The Top 5 Backpacking Trails in North Cascades National Park

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Backpacker next to tent in the backcountry.

ARE YOU HOPING TO BACKPACK IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK BUT DON'T KNOW WHERE TO GO? DON'T WORRY - WE FELT THE SAME WAY. HERE ARE 5 BACKPACKING TRAILS WE WOULD HIGHLY RECOMMEND CHECKING OUT.

 



North Cascades National Park is an absolute adventurer's paradise. Imagine hundreds of glaciers, dozens of crystal clear alpine lakes, beautiful and rugged mountains and the highest degree of flora biodiversity than any other national park in the USA, which can all be easily explored by simply heading out on one of the park's numerous trails.


But with so many options available, it understandably can get a little overwhelming when trying to figure out exactly where you want to explore.


Luckily, we have compiled (in our opinion) a list of the 5 best backpacking trails within North Cascades National Park. These 5 trails - most of which are loops - will give you the opportunity to check out the park's famously rugged wilderness as well as a chance to totally disconnect from the outside world. Plus, all of them are just absolutely beautiful.


Keep reading to learn more about these 5 top backpacking routes and if you have any further questions, consider checking out our North Cascades Backpacking Planning Guide or reaching out to us directly - we are always happy to help you plan an epic adventure!



➳ Also, make sure to reserve your backcountry camping permits before heading out onto the trails. An overnight permit is required for all backpacking adventures no matter the time of year. You can reserve your permit ahead of time (here) or do it in person at the park's Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount (located on the west side of the national park).








 

THE TOP 5 BACKPACKING ROUTES IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK

 






1 | McAlester Pass and Rainbow Lake Loop



DISTANCE: ~28 miles, loop

DAYS NEEDED: 3

TRAILHEAD: Bridge Creek Trailhead

SHUTTLE: No

CAMPSITES: South Fork, Rainbow Lake, High Camp, McAlester Lake



This roughly 28-mile loop is actually the backpacking route we chose to do in North Cascades National Park. And let us tell you - it was great. Awesome mountain scenery, numerous alpine lakes, lots of wildflowers (and wild blueberries) and a high chance of spotting various wildlife - including black bears (we saw two), chipmunks, deer and birds - make this relatively easy trail a great option if you want to explore the parks rugged wilderness.


You can read our full rundown of the backpacking trail - including what we brought with us and where we camped - in this adventure guide.



➳ Explore the Alltrails route.










2 | Devil's Dome Loop



DISTANCE: 38.5 miles, loop

DAYS NEEDED: 4-5

TRAILHEAD: East Bank Trailhead

SHUTTLE: No

CAMPSITES: May Creek, Rainbow Point, Devil's Junction or Devil's Point



Due to it being one of the tougher trails in the park - both for its elevation profile (you climb 10,498 feet) and its more rugged trail system (it is usually more overgrown than most other trails in the park) - the Devil's Dome Loop should likely only be done by people with plenty of backcountry experience.


This longer loop connects the East Bank Trail with the Devil's Ridge Trail and then ends with the Jackita Ridge Trail and Ruby Creek Trail. There are numerous campsites along the East Bank Trail to choose from, though only a few once you leave that popular trail behind. Likewise, one of the biggest concerns with this backpacking trail is the utter lack of available water (especially later in the season). Therefore, you will want to make sure to plan ahead if you are thinking of taking this route on.


While the loop can sometimes be called a "sufferfest," it does reward you with incredible views of the surrounding mountains - including Mount Baker on a clear day.



Explore the Alltrails route.




