The Ultimate North Cascades National Park Adventure Guide

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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

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\\ 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




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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


If you are looking to stay outside of the national park, then your best bases are going to be either Marblemount and Concrete on the west side or Winthrop and Mazama on the east side.


Marblemount has the national park wilderness office (where you need to pick up your backcountry permits), a few lodging options and a couple of small, local restaurants. Concrete is a bit bigger - though a bit farther from the national park entrance. There you can find a small downtown with a couple of restaurants and cafes, a number of hotels and motels and two grocery stores.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you stay in Concrete - or just pass through on your way to or from the national park - we highly recommend checking out Birdsview Diner, a small locally owned burger joint with delicious food and a fun outdoor area.







On the east side of the national park you have two options of places to choose from: the very small but cute hamlet of Mazama or the slightly larger, more "touristy" town of Winthrop. Both are located in beautiful places with plenty of things to do - though if you want more services and options to choose from, we definitely recommend staying in Winthrop (which looks a lot like an old West town).


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you stay in Mazama or just drive by, definitely take the time to pull into the Mazama Store, a cute locally run spot (see photos above) with a delicious bakery (the baguettes are amazing), a small coffee shop, and healthy selection of food and gear (especially outdoor-focused gear).




NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK VISITOR CENTER


There is one main North Cascades National Park Visitor Center, which is located near the town of Newhalem (the last town on the west side of the park). The main park visitor center has a nice exhibit covering the various biomes found in the park (as well as the human history). There is also a small gift shop and rangers on duty to answer your questions.


🕝 HOURS: 9 AM - 5 PM




BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS

If you are hoping to spend the night out in the North Cascades wilderness (like when backpacking) then you will first need to get a backcountry permit. Permits are required year-round for all overnight stays in the backcountry within the North Cascades National Park Service Complex (North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas).


Walk-up permits are available in person the day before or the day of your desired trip on a first-come, first-served basis.


For all backcountry permits, you will need to go to the North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, NOT the main Visitor Center. The Wilderness Center is located about 25 minutes west of the visitor center.


Learn more about getting a backcountry permit here.




Backcountry tent site in North Cascades National Park

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\\ Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park


There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to staying near North Cascades National Park (or in it). From upscale mountain and lake resorts to beautiful forested campsites, there is the perfect lodging option available depending on what kind of trip you are looking to have.




LODGING IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK


If you are hoping to stay within North Cascades National Park then you have a couple of options - both of which require a bit of extra planning. The first is the Ross Lake Resort, which is located on the bank of the massive Ross Lake in the heart of the national park. The second is the North Cascades Lodge in the historic town of Stehekin (located on Lake Chelan). For both, you will need to plan ahead for transportation because you cannot drive to either one.



ROSS LAKE RESORT

Opened back in 1952, the Ross Lake Resort is located in the center of the North Cascade Mountains. The resort includes fifteen floating cabins and a marina. Every cabin is furnished and includes a small kitchen, bathroom, electricity, and hot and cold running water. Likewise, towels, bedding, tableware, and cooking ware are also included. Do know that you will need to bring your own food for there is no restaurant or store on-site.


The best way to reach the resort is to park at the Ross Lake/Dam Trailhead (off Highway 20) and then walk down the trail for one mile until you reach the lake's edge (where you will be able to see the resort across the water). Once there, call the resort using the provided phone. They will then send a boat over to pick you up. It costs $3 /person each way.


LEARN MORE



NORTH CASCADES LODGE AT STEHEKIN

Another awesome lodging option in North Cascades National Park is to book a night (or multiple) at the quaint North Cascades Lodge in the small lake town of Stehekin. Like the Ross Lake Resort, you will not be able to drive to the lodge. Instead, you will either need to boat in on the Lady of the Lake Ferry or the Stehekin Ferry from the town of Chelan, or hike in on one of the many trails available (including the PCT).


The lodge has many different rooms and styles to choose from depending on your party size and preferences. There is also a small restaurant and store onsite, easy access to Lake Chelan and surrounding hiking trails, bike and kayak rentals and guided trips.


LEARN MORE




LODGING NEAR NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK


As mentioned above, the closest towns to North Cascades National Park with any type of lodging are going to be Marblemount and Concrete on the west side and Winthrop and Mazama on the east side. Below are a couple of great lodging options if you are looking to base yourself close to the national park.



WEST SIDE


| Glacier Peak Resort & Eatery: this cute family-run resort is located just outside of Marblemount (and about 8 miles from the west side park entrance). There is an onsite restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, hot tubs, cute cabins, walking trails and laundry services. Pets are also allowed.

BOOK YOUR STAY


| Buffalo Run Inn: located in the heart of Marblemount, this old-timey inn (it began as a meeting place for miners and lumberjacks in 1884) is easy walking distance to the few restaurants and services found in the mountain town. Amenities include free parking, free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and small kitchenettes.

BOOK YOUR STAY


| Mount Baker Hotel: the farthest hotel from the west side entrance to the park is this family run establishment in Concrete that has fast Wi-Fi, small kitchenettes, and free parking. It is also easy walking distance to everything in downtown Concrete - including restaurants, stores, bike trails and cafes.

BOOK YOUR STAY




Sunlight on a snow covered mountain in Washington

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EAST SIDE


| Sun Mountain Lodge: if you want to combine adventure with luxury, then look no further than this stunning mountain lodge located outside of the cute town of Winthrop. Amenities at this outdoorsy resort include an outdoor pool, hot tubs, horseback riding, ski school and rentals, boats, and a spa.

BOOK YOUR STAY


| Methow River Lodge: located in the heart of Winthrop, this lodge includes regular hotel rooms and private cabins. Amenities include free parking, high-speed internet, in-room kitchenettes, and in the winter easy access to local ski trails.

BOOK YOUR STAY


| Brown's Farm: if you are looking for more privacy and space - or if you just want to totally escape the hubbub of people, then consider booking this super cute wooden cabin near the small town of Mazama. The cabin comes with multiple bedrooms, a very well-stocked kitchen and amazing mountain views.

BOOK YOUR STAY