North Cascades National Park stands out among national parks in the lower 48 for its remoteness and immense roadless expanse. While it lacks the entrance arches, grand lodges and tourist infrastructure common at other national parks, its allure is the deep valleys and remote peaks it contains.
For new visitors, there’s plenty to see within striking distance of a parking lot or road shoulder. These stops provide visitors with a look at the edges of the wilderness park, if not a true wilderness experience.
Check nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit for more information about ranger-led programs.
North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem
The North Cascades Visitor Center is worth a stop if you need information about the park on your way in. It’s just across the Skagit River from Highway 20 near milepost 120 and features several short trails and an information desk with books, maps and everything else you could need for a trip into the park. Don’t miss the large-scale relief map of the park and surrounding area.
North Cascades Institute
In some ways, the North Cascades Institute (NCI) serves as a welcome center to the park. The nonprofit offers educational tours and programming in the park and has a campus at Diablo Lake with lodging. Summer programming at NCI includes everything from weeklong yoga and photography workshops to open-ended family weekends with food and lodging. For more info, see ncascades.org.
NCI and Seattle City Light, Seattle’s electric power utility, partner to provide boat tours on Diablo Lake and at the powerhouse at Diablo Dam. These boat tours are one of the easiest ways to get a guided look at the park.
Powder blue from glacial runoff, Diablo Lake is a highlight of any drive across Highway 20. Enjoy the view from a car window or stop at Diablo Lake Vista Point overlook at approximately mile 132 on Highway 20. The lake gets its color from tiny particles of rock ground into dust by glaciers in the high country.
For a longer stay at Diablo Lake, check out the Colonial Creek Campground and Boat Launch which, in addition to a dock and beach, has several trailheads leading farther into the park. Other campgrounds and trailheads surround the lake.
Cascade Pass trailhead
The trailhead to Cascade Pass is one of the most popular day hikes in the park and one of the most scenic spots accessible by car. Even though the parking lot is low in the Cascade River valley, the views from it are incredible. Sheer walls and hanging glaciers of Johannesburg Mountain and Cascade Peak rise 4,000 feet overhead, and occasionally spit chunks of ice and rock down to the valley below.
The last 13 miles of road are unpaved and snake through old-growth trees on the way to the parking lot. Though it’s worth it for the drive alone, you really should hoof it up to Cascade Pass if you come this far.
If you want to stretch your legs but not take on a real hike, stop at Rainy Pass and head for Rainy Lake, a 1-mile, paved wheelchair accessible walk to a tranquil lake in a deep bowl. For such a short stroll, Rainy Lake offers an impressive look at the wildness the park offers. Rainy Pass is also the trailhead for Lake Ann, a 3.4-mile round trip.
Washington Pass Overlook
Though it’s outside the national park, The Liberty Bell group of peaks is one of the most striking sights in the North Cascades. These granite spires would look right at home in the eastern Sierras or the Tetons. Washington Pass is a paradise for climbers all summer and one of the better roadside spots to see larch trees turn gold in the fall.
Lake Chelan, at the park’s southeastern edge, is one of the deepest lakes in the country; its bottom is nearly 400 feet below sea level. Mountains, vineyards and the popular Chelan Lakeshore Trail surround the lake.
To see the length of the 50-mile-long lake and enter the national park, ride the Lady of the Lake passenger ferry to Stehekin Landing. The picturesque and remote community of Stehekin is accessible only by boat or trail. Get reservations to the North Cascades Stehekin Lodge to enjoy what might be the most comfortable experience you can have in the park. If you’re not going to Stehekin, there’s lodging in nearby Chelan and camping at Lake Chelan State Park.