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The Ultimate North Cascades National Park Adventure Guide

48°49′58″N 121°20′51″W

North Cascades National Park Travel Guide

EXPLORE OUR IN-DEPTH, COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE ON THE STUNNING NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK IN NORTHERN WASHINGTON. THIS GUIDE COVERS EVERTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO HAVE A GRAND OUTDOOR ADVENTURE.

 



We first come across North Cascades National Park after reading a list about the least-visited national parks in the whole USA. While most of the parks on that list were located in the far north state of Alaska (which made sense) we were surprised to see that a park in the great state of Washington had somehow been included.


After doing a bit of digging, we realized we had to make a trip up to that ruggedly beautiful mountain national park. Fast forward a couple of years (and a fair bit of planning later) and we finally found ourselves standing atop one of the many mountain passes staring out at glacier-carved valleys and epically sharp mountain peaks. We had finally made it to the heart of North Cascades National Park.


 

If you are like us and are looking for your own high alpine adventure, then we cannot recommend this national park enough. Seriously, we grew up with Rocky Mountain National Park in our backyard and we were still awe-struck by the views and the adventures.


So what makes North Cascades National Park so special? Well for starters, it is home to the most expansive glacial system in the USA outside of Alaska (take that Glacier National Park) as well as the highest degree of flora biodiversity of any American national park. It is also just incredibly beautiful - the rivers and creeks are a vibrant turquoise color due to them being primarily fed from glacier run-off, the forests are healthy and large due to the lack of logging, and the animal life is thriving (this includes even a small resident grizzly bear population).


We were completely taken aback by the park's beauty - as well as its numerous adventure opportunities (the park is a mecca for mountaineering). Upon visiting, we decided to spend some time in the front country as well as in the backcountry (namely backpacking for 3 days - see the video we made on this here). Along our trip we learned a few things - which you will find below.


So if you are looking to add this stunning national park to your travel itinerary, then make sure to read and save this full, in-depth North Cascades National Park Guide which covers everything you need to know.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the national park is actually made up of three different sections = Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and North Cascades National Park. All are run by the national park service, but do have somewhat different regulations (like pets being allowed in the NRA's). You can stop by the main visitor center to learn more.




Female backpacker atop of mountain peak in North Cascades NP






\\ Fast Facts About North Cascades National Park



| Year Established: 1968


| Where is North Cascades National Park: northern Washington state


| Size: 504,654 acres


| Number of Annual Visitors (2021): 30,885 in just North Cascades National Park, and a combined 896,437 people in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and the Ross Lake National Recreation Areas.


| Cost to Enter North Cascades National Park: it is free to enter! There are no entrance stations - though you will still need to pay for camping.


| Best For: hiking, backpacking and mountaineering




► Check out our 1, 2 and 3 Day Travel Itineraries for North Cascades National Park.






NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK MAP


Map of North Cascades National Park in Washington





\\ A Brief History of North Cascades National Park


Human history in North Cascades National Park and the surrounding region began 8–10,000 years ago, after the end of the last glacial period. Paleo-Indians slowly advanced from the Puget Sound into the interior mountain region as the glacial ice retreated. The first white explorer to enter the North Cascades was most likely a Scotsman named Alexander Ross, who was in the employ of the American-owned Pacific Fur Company.


To the southeast of the modern park boundary, Ross and other members of the company constructed Fort Okanogan in 1811 as a base from which to operate during the early period of the Pacific Northwest fur trade. Fort Okanogan was actually the first American settlement in present-day Washington State. Unlike in many other regions of the Pacific Northwest, due to the ruggedness of the terrain, logging had little impact on the future park.


Washingtonians submitted a petition in 1892 to establish a national park to the north of Lake Chelan, as many who had visited the region believed it to have scenery "greater than Switzerland's." A couple of years later (in 1897) the Washington Forest Reserve was created and set aside. This designation preserved the forestland that would later become the park.


But it wouldn't be until 1968 that the reserve officially became a national park. The North Cascades National Park Act at the same time also created Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas as well as Redwood National Park down in California.




EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK






\\ When to Visit North Cascades National Park


The best time to visit North Cascades National Park is generally between mid-June and late September. During this time of year, you can expect really nice weather, sunshine and clear days. Though, recently fall and spring are becoming more popular times for visitors since car tours of the Skagit, Okanogan and Stehekin Valleys are enticing for color and wildlife during the less busy "shoulder seasons."


A few things to know about weather in North Cascades National Park: the east side of the Cascade Mountains (such as n Stehekin) is usually drier and warmer in the summer than the west side. Similarly, snow is usually melted completely by early July. And finally, because of the higher elevation and location between the mountains and the coast, the park's weather can change rapidly from hot and sunny to cold and rainy/snowy. Always come prepared for any and all types of weather (check out our packing guide below).


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) that runs across the national park seasonally closes during the winter due to avalanche danger. While you can still explore North Cascades National Park during the winter, it is recommended to only do so if you are completely prepared and knowledgeable about avalanche dangers. The North Cascades Highway usually closes for the season in mid-November.




Morning light on a rugged mountain peak

EXPLORE MORE | HOW TO SPEND 2 DAYS IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK






\\ How to Get to North Cascades National Park


While the national park is located in the far northern half of the state (it borders the USA-Canada border) it is still relatively easy to reach - especially if you have your own private vehicle.


FROM SEATTLE

The easiest way to reach North Cascades National Park from Seattle is to head north on Interstate 5 up to Highway 20 just outside of Bellingham. Once on Highway 20, you will drive east for about 45 miles until you get to the town of Marblemount. From Marblemount, it is about 6 miles to the main national park entrance and the start of the national park.


The closest major airport to North Cascades National Park is going to be Sea-Tac, which is located between Seattle and Tacoma. It is roughly 120 miles from the airport to the national park entrance.


📌 TOTAL DISTANCE: around 2 hours, ~100 miles




LEARN MORE | THE COMPLETE PLANNING GUIDE TO THRU-HIKING THE ENCHANTMENTS IN WASHINGTON






GETTING AROUND NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK


You will need to have your own form of transportation to explore North Cascades National Park for there is NO park shuttle. The whole park complex is quite large so expect a decent amount of time traveling between the different areas - especially if you are looking to explore some of the more remote parts (like Cascade Pass and the Sahale Glacier).


Similarly, there are numerous areas within the park that you cannot reach via car. For example, if you are hoping to check out Stehekin, you will need to either hike in (23 miles minimum) or take a boat from the town of Chelan.


➳ Read more on Stehekin below.




WHERE TO STAY NEAR NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK