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Complete guide to visiting North Cascades National Park

Complete guide to visiting North Cascades National Park

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North Cascades National Park, Washington was the last US National Park we visited during our three-month cross country road trip. The year we visited winter had been kinda crazy all along the west coast so some roads were still closed at the beginning of June! It’s true, the summer season in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest is short but it’s a beautiful one! Plus, even if you visit outside of the winter months, you’re in for a treat!

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About North Cascades National Park

Often called “The American Alps”, North Cascades National Park is full of glacial mountain peaks, forested valleys and emerald green lakes. It’s truly beautiful and felt very different to the other National Parks we visited in the US.

North Cascades National Park makes up what’s known as the North Cascades National Park Service Complex along with Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas.

When it comes to North Cascades wildlife there’s plenty! As you explore you may see mule and black-tailed deer, black bears, marmots and mountain goats. Less often seen but still around are mountain lions and bobcats.

This park is very popular with backpackers, hikers and mountaineers thanks to the wildness of the terrain and the numerous peaks!

Where is North Cascades National Park located?

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North Cascades National Park is in Washington, USA and forms part of the Cascade Mountain Range; so called due to the many, many waterfalls found in it. The range runs from British Columbia to northern California and it’s believed that the North Cascades mountains as they are today rose up around 5-6 million years ago!

North Cascades National Park is close to the Canada – USA border and is roughly 2.5 hours from both Vancouver, BC and Seattle depending on traffic conditions.

North Cascades National Park map

a map of north cascades national park in washington state usaThis map of North Cascades National Park gives you an idea for the size of the park. If you’re looking for a North Cascades Trail Map you can pick one up a very basic one (like the image to the left) at the visitor centre within in the park.

Alternatively, I like to use the Alltrails app to do some quick research into hikes and routes and carry a proper trail map with me (like this North Cascades map) when going on a longer hike.

You can see a North Cascades highway map – which is the road running through the park from east to west – here.

How to get to North Cascades Park

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North Cascades National Park is easily accessible from Vancouver, BC and Seattle (and towns in between!). If you need to rent a car for your trip to the North Cascades then take a look at RentalCars.com. They make it really easy to compare deals so you get a good one!

Nearest airports to North Cascades

The closest big international airports to the North Cascades are Seattle-Tacoma and Vancouver.

If you’re flying to the US before visiting North Cascades National Park and have dates in mind then I recommend checking out Skyscanner.com to compare your cheap flights!

If you’ve yet to choose your dates then take a look at Dollar Flight Club, once signed up you can set your home airport(s) and then they’ll let you know when they find amazing deals on flights. The savings they find every day AMAZE me!

Driving directions to North Cascades

From both Seattle and Vancouver the journey is roughly 2-3 hours. Depending on traffic and how long the queue at the border is if you’re coming from Canada.

Seattle to North Cascades National Park

From Seattle head north on the I-5 until you get to the WA-530 E/State Rte 530 NE. Follow the WA-530 EState Rte 530 NE WA-20 E Rockport and then continue until you’re in the park.

Vancouver to North Cascades National Park

Head south out of Vancouver on BC-99 towards the Peace Arch border crossing. Then take the I-5 southbound once in the US. Take exit 232 and then go along the WA-20 eastbound and this will take you into the park.

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North Cascades entrance fees & permits

Here are some of the following permits, passes and fees you may need to pay during your North Cascades trip.

Entrance fees

There’s no fee to enter North Cascades National Park – it’s completely free!

However, if you’re planning on visiting a few US National Parks over the course of a year then consider buying the “America is Beautiful National Parks Pass” from REI which saves you a lot of money in the long run.

North Cascades National Park camping fees

There’s a lot of camping available through the North Cascades area. And most of them can be reserved in advance through recreation.gov. Other campsites in the North Cascades are available as first-come, first served.

Some of these North Cascades National Park campgrounds are free, and others cost up to $16 a night.

Each campsite spot is limited to 8 people with a max of 3 tents and 2 vehicles. You can have a fire in the firepit but must buy locally sourced firewood from a vendor in the surrounding areas and must not collect your own firewood.

North Cascades camping sites

  • Goodell Creek Campground: Main Campground is first-come, first-served with the Upper and Lower Campgrounds available for reservation
  • Newhalem Creek Campground
  • Gorge Lake Campground: Reservable
  • Colonial Creek Campground: North Loop is first-come, first-served, South Loop is reservable
  • Hozomeen Campground: First-come, first-served North Cascades campground

For more details on the campsites check out the NPS website.

Bicycle campsites

If you’re cycle touring through the North Cascades National Park then you’ll be pleased to hear there are some bicycle campground sites reserved just for cyclists. There’s one at Newhalem Creek Campground (site A3) and another at Colonial Creek (south site 115)

You can’t reserve these in advance and they cost $16/night

If unoccupied after 8 pm, campers with vehicles may occupy this site for 1 night only.

Backcountry Permit Camping Fees and Reservations

With almost 644 km of trails in the North Cascades National Park, there’s plenty of wilderness exploring to be done. If you’re planning on backcountry camping in North Cascades National Park then you’ll need to get a backcountry permit.

Permits are required all year for overnight stays in the backcountry of North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan. Permits are specific to a site or a cross country zone and you must follow the itinerary listed on your permit.

How to Get a Backcountry Permit

You can get a backcountry permit for the North Cascades either through advanced reservation (this holds a site but needs to be converted to a permit before entering the park), or through getting a walk-up permit. Permits must be picked up at a ranger station in or around the park.

60% of permits are advanced permits and they are allocated in full very quickly each year. If you don’t have a permit for the coming year but still want to explore the backcountry you can, but you’ll likely have to do a less popular trail.

More information on backcountry exploration and permits.

Northwest Forest Pass (required at USFS trailheads only)

Depending on where you’re hiking you may need to buy a Northwest Forest Pass. These allow you to park at the trailheads on National Park Service lands. A permit is $5 a day, or $30 for a year. You can get these at most ranger stations, many local businesses and online.

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Where to stay near North Cascades National Park

Because North Cascades is a bit more ‘wild’ than other National Parks in the US, you’re not going to find a lot of places to stay in North Cascades National Park itself.

However, there are plenty of places to stay just outside of the National Park as well as campsites within it and, as above, it’s not that far from Vancouver and Seattle if you really don’t want to camp!

North Cascades National Park hotels

Below is a selection of the top North Cascades National Park cabins and hotels near North Cascades National Park.

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Top 5 things to do in North Cascades NP

Here are some of the top North Cascades attractions that you should add to your “what to do in North Cascades National Park” itinerary!

  1. See Diablo Lake
  2. Do some epic North Cascades hiking
  3. Take a scenic drive along the North Cascades Scenic highway (check here for “Is the North Cascades highway open?“)
  4. Go to the Washington Pass overlook
  5. Spend the night camping!

5 Best hikes in the North Cascades National Park

With so many North Cascades hikes to do, it’s virtually impossible to say which are best. However, here are 5 North Cascades National Parks hikes that include a mix of easy hikes and backpacking routes.

  • Cascade Pass
  • Maple Pass Loop
  • Desolation Peak – one of the most famous hikes in North Cascades thanks to Jack Kerouac. His books, Dharma Burns & Desolation Angels are said to be heavily inspired by his time spent here.
  • Thunder knob trail – an easy hike with a great view makes this one of the best hikes in North Cascades for those short on time
  • Hidden Lake Lookout

Check out this post for more North Cascades National Park hiking

What to do nearby

Here are a few things to do near North Cascades National Park

More USA National Parks posts