North Cascades National Park Adventure Guide: Everything You Need to Know
We first come across North Cascades National Park after reading a list about the least-visited national parks in the whole USA. While most of the parks on that list were located in the far north state of Alaska (which made sense) we were surprised to see that a park in the great state of Washington had somehow been included.
After doing a bit of digging, we realized we had to make a trip up to that ruggedly beautiful mountain national park. Fast forward a couple of years (and a fair bit of planning later) and we finally found ourselves standing atop one of the many mountain passes staring out at glacier-carved valleys and epically sharp mountain peaks. We had finally made it to the heart of North Cascades National Park.
If you are like us and are looking for your own high alpine adventure, then we cannot recommend this national park enough. Seriously, we grew up with Rocky Mountain National Park in our backyard and we were still awe-struck by the views and the adventures.
So what makes North Cascades National Park so special? Well for starters, it is home to the most expansive glacial system in the USA outside of Alaska (take that Glacier National Park) as well as the highest degree of flora biodiversity of any American national park. 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, and the animal life is thriving (this includes even a small resident grizzly bear population).
We were completely taken aback by the park’s beauty — as well as its numerous adventure opportunities (the park is a mecca for mountaineering). Upon visiting, we decided to spend some time in the front country as well as in the backcountry (namely backpacking for 3 days). Along our trip, we learned a few things — which you will find below.
So if you are looking to add this stunning national park to your travel itinerary, then make sure to read and save this full, in-depth North Cascades National Park Guide which covers everything you need to know.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the national park is actually made up of three different sections = Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and North Cascades National Park. All are run by the national park service but do have somewhat different regulations (like pets being allowed in the NRA’s). You can stop by the main visitor center to learn more.
\\ Fast Facts About North Cascades National Park
| Year Established: 1968
| Where is North Cascades National Park: northern Washington state
| Size: 504,654 acres
| Number of Annual Visitors (2021): 30,885 in just North Cascades National Park, and a combined 896,437 people in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and the Ross Lake National Recreation Areas.
| Cost to Enter North Cascades National Park: it is free to enter! There are no entrance stations — though you will still need to pay for camping.
| Best For: hiking, backpacking and mountaineering
NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK MAP
\\ A Brief History of North Cascades National Park
Human history in North Cascades National Park and the surrounding region began 8–10,000 years ago, after the end of the last glacial period. Paleo-Indians slowly advanced from the Puget Sound into the interior mountain region as the glacial ice retreated. The first white explorer to enter the North Cascades was most likely a Scotsman named Alexander Ross, who was in the employ of the American-owned Pacific Fur Company.
To the southeast of the modern park boundary, Ross and other members of the company constructed Fort Okanogan in 1811 as a base from which to operate during the early period of the Pacific Northwest fur trade. Fort Okanogan was actually the first American settlement in present-day Washington State. Unlike in many other regions of the Pacific Northwest, due to the ruggedness of the terrain, logging had little impact on the future park.
Washingtonians submitted a petition in 1892 to establish a national park to the north of Lake Chelan, as many who had visited the region believed it to have scenery “greater than Switzerland’s.” A couple of years later (in 1897) the Washington Forest Reserve was created and set aside. This designation preserved the forestland that would later become the park.
But it wouldn’t be until 1968 that the reserve officially became a national park. The North Cascades National Park Act at the same time also created Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas as well as Redwood National Park down in California.
\\ When to Visit North Cascades National Park
The best time to visit North Cascades National Park is generally between mid-June and late September. During this time of year, you can expect really nice weather, sunshine and clear days. Though, recently fall and spring are becoming more popular times for visitors since car tours of the Skagit, Okanogan and Stehekin Valleys are enticing for color and wildlife during the less busy “shoulder seasons.”
A few things to know about weather in North Cascades National Park: the east side of the Cascade Mountains (such as n Stehekin) is usually drier and warmer in the summer than the west side. Similarly, snow is usually melted completely by early July. And finally, because of the higher elevation and location between the mountains and the coast, the park’s weather can change rapidly from hot and sunny to cold and rainy/snowy. Always come prepared for any and all types of weather (check out our packing guide below).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) that runs across the national park seasonally closes during the winter due to avalanche danger. While you can still explore North Cascades National Park during the winter, it is recommended to only do so if you are completely prepared and knowledgeable about avalanche dangers. The North Cascades Highway usually closes for the season in mid-November.
