the information you need to plan an unforgettable trip – what to do and see, where to stay, when to go, and how to get there.

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