LOOKING FOR AN EPIC BACKCOUNTRY ADVENTURE IN THE RUGGED MOUNTAINS OF NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK? GREAT! THEN THIS BACKPACKING PLANNING GUIDE IS THE PERFECT PLACE TO START.
North Cascades National Park in northern Washington state is an absolute adventurer's paradise. With hundreds of glaciers, dozens of alpine lakes, beautiful rugged mountains and the highest degree of flora biodiversity than any other national park in the USA, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed by the adventure possibilities.
In our opinion, one of the best ways to explore this stunning national park is to head out into its backcountry for a couple of days. If you have the energy and the gear, we truly cannot recommend backpacking along its miles and miles of trails enough.
Below you will find everything you need to know to plan one epic backpacking adventure - including, information on how to get a wilderness permit, what backpacking gear you will need to bring, and what trails you should explore.
So with that, keep reading for our in-depth North Cascades Backpacking Planning Guide!
► Pssst, also consider checking out our comprehensive adventure guide to the national park. Explore it here.
\\ Planning Your Backpacking Route
There are a few things you need to figure out before you plan your backpacking route in North Cascades National Park. First, what do you actually want to see? Are you hoping to spot some glaciers, or are you more into alpine lakes. Obviously, each trail is different, so you will want to have a basic idea of what kind of landscape you want to hike through before actually looking at a map.
A few other important questions you need to ask yourself is whether you want to go somewhere busy/popular or somewhere a bit more off-the-beaten-path. Some trails in the park are going to be relatively busy, so if you are looking for some solitude maybe steer clear of those (the PCT is a great example of a busier trail). Likewise, what kind of camping amenities do you want or need? Do you want a campground with bear lockers and pit toilets or are you okay "roughing" it and staying somewhere with less to offer (or even in one of the wilderness areas where there are no amenities).
Finally, the last thing you need to think about when picking your backpacking route is how far you actually want to hike to reach your campsite. Remember, your backpack is going to be heavy, so if you aren't in the best shape or if you haven't been backpacking in a while (or ever) maybe consider picking a camping spot that isn't too far away from the trailhead.
So remember, when figuring out your backpacking route make sure to answer these questions:
| What do you want to see?
| How many people do you want to see?
| What kind of camping amenities do you want/need?
| How far can you reasonably/comfortably hike in a day?
By answering these questions, you can really narrow down your route options until you find the perfect backpacking trail for you.
\\ How Many Days Do You Need for Backpacking
You will need at least 2 days / 1 night in the North Cascades National Park backcountry. Though we highly suggest putting aside 3 days / 2 nights for the trip so you can really head into the rugged wilderness and have a true backcountry experience.
Many of the top trails require a couple of days of hiking - though of course if you only have 2 days definitely still get a permit and hit the trails.
Curious to see what it is like to backpack in North Cascades National Park? Then check out this video we made on our own backpacking adventure. See it here.
\\ North Cascades National Park Backcountry Permits
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 still 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.
ADVANCED RESERVATION PERMITS
For the advanced reservations, you will need to head to reacreation.gov to secure your campsite of choice. Once you reserve your spot, you will still need to visit the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount to pick up your permit in person.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: there is also the opportunity to reserve a spot in the park's early-access lottery. You will need to apply to participate in the lottery (which starts on March 3rd). You can apply for the lottery at the start of the year and if you are successful you will then be given a specific time slot to make your reservation.
If you can't make a reservation online, either during the lottery or 2 days before your trip, then you will need to go to the Wilderness Information Center the day before or the day of your adventure to get your permit. Roughly 40% of backcountry permits are put aside for walk-ups so don't worry too much about getting one (obviously still come early - especially on weekends or holidays).
If you are unsure if the campsite you want is available for walk-ups (or if it is already 100% full), simply go onto reacreation.gov to see if it says 0 (zero = full) or W, which means walk-up sites available.
Some helpful tips in securing a backcountry site are to arrive at the Wilderness Information Center early in the day (it opens at 7 AM) OR come near the end of the day before and grab a number tag so you are then first in line the next day, be flexible with your trip planning and have a couple of alternative routes/sites in mind, and finally, if possible, try to begin your backpacking trip during a less busy day (like during the workweek).
💬 INSIDER TIP: we were told by a park ranger that a good way to secure a backcountry permit for some of the busier areas is to show up at 11 AM to see if there are any "no show" permits available. This pretty much means that if someone doesn't show up to pick up their reserved permit by 11 AM, that permit goes back into the availability pool. If you show up around that time, you have a pretty good chance of getting one of those spots.
➳ Check out North Cascades National Park's backcountry permit availability here.
\\ Backpacking Safety Concerns
There are a few key safety concerns you need to keep in mind when backpacking in North Cascades National Park. Below are a few of the main ones.
The weather can change quickly in the mountains - especially at higher elevations. Make sure to pay attention to the sky and make plans in case a storm rolls in. Also, come prepared with any gear you might need - including rain jackets, a waterproof fly for your tent and a cover for your backpack.
If you find yourself above tree line when a thunderstorm rolls in, make sure to quickly head for lower elevations. Lightning strikes do happen, so make sure you are below the trees to decrease your chances of getting hit.
The main animal you need to be aware of while backpacking in North Cascades National Park is black bears.
Some key safety measures you need to take are to always use the provided metal bear storage boxes or wires at camp (if available), and/or come prepared with a bear-proof container just in case (we carried a bear box like this).
Bear spray is also not a bad idea. Though it is definitely more important to make sure you are being bear aware - which means focusing on taking steps while hiking so you don't run into and startle any bears. These steps include always being aware of your surroundings and making plenty of noise in areas where bears might be (including dense forests and shrubbery, near bodies of water, and close to sources of food - like berry plants).
Also, keep an eye out for signs of bears. This can include fresh bear scat (like the pile below) and tracks, recently scratched up trees, and even carcasses of animals.
Just remember that wild animals are wild and they needed to be treated with respect. Never approach an animal or threaten it in any way. 99% of the time an animal doesn't want to hurt you - so don't give it cause to.
For the most part, there is plenty of freshwater available along the hiking trails in North Cascades National Park. As long as you pack a water filter or some filtration apparatus and study your map to make sure you are refilling often enough, you should