Home TripsAcross the Country Exploring the North Cascades National Park Complex

Exploring the North Cascades National Park Complex

by Bonnie

The newest of Washington’s three National Parks, North Cascades NP is a place of rugged spires, icy glaciers and scenic lakes. Celebrating its 50th anniversary as a National Park in 2018, North Cascades is not nearly as well-known, or crowded, as its neighbors Olympic and Mount Rainier. Still, it is a beautiful, largely unspoiled wilderness just waiting to be explored.

As inviting as North Cascades is, it is also a bit mysterious due to its size, complex park lines and limited services. While the park is a bit confusing, it is well worth your time to visit. The pristine wilderness offers postcard views around every corner and seemingly endless opportunities for hiking and boating.

Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park Complex
Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park Complex

If driving is more your thing, the North Cascades Scenic Byway (Washington Highway 20) will take you 140 miles from Sedro-Woolley to Twisp, passing right through the heart of the park. You could even extend this road trip to cover the entire 440-mile Cascades Scenic Loop, which includes some of the best landscapes in the state.

However you decide to explore the park, whether by foot, boat or car, I have no doubt that you will leave North Cascades with a renewed sense of awe and amazement at the beauty found right here in this little pocket of the US.

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North Cascades National Park Complex

You may be wondering what is so complex and confusing about this National Park. To start with, it is actually three parks in one: North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The National Park Service manages all three parks as one, thus the term National Park Complex.

North Cascades Complex
Most folks don’t realize they are entering national recreation area, not the national park.

Additionally, North Cascades NP is actually split into two separate sections, with Ross Lake NRA cutting through the middle. On top of that, the main highway (WA 20) actually passes through Ross Lake NRA. There are no paved roads that access the actual National Park.

For this reason, most visitors probably do not ever actually enter the actual national park. Most visitors drive through Ross Lake NRA and that is where you will find most of the easily accessible highlights of the park complex.

While this is a tad frustrating, it actually speaks to what North Cascades is all about – wilderness! When you visit the National Park, you really are out in the largely undisturbed backcountry. No cars, no crowds…just you and nature.

It’s kind of difficult to believe that all this can be found little more than two hours northeast of Seattle. But I suppose that all three of Washington’s National Parks fall into that category!

Where to Stay and Eat

Where you should stay will depend largely on how much time you have, how much you want to explore and what kind of accommodations you are seeking. Services in the main park area (Ross Lake NRA, along Hwy 20) are extremely limited.

You will find a few hotels and restaurants outside the park, on both the west and east sides. Unfortunately, the distances to the park from these towns are not small. You’ll have more options for accommodations in Winthrop (east side). You will be a little closer to the park in Marblemount (west side).

Ferry to Lake Chelan NRA
On the ferry to Stehekin on Lake Chelan.

Another twist is that access to Lake Chelan NRA is only by passenger ferry, boat, floatplane or by footpath. The national recreation area is at the north end of the 50-mile long lake and the only accessible town is Chelan at the south end. Thus, exploring Lake Chelan NRA requires a full day (or more) all on its own.

You can read more about Lake Chelan NRA here.

The drive from Diablo Lake (the central point for the highlights of the park) to Chelan (where you can catch a ferry or floatplane to the NRA) is about 2.5 hours.

Services Inside the Park Complex

In the park area along Highway 20, there are no restaurants, only one small general store and no hotels or lodges. There are several campgrounds, but all are suited more for tent camping.

There are no hookups for RVs, but several of the campgrounds can accommodate camper vans and small RVs. Newhalem Campground is accessible for RVs up to 45 feet, but, still no hookups.

North Cascades NP
Bonnie enjoying a view of Colonial Peak in the distance.

For those exploring on water, there are many campgrounds accessible only by boat on both Diablo Lake and Ross Lake.

In terms of food, you have to bring your own. The general store in Newhalem, has a decent selection of snacks and drinks. While the food and drink offerings are adequate, don’t expect anything more than you would find at a basic convenience store.

There is a lodge on Ross Lake, but it is difficult to reach and visitors must bring all their own food. There is no restaurant or store on site. This looks like a good place to get away for a few days, if you are up for the hassle of getting there.

North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin
The North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin is popular stop for folks hiking the local trails, as well as folks just looking to get away.

The good news about Lake Chelan NRA is that getting there is the most difficult part. Once there, in the town of Stehekin, you will find a lodge with a dining room and a campground. Thus, the most difficult to reach part of the park complex actually offers the most services.

Services Outside of the Park Complex – West Side

On the west side of the park, the closest “town” is Marblemount. Here you will find one hotel and three restaurants. There is also a gas station.

