If you’re visiting the North Cascades National Park and looking for some of the best North Cascades hikes then you’re in the right place. The North Cascades is sometimes referred to as “The American Alps” and you’ll soon understand why when you visit. It’s full of glacial mountain peaks, forests and lakes. The terrain is quite rugged and because of this a lot of the hikes are on the more moderate/strenuous side. You have to work for the most impressive views on a North Cascades hike! But, don’t fear there are some easy day hikes in the North Cascades, Washington that’ll get you great views too. It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the best things to do in North Cascades National Park is to go hiking – you’ll see what I mean!
Where is North Cascades National Park?
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 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.
Best hikes in North Cascades National Park
Whether you’re looking for day hiking in the North Cascades or backcountry, here are a few ideas to get you started on the North Cascades National Park’s best hikes.
North Cascades National Park map
This 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.
You can see a North Cascades highway map – which is the road running through the park from east to west – here.
North Cascades trail map
If you’re planning on doing any of the more strenuous hikes and especially if you’re backpacking, you should take a North Cascades National Park trail map with you as well as a compass and know how to navigate. The North Cascades National Park trails aren’t all well marked so you’ll need to know where you’re going without relying on markers.
These trail guide for the North Cascades are useful for both information and when you’re out in the mountains too.
Best day hikes in North Cascades National Park
Take a look at these North Cascades day hikes if you’re only visiting for one day or are short on time. We did the Thunder Knob trail which doesn’t take too long and allows for plenty of time exploring the rest of the park on a North Cascades day trip but there are a lot of choices when it comes to North Cascades National Park hikes!
Easy day hikes in North Cascades National Park
These day hikes are easier as they’re shorter and have less elevation change.
Thunder Knob Trail
The Thunder Knob trail in the North Cascades is one of the longer easy hikes to do. It’s a pet-friendly hike and has great views of Diablo Lake, that famous green-blue lake in the North Cascades, once you’re at the top. There’s also a bench to sit on to take in the views even better.
Trail of the Cedars
The Trail of the Cedars is an easy loop trail in the North Cascades National Park. It has several informational signs along the trail and pretty views of the Skagit River below.
Gorge Creek Falls Trail
You can’t visit the North Cascades and not see a waterfall, it’s what the park gets its name from after all! If you’re looking for an easy waterfall hike in the North Cascades then be sure to check out this one.
This trail can be done as a loop and is a great hike for kids in the North Cascades.
Moderate/difficult hikes in North Cascades National Park
These North Cascades hiking trails involve more distance and a lot more elevation gain. Use common sense, know your own ability and always have the 10 essentials with you.
The Diablo Lake trail takes you from forest to dry, rocky areas and along the beautiful emerald green lake at the heart of the park. At the end of the trail, you’ll also be able to see Ross Dam which generates some of the electricity used in Seattle and the surrounding areas.
Sourdough Mountain is one of the harder North Cascades trails but it’s got amazing views if you’re up for it.
At the top, there’s a historic lookout where you’ll get views of lakes, peaks and glaciers every which way you look.
Thornton Lakes Trail
The Thornton Lakes Trail is a great day hike but can also be broken up into an overnight trip too.
As with quite a few trails in North Cascades National Park, this trail follows an old road at first and then climbs up through a hemlock forest, into the meadows and then along a ridge where you’ll get views of Triumph Peak and lower Thornton Lake. To get to the campsite and the lake itself you’ll take a pretty steep scramble from the ridge down! There’s a detailed trail description here.
The Cascade Pass Trail is a great day hike with beautiful views of some of the glaciers and peaks in the park. As you reach the pass you’ll be treated to views of Eldorado, Johannesburg, Magic, Mixup and McGregor.
If you’re keen to get into the alpine environment of the North Cascades then this is the shortest and easiest trail to experience that. It’s a very popular hike so does get quite busy, start early to avoid the majority of the crowds.
Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades
This North Cascades loop hiking trail, the Maple Pass Loop trail, is one of the must-do hikes in the North Cascades National Park.
You have the option of adding on 3.2km to include two lakes in your hike or can skip this section and make it slightly shorter.
It’s recommended to start at the Lake Ann Trailhead and do the trail anti-clockwise as this gives you great views right from the outset. In the autumn you can see the beautiful golden larches along this trail too!
North Cascades Backpacking
If you want to take your hiking in North Cascades National Park one step further then go backpacking! There’s a huge amount of backpacking you can do in the North Cascades National Park. You can do everything from 1-night trips to multi-day expeditions through valleys and over mountain passes.
In the wilderness areas of the park, there are around 140 designated sites. Each camp has a flat tent pad area, pit toilet and access to water. You can also do cross-country camping in certain areas as long as you’re at least 0.8km away from designated camps, not in an alpine meadow or fragile vegetation or near water sources. Cross-country North Cascades camping is usually only done by mountaineers due to the terrain type and experience needed.
Backcountry permits for backpacking the North Cascades
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.
Backcountry hikes in the North Cascades
Backcountry hikes in the North Cascades can generally be split into a few categories. There are the cross-park treks, hikes in the Stehekin area and loops and other long hikes.
North Park Unit
This hike crosses three mountain passes (Hannegan, Whatcom and Beaver) and follows creeks and rivers through old growth Western Red Cedar trees from the north end of the park to south.
If you’re looking to get away from people then this trail could be a good option as it covers areas of the park which see the lowest trail density.
79.3km | Hannegan Trailhead – Ross Dam
Fisher Creek/Thunder Creek/Park Creek Pass/Cascade Pass
This trail zigzags from Granite Creek on the dry east of the park to the glacier-covered west of the North Cascades As you hike this trail you’ll go through glaciated valleys, cascading mountain creeks and rivers.
Stehekin backcountry hiking
Stehekin settlement is not connected by road and you can only get there by hiking, bike and flat plane. There’s a huge amount of North Cascades hiking you can do in and around Stehekin.
Stehekin via McAlester Pass & McAlester Lake
This trail in the Stehekin area takes you through a broad, flat pass with wildflowers in the alpine meadows and goes along some of the PCT too. It takes in the following trails: Bridge Creek, McAlester Lake, Rainbow Creek and Rainbow Loop.
Thunder Creek to Pass Creek Pass
Thunder Creek is most glaciated drainage in the park and this pretty trail goes up through an alpine meadow below the imposing Buckner Mountain and Thunder Glacier.
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