How to Spend 2 Days in North Cascades National Park in Washington

North Cascades National Park is a special hidden gem way up in the northern half of the state of Washington. The park — which is actually made up of three different “sections” (Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and North Cascades National Park) — is home to the most expansive glacial system in the USA outside of Alaska as well as the highest degree of flora biodiversity of any American national park. All of this put together, 100% makes North Cascades National Park worth visiting!

It is also just incredibly beautiful — the rivers and creeks are a vibrant turquoise color due to them being primarily fed from glacier run-off, the forests are healthy and large due to the lack of logging (historically, the landscape was too rugged to make logging an economically viable option), and the animal life is thriving (this includes even a small resident grizzly bear population).

If you are looking for an amazing alpine adventure and are considering exploring North Cascades National Park for yourself, then make sure to check out our 1 Day, 2 Day and 3 Day Travel Itineraries below for all your planning needs.

► You can find even more information on the national park in our comprehensive North Cascades National Park Adventure Guide!

NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK PARK MAP

3 PERFECT NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK TRAVEL ITINERARIES

Due to North Cascades National Park's size (504,654 acres), we suggest splitting up your days into exploring just the west side and then just the east side.

While there isn’t really a clear split between each side, we consider the edge of Ross Lake to be the divider. This division is in our opinion a more efficient way to see the park, for it is quite large and you can spend a good deal of time just simply driving across it.

We suggest starting on the west side and then heading over to the east side, since the west side is closer to Seattle and the coast (and Interstate 5, the main north-south corridor across the state), has the main park visitor center and all four of the park campgrounds.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the closest grocery store to the park is going to be in the town of Concrete (which is located along Highway 20 and only 35 minutes from the park’s west entrance). Otherwise, if you need any big box stores your best bet is to stock up in the town of Burlington, which is right at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 20. There you have a Walmart, Fred Meyer, and Costco.

NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK 1 DAY ITINERARY

If you only have one day in North Cascades National Park then your best bet is to head out on a nice hike in the morning and then try to check out either Ross or Diablo Lakes (or both) in the afternoon and into the evening (its a great sunset spot).

Below are some of the top hikes in North Cascades National Park.

CASCADE PASS AND SAHALE ARM

One of the more well-known areas to explore within North Cascades National Park is the stunning Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm area. In fact, the Cascade Pass Trail is the most popular hiking trail in the entire national park complex — aka it gets really busy on summer weekends — due to its amazing views and the fact that it is the shortest and “easiest” access to the park’s beautiful alpine environment.

If you are looking for a tough but super rewarding hike, then definitely try to get up to the Cascade Pass Trailhead in the early morning and start hiking out before it gets too busy. The whole trail (out to Sahale Mountain) is 12.1 miles round-trip with just over 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

HIDDEN LAKE LOOKOUT

Another great option if you are someone who wants to combine great views — some say the best in the entire park — with a bit of history, is to hike up to the Hidden Lake Lookout, which was built in 1932 and decommissioned by the Forest Service sometime around 1953. The hiking trail measures roughly 8 miles round trip with around 3,300 feet of elevation gain. If you are someone who wants those epic mountain top views, then this is definitely the trail to do.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

MAPLE PASS LOOP

Another popular trail in North Cascades National Park is this 7.4-mile loop that takes you up and over a pass (Maple Pass) and along some ridgelines — which affords you amazing views of various mountain peaks and two alpine lakes. This is an A+ trail to hike along during the fall for there are tons of larch trees along the route.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

Other recommended hikes to explore (depending on your location within the park and how far you want to go) are: Thornton Lakes Trail (10.9 miles total, west side of the park), Lake Ann Trail (3.4 miles total, east side of the park) and Blue Lake Trail (4.6 miles total, east side of the park).

Once you are done hiking, head over to either Ross Lake or Diablo Lake (or both since they are so close to each other) for a chance to check out the turquoise water.

To reach either, drive out on Highway 20/North Cascades Highway until you start seeing the beautiful water below you. You can check out either of the lake’s dams (they were both built in the 1930s in order to bring power to Seattle) or just pull over at one of the many viewpoints to get a better view of the colorful water and the rugged mountain valleys.

💬 INSIDER TIP: we definitely recommend stopping off at the Diablo Lake Overlook for one of the best views in the park (especially during sunrise or sunset).

NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK 2 DAY ITINERARY

As mentioned above, if you have two days to spend in the national park then we suggest splitting it up into spending day one on the west side and then the second day on the east side. This makes it super easy to see the main points of interest — including the two lakes and the visitor center — without adding a lot of excess driving time.

DAY 1

Start your first day by hiking along one of the trails located on the west side of the park — namely the Cascade Pass or Ross and Diablo Lakes area.

We recommend checking out the Cascade Pass Trail if you are looking for amazing alpine views, or the Lookout Mountain Lookout if you want to combine great views, history and a bit of solitude.

Both of those trails are located off of Cascade River Road, which you can reach from the town of Marblemount (which is roughly 6.5 miles from the west side entrance). This scenic road has numerous other hiking trails along it, so don’t worry about finding a spot to adventure.

