Washington State / National Parks

How to Plan a Perfect North Cascades National Park Itinerary

Washington State is hashtag blessed with three amazing national parksMount Rainier, Olympic, and the North Cascades. North Cascades National Park is the least visited of the three, seeing just under a million visitors in an average year, and we think it’s one of the best weekend trips from Seattle for nature lovers.

It’s an amazing park full of alpine lakes, mountain goats, outstanding views around every corner, and is home to some of the best hikes in Washington.

This North Cascades National Park itinerary will give you everything you need to know to fall in love with the North Cascades just like we have over the years, including the best things to do and see, where to stay, the best hikes, and the nitty gritty details you need to plan an unforgettable trip. 

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post, like hotel and vacation rental links, are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you we make a little bit of money if you click through and book. That being said, we would absolutely never recommend something to you that we don’t stand behind 100%.

A Complete 2 Day North Cascades National Park Itinerary

Here’s exactly how we’d spend a weekend exploring North Cascades National Park. If you have more time, we have some thoughts at the end on what to add with more time. 

The first thing you should know is that you don’t actually stop at an entrance when you arrive at North Cascades National park. It’s free! So don’t count the North Cascades towards the three parks you need to visit within 12 months to make your America the Beautiful Pass pay off (the US National Parks pass that allows you to visit any National Park – it costs $80 for 12 months).  

The second thing to note is that you could either start this itinerary from Seattle, or you could drive up on Friday evening to give yourself more time on Saturday. Stay in Marblemount / Concrete or at one of the campgrounds inside the park if this is your plan. Then, the next day, you’ll have plenty of time to start at the western edge of the park and make your way all the way through the park along Highway 20. 

If you’re heading up on Friday evening, make plans to stay in Concrete (or camp at one of the national park campgrounds) and use your first night to get all the supplies you’ll need for your weekend – food, water, etc. – since there are no grocery stores or dining options between Marblemount and Winthrop, on the other side of the Cascades. 

Day 1: Scenic Drive to Winthrop

Start your day early to make it to Highway 20 before the crowds arrive. Spend your first day taking your time on the extraordinarily scenic drive from Marblemount to Winthrop, spending the night in Winthrop at Rolling Huts

Newhalem

Stop in Newhalem at the Visitors Center to grab maps and talk to the helpful rangers about hiking conditions. Trail of the Cedars is a quick and easy hike that leaves from the campground and has a cool suspension bridge. 

Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake is the most famous landmark in North Cascades National Park, and for good reason. It’s so blue! 

Stop at the overlook for the lake, which is a bright turquoise color thanks to melting glaciers and the resulting silt that runs off into the lake, similar to the lakes in the Canadian Rockies. 

Whenever we talk to fellow Washingtonians about our love for the North Cascades, the first thing people usually mention is the water of Diablo Lake. 

As you continue along Hwy 20, you’ll come to Ross Lake. Ross Lake is far less impressive than Diablo Lake, but Ross Lake Resort is pretty cool. It’s accessible only by boat, and you can rent canoes or kayaks for the day to head out on the water and explore places you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. With two days, you probably don’t have enough time to make the journey out there worth it, but it’s worth considering. It’s at the top of the “what to do with more time” list below. 

Blue Lake Trail

This is one of our favorite hikes in North Cascades National Park, and it’s super accessible for hikers of all experience and fitness levels. It’s technically in the National Forest immediately adjacent to the park, but it’s close enough. 

Follow the trail as it climbs steadily through the forest before emerging onto a gorgeous, crystal clear alpine lake full of tiny fishes and backed by the Liberty Bell and several of the other prominent peaks of the surrounding Cascades. 

It’s a 4.4 mile hike (round trip) with 1,000 feet of elevation gain, putting it firmly in the “moderate” category. Still, we think it’s doable for families with kids (and we saw plenty of them on the trail).

The parking lot is small, and by about 8am the cars start lining the highway as the parking lot fills up. There’s a vault toilet at the trailhead, and you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park there. 

Washington Pass Overlook

Your last stop for the day before descending into Winthrop to check into your accommodations and grab some food is Washington Pass, which marks the high point of Highway 20, perched between Western Washington and Eastern Washington, which is like a whole new world. 

