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  • Writer's pictureChasingBuffaloesandBeyond

The Complete Guide to North Cascades National Park

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Located in Washington State, North Cascades National Park is a rugged, beautiful National Park that should be included on everybody's bucket list. While most people think of Glacier National Park when mentioning glacicers, but surprisingly North Cascades National Park is actually home to over 300 glaciers, more than any other National Park outside of Alaska. Nicknamed the 'American Alps', North Cascades National Park is actually one of the least visited National Parks in the country. The park is actually run and operated as part of the North Cascades National Park Complex which consists of three different areas managed under the same umbrella - North Cascades National Park North Unit, North Cascades National Park South Unit and the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The Ross Lake National Recreation Area actually bisects the North and South Units, where Highway 20 which is also known as the North Cascades Scenic Highway follows the Skagit River.

Mother and son standing in front of the North Cascades National Park entrance sign.
Welcome to North Cascades National Park!

For most people, exploration of the area will typically be the sites found along the North Cascades Scenic Highway. For those wanting to actually set foot within the National Park boundaries, following the Cascade River Road south from Marblemount for 23 miles to the Cascade Pass Trail is the only spot you can drive to that will take you into the National Park boundaries. This 7 mile roundtrip hike is one of the most popular hikes in the park, but access to the trailhead can be spotty as the Cascade Road tends to have limited access or closures due to winter damage. In addition to this hike, there are numerous backcountry hiking and camping opportunities through the North and South Units allowing a person to really access and enjoy the untouched beauty of North Cascades National Park. Here is how we spent a three day weekend exploring the North Cascades National Park Complex.


DAY 1:

Howard Miller Steelhead Park


Gorge Powerhouse & Ladder Creek Falls

Gorge Creek Falls

Diablo Dam & Lake

Diablo Lake Overlook

DAY 2:

Ross Dam Trail

Happy Creek Forest Walk

Ross Lake Overlook

Canyon Creek Trail & Beebe Cabin

Rainy Pass Trail

Washington Pass Overlook

DAY 3:

Fishing along the Skagit River

Rockport State Park

Baker Lake and Dams


DAY 1:


Numerous campgrounds are found within North Cascades National Park from the more remote primitive sites that are first come, first serve to more developed campgrounds that can be reserved ahead of time. For us, we actually choose to stay outside of the park at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park. For us, one of the big draws to this campground was being able to camp right along the beautiful Skagit River. Clean facilities, a wonderful playground, fishing access and numerous sites located right on the river makes this a perfect spot for anyone looking to visit the North Cascades area.



To kick off our time exploring the North Cascades, we headed out east along the North Cascades Scenic Highway, also know as Highway 20. This will be the main route to follow as you explore west to east thru this beautiful portion of Washington State. Our first area to explore was Nehalem. Stopping in at the North Cascades Visitor Center was a great introduction to the area, allowing for us to learn a bit more about the area from the informational exhibits. Make sure and walk the Sterling Munro Trail from the Visitor Center and take in the great views. Continuing on, spend some time exploring in the small town of Newhalem. This area is actually a company owned town operated by Seattle City Light and is situated along the Skagit River. The town dates back to the early 1900s when work began to harness the power from the Skagit River, to this day only residents that work for the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project live in Newhalem. Situated within the small scenic town is the Skagit General Store, the Old Number Six Train, a great open grassy area with picnic tables and the Newhalem Suspension Bridge that leads to the Trail of the Cedars. For those interested in trains, the Old Number Six Train dates back to 1924 and once worked along the Skagit River Railway that operated in the area until 1954. Today, the train is a fun picture opportunity for any train enthusiast! For those wanting to get out and stretch their legs a bit, enjoy a quick walk on the Trail of the Cedars. This lovely one mile walk takes you across the Newhalem Suspension Bridge over the Skagit River and provides for an enjoyable walk thru an old growth forest filled with giant cedars, maples, paper birch, and fir trees.



The Gorge Powerhouse is part of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and it's turbines are powered by the Gorge Dam that is a few miles up the river. First providing power to the city of Seattle in 1924, today 92% of all power in Seattle is provided by the many dams and powerhouses found along the Skagit River. What makes this powerhouse special is the fun suspension bridge leading to the powerhouse and the lovely trail behind the powerhouse. The short 0.4 mile Ladder Creek Falls trail is definitely worth a stop and in fact is best viewed at night when a light show lights up the falls. Dating back to 1920, these falls have been illuminated every evening from dusk until midnight.