\\ How to Get to North Cascades National Park
While the national park is located in the far northern half of the state (it borders the USA-Canada border) it is still relatively easy to reach — especially if you have your own private vehicle.
The easiest way to reach North Cascades National Park from Seattle is to head north on Interstate 5 up to Highway 20 just outside of Bellingham. Once on Highway 20, you will drive east for about 45 miles until you get to the town of Marblemount. From Marblemount, it is about 6 miles to the main national park entrance and the start of the national park.
The closest major airport to North Cascades National Park is going to be Sea-Tac, which is located between Seattle and Tacoma. It is roughly 120 miles from the airport to the national park entrance.
📌 TOTAL DISTANCE: around 2 hours, ~100 miles
GETTING AROUND NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
You will need to have your own form of transportation to explore North Cascades National Park for there is NO park shuttle. The whole park complex is quite large so expect a decent amount of time traveling between the different areas — especially if you are looking to explore some of the more remote parts (like Cascade Pass and the Sahale Glacier).
Similarly, there are numerous areas within the park that you cannot reach via car. For example, if you are hoping to check out Stehekin, you will need to either hike in (23 miles minimum) or take a boat from the town of Chelan.
➳ Read more on Stehekin below.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
If you are looking to stay outside of the national park, then your best bases are going to be either Marblemount and Concrete on the west side or Winthrop and Mazama on the east side.
Marblemount has the national park wilderness office (where you need to pick up your backcountry permits), a few lodging options and a couple of small, local restaurants. Concrete is a bit bigger — though a bit farther from the national park entrance. There you can find a small downtown with a couple of restaurants and cafes, a number of hotels and motels and two grocery stores.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you stay in Concrete — or just pass through on your way to or from the national park — we highly recommend checking out Birdsview Diner, a small locally owned burger joint with delicious food and a fun outdoor area.
On the east side of the national park you have two options of places to choose from: the very small but cute hamlet of Mazama or the slightly larger, more “touristy” town of Winthrop. Both are located in beautiful places with plenty of things to do — though if you want more services and options to choose from, we definitely recommend staying in Winthrop (which looks a lot like an old West town).
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you stay in Mazama or just drive by, definitely take the time to pull into the Mazama Store, a cute locally run spot (see photos below) with a delicious bakery (the baguettes are amazing), a small coffee shop, and healthy selection of food and gear (especially outdoor-focused gear).
NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK VISITOR CENTER
There is one main North Cascades National Park Visitor Center, which is located near the town of Newhalem (the last town on the west side of the park). The main park visitor center has a nice exhibit covering the various biomes found in the park (as well as the human history). There is also a small gift shop and rangers on duty to answer your questions.
🕝 HOURS: 9 AM — 5 PM
If you are hoping to spend the night out in the North Cascades wilderness (like when backpacking) then you will first need to get a backcountry permit. Permits are required year-round for all overnight stays in the backcountry within the North Cascades National Park Service Complex (North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas).
Walk-up permits are available in person the day before or the day of your desired trip on a first-come, first-served basis.
For all backcountry permits, you will need to go to the North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, NOT the main Visitor Center. The Wilderness Center is located about 25 minutes west of the visitor center.
Learn more about getting a backcountry permit here.
\\ Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park
There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to staying near North Cascades National Park (or in it). From upscale mountain and lake resorts to beautiful forested campsites, there is the perfect lodging option available depending on what kind of trip you are looking to have.
LODGING IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
If you are hoping to stay within North Cascades National Park then you have a couple of options — both of which require a bit of extra planning. The first is the Ross Lake Resort, which is located on the bank of the massive Ross Lake in the heart of the national park. The second is the North Cascades Lodge in the historic town of Stehekin (located on Lake Chelan). For both, you will need to plan ahead for transportation because you cannot drive to either one.
