North Cascades National Park – Camping, Trails & Best Tips

Petr Novák

North Cascades National Park is situated in the northern part of the state of Washington near the Canadian border. Less than a three-hour drive from Seattle, it showcases rugged peaks nearly 9,843 ft high, 318 glaciers, and about 300 lakes.

Sahale Arm Trail, North Cascades National Park | © Miguel Vieira

Table of Contents
  1. About North Cascades National Park
  2. What to See and Do in North Cascades National Park
  3. When to Visit North Cascades National Park
  4. Entrance Fees for North Cascades National Park
  5. Getting to North Cascades National Park
  6. Lodging in North Cascades National Park
  7. Tips and Recommendations Before Traveling to North Cascades National Park
  8. Photos of North Cascades National Park

About North Cascades National Park

The number three significantly characterizes North Cascades National Park. Spanning 789 mi2, it’s the largest of the three regions for which the USA Park Service is responsible. The other two are the Lake Chelan and Ross Lake National Recreation Areas. It’s Ross Lake that splits North Cascades National Park into northern and southern sections.

The park’s highest point is Goode Mountain at 9,206 ft, while the lowest point is Goodell Creek valley at 604 ft. These points signal the park’s mountainous nature, with most peaks covered in snow throughout the year.

Detailed exploration of the area began in the 1850s by mining engineers. Initially, they concentrated on the area around the wild Skagit River. However, as the industry expanded, so too did exploration and related mining activities into the Ruby Creek valley and other regions. Consideration for establishing a national park began after Yosemite and Yellowstone parks were designated in the late 19th century. Though several attempts failed, a park was finally established on October 2, 1968, marking the birth of North Cascades National Park.

In 2021, surprisingly, only 17,855 people visited the park, making it one of the least visited national parks in the USA. While its popularity among visitors may be low, its appeal among writers is high. Jack Kerouac once lived in the park and wrote the novels The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. The latter is an autobiographical account of Kerouac’s time as a ranger in the North Cascades.

North Cascades boasts an incredibly diverse animal kingdom, with 75 mammal species, 21 reptile species, 200 bird species, 28 fish species, and over 500 insect species. Among the mammals are deer, elk, chamois, black bears, river otters, mountain lions, and red lynxes. The grey wolf, grizzly bear, and Canada lynx are endangered species that call the park home.

What to See and Do in North Cascades National Park

Most of North Cascades National Park is classified as wilderness, with virtually no roads running through it, making car exploration not feasible.

A frequent destination for visitors is the Stehekin Valley with its namesake river and settlement. Also present is Lake Chelan, the third-deepest lake in America. You can enjoy a six-hour lake cruise, which includes a stop at the Stehekin settlement. In the language of the indigenous people who once traversed the valley to trade with Pacific Coast tribes, Stehekin means “the way through.”

If you have your own boat, consider a cruise on Ross Lake, which extends into Canada. Don’t forget to pack your fishing rods, as the fish are said to be abundant. A trio of hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River — Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam, and Ross Dam — supply power to nearby Seattle.

Mount Shuksan, a 9,131 ft peak in the northwestern part of North Cascades National Park, is a popular attraction. It’s one of the most photographed mountains in the USA. To capture a shot of the mountain with Picture Lake in the foreground, head to this location.

Nearby, you’ll find the Mount Baker Ski Area which features seven ski lifts and a vertical drop of 1,493 ft.

When the snow melts, you can explore the park’s many hiking trails. Popular routes include the 2.11 mi Pyramid Lake Trail and the 3.73 mi Cascade Pass Trail, which offers splendid views of snow-capped mountain peaks. Two extensive hiking trails also cross through North Cascades National Park: the Pacific Crest Trail, running from the Canadian to the Mexican border, and the 1,199 mi-long Pacific Northwest Trail, which extends from the Pacific coast to Montana.

When to Visit North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is accessible year-round, but weather conditions may lead to road closures during winter. Some information centers also remain closed throughout the winter.

Therefore, the ideal time to visit is in the summer, from mid-July to mid-September. Keep in mind that even in July, some trails may be blocked by snow. The weather is typically mountainous, i.e., variable and unpredictable, so having multiple layers of waterproof clothing is advisable.

Winters are traditionally heavy with snow. In 1999, for instance, the snowpack around Mt. Baker reached an astonishing 95 ft.

Average Temperatures and Visitor Numbers in North Cascades National Park

The average temperatures in North Cascades National Park are measured at Sedro-Woolley. Visitor counts are based on an average from 2017 to 2021, with data sourced from the National Park Service.

