If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

North Cascades National Park paddling guide


By Maya Hunger

North Cascades National Park has everything an adventurer could dream of in the Pacific Northwest – remote wilderness full of old-growth trees, massive glaciers with electric-blue ice and deep bodies of water surrounded by mountains. Vehicle access is limited to the North Cascades Highway and a few roads that probe the park’s boundaries; typically hiking is the go-to if you want to see more than roadside vistas.

However, boats provide some unique opportunities to explore remote corners thanks to the park’s long fjiord-like lakes and reservoirs. Below are a few options for exploring the park by kayak or canoe. Please remember to boat responsibly, be prepared for the worst and check (and double-check) the weather and conditions forecasted before your trip.

Diablo Lake

Known for its turquoise color, Diablo Lake is a breathtaking body of water that’s perfect for a daytrip or overnight paddle trip. The closest campsite is two miles from the boat launch – just far enough to practice route finding, paddling, and overnight packing skills without too much commitment. Three campsite locations and seven total sites surround the lake. Be sure to get a permit as early as possible to ensure that you have a place to camp.

Suggested duration: Day trip or short overnighter

Mileage: 2-5 miles

Launch: Colonial Creek Campground

Permit: Required for camping. Obtain at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount or at the U.S. Forest Service Methow Valley Ranger Station in Winthrop.

Ross Lake

A Ross Lake adventure may be the ultimate multi-day paddle in the North Cascades. With stellar views, remote wilderness, exceptional paddling and a variety of trails accessible from shore, spending 3-5 days with paddling, hiking and camping is easy.

The 23-mile-long lake has 19 boat accessible campsites, all with fire rings, picnic tables, vault toilets and bear-resistant food storage boxes. Some sites can be reserved. If you do not have a reservation, it can be easier to secure a campsite on an island than on the lakeshore because you do not have to compete with hikers for them; islands may also have fewer mosquitos. Either way, you need to pick up a permit beforehand.

There’s a lot to explore along lakeshore. Desolation Peak Trail is one of the most iconic hikes. It is steep and strenuous, but the view of the lake and surrounding mountains is worth the reward. Desolation Peak is famously featured in Jack Kerouac’s writing; the beat poet and author spent the summer of 1956 atop the peak as a fire lookout.

The Big and Little Beaver trails are pleasant paths along milky glacier-fed creeks and through old-growth forest. The East Bank trail runs along much of the eastern shore of Ross Lake, with side trips to peaks and lakes.

Suggested duration: 2+ nights

Suggested mileage: 5-7 miles a day.

Access/launch: If you have your own boat you can put in at Colonial Creek Campground on Diablo Lake, paddle across Diablo Lake and use the phone at the take-out to call for Ross Lake Resort’s portage shuttle to pick you up and shuttle you to Ross Lake.

To rent boats, hike from the Ross Dam Trailhead to Ross Lake (0.8 miles) and then call for a water taxi (or have one pre-arranged) to the resort, where you can get outfitted with boats, paddles and some safety gear. For more information, see rosslakeresort.com.

The northern end of Ross Lake reaches into Canada, allowing boat access from Skagit Valley Provincial Park, near Hope, B.C.

Permit: Required for camping. Obtain at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount or at U.S. Forest Service Methow Valley Ranger Station in Winthrop.

Lake Chelan

Lake Chelan is a must-do for paddlers, offering everything from simple day trips to complex multi-day excursions, all with awe-inspiring views and dependable east-of-the-crest weather. Though a dam raised the lake’s height by about 20 feet in 1927, Chelan is the most natural lake in this guide and the third deepest lake in North America, according to the park service.

Lake Chelan is 55 miles long and dramatically different at each end – the south end has warmer water and is packed with vacationers, while the north end offers a remote wilderness experience. Gentle paddling opportunities can be found at the south end of the lake near the towns of Chelan and Manson. Stehekin, at the other end of the lake, is a small boat or plane-accessible town that is a gateway to the interior of North Cascades National Park. Though remote, it has amenities and tasty treats, such as those from the Stehekin Pastry Company (a fan favorite). Since the lake is long and narrow, it’s fun to paddle one way and use the passenger ferry run by the Lake Chelan Boat Company for return or drop-off. Reservations must be made ahead of time for the passenger ferry.

The lake has 14 first-come, first-serve boat-in camping areas managed by either the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service. Each has picnic tables, fire rings, toilets and a dock available for easy loading/unloading, but users must pay fees for the docks – it is free to land on shore without using a dock. Much of the lake’s shoreline is too steep to allow for easy landing and this can complicate even a quick bathroom stop or rest break. Before attempting to paddle on Lake Chelan, make a detailed route plan with contingencies for wind and emergency situations.

Suggested duration: Day trip or overnight

Mileage: Variable.

Launch: Fields Point Landing and 25-Mile Creek State Park

Permit: A backcountry permit is required for camping near Stehekin in the North Cascades National Park. Get one at the Stehekin Ranger Station. Other parking and camping fees are dependent upon route. The lake is long and managed by a variety of local, state and federal agencies.

Maya Hunger is a Washingtonian who likes type 2 fun and human-powered sports. Writing for various publications makes her feel like she is contributing to society while spending the majority of her time far in the backcountry.