This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read my full disclaimer for more information.
North Cascades National Park in a Day
North Cascades National Park is absolutely gorgeous and it’s surprisingly one of the least visited national parks in the country. In 2020 North Cascades National Park had only 30,088 visitors; compare that to the 3.6 million people who visited Zion National Park in 2020. It’s crazy to think how many people are missing out on this beautiful gem!! I recommend spending at least one full day in North Cascades National Park (two if time permits).
Y’all want to know two of the coolest things about North Cascades National Park? Well of course you do…it’s a FREE National Park AND dogs are allowed!! A lot of parks won’t let you bring your dogs because they interfere with the native plant and animal life. I love that dogs are allowed in North Cascades National Park, even if I don’t take my own dog I love watching other dog’s play and run around. Animals just make me happy!
Before You Go
Honestly, there’s really not that much planning you need to do other than your lodging/camping reservations. It’s a free national park (yes it’s FREE), so you don’t need any tickets or reservations or anything. Just show up with your gear and you’re good to go! As far as what gear to pack: extra layers depending on weather, a rain coat (ya never know in WA), sun screen, plenty of water, trekking poles, first-aid kit, lunch, etc. I also recommend downloading the All Trails App and the maps of the trails you plan to hike beforehand. The All Trails App is a safety precaution in case you get off the trail by accident or can’t tell which direction to turn at an intersection.
Also be sure to download my “North Cascades in a Day” Google Map to your phone. I’ve included all of the highlights mentioned in this post to help you navigate your way through the park. Here are some tips for using the map:
- Click on one of the purple icons to see the each attraction/destination.
- In the upper left corner you’ll see a little box with an arrow, click on this box and a list of all of the attractions/destinations will pop up (great tool if you’re looking for a specific destination).
- To open this map in your google maps app, click on the star by “North Cascades in a Day”. Once you’ve clicked on the star, you’ll open your google maps app, click on “Saved”, then click on the “Maps” tab, and you should see the “North Cascades in a Day” map. Now you’ll be able to see your exact location compared to the map below (it’ll be easier to find the attractions/destinations this way).
It’s easiest to fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and then rent a car. North Cascades National Park is about 2 hours and 30 minutes from the Seattle Airport. The drive is absolutely beautiful!! You can also fly into the Vancouver International Airport and rent a car from there. The drive from the Vancouver Airport is about 30 minutes longer, it’s about 3 hours from the Vancouver Airport to the North Cascades National Park according to Google Maps. If you choose this route keep in mind that you are crossing the US border, which typically takes some additional time. Also be sure to check with your car rental company about crossing from Canada to US. It shouldn’t be a problem but worth asking the company just to confirm. Again, this is why we just prefer to fly into Seattle and avoid the extra hassle (plus the flights into Seattle were much cheaper).
Where to Stay
I recommend staying in Winthrop for the night, it’s such a cute little town. I love the Methow River Lodge and Cabins, which are located right along the river and close to downtown Winthrop. You’ll see lots of people walking across the bridge towards downtown Winthrop for dinner at the Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon and breakfast at the Rocking Horse Bakery. If you like cinnamon rolls, then I highly encourage you to try the cinnamon rolls at Rocking Horse Bakery. Best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had!! Before you head out on your next adventure be sure to walk through downtown Winthrop and learn about some of this small town’s unique history.
If you’re planning your trip super far in advance (like a year in advance), then I recommend making reservations at the Ross Lake Resort! The cutest little cabins floating on Ross Lake, you can’t beat those views! I’d love to stay here someday but I never plan things that far in advance.
There’s also lots of camping options for those of you who prefer staying closer to mother nature. I love the Colonial Creek South Campground, right on Diablo Lake. Can you tell that I love staying right along the water? We saw people bring their blow up kayaks and put in right at their campsite! Perfect way to relax at the end of a long day of hiking.
If your Washington adventure will continue after North Cascades National Park, then I recommend renting a campervan from Escape Campervans. Depending on the amount of time you’ll be traveling, it’s sometimes cheaper to rent a campervan than to rent a car and book hotels. Just an idea, throwing it out there for you! We rented a campervan for our Utah adventure and then built our own campervan when we returned to Texas (details here).
When to Visit
July, August, and September are the best months to visit North Cascades National Park. The snow will be melted by then, the flowers will be blooming, and the weather will be sunny (hopefully). The last thing you want to do is drive up to North Cascades in June and realize the snow is blocking the entrance to the hiking trails. Could you still hike the trails? Sure…if you’re experienced at hiking in snow with snow boots and an ice axe (quote from the ranger y’all). As a Texas girl, I’m not experienced at hiking in snow with an ice axe. Also the main road is typically closed from late November through early May, so you can’t even drive through North Cascades National Park during that time. Definitely recommend visiting July, August, or September!