Further west, you will find a few other hotels/lodges and restaurants in other small towns. The nearest “big town” is Sedro-Woolley, about an hour west of the park, just off Interstate 5. You will find most anything you need in this town of about 10,000.

We stayed at the Glacier Peak Resort & Winery, in Rockport. The resort consisted of several cottages and had a campground with full hook-ups. Our campsite was adequate, though it definitely seemed as though the campground was not the primary focus.

Huckleberry milkshake at Marblemount Diner.
One of the best parts of coming to this part of the world is finding all of the huckleberry food items, like this tasty milkshake.

The cottages looked nice from the outside and the grounds were generally well-kept. We did not make it to the winery but did check out the onsite restaurant, The Eatery. Our experience at the restaurant was mediocre at best.

Our food was ok, but the one server had trouble keeping up with the handful of people in the restaurant. He also did not know anything about the wine from their own vineyard. As in, he could not even properly pronounce “merlot” after asking someone else about the wine.

We did enjoy lunch at Marblemount Diner one day. While the prices were a bit high, the service was good, the beer was cold and the food was tasty. The selection of milkshakes was nothing short of spectacular and included one of Grant’s favorites, huckleberry.

Services Outside of the Park Complex – East Side

On the east side of the park, the closest town is Winthrop, about an hour outside the park. The town is small, with only about 400 residents, but thrives on tourism. The downtown area boasts an Old West theme. Driving through, we wanted to stop but just wasn’t possible pulling our 27-foot trailer.

Winthrop, WA near North Cascades
Winthrop, about an hour east of Diablo Lake.

While we did not stay in Winthrop, we did eat at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse. I enjoyed the tasting flight and the homemade sausage was fabulous. The made-to-order Ciderhouse Donuts were a perfect way to finish off the meal.

If we were to visit North Cascades again, we would likely stay in Winthrop.

Things to Do in the Park Complex

If you are a hiker, your options are seemingly endless… If you are up for some serious elevation change that is. Boaters will find the waters of Diablo Lake inviting. Those who are less adventurous will enjoy the overlooks, accessible boardwalks and short trails.

On the trail in North Cascades
Bonnie on the trail

Visitors to Stehekin in Lake Chelan NRA will find a tiny, remote town that provides quiet relaxation along the nation’s third deepest lake. While it takes a bit of work to get there, the tranquility you find once you arrive is soothing.

Ross Lake National Recreation Area

Ross Lake NRA is the easiest part of the park complex to reach. It is also where you will find most of the highlights, all nestled along Hwy 20.

Visitor Center

If you are approaching the park from the west, the first attraction is the main Visitor Center, in the “town” of Newhalem. We always suggest stopping at the Visitor Center first, so that works out well.

The wildlife exhibit is a bit basic – it felt like it was geared more toward children. The five short movies that play on a loop every 30 minutes are informative and interesting.

View from North Cascades Visitor Center
This stunning view is easily obtained by walking about a minute from the visitor center back door.

Be sure to take the short boardwalk out the back for a view of Picket Range. Additionally, if you are ready to really stretch your legs, the River Loop Trail (an accessible 1.8 miles loop) can be accessed from the Visitor Center.

Newhalem

The town of Newhalem, inside the park boundaries, is not an actual town. It was built as a company town for the workers at the dam when the Skagit River was first being harnessed for electricity. Today you will find a few houses and the electrical plant along with the General Store mentioned previously.

Also at Newhalem is the Trail of the Cedars. This short, flat nearly one-mile loop nature trail winds through a heavily wooded area. Due to the canopy and the proximity to the water, we found the trail to be nice and cool even on a warm afternoon.

Hydropower station at North Cascades
The Newhalem Powerhouse uses a diverted portion of the Newhalem Creek to power a 2.3-megawatt hydropower station.

At the end of the trail is the hydroelectric plant. There are a few exhibits that explain how the water is captured and returned to the river. There is even an obstacle that keeps the spawning salmon in the river and out of the plant.

For a longer, but easy hike, you can continue on the Linking Trail to the To Know a Tree Trail, which eventually runs into the River Loop Trail near the Visitor Center. We did not do this entire system, so cannot comment on it.

Diablo Lake

One of the most scenic, and most accessible, parts of the park complex is Diablo Lake. Located between the Diablo Dam and the Ross Dam, Diablo Lake is a bright turquoise blue that just begs to have its picture taken.

Diablo Lake at North Cascades
Diablo Lake from the Hwy 20 overlook.

At the Colonial Creek area, you will find a campground, picnic area, boat launch and a few not-too-difficult trails.  Further down the road, there is a large overlook with a few exhibits on the glaciers that shaped this area.