Closer to Ross and Diablo Lakes you can find many other hiking trails to explore — including the East Bank Trail which follows the east side of Ross Lake and goes for miles and miles (all the way to Canada actually), the Pyramid Lake Trail, which is roughly 4 miles round-trip and takes you to a super clear blue lake; or the Thunder Knob Trail, which heads out towards the water and affords you with amazing views of Diablo Lake.

Once done hiking, and if time permits, stop in at the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center (located in Newhalem) to learn more about the park’s glacier system — there are 310 glaciers, the most of any place in the lower 48 states — and the 8 diverse ecosystems. You can also talk to a ranger, watch a short film and purchase national park postcards and stickers.

As for sleeping, we recommend trying to reserve a campsite at one of the four national park campgrounds (all are located near the visitor center or the two lakes). The four campgrounds come with various amenities, though none of them have electrical hook-ups (some also don’t have drinking water, so do your research ahead of time). If you are planning to visit during the park’s busy season — May to early September — you will need to make a reservation beforehand.

➳ Make your camping reservations here.

DAY 2

On the second day, we suggest getting up decently early, making a nice breakfast and heading out for another day on the trail. If on Day 1 you stayed on the west side of the park then on Day 2 head on over to the east side for some even more epic mountain views.

There are numerous hiking options along Highway 20, but we recommend either starting at Easy Pass or Rainy Pass.

💬 INSIDER TIP: we definitely suggest checking out and following North Cascade National Park’s Instagram page for that is where they post all of the latest park updates (including road closures and fire risks).

HIKES AT EASY PASS TRAILHEAD

| Easy Pass Trail: the synonymous trail at the pass is this 7.7-mile round-trip hike that heads out into the forest and along a creek before climbing up for some great high mountain views.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

| Fisher Creek to Thunder Creek: usually done as a backpacking route or a trail run, this 22.6-mile hike heads over Easy Pass and down along Thunder Creek and back north towards the lakes. If you have the gumption and are looking to combine forest hiking and alpine views, then this could be a really great choice. Do know that unless you have two cars (to shuttle) you will need to hitchhike back up to the Easy Pass Trailhead.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

HIKES AT RAINY PASS TRAILHEAD

| Maple Pass Loop: as mentioned in the 1 Day Itinerary, this is an excellent hike to do if you want mountain views, beautiful forests (especially in the fall when the leaves change colors), and alpine lakes all packaged into one trail.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

| Cutthroat Pass: a great 10(ish) mile trail to head out on is this gorgeous section of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). From Cutthroat Pass, you can continue hiking as long as you want on the PCT or head down some switchbacks to Cutthroat Lake. This is a great trail to day hike or backpack, especially in the fall when the larch trees and plants are changing colors. The pass sits at 6,798 feet above sea level.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

| Wing Lake and Black Peak: the Rainy Pass Trailhead can get pretty busy, so if you are looking to check out some alpine lakes and get high up for some epic mountain views — all without hordes of people — then this 11.1-mile trail might just be perfect. The hike starts from the same trail as the Maple Pass Loop trail before splitting off at Heather Pass to head more northwest towards Lewis Lake and Wing Lake (the trail split will be named Wing Lake).

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the final push up to the top of Black Peak does require a bit of mountaineering gear and some skill/comfort with Class 3/4 climbing and scrambling. The peak tops out at 8,970 feet above sea level.

FULL TRAIL REPORT

After your hiking adventure, consider stopping off at the Washington Pass Overlook (just down the highway from both trailheads) for even more epic mountain views. Then either turn around and head back west towards the coast and Seattle or east towards the towns of Mazama (home to the delicious Mazama Store) and Winthrop.

NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK 3 DAY ITINERARY

If you happen to have 3 days to spend in North Cascades National Park and you are looking for even more epic adventures, then we cannot recommend backpacking in the rugged wilderness enough.

Seriously. We have backpacked in numerous parts of the USA (including in many national parks) and we both agree that North Cascades might just be the prettiest. If you have the knowledge, the gumption and the gear, then definitely, definitely try to spend at least one night in the backcountry.

Just remember that you will need to get a backcountry permit no matter when you are heading out to backpack. You will need to pick up your permits at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount (NOT the main park visitor center). There you can also talk to a ranger about any questions or concerns you might have, figure out the best campsites and routes to explore, and just learn more about the national park in general.

➳ Learn more about getting a backcountry permit here.

North Cascades National Park is full of epic adventures and stunning natural scenery. While we always suggest putting aside more time for exploring, we also understand that sometimes it isn’t feasible to spend weeks visiting one place.

Hopefully, these 1 Day, 2 Day and 3 Day Travel Itineraries help you plan some amazing adventures in North Cascades National Park. If you have any questions, please leave them below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.

► Also, make sure to check out and save our Ultimate North Cascades National Park Adventure Guide, which covers everything you need to know about visiting the park.

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Backroad Packers

Backroad Packers

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Two adventurers creating in-depth travel guides to inspire you to slow down and get off the beaten path more.