Continuing to trek eastward along the North Cascades Scenic Highway, keep a look out for Gorge Creek Falls. The 0.8 mile loop trail here provides views of the 242 foot Gorge Creek Falls as well as views of Gorge Dam and Gorge Lake. One of the most stunning things you will notice may not be the falls itself at this stop, but the color of the water in Gorge Lake - it's bright green! Since the water is glacial fed, the glacial silt creates a brilliant bright green color which is absolutely stunning! Also make sure to enjoy the unnamed falls located along the roadside near the parking lot for Gorge Creek Falls, this small waterfall offers a unique opportunity to get up close and feel the spray of the waterfall - providing for some fun pictures!



Built in 1930, Diablo Dam is one of three dams along the Upper Skagit River and was the tallest dam in the world at 389 feet at the time of completion. The reservoir that was created is known as Lake Diablo and is a highlight of any visit to North Cascades National Park Complex. To access the area, turn onto Diablo Dam Road. Along this road you will be able to enjoy views of the Diablo Dam as well as access to Lake Diablo. We enjoyed spending time along the shoreline throwing rocks and enjoying the beautiful views!



Probably one of the most iconic views of the North Cascades National Park Complex is the view from the Diablo Lake Overlook. This gem of a view is a must see for anyone visiting this area! No hike is required for this view as it's just a pullout along the side of Highway 20, providing easy access for all! Looking down at the milky green waters of Diablo Lake surrounded by the beautiful forested mountains of the North Cascades is truly breathtaking!

Father and son with outstretched arms stand along an overlook providing views of Lake Diablo and the North Cascades.
Our favorite view in the North Cascades

Lake Diablo surrounded by the mountains of the North Cascades.
Iconic view of the North Cascade's Lake Diablo.


DAY 2:


To start off our second day in the North Cascades, we began with the 1.5 mile Ross Dam Trail. Ross Dam is another dam that is part of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and was built in 1952, creating the 22 mile Ross Lake. We really enjoyed the hike out to see this dam and would recommend this this hike to anyone! The views were beautiful as we crossed Happy Creek on our way to the dam and once we reached the dam we were provided with gorgeous views of the rugged North Cascades and the green waters of Ross Lake. Walking out across the dam was memorable as the winds really whip thru the valley there - hold on to your hats as you enjoy the the views!



The Happy Creek Forest Walk is a super short 0.3 mile walk along a boardwalk thru an old growth forest. While maybe not the most memorable walk, viewing the old growth trees and lush green forest is worth a quick stop!

Mother and son along the boardwalk of the Happy Creek Forest Walk in North Cascades National Park.
Enjoying a short stroll along the Happy Creek Forest Walk.



Our last stop within the boundaries of the North Cascade National Park Complex was the Ross Lake Overlook. This quick roadside stop provides for more amazing views out over Ross Lake and the beautiful North Cascades and should not be missed!

Scenic views from the Ross Lake Overlook  in the North Cascades National Park Complex.
Scenic views everywhere thru-out the North Cascades National Park Complex.



Continuing on Highway 20 as you leave the boundaries of the North Cascades National Park Complex, you will cross into the Mount Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest for a brief bit and then cross into the Okanogan - Wenatchee National Forest. Stopping at milepost 141 at the Canyon Creek Trailhead is always a special stop for us as we have a bit of family history at this location. Following the Canyon Creek Trail, take a left at the fork and follow the Jackita Ridge Trail that will take you to the remains of the Beebe Cabin. This old cabin dates back to 1902 and was built by Frank Beebe who is a relative of ours. Sadly, the cabin has now collapsed and lies in ruins - making it extra special for us to visit while there is still something left to see. If you want to spend some more time hiking - hike the seven mile Canyon Creek Trail, although the last time we visited the area the bridge over Canyon Creek had washed out, putting a stop to any hopes of hiking any further.

Little boy standing in front of an old collapsed cabin named Beebe Cabin in the North Cascades.
Learning about our family history at Beebe Cabin.