Again, it’s technically not inside the park, but it’s a must-see on any trip to the North Cascades. Get out of the car and do the mini loop, where you’ll have exquisite views of the Liberty Bell over the course of a quarter of a mile.

Once you’ve picked your jaw up off the ground, head down into Winthrop for the night.

We highly, highly recommend staying at the Rolling Huts, which are north of the town of Winthrop and will put you in the perfect position for your morning tomorrow. Plus, they’re beautiful, so that’s a plus. 

Day 2: The Best Hike in the North Cascades

Most of your second day in the park should be spent on tackling one of the best hikes in North Cascades National Park, and we have strong opinions about exactly which hike you should choose. 

Hike the Maple Pass Trail

We think the Maple Pass Trail (7 mile loop, 2,000 feet of elevation gain) is the best bang-for-your-buck hike in the park, and it tops our list of the best hikes in Washington State

It’s that good. 

The trailhead actually has plenty of parking, but it still manages to fill up on summer weekends. Plan on arriving at the trailhead by 9am 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, there’s an offshoot trail to the left that takes you to the shores 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. 

Make Your Way Back to Seattle

Depending on your fitness level, the hike is probably going to take you most of the morning and into the afternoon, which won’t leave you with a ton of time to do anything else. 

Head back west on Highway 20, stopping at any of the viewpoints you wanted to spend more time on, and make your way back home to Seattle. 

What to Add with More Time

Ross Lake Resort

Take a water taxi out to the resort, which will cost you $3. Rent a boat (canoes are $45 for the day, kayaks are slightly more expensive) and spend the day exploring out on the water of Ross Lake. 

You could also stay the night at the resort, which has cabins and bunkhouses (make sure to reserve in advance!) that can only be accessed by boat in the summer and early fall. There are basically no services out there, so you’ll need to bring all your own cooking equipment and food. 

Tackle More Hikes!

There are basically an endless number of hikes to do in and around North Cascades National Park. Here are three more, in addition to the two that are included in the itinerary above. 

Cascade Pass / Sahale Arm (12 miles out and back, 4,000 feet of elevation gain): We STILL haven’t done this hike, even though it’s supposed to be one of the most spectacular hikes in the state, because of the road getting there. It’s passable with normal vehicles (we drive a Honda Odyssey with a custom-built bed platform in the back and clearance is low, at best), but the road is long. We figured out that it would take at least an hour each way, and decided to spend our time elsewhere. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you’ll be fine, and it’s totally doable with a normal passenger vehicle. This is also a great overnight hike.

Park Butte (7.5 miles out and back, 2,200 feet of elevation gain): This is actually more in the Mt. Baker region than it is North Cascades, but it’s a short drive off of Highway 20 near Baker Lake between Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount. The hike is moderate and you’ll have views of Mt. Baker the whole way through the second half of the hike. 

Thunder Knob (3.6 miles out and back, 635 feet of elevation gain): One of the easier hikes in the park, this one is 3.6 miles and leaves from the trailhead across Hwy 20 from Colonial Creek Campground. We did it as an early morning hike, and you get some nice views from the opposite side of Diablo Lake from the usual viewpoint. Good hike for families staying at Colonial Creek. 

When to Visit North Cascades National Park

Peak season for the North Cascades is mid-July through mid-October. We found out the hard way that the park isn’t really accessible until later in the summer when we booked a mid-June trip, got to Seattle, and realized that all of the best hikes in the North Cascades were still covered in snow. So we rebooked our trip for late August, and it was perfect. 

If you don’t care about hiking some of the higher elevation trails in the park, then late spring, starting around Memorial Day, is a pleasant time to be there. Some of the better hikes will be inaccessible, but you’ll be able to drive the scenic Highway 20, check out Diablo Lake, and do some of the lower hikes like the Thunder Knob trail. Weather will be a bit cooler and wetter than peak summer, but it could also be warm and beautiful – it’s more variable, so you’ll need to be prepared with a good rain jacket and sturdy hiking boots or hiking shoes. 

Fall brings excellent color to the North Cascades, though like most places in Washington State, the weather is going to be a little bit more variable starting in late September. Still, the drive is gorgeous, and you’ll see flashes of yellow and orange lighting up the landscape around you. 