ROSS LAKE RESORT
Opened back in 1952, the Ross Lake Resort is located in the center of the North Cascade Mountains. The resort includes fifteen floating cabins and a marina. Every cabin is furnished and includes a small kitchen, bathroom, electricity, and hot and cold running water. Likewise, towels, bedding, tableware, and cooking ware are also included. Do know that you will need to bring your own food for there is no restaurant or store on-site.
The best way to reach the resort is to park at the Ross Lake/Dam Trailhead (off Highway 20) and then walk down the trail for one mile until you reach the lake’s edge (where you will be able to see the resort across the water). Once there, call the resort using the provided phone. They will then send a boat over to pick you up. It costs $3 /person each way.
NORTH CASCADES LODGE AT STEHEKIN
Another awesome lodging option in North Cascades National Park is to book a night (or multiple) at the quaint North Cascades Lodge in the small lake town of Stehekin. Like the Ross Lake Resort, you will not be able to drive to the lodge. Instead, you will either need to boat in on the Lady of the Lake Ferry or the Stehekin Ferry from the town of Chelan or hike in on one of the many trails available (including the PCT).
The lodge has many different rooms and styles to choose from depending on your party size and preferences. There is also a small restaurant and store onsite, easy access to Lake Chelan and surrounding hiking trails, bike and kayak rentals, and guided trips.
LODGING NEAR NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
As mentioned above, the closest towns to North Cascades National Park with any type of lodging are going to be Marblemount and Concrete on the west side and Winthrop and Mazama on the east side. Below are a couple of great lodging options if you are looking to base yourself close to the national park.
| Glacier Peak Resort & Eatery: this cute family-run resort is located just outside of Marblemount (and about 8 miles from the west side park entrance). There is an onsite restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, hot tubs, cute cabins, walking trails and laundry services. Pets are also allowed.
| Buffalo Run Inn: located in the heart of Marblemount, this old-timey inn (it began as a meeting place for miners and lumberjacks in 1884) is easy walking distance to the few restaurants and services found in the mountain town. Amenities include free parking, free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and small kitchenettes.
| Mount Baker Hotel: the farthest hotel from the west side entrance to the park is this family-run establishment in Concrete that has fast Wi-Fi, small kitchenettes, and free parking. It is also easy walking distance to everything in downtown Concrete — including restaurants, stores, bike trails and cafes.
| Sun Mountain Lodge: if you want to combine adventure with luxury, then look no further than this stunning mountain lodge located outside of the cute town of Winthrop. Amenities at this outdoorsy resort include an outdoor pool, hot tubs, horseback riding, ski school and rentals, boats, and a spa.
| Methow River Lodge: located in the heart of Winthrop, this lodge includes regular hotel rooms and private cabins. Amenities include free parking, high-speed internet, in-room kitchenettes, and in the winter easy access to local ski trails.
| Brown’s Farm: if you are looking for more privacy and space — or if you just want to totally escape the hubbub of people, then consider booking this super cute wooden cabin near the small town of Mazama. The cabin comes with multiple bedrooms, a very well-stocked kitchen and amazing mountain views.
CAMPING IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
There are four campgrounds within the North Cascades National Park Complex. There are also two group campsites: Lower Goodell and Upper Goodell. During the peak season (May 23 — September 10) all campgrounds have a reservation system in place. You will need to visit recreation.gov to reserve your spot.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: all campgrounds are non-electrical (aka there are NO electrical hookups). Similarly, there are no shower facilities available.
GOODELL CREEK CAMPGROUND
This campground is small, yet comfortable and close to the town of Newhalem (and the park visitor center). It is located along the beautiful Skagit River and is surrounded by dense forest.
PRICE: $20 /night
AMENITIES: drinking water, vault toilets, campfire rings, a boat ramp, pets allowed, picnic tables and food storage lockers (for animals). There are NO electrical hookups.
GORGE LAKE CAMPGROUND
Located on the bank of Gorge Lake and right next to the cascading Stetattle Creek, this small campground is a great place to base yourself if looking to check out Ross and Diablo Lakes.
PRICE: $20 /night
AMENITIES: vault toilets, boat ramp, fire pits, pets allowed, waterfront sites, and picnic tables. There is NO drinking water available or electrical hook-ups.