Wide view of Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park

EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE PLANNING GUIDE FOR BACKPACKING IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK







3 | Stehekin (via the PCT)



DISTANCE: ~19 miles to Stehekin, one-way

DAYS NEEDED: 2 to reach the town, 4 to do the full out-and-back trail

TRAILHEAD: Rainy Pass Trailhead

SHUTTLE: Yes, if only going out one-way

CAMPSITES: High Bridge, Bridge Creek, South Fork and Fireweed



If the Devil's Dome Loop seems a bit too intense, then consider this out-and-back trail that starts near Rainy Pass and then follows the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) all the way down to the cute lakeside town of Stehekin. While it is a bit of a longer push - 19 miles one-way - if you plan it right, you can likely spend one of the nights in an actual bed in the town of Stehekin (there are a few options available, including staying at the lakeside North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin).


Likewise, you can also hike into Stehekin and then take a ferry out or do the opposite and ferry into town and hike out towards Rainy Pass. Whichever way you choose to go, you will need to book a ride on one of the town's ferries ahead of time.


While hiking along the PCT, you will have great views of the surrounding mountains and multiple bubbling creeks, as well as the chance to spot lots of wildflowers and numerous types of wildlife (including black bears).



➳ Explore the Alltrails route.




READ MORE | HOW TO SPEND 2 DAYS IN NOTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK: THE TOP TRAVEL ITINERARY







4 | Golden Horn Trail



DISTANCE: 31.2 miles, out and back (option to exit on a different trail)

DAYS NEEDED: 3-4

TRAILHEAD: Rainy Pass Trailhead

SHUTTLE: No, unless you choose to exit on a different trail

CAMPSITES: as it is along the PCT, you can camp in undesignated campsites (ask a ranger for more information)



Another fun backpacking route in North Cascades National Park is this roughly 31-mile out-and-back trail that also heads north on the PCT. To start the hike, you will need to park at the Rainy Pass Trailhead and then head up the PCT all the way to the top of Rainy Pass (elevation: 6,798 feet).


This trail is pretty popular so be prepared to see many other adventurers along the way (especially PCT thru-hikers). Even though this trail is outlined as an out-and-back, there are many options to change it up a bit. For example, you can take a side trip from the main trail up to the Snow Lakes and then head back down (this will end up being around 20 miles total), or you can hike all the way out and then take the East Creek Trail down instead of returning the way you came (for this you will need a shuttle as the East Creek Trail doesn't meet back up at the Rainy Pass Trailhead). You can also hike up the PCT and then split off at Cutthroat Pass and hike down to Cutthroat Lake via the Cutthroat Creek Trail (you will also need a shuttle for this route).


If you choose to go the straightforward Golden Horn Trail route (the standard 31.2 mile out and back trail) then expect 6,167 feet of elevation gain overall.



➳ Explore the Alltrails route.




Sunny view of alpine lake and mountains in North Cascades National Park






5 | Cascade Pass to Cottonwood Camp



DISTANCE: ~18 miles, out and back (with the option to go longer)

DAYS NEEDED: 2-3

TRAILHEAD: Cascade Pass

SHUTTLE: No

CAMPSITES: Pelton Basin Camp, Basin Creek Camp and Cottonwood Camp



Located in one of the more popular areas of the national park, the Cascade Pass Trail heads out away from the famous Sahale Glacier/Boston Glacier area and down into the Stehekin Valley (you will follow the Stehekin River most of the way).


If you are looking for a shorter backpacking trail that affords you great views and the opportunity to explore the Sahale Glacier area, then this roughly 18-mile route is a great option to consider.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: while you can simply turn around once you get to Cottonwood Camp, you can also keep hiking out along the trail until you reach either Flat Creek or Park Creek Camps, both of which are an extra 4 miles each way.



➳ Explore the Alltrails route.




Cloudy mountain landscape in North Cascades National Park

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Backpacking in North Cascades National Park is a fantastic way to explore the national park's stunningly rugged backcountry. Plus, it is one of the best ways to disconnect and just get back to nature - which is not just good for your body, but for your soul as well.


If you are looking to plan an epic backpacking trip in North Cascades National Park then we highly recommend checking out these five routes.


You can learn more about backpacking in the park in our in-depth planning guide and also just more about the national park in general in our Ultimate Adventure Guide to North Cascades National Park.


Happy adventuring!




 

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