We are not boaters, but Diablo Lake is often dotted with kayaks and other small boats. If you have a boat, I highly encourage you to get out on this lake!

Ross Lake

On the east end of the central park complex area is the namesake Ross Lake, which stretches nearly 25 miles north to Canada.

While there are a couple of overlooks along Hwy 20, the only car access is on the north end through Hope, British Columbia. Even for boaters, the dam restricts access to this large lake, but small boats can be portaged around the Ross Dam from Diablo Lake. There are quite a few hiking trails for those looking to explore on foot.

Moderate Hikes

We stopped by the Wilderness Information Center, just off Hwy 20, to chat with a ranger about the park and try to find a few hikes that wouldn’t kill us. She recommended the Day Hiking North Cascades book and pointed us towards a few easy-moderate hikes.

Of course, the difficulty level of a hike is always subjective. In an area that is riddled with mountains, even a difficulty rating of two out of five can have more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain. That’s not easy for us.

Hiking in North Cascades
Grant making use of one of the many benchs along the Thunder Knob Trail. The trail is all uphill and those benches come in handy.

But, we did manage to find a couple of good hikes that, indeed, did not induce a heart attack or otherwise kill us.

Thunder Knob Trail

You will find the trailhead for Thunder Knob at Colonial Creek Campground. This 3.8-mile round trip hike takes you up above Diablo Lake. From the top, you have fantastic views of the blue-green water below you. Finding the start of the trail, through the campground, was a little difficult, but not impossible. Just look for signs so you aren’t walking through someone’s campsite.

Creek crossing in North Cascades.
Bonnie making her way across the logs at the start of the Thunder Knob Trail.

Once we made it across a couple of creeks, only one of which had a bridge, the trail was clearly marked and easy to traverse. The hike starts in a fairly wet area where you’ll see a few moss-covered trees. You will quickly move into a rain shadow, though, and conditions become much drier as you start making your way up the mountain.

Climbing 600 feet in about a mile, we were thankful for the few benches and observations points along the way. Enjoying a view while you catch your breath is always a nice balance. Admittedly, it’s also a good way to hide the fact that you needed a break.

Diablo Lake from Thunder Knob in North Cascades
The Thunder Knob trail rewards you with a great view of Diablo Lake and the Cascades.

At the top, the views over Diablo Lake were well worth the climb. It is probably one of the best views for the least amount of work along Highway 20.

We spent about 1 hour and 45 minutes on this hike, plus a little extra time at the top to take pictures.

Happy Creek Falls

Further east on Highway 20, across from Ross Lake, you will find the Happy Creek Forest Walk. This 0.3-mile loop trail is on an accessible boardwalk through a forest of tall trees along the creek.

There is very little elevation gain along the wide boardwalk and there are plenty of benches.

At the far end of the loop, you can access a traditional (not paved) trail up to Happy Creek Falls. While this trail is marked on the North Cascades official park map, Romano did not cover it in my hiking book. Thus, we went into the hike with very little information, which was a bit scary since we don’t like tremendous elevation changes.

Happy Creek Falls in North Cascades NP.
Grant working on a shot of Happy Creek Falls.

Upon leaving the boardwalk, the first part of the trail is relatively flat and not too difficult. The further you hike, the more the trail climbs. Since we were attacking this trail just an hour or so after the Thunder Knob Trail, the climb up seemed a bit intense for us. I think if we hadn’t already been tired, we would have enjoyed it more.

Though we considered turning around a few times, we did manage to press on to the waterfall. I have to admit, though, one of the biggest motivators was knowing we’d find some cool water to ease our aching hands and feet!

We spent about 1 hour, 45 minutes on this hike. Again, I think we would have done it faster if it was not our second hike of the day.

The boardwalk part was certainly enjoyable. The hike to the waterfall was ok. If you are looking for scenic mountain views, you will not find them on this hike.

Thunder Creek

We did not actually do the Thunder Creek hike, though I wish we had. Located just across the street from the Thunder Knob trail, this is one of the lowest grade trails in the park. The full trail is 6 miles one way, and only gains about 600 feet overall.

North Cascades NP
One of the things we really like about hiking in this part of the Pacific Northwest is how dense the forests are.

Since the trail is out-and-back, you can hike as far as you want and turn around at any point. Based on the location of the trailhead and the relative ease of the trail, you are likely to see a lot of people along the way. I imagine the farther you hike, the fewer people there are.

Long, relatively flat trails are the type that we enjoy most. If we return to Ross Lake NRA, this hike will be at the top of our list of things to do.