Winter brings lots of snow and road closures that make it a bad time to visit the North Cascades. Highway 20, the main thoroughfare through the park, closes between Ross Dam and milepost 171 on the other side of Washington Pass 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, but won’t be able to go much further than that. Check road conditions here

Getting to North Cascades National Park

Getting to North Cascades National Park from Seattle and elsewhere is fairly straightforward. 

From Seattle

Getting to North Cascades National Park from Seattle is simple. Head north on I-5 to Sedro-Woolley (exit 232) and head east on Highway 20 until you’re in the park. It’s a two hour (112 mile) drive without traffic. 

You could also cut over on Highway 530, which runs parallel to I-5, but we prefer staying on I-5 for the amenities like gas, food, and grocery stores along the way. 

From Elsewhere

If you’re coming from out of state, the best way to visit the North Cascades is to fly into either Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), the main airport for the Seattle metro area, or the smaller airports in the region – Paine Field (PAE) or Bellingham International Airport (BLI), which have fewer flight options, but are closer to the North Cascades. 

Rent a car at the airport and head out to the national park to start your adventure. 


Or, make your visit part of a big loop of Washington, seeing all of the national parks, cities, and towns that make Washington State special on our Washington State road trip itinerary

Where to Stay Near North Cascades National Park

Unless you’re camping, you’re going to need to find a place to stay in the small towns either to the west of the park – Marblemount and Concrete – or to the east – Winthrop and Twisp.

We recommend Winthrop because it’s actually closer to most of the attractions in the park, like Washington Pass Overlook, Maple Pass, Blue Lake.

From Winthrop, it’s a 25-30 minute drive to most of those places. From Marblemount, it’s a little over an hour. 

Staying inside the Park

The only option for staying inside the park is camping.

The exception is Ross Lake Resort, which is accessible only by water taxi, and is high on our list of unique places to stay in Washington. They have cabins and bunkhouses that are worth a look, but probably aren’t a great place to base yourself if you only have two or three days. 

Here is the NPS guide to camping in North Cascades National Park where you’ll find information about the campgrounds and opening status. The information below is for the summer – many become first-come-first-served with limited services and no running water in the winter. 

Colonial Creek and Newhalem Campground are the two biggest and most popular campgrounds in the park. We have stayed at both, for what it’s worth, and liked Colonial Creek better, both for the location, and the fact that the sites offer a little more privacy. At Newhalem, we were basically on top of the people on either side of us. Both have flush toilets and potable water, and are reservable in advance. You should make your reservation as early as humanly possible. 

Goodell Campground is across the road from Newhalem, and is a little smaller with only 19 sites. They have potable water, vault toilets, and are reservable online up to six months in advance. 

Gorge Lake is a tiny campground that you can reserve in advance with eight sites, vault toilets, and no potable water. It’s in a pretty good location, near Diablo, but I can’t stress enough how small it is. 

Staying East of the Park: Winthrop and Twisp

Staying east of the park, which will give you the best access to some of the top hikes in the North Cascades like Maple Pass and Blue Lake, is our recommendation. Winthrop is a cool little western themed town with some pretty spectacular places to stay.

Here are some recommendations. 

Rolling Huts: YES PLEASE. These gorgeous cabins in Winthrop are our number one recommendation, and it’s not close. Not only are they stunning, they’re also north of Winthrop, closer to the North Cascades. You’ll be about 25-30 minutes away from the trailheads for Maple Pass and Blue Lake, and the Washington Pass overlook. 

Other Hotels & Lodges in Winthrop


Vacation Rentals in Winthrop

Staying West of the Park: Marblemount and Concrete

If you want to stay to the west of the park, your best options are Marblemount and Concrete. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of choices here, and they’re further away from the main attractions in the park. However, they are closer to Seattle, which is a consideration if you have limited time. 

We’d choose Marblemount, which is closer to the park.

In Marblemount, the best option is this three bedroom house on VRBO. You could also choose this two bedroom cabin if you need less space (same owners). There’s really not a whole lot of other choices. 


Headed to North Cascades National Park? You won’t want to miss our guide to hiking in North Cascades National Park to find an amazing trail perfect for your hiking experience and fitness level.

Don’t miss our other guides to Washington State’s Amazing National Parks!

MORE TO EXPLORE IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

If you’re planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got you covered with all sorts of super detailed travel guides to our favorite places in Washington and Oregon.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.