Hiking Rainy Pass Trail was the highlight of our weekend exploring the North Cascades - we absolutely loved this trail! This two mile roundtrip hike takes you to the north end of Rainy Lake along a paved, virtually flat path making this a must do hike for everyone! Upon reaching the shores of Rainy Lake you are surrounded by absolutely beautiful views as steep cliffs surround the lake with numerous waterfalls cascading down to the lake below - you almost forget you are in Washington State as the views rival those found in Glacier National Park! This is an absolutely breathtaking spot that should be on everyone's must do list when visiting the North Cascades.

Green waters of Rainy Lake on a sunny summer day.
One of our favorite places - Rainy Lake



For our last stop along the North Cascades Scenic Highway, we stopped at Washington Pass Overlook. The views here just can't be beat - follow a short 0.25 mile paved path and you are rewarded with some of the best views found anywhere in Washington State! Enjoy the views out to Liberty Bell Mountain, Early Winter Spires and Kangaroo Ridge! As one of the more iconic views along the North Cascades Scenic Highway, Liberty Bell stands tall at 7,720 feet and can't be missed!


DAY 3:


To start off our last day in the North Cascades, we choose to spend some time fishing along the banks of the Skagit River. While camping at Howard Miller Steelhead Park we were able to access the river right from our campsite which was super convenient. Although the water was beautiful and super inviting looking on a hot summer's day, the waters of the Skagit River were super cold and cut our time short for fishing as our legs were going numb!

Father and son fishing along the banks of the Skagit River.
Nothing better than a day spent fishing!



Located just down the road from our campground Howard Miller Steelhead Park was Rockport State Park. While this state park no longer offers camping options, this is a great spot to stop and have a picnic or enjoy a short hike. We choose to hike the half mile Fern Creek Trail which was a great stroll thru a beautiful fern paradise! Everywhere you looked were lush green ferns surrounding the trail, providing for a stunning walk thru the forest. For those wanting a bit longer of a hike, the park also offers the three mile Evergreen Trail which unfortunately we just didn't have time for this day.

Little boy standing on a stump among the large green ferns in Rockport State Park.
Enjoying a beautiful hike thru the ferns in Rockport State Park.



For our last stop of the weekend we choose to spend a bit of time enjoying the Baker Lake area. From our campground - Howard Miller Steelhead Park, it was about a 45 minute drive to reach the Baker Lake area - but the drive is well worth it! Baker Lake is almost 9 miles long and is 4,500 feet across at it's widest point and is a great place to spend an afternoon! Numerous campgrounds are available in the area as well as day use areas that provide access to the shoreline. For us, we spent some time fishing and swimming at the Panarama Point access at Baker Lake - what a beautiful area - sparkling blue waters and gorgeous views of Mt. Baker made this a great spot to visit! Also not to be missed when visiting Baker Lake is the Upper and Lower Baker Lake Dams. Baker Lake is actually a result of the dams along Baker River and the dams are definitely worth exploring if you are out in the area. Walking along the top of the Upper Baker Lake Dam provides some wonderful views out over the area including beautiful views of Mt. Baker!


Interested in planning your own trip to North Cascades National Park? Below is our summarized itinerary for you to follow or adjust to your own preferences. ENJOY!

Day 1: Arrive to Howard Miller Steelhead Park, Newhalem: North Cascades Visitor Center, Sterling Munro Trail (leaves from Visitor Center), Skagit General Store, ‘Old Number Six’ Locomotive, Suspension Bridge to Trail of the Cedars (1 mile), then the Gorge Powerhouse & Ladder Creek Falls Trail (0.4 miles), Gorge Creek Falls - (0.5 miles), Diablo Dam & Lake, Diablo Lake Overlook

Day 2: Ross Dam Trail (1.5 miles), Happy Creek Forest Walk (0.3 miles) Ross Lake Overlook, Canyon Creek (Milepost 141 - Beebe Cabin), Rainy Lake Trail (2 miles), Washington Pass Overlook

Day 3: Fish the Skagit River, Rockport State Park (Fern Creek Trail 0.5 miles or Evergreen Trail 3 miles), Explore Baker Lake & Baker Lake Dams.

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