LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR OWN EXPERIENCE BACKPACKING FOR 3 DAYS IN THE RUGGED BACKCOUNTRY OF NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK.
We knew that a backpacking trip into the rugged wilderness of North Cascades National Park was a must-do - especially when we planned on visiting during a long weekend late in the summer (aka a prime time in the park).
While we showed up to the ranger station without really a plan - most of our ideas got kiboshed when we saw how much smoke there was from nearby forest fires - in the end, we ended up reserving two epic wilderness zone backcountry camping permits and planning one beautiful 3-day adventure.
Below is a breakdown of our own experience backpacking in North Cascades National Park - home to the greatest number of glaciers in the lower 48 states, some of the highest numbers of plant species in the whole USA park system, and just some truly magical hiking trails.
GETTING YOUR BACKCOUNTRY PERMIT FOR NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
One of the most important things to know about backpacking in North Cascades National Park is that you will need a backcountry permit for every night you are planning to spend in the backcountry.
There are two ways to get a backcountry permit: with an advanced reservation or by walking up the day before or the day of your trip. The main difference here is that the advanced reservation can be made up to two days before your trip, whereas the walk-up reservations are only available the day before or the day of your trip's start date.
Whichever way you do it, you will need to stop by the Wilderness Information Center to pick up your permit in person. The Wilderness Information Center is located in the town of Marblemount, which is approximately 7.5 miles from the west entrance to the national park.
📌 EXACT ADDRESS: 7280 Ranger Station Rd, Marblemount, WA 98267
🕝 HOURS: 7 AM - 4 PM, 7 days a week
➳ Learn more about North Cascades National Park Backcountry Permits here.
EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE GUIDE TO NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
OUR 3 DAY BACKPACKING ADVENTURE IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
After talking to a ranger at the Wilderness Information Center we decided to head out on a backpacking route that started at the Bridge Creek Trailhead and then looped around the mountains and over Rainbow Pass and McAlester Pass before ending at the same trailhead.
Along this 30+ mile route we were able to get two wilderness backcountry camping permits - meaning we weren't going to be camping in an established camping area, but instead we would just have to hike into the specific wilderness zones and we could camp anywhere there (obviously within reason, always follow all Leave No Trace Principles when backcountry camping).
Below is a breakdown of our 3-day backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park.
OUR BACKPACKING ROUTE
| Mileage: 14 miles / 22.5 kilometers
| Elevation Change: ~ 4,000 feet of gain, ~2,000 feet of loss (1,218 meters up, 620 meters down)
| Time on Trail: ~9 hours
| Bridge Creek Trailhead --> Rainbow Pass (Gaia GPS Route)
Our backpacking adventure started out by going south on the PCT. Within the first 15 minutes of hiking we actually saw a bear (we would see two during the whole 3 day trip). The first couple of miles were mostly downhill and along a pretty thick trail (there were bushes and berries thick on both sides). Along the PCT section of the loop the way, we passed the Fireweed, Hideaway, and South Fork Campgrounds (the latter two had bathrooms available which was nice).
Like most trails in North Cascades National Park, water was easily available for filtering as the trail crossed many rivers and streams (meaning you likely won't have to pack much water with you). We had our first snack break and refilled our two water bladders at the South Fork Campground. Obviously, while water is usually easily available, make sure to always check your map to see how far you have distance-wise between water refill stations.
Once across Bridge Creek, we left the PCT behind and started hiking up the Rainbow Creek Trail (the PCT does continue south towards Stehekin - which is roughly 18 miles from the Bridge Creek Trailhead).
Rainbow Creek Trail - though a bit less traveled than the PCT - was still quite nice. The trail crossed multiple meadows and pass through numerous pine forests. In truth, we really didn’t see anyone until we got just below Rainbow Pass - which was at least 3 miles from the turn-off.
💬 INSIDER TIP: due to the national park's high number of bears (mostly black bears) it is important to always stay bear-aware while hiking. Learn more about this in our handy Bear Safety article.
Along the trail, there are usually (depending on the season of course) a lot of wild berries growing, including, blackberries, blueberries and thimbleberries (which are a light pink or red color and taste kind of like a strawberry). We suggest slowing down and spending a bit of time eating these berries (or adding them to your oatmeal in the morning like we did). They are seriously 100x better than any store bought berry.
Soon enough we passed Dan’s Camp (where there is a bathroom you can use) and then started the long uphill climb that culminated with crossing Rainbow Pass (elevation: 6,238 feet). Towards the base of the final push to the top of the pass, we took another snack break and refilled our water bladders in a small stream.
When backpacking, it is important to know the signs of dehydration or low blood sugar (aka you need to take a quick snack break). These signs include feeling sluggish, hangry, lightheaded and a grumbling tummy. When we start to feel like a snack or water break is needed we usually reach for something with a good dose of sugar (like gummy candies) or something with a high level of salt/electrolytes (pickles are great).
The climb up to the top of Rainbow Pass ended up being pretty easy (there was a nice set of switchbacks that made the hike up feel pretty gradual overall). At the top of the pass, you will get some truly stunning views of the surrounding mountains; including the 7,000+ foot Bowan Mountain.
Once at the top, we turned right and left the main trail behind. This was because from Rainbow Pass it was relatively easy to hike out into the McGregor Wilderness, which is where our Night 1 camping permit was for. The wilderness area included multiple mountain lakes - including an unnamed one that we ended up camping along.
We set up camp near the bank of the rather large unnamed lake and promptly jumped in to cool off and scrub off some of the dirt and ash (our first day on the trail was rather smoky). Then we started making a delicious dinner of teriyaki noodles with Thai chili tuna and some instant mashed potatoes (not combined). Once done eating, we made sure to leave all of our smelly cooking stuff and our packed bear box quite a distance from our tent (a key bear-safe practice).
Once the sun went down behind the mountains we pretty much headed straight to bed. We don't know if it was because of the long day on the trail or because of the whole camping paradox of getting in tune with the sun, but once it got totally dark out we were suddenly really tired and soon enough we were fast asleep.