Getting to North Cascades National Park

For hikers, there are several hikes that will take you from Highway 20 into the National Park. Unfortunately, they all require significant distances and/or elevation changes. We prefer to hike on trails that are not heart-attack-inducing, so we opted to drive to the park border!

North Cascades National Park
One of the interesting facts about North Cascades National Park is most folks who have “visited” the park have never actually set foot in the actual national park. The main road through the park, Cascades Loop or WA 20, passes through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, not the national park.

There is only one place to drive to the official National Park border: Cascade River Road, just off Hwy 20 in Marblemount. Only the first part of the road is paved, then you’ll be on a reasonably well-maintained gravel road. There are definitely a few rough spots, but any car should be able to handle this drive.

The drive is through mostly thick forest, but you will get a few nice views of the river, mountains and glaciers. Traffic is very light, so enjoy the drive and the scenery.

The National Park sign is easy to spot and there’s plenty of room to pull over and take a picture.

Cascade Pass Trailhead

If you want the really great views and want actually do something inside the national park, you’ll need to continue on past the park signage. At the end of the road is the trailhead for the Cascade Pass Trail. You’ll likely find a few folks preparing for some serious treks here. I’m talking about the kind of hikes that require carrying an ice ax, even in the summer.

Cascade River Road in North Cascades NP
Cascade River Road is the only road into North Cascades National Park. The road was closed when we visited, but a ranger said it was ok to walk it. Boy, are we glad we did!

If you’re like us, you’re saying “no way, that’s not for me!” The truth is, if you can get yourself to the trailhead, or even just near the trailhead, you’ll find some fabulous views that you just won’t get anywhere else.

The difficulty here is that the last three of miles of the road were closed for maintenance. Sadly, the road did not appear to be opening anytime soon. So, park in the large parking area, grab some water and your camera and start walking!

While the uphill climb is not insignificant, the views more than makeup for the heart-pounding hike. In addition to the many glaciers and mountain views, we saw two black bears. Grant got a little too close to one of them for my comfort. As usual,  the bear was completely unconcerned with us and just kept on moving in the other direction.

Bear in North Cascades
We briefly spotted this bear crossing a creek along Cascade River Road.

Snow (yes, snow, even in mid-June) kept us from making it all the way to the official trailhead, but we were certainly not disappointed. And, at least the walk back was all downhill!

Just driving to and from the park border will probably take an hour or two. We spent nearly three hours hiking up and back from the parking area. This included a lot of time to stop and catch our breath and take pictures.

Lake Chelan NRA

The small town of Stehekin, with about 100 permanent residents, is the hub of Lake Chelan NRA. Connected to the rest of the world only by foot, boat or floatplane, Stehekin truly embodies the wilderness that surrounds it.

Lake Chelan NRA at Stehekin
Lake Chelan NRA at Stehekin

Due to the difficulty of getting there, visiting Lake Chelan National Recreation Area is a full day (or more) adventure, but is well worth the time and money. We only spent a few hours exploring Stehekin, as even the fast ferry is 2.5 hours one-way, but loved every minute and will likely return one day.

You can read more about Stehekin and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area here.

Planning Your Visit

Likely, the hardest decision you’ll have to make as you plan your visit is where to stay. This will depend on how much you want to do and how much you’re willing to drive.

Diablo Dam in North Cascades
Driving across Diablo Dam

You could see the highlights of the park complex, right along Hwy 20 in one long day. Two or three days, however, would be more enjoyable, especially if you want to do any hiking or boating. Boaters and overnight-hikers have seemingly unlimited options for exploring.

The must-do activities for a one-day visit are a stop at the main visitor center, a drive to the National Park border, stopping at the lake overlooks and one or two of the short boardwalks. Any additional time can be spent hiking.

Visiting Stehekin at Lake Chelan NRA is also something that we HIGHLY recommend. You’ll need to allow a minimum of one full day. If you have time to stay overnight (or maybe even two or three nights), you’ll enjoy the visit much more.

We spent four days in the park complex, which included a day trip to Lake Chelan and moving campgrounds.

North Cascades NP
Bonnie and Grant in North Cascades. The views are more than worth the trouble of getting into the actual national park area.

Regardless of how much time to spend or what you do, North Cascades is every bit as beautiful as Washington’s other National Parks. The mountains may not have the same prominence as Mt. Rainier and you won’t find the rainforests that you do in Olympic, but the overall scenery is just as good, if not better.

The remoteness of the park and the lack of services can be a bit frustrating, but it also allows you to get away and just enjoy the landscapes, which is all you really need to do here.

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All the basic information for planning a trip to the North Cascades National Park Complex, which includes Ross Lake NRA and Lake Chelan NRA.
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