This campground is a comfortable facility close to the town of Newhalem (and the park visitor center) as well as the Skagit River. It is surrounded by forests that can be explored through the area’s numerous hiking trails.
PRICE: $24 /night for both the hike-to and standard campsites; $75 / night for the group sites
SITES: 100+ and 2 different group sites
AMENITIES: flush toilets, picnic shelters, drinking water, pets allowed, picnic tables, campfire rings, food storage lockers, accessible sites.
Newhalem Group Sites: the two group sites (upper and lower) are located across the road from the main campground. There is NO water available at either of the group sites (you will need to cross over to the main campground). Each group site can easily fit 10–20 people.
COLONIAL CREEK CAMPGROUND
This sizeable campground is in a remote, yet bustling spot nestled within an old-growth forest. Diablo Lake is within a short walk or drive from both the north and south campgrounds.
PRICE: $24 /night for both the north and south sides
SITES: 41 on the north side and 94 on the south side
AMENITIES: drinking water, flush toilets, food storage lockers, pets allowed, picnic tables, fire rings, tent pads, a boat ramp, and a fishing pier on the south side.
If you are not able to secure a campground within North Cascades National Park — or if you are looking for something with more amenities (like electricity) then your best bet is to stay at the Alpine RV Park and Campground, located on the east side of Marblemount (and only 4 miles from the west side park entrance). This small, locally owned RV park includes sizeable parking spots, water and electricity, decent internet, showers and laundry facilities.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we stayed here for a night after backpacking in North Cascades National Park and while it is very much a no-frills kind of place, it definitely gets the job done. Plus, for $20 a night (for a smaller van, no hook-ups) you get access to the showers and laundry facilities, a picnic table and fire grate, and good enough Wi-Fi to work off of.
\\ What to Bring With You to North Cascades National Park
Due to the North Cascades National Park’s rugged and northerly location, be prepared for rougher weather year-round. Also, as with any high mountain adventure, be ready for quickly changing weather. Below are a few of the key things to bring with you when adventuring in North Cascades National Park.
You will want to wear a pair of sturdy boots that can handle all kinds of terrain: from steep rocky scree fields to slick river crossings to just miles upon miles of trail pounding. These hiking boots by Vasque seem to be a jack of all trades and therefore should be able to handle whatever the trails throws at you. Recommended hiking boot.
These socks can easily go from hitting the trails to hanging out at camp due to their moisture-wicking properties and slightly elastic stretch. Plus, they are made partially of recycled materials — meaning they are good for you and the planet. Recommended hiking socks from Smartwool.
This lightweight fleece jacket works great as both a mid-layer for winter hiking adventures or as a solo jacket once the season starts to warm up. Plus, the raglan-style sleeves on this one provide seam-free comfort when you are carrying a backpack. Finally, this fleece jacket is made of recycled fabrics and is Bluesign approved (its sewing was also Fair Trade Certified). Recommended hiking jacket.
While a nice cozy jacket will help keep you nice and warm on those chilly mornings or late-season days, usually the best jacket to have with you while hiking is an easy-to-pack rain jacket. This one by Patagonia checks all of the boxes: it is super lightweight and can pack down into its own little pouch, it has underarm zips that let you vent air even when hiking, it also has an adjustable elastic draw cord hem that allows fine-tuning for the perfect fit, and finally, it is also Bluesign approved and its sewing is Fair Trade Certified. Recommended rain jacket.
When it’s a nice warm day, we usually reach for some easy, breathable, comfortable shorts. This pair by Mountain Hardwear is simple but gets the job done. Plus, they are made of a nice breathable ripstop fabric that resists wear and tear and has nice hand and thigh pockets that allow you to stash small essentials like snacks, your phone and some Chapstick. Recommended hiking shorts.
Depending on the time of year, you will likely choose to gravitate towards wearing either full-length hiking pants or a set of lightweight active shorts. We tend to veer more towards wearing pants while hiking unless it is absolutely scorching out — just for the sun protection and less likelihood of getting scratches and cuts from plants. These pants by Black Diamond, are durable enough for all kinds of trails, while also being comfortable enough to wear even when the temperature starts to pick up. Recommended hiking pants here.