What to Do
Along your drive from Seattle to North Cascades National Park I encourage you to stop at some of the viewpoints/overlooks. The drive is beautiful, enjoy it!! As you enter the park be sure to stop at the entrance for that tourist photo (better yet make a dance video). Then drive up the road and park in the Gorge Powerhouse Parking Lot. Hike across the suspension bridge connecting the parking lot to the Gorge Powerhouse Visitor Gallery. The visitor gallery provides information on the history of the powerhouse and a detailed description of how hydropower works. I wouldn’t stay here for too long though, you’ve got a busy day ahead of you!
Continue your drive to Newhalem Waterfall. I’ll be honest, I noticed the “do not enter” sign after we went to visit the waterfalls. They were so pretty and we were so excited that we just ran right up. We weren’t really paying attention. If you’re a rebel, then check them out (at your own risk). Otherwise keep on driving to the next destination
Gorge Creek Falls really deserves some more hype. It’s beautiful and just right along the side of the road. You just park, walk along the bridge, and enjoy the view. There’s something about waterfalls that are just so peaceful, I could chase waterfalls all day!! While you’re parked, feel free to hike down to get a better view of Gorge Lake. It’s about a 0.5 mile hike along a paved trail to some beautiful views. If your short on time, skip the lake views and just check out the falls.
Your adventure continues with Diablo Lake Overlook, which provides you with the vest views of Diablo Lake. We hiked some of the trails around Diablo Lake and I can confirm that the best view is from the overlook. As your looking out at Diablo Lake, walk left towards the bathrooms. Behind the bathrooms you’ll see an open area where you’ll be able to take the best photos. Enjoy your lunch with a view here, it’ll be a great way to relax before your journey continues.
The last stop in your adventure is the Rainy Pass Trail, which leads up to Rainy Lake. It’s about a 2 mile round trip hike and takes anywhere from 1-2 hours to complete. Rainy Pass Trail is considered an easy hike with about 200 ft in elevation gain. It’s also paved which makes it an easy hike for all skill levels. It’s a great way to end your day in the North Cascades! Technically Rainy Pass Trail’s not a part of the North Cascades National Park, it’s in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. You’ll need a day pass to hike in the National Forest, which you can buy in advance online here or you can pay cash at the self-pay station in the parking lot.
Blue Lake Hike is a good alternative to Rainy Lake if you’re looking for a more intense hike. The Blue Lake Hike is considered hard and is about 4.6 miles round trip. It takes about 2-3 hours to hike with an elevation gain over 900ft. Blue Lake hike is also in the Okangoan-Wenatchee National Forest, so you’ll need a day pass for this hike as well. Both Rainy Lake hike and Blue Lake hike provide gorgeous views, so you can’t go wrong either way! It just depends on how much hiking you want to do.
At the end of your hike, check into your lodging (either your campsite in the area or a hotel in Winthrop). If you’re camping, then you’ll need to have your own meals prepared (there’s no place in the park to buy food/dinner). If you’re staying at a hotel in Winthrop then I recommend dinner at either the Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon or the Old Schoolhouse Brewery. I just love the name “Old Schoolhouse Brewery”. I imagine teachers creating an underground brewery back in the day to survive all of the difficult children they had to teach. I’m like 99% certain that’s not how they started but it’s a fun story to imagine. After dinner grab a nice sweet treat from Sheri’s Sweet Shop. After a day of hiking I like to say I’ve earned a little treat!
The next morning, wake up and enjoy some of the yummy cinnamon rolls from Rocking Horse Bakery! Grab some coffee too because well let’s admit we all have a caffeine addiction! Actually I don’t drink coffee but I am addicted to my daily chai’s!! Get your morning started off strong and walk around downtown Winthrop before continuing on your Washington adventure.
If you have an extra day to spend in the area, then I recommend hiking Maple Pass Trail. Maple Pass Trail is in the Okangoan-Wenatchee National Forest and is actually considered the most popular hike in the area. It’s beautiful with views of the mountains, meadows, and lakes! It has a little bit of everything for you. Maple Pass Trail is considered hard and is about a 7 miles round trip with an elevation gain over 2,100ft. It takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to hike round trip (depending on your pace and skill level). People typically hike this loop counter clockwise and a lot of hikers will only go about 1/3 of the loop and then turn back around. They turn around just after passing the Lewis Lake trail to avoid hiking higher in elevation. I recommend starting the hike and just seeing how you feel as you go. No need to make a decision before you’re even on the trail.
I hope your day (or two) in North Cascades National Park is amazing! I hope the weather cooperates for you and you’re able to see all of it’s beauty! Also if your continuing on your journey through Washington, then I recommend Leavenworth as your next destination.