Max Temp Min Temp Precipitation Days Visitors Popularity
January 46°F 36°F 16.1 79 🟩
February 48°F 37°F 13.3 69 🟩
March 54°F 39°F 14.9 40 🟩
April 59°F 43°F 11.9 90 🟩
May 64°F 46°F 9.6 1 068 🟩
June 68°F 52°F 7.9 3 419 🟧🟧🟧
July 75°F 54°F 4.7 8 826 🟥🟥🟥🟥
August 75°F 54°F 4.5 8 467 🟥🟥🟥🟥
September 70°F 50°F 7.6 5 946 🟥🟥🟥🟥
October 59°F 46°F 13.6 896 🟩
November 50°F 39°F 17.8 95 🟩
December 45°F 36°F 17.0 29 🟩

Entrance Fees for North Cascades National Park

Admission to North Cascades National Park is free for everyone. Charges only apply for overnight stays at one of the park’s campsites.

Getting to North Cascades National Park

The most convenient way to reach the park is by your own car. State Route 20 runs through North Cascades most of the year.

For your convenience, I have prepared routes and driving times from several towns in the area:

From / To Distance Driving Time Map
Seattle 116 mi 2 hours 45 minutes View Route
Spokane 388 mi 6 hours 15 minutes View Route
Vancouver 135 mi 3 hours 5 minutes View Route

You can park your car at the visitor center, and if needed, refuel at the Chevron station in the village of Marblemount. The gas station is located on Route 20, so you won’t need to search for it.

Given the mountainous terrain of the park, there are virtually no roads. Primarily, you’ll be moving around on foot. Alternatively, you can use the red Stehekin Shuttle buses that run from morning till late afternoon along the river of the same name. The price of one ticket is $10.00.

Lodging in North Cascades National Park

🏨 Hotels

I recommend booking accommodation in either the village of Glacier, northwest of North Cascades NP, or Mount Vernon, southeast of the park.

Glacier offers hundreds of wooden cabins, while Mount Vernon has motels and hotels from well-known chains, such as Best Western, Days Inn, Hampton Inn, and Holiday Inn.

⛺ Campsites

You can also opt for one of the five campgrounds spread between the two parts of the park:

  • Goodell Creek Campground
    Located 13.05 mi east of the village of Marblemount, this campground lies in the woods, on the banks of the Skagit River. It provides drinking water and dry toilets, but no showers. A fee applies for a campsite and a night’s stay during summer $20.00. In winter, camping is free, but services are limited.
  • Newhalem Creek Campground
    Divided into several sections with a total capacity of 111 campsites, this campground is 14.29 mi east of Marblemount and open only during the summer. A fee of $24.00 per night and campsite is charged. Reservations are not accepted; it operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Gorge Lake Campground
    This small camp, with a capacity of just six tent sites, is 19.88 mi east of Marblemount. Camping here is possible throughout the year and is free, but there is no drinking water or other services available. A night’s stay costs $20.00.
  • Colonial Creek Campground
    Situated at the base of Colonial Peak at Diablo Lake, this medium-sized campground accommodates 60-70 campsites. The nightly fee is $24.00.
  • Hozomeen Campground
    A basic camp located deep in the mountains, it provides dry toilets and drinking water. With a capacity of 75 campsites, overnight stays here are free.

Tips and Recommendations Before Traveling to North Cascades National Park

ℹ️ Visitor Center

I recommend beginning your tour of the park with a visit to one of its visitor centers. There are several in the park:

  • North Cascades National Park Visitor Center
    Located at milepost 120 of the North Cascades Highway near the hamlet of Newhalem, this center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. Here, you can view exhibits on the park’s history and natural beauty, purchase a souvenir, or chat with rangers.
  • Park and Forest Information Center
    This center is located in the community of Sedro-Woolley along the North Cascades Highway (SR 20). They are open year-round from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
  • Wilderness Information Center
    This small information center is open from May through mid-October. Found in the Village of Marblemount, it primarily issues wilderness camping permits, but also offers exhibits highlighting local wilderness beauty, maps, and rangers to answer your questions.
  • Golden West Visitor Center
    The visitor center is located in the small town of Stehekin near the pier on Lake Chelan. During the summer season, it often hosts exhibitions, usually focusing on the history and culture of indigenous people. The center is closed during the winter.

👍 Good to Know

Mountain weather can be unpredictable, so it’s a good idea to pack an extra layer of clothing. You can purchase food and drink supplies at Walmart – there are stores in Arlington and Bellingham off I-5. If you’re content with sugar-free water, you can refill it for free at the visitor center.

Photos of North Cascades National Park

Stehekin Valley, North Cascades National Park | © samara_breeze

Cascade Pass, North Cascades National Park | © Curt Smith

Cascade Pass, North Cascades National Park | © Miguel Vieira

North Cascades National Park | © Miguel Vieira

Sahale Peak, North Cascades National Park | © Curt Smith

Desolation Peak, NP North Cascades | © Mike Haeg

Desolation Peak, North Cascades National Park | © Mike Haeg

US National Parks

  1. List of US National Parks
  2. America the Beautiful Annual Pass
  3. Timed-Entry Reservation for US National Parks

Travel Guides to USA National Parks

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