Top 10 Things to do in North Cascades National Park

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North Cascades National Park is a must-see when visiting the northern point of Washington state.

Aside from the parks in Alaska, North Cascades has more glaciers than any other destination in America. The majestic mountains and unique emerald lakes leaves visitors in awe of their surroundings.

In this article, we’re going to cover the top 10 things to do in North Cascades National Park from the best overlooks and scenic drives, to incredible hiking trails and lakes. 

hiking in north cascades national park washington

North Cascades Top 10

  1. Drive Along The North Cascades Highway
  2. Hike The Sterling Munro Trail
  3. Stop At Gorge Lake Overlook
  4. Visit Diablo Lake Overlook
  5. Walk The Trail Of Cedars
  6. Go Boating On Ross Lake
  7. Visit Stehekin
  8. Hike The Thornton Lake Trail
  9. Walk To Rainy Lake
  10. See The Glaciers At Cascade Pass
driving along the north cascades scenic highway

Drive Along The North Cascades Highway

Taking a cruise along the North Cascades Highway is a great way to experience everything the park has to offer without wearing out your hiking boots. 

As the first National Scenic Highway in the USA, the North Cascades Highway starts in Sedro Woolley and expands alongside the Skagit River.

Along the route make sure to take a break at Washington Pass. This is the highest roadside stop in the park. From there you can look out over all the peaks of the Cascades. 

While traveling down the highway, you’ll pass by many historic towns and generational farms. There is also wide variety of wildlife that can be spotted straight from the car, including eagles. 

Make sure to gas up before embarking on this lengthy excursion. There are spans on the North Cascades Highway with very few places to stop, and gas stations are few and far between. 

hiking on a boardwalk trail in north cascades national park

Hike Sterling Munro Trail

The Sterling Munro Trail is a boardwalk-style footpath that connects the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center to other areas within the park.

The beautiful wooden boardwalk is perfect for families and small children because it’s very short–only 0.2 miles–but offers lovely natural surroundings.

When you enter the boardwalk, you find yourself under an expansive canopy of lush green trees. This covering continues throughout the entire length of the trail.

The wooden path is well maintained and wheelchair accessible. The trail ends with a fantastic view of the Picket Range.

For those short on time or who need a course with an easy rating while finding things to do, North Cascades Sterling Munro Trail is a great option. 

cascades gorge dam in the north cascades

Stop At The Gorge Lake Overlook

The Gorge Lake Overlook is brief, half-mile round trip excursion that will provide you with a fantastic view of the mountains, and Gorge Lake below.

The short trail is filled with beautiful wildflowers that line the half-paved, half-dirt path leading up to the overlook.

Gorge Dam can be seen within Gorge Lake, this manmade structure provides electricity to residents of Seattle. You can also get a glimpse of Pyramid Peak while at the lookout.

The Gorge Lake Overlook includes access to restrooms and wheelchair-accessible trail. Visitors often hear ravens and crows singing above the mountain peaks.

diablo lake in north cascades national park

Visit The Diablo Lake Overlook

Similar to the Gorge Lake Overlook, the Diablo Lake Overlook is a brief, easy hike with that nearly anyone can enjoy.

The short walk will take you to a breathtaking view of Diablo Lake, one of the most striking turquoise-colored water features in the area.

The water gets its color from melting glaciers which have ground against rock over time creating a silty turquoise appearance. 

The Diablo Lake Overlook is the perfect place to capture both the water and the surrounding mountains in a single shot. It looks like stepping into a professional painting. 

For those planning to make a stop, it is worth knowing that it is both handicap accessible and has public bathrooms available. 

hiking on the ladder creek falls trail north cascades

Walk Through The Trail Of Cedars

The Trail of Cedars is a short but spectacular hike you won’t want to miss. Stretching along the Skagit River, this 1.7 mile path takes only 30 minutes to complete.

The nature walk is shrouded in beautiful old growth cedar trees. It’s relatively flat and stroller friendly so it’s the perfect place for families to visit.

If you’re looking for a longer hike, pair the distance with the Ladder Creek Falls trail which is located shortly up the road.

ross lake north cascades national park

Go Boating On Ross Lake

For those who want a different perspective of the mountains, Ross Lake provides the perfect opportunity.

Two grated boat ramps from the North Side of the park in British Columbia are available for motorized boats to enter. Visitors can also take canoes, kayaks, and other watercraft into the lake from the Colonial Creek campground.

Paddling across Ross Lake will give you a spectacular view of the towering mountains that surround the lake.

Fishermen will enjoy catching rainbow trout, eastern brook trout, and cutthroat trout in the stunning blue water.

Stehekin community in north cascades national park washington

Visit Stehekin

A little-known town on the edge of Lake Chelan is the community of Stehekin.

Access to this town requires a multi-day backpacking trip from the Skagit River, or a ferry ride across the lake itself. There are no roads leading to Stehekin so getting there is an adventure on its own.

Once in Stehekin, there are a number of leisurely things to do including visiting the Stehekin Museum, exploring historic buildings like Fort Ruger and Woolworth’s Trading Post or just enjoying one of the many scenic hikes in the area.

During your visit, you can rent bicycles or watercraft or sign up for guided kayaking tour or fly fishing adventure.

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Hike The Thornton Lake Trail

Visitors looking for a more strenuous adventure won’t be disappointed by the Thornton Lake Trail.

This moderately strenuous hike extends 10.9 miles long and will take up the majority of your day. The route begins with a gentle, bushy footpath before gradually climbing into a mature hemlock forest.

From there a steep, slippery trek across muddy rocks and logs will lead you to a gorgeous sub-alpine lake.

The trailhead for this hike requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle because muddy, narrow roads will prevent access most of the year. Fortunately, once you start the hike there are very few tourists and you’re likely to have the place to yourself.

rainy lake in north cascades national park

Walk To Rainy Lake

A more moderate hike to tackle is the trail to Rainy Lake. This glorious lake has sparkling emerald water and several waterfalls that accompany it.

Only 2.2-miles round-trip, the path is completely paved and accessible to all. This route is popular with families due to its easy rating and the benches along the trail for rest stops.

It is best to visit this area from July through October. The site is known to be snow-covered through June. 

hiking in north cascades national park washington

See The Glaciers At Cascade Pass

Visitors who are looking for spectacular views of mountain peaks and icy glaciers should look no further than the Cascade Pass Trail.

The out-and-back hike has several popular turnaround points so you can decide how far you want to go. It’s also a popular starting point for numerous climbing routes in the area.

Travelers will begin their hike in the cool forest rising up switchbacks before reaching a blooming meadow. As you pass through the meadow, multiple waterfalls can be seen and heard.

Beyond the meadows lies the sub-alpine zone. This is where some of the best sights in the park can be seen. Melting glaciers and rocky mountain peaks will surround you creating picture-perfect scenery in every direction.

That’s A Wrap!

Traveling to northern Washington state and not taking the time to explore North Cascades National Park is definitely a missed opportunity.

Be sure when you’re in the area to find the top things to do; North Cascades offers a variety of options for everyone. 

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