Because most hiking is done out in the sun (even in Washington), you will want to make sure you have a nice comfortable, wide-brimmed hat to help keep your face shaded and the sun out of your eyes. This wide-brim hat by Patagonia is easy to adjust, lightweight and moisture-wicking — plus, like almost all Patagonia gear, it is made of eco-friendly recycled materials. Recommended sun hat.
While a sun hat definitely helps protect your face from the sun’s harmful rays, it is still important to give your skin that extra bit of protection — especially your shoulders, feet and hands. These sunscreens not only protect you against the sun but are also environmentally safe.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the sun is incredibly strong in the mountains, especially at higher elevations. Remember to reapply sunscreen during the entire hike.
A handy headlamp is a true adventure necessity — especially when the adventure requires you to start hiking early in the morning or into the late evening. We tend to have about 5 headlamps scattered around our van just in case we lose one or the batteries die (which somehow happens quite often). This headlamp by Black Diamond is a personal favorite because it is relatively affordable, it has multiple light settings and it is rechargeable. Recommended headlamp.
HIKING DAY PACK
By far one of the most important items in your hiking repertoire is going to be your backpack. Because you will be carrying this bag all day on the trail — including sometimes up and down some steep and sketchy sections — you will want to make sure it is really comfortable. This bag by Osprey holds 24 liters of gear, while still having plenty of straps to allow it to fit perfectly to your body. Plus, it is made of a nice Durable nylon construction that can withstand tons of trail abuse. It also has a specific place to attach your trekking poles or ice ax — which will help you free up your hands. Recommended day pack.
One of the best ways to cut back on your hiking load is to bring along a water filter. This super easy one by Grayl combines a water filter inside an actual water bottle — meaning less gear to carry and less time actually filtering. A true win-win. Recommended water filter.
Or if you want to get an actual water filter system that allows you to filter lots of water at once, we recommend this top-notch Katadyn water filter. This filter has been our go-to for all hiking and backpacking adventures for many years. It takes up very little space, is easy to clean and works pretty darn fast. Recommended Katadyn water filter.
HIKING FIRST AID KIT
This is one of those items that you don’t realize you need until it is too late. Luckily, this lightweight pack comes with (almost) everything you could need if an accident does unfortunately occur on the trail. Recommended hiking first aid kit.
We personally have never been the type of hikers to use trekking poles, but we have friends who absolutely swear by them. This set by Black Diamond can handle all kinds of terrain, are super lightweight and pack down small enough to be stored easily on the side of your backpack. Recommended trekking poles.
This is another safety thing to have on you just in case something bad happens (the likelihood is very, very low). We carried a can of bear spray with us (for the first time) while backpacking in North Cascades National Park more for the peace of mind than anything else. Find a can of it here.
Another key thing to remember when it comes to hiking in bear country (which the national park definitely is) is to always keep an eye on your food and gear just in case a bear (or another animal, like a squirrel) is around and is a bit hungry. Likewise, when hiking through dense brush, always make noises and keep an eye on your surroundings.
► Read more about hiking and backpacking in bear country in our super handy safety guide.
Once you make it back to your base camp (your car, your tent, your house) make sure to take off those boots, stretch out your arches and let your feet breathe. Seriously, this might be one of the best feelings ever. After you do that, slip on a pair of these comfortable Teva sandals (we won’t judge if you add socks too). Recommended post-hike sandals.
POST-HIKE COZY SHIRT
Likewise, there are few things nicer than taking off your sweaty shirt and putting on a nice cozy, clean one after a long hike. This one by the Parks Project is made of a nice durable, soft cotton fabric and cut into a very vintage style. Recommend post-hike shirt.
You can read even more about North Cascades National Park — including the Top 5 Things to Do in the Park here.
North Cascades National Park should be on every mountain-loving, outdoor adventurer's bucket list. The rugged mountains, bountiful wildlife, colorful alpine meadows and crystal clear waters are absolutely stunning — and completely worth making the long drive for.
Hopefully, this in-depth national park adventure guide covers everything you need to know about the park, but if you have any further questions, please leave them below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.