Ultimate Guide to Visiting North Cascades National Park (2-Day Itinerary)
Post Summary: Your guide for planning a trip to North Cascades National Park! Keep reading to find out what to bring, when to visit, where to stay, and what to do in the park. I’ve also included a North Cascades National Park 2-day itinerary at the end.
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North Cascades National Park is located in Northern Washington and is one of the least-visited National Parks in the USA. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I would guess the reason is it’s not close to any large airports (2.5 hours from Seattle airport) and its smaller than others in the area. When visiting Seattle, most people stick to Mount Rainier National Park or Olympic National Park. While those are beautiful, North Cascades National Park is definitely worth a visit if you have extra time!
The park is quite long (north to south), but there is only one road through it (highway 20) that runs East to West. It takes about two hours to drive across the entire park and there are plenty of spots to pull over and take in the gorgeous views along the way.
Best Time to Visit North Cascades National Park
The main road that runs through NCNP is Highway 20. Because of the snowfall, that road closes sometime in November through April or early May. You can always check the official National Park Website for specific dates, but it generally depends on weather conditions.
If you’re planning a visit, I’d recommend choosing a date starting late May through September so you can be sure that the entire highway will be open and you can see everything the park has to offer.
Generally speaking, national parks get very busy during the summer months when kids are out of school, so if you time your visit when kids are back in school, you’ll likely see less crowds. However, North Cascades National Park doesn’t ever really get that crowded, so I wouldn’t stress too much about that.
What to Pack for North Cascades National Park
Weather in Northern Washington can be all over the place. In the summer months, it’s typically cool in the early morning and late evening, and warm during the day. It can rain, but it’s certainly not as rainy as it is in the spring/winter. Here’s what I would pack for a weekend in North Cascades National Park:
What to do in North Cascades National Park
This park is a bit smaller than other National Parks you’ve been to, however, a lot of it is spread out. You won’t fit everything there is to do in a 2-day North Cascades National Park itinerary, but you can see a lot!
Here’s what I would recommend doing in NCNP (full itinerary below):
- Drive along Highway 20. Stop at any of the designated pull-off areas that you like.
- Park at the Visitor’s Center and head inside for a souvenir from the park.
- Stop at the Diablo Lake Overlook for the most picturesque water.
- Pick 2-3 hikes to explore. I will list the best hikes in NCNP further down in this post!
Where to Stay When Visiting North Cascades National Park
There are a few different types of accommodation I wanted to mention in this guide to North Cascades National Park. Firstly, there are hotels and campsites within the park. Personally, I’d recommend these if they are available. Some of the campsites are first come, first served, but the hotel and reservation campsites fill up quickly. I was booking out trip somewhat last minute, so we chose to stay in a nearby town, but I’ll outline all of the options below.
The hotel we stayed in: The Inn at Mazama
Hotels in North Cascades National Park
The Lodge at Stehekin is on my bucket list and is a trip in itself as it’s a bit of a trek to get to. There are no roads to drive to this lodge which makes it the perfect getaway if you want to be isolated in nature! Guests must either take a ferry from Chelan or hike a beautiful 23 miles to get there. Beautiful scenery surrounds the lodge and there is an endless number of hikes and outdoor activities to keep you busy during the day. However, since this hotel is so far away from civilization (and it’s at the very bottom of NCNP). I wouldn’t recommend it if you only have a few days to visit.
Ross Lake Resort, on the other hand, is still remote, but it’s closer to the other areas of the park you’ll want to see. Guests need to either take a ferry or hike in as there is no road service to the resort. There are a number of activities to try during your stay like boating, fishing, and of course, hiking! You can also camp overnight here.
Camping in North Cascades National Park
There are a number of campgrounds within North Cascades National Park for all comfort levels. They have both drive-in and boat-in campgrounds. They also allow backpacking at a ton of designated sites within the park (click the link for a full list).
Drive-in Campgrounds: All of them require a reservation through Recreation.gov.
Boat-in Camping: Boat-in camping can be done at Lake Chelan, Ross Lake, and Diablo Lake. Some areas don’t require a backcountry permit, but most of them do. Check the official site to see if the area you want to visit requires it.
Backpacking: There are almost 140 designated campsites within all different areas of the park. If you’re interested in this, here is the link to all the sites where overnight backpacking is allowed.
Staying in Towns Outside North Cascades National Park
I always recommend staying inside national parks if you can because it’s such a great experience to be able to see the park after all the visitors have left for the day. It also cuts down on commute time to and from your hotel. However, hotels inside national parks tend to fill up quickly, so if you’re in a position like I was, here are a few areas you can stay in instead.
Mazama: We chose to stay in Mazama which is a town less than an hour east of NCNP off highway 20. It’s a small, cute little town with not much more than a couple of hotels and restaurants. We stayed at the Inn at Mazama and I’d recommend it if you’re looking in this area.
Winthrop: Winthrop is such a cute town a little further east of Mazama, off highway 20. This town is often a destination for visitors because it’s made to look like an old western town with a ton of souvenir shops and restaurants. I haven’t stayed in any of these, but Sun Mountain Lodge and Rivers Edge Resort both look like great options.
Each of these towns also have campgrounds to stay in, however, if you’re tent camping, I’d highly recommend trying to get a spot within the park. Campgrounds outside of the park might make sense if you have an RV or camping trailer and don’t have a reservation for a drive-in campsite.
Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park
While doing research on hikes before we visited, I came across so many beautiful trails with stunning views. I wanted to try them all, but we only had two days to fit in as much adventure as we could! I’ll start with the hikes we did and then list the ones that made their way onto my bucket list for next time.
The best hikes in North Cascades National Park:
- Blue Lake Trail
- Rainy Lake Trail
- Ladder Creek Falls Trail
- Sahale Arm Trail
- Maple Pass Trail
Looking for more hiking inspiration for Northwest Washington? Here are my favorite hikes near Bellingham, WA!
Blue Lake Trail
Length: 4.6mi total out and back
Elevation gain: 921ft
Blue Lake Trail is technically outside of NCNP, but it is still along highway 20. It’s great for beginner/intermediate hikers that want a great view at the end of their hike. Hiking to the lake is a steady uphill climb. It can get pretty tiring constantly walking uphill, but the lake views at the end were worth it.
Since it is technically in a National Forest and not NCNP, there is a fee to hike. The Washington Discover Pass or the America the Beautiful Pass will get you in as well. We didn’t actually show this to anyone, but if you don’t have either of these, you’ll have to pay a fee before you hike.
Rainy Lake Trail
Length: 2mi total out and back
Elevation gain: 131ft
Rainy Lake Trail is a completely paved trail perfect for beginner hikers. It is a fairly flat trail that ends at a mountain lake. Unfortunately, there isn’t a beach area to sit down, but there is a bench at the end to enjoy the lake and mountain views.
Like Blue Lake Trail, this hike is outside of NCNP, so be sure to bring your Discover Pass, America the Beautiful Pass, or be prepared to pay a fee.
Ladder Creek Falls Trail
Length: 0.5mi loop
Elevation gain: 72ft
Ladder Creek Falls trail is another very easy hike. This is a great option for beginners or those of you who want to learn about the several powerhouses in North Cascades National Park. This hike takes you around the Gorge Powerhouse where the rushing water supplies energy to various parts of Washington.
Sahale Arm Trail
Length: 12.1mi total out and back
Elevation gain: 5,029ft
We did not hike Sahale Arm Trail when we visited because none of us were in good enough shape to hike 12 miles with that much elevation gain in one day. However, it’s on my bucket list! This hike would be great for backpacking or a full-day hike. The views along the way look incredible.
Maple Pass Trail
Length: 7.4mi loop
Elevation gain: 2,191ft
Maple Pass Trail shares a trailhead with Rainy Lake Trail. It is another hike that we didn’t do on our trip, but it is now on my hiking bucket list! There are several spots along the way that give amazing mountain and lake views.
2-Day Itinerary for North Cascades National Park
If you’re headed to North Cascades National Park, here is an example 2-day itinerary for first-time visitors. It is loosely based off of what we did when we visited, but our trip wasn’t as perfect as yours can be, so I switched out a couple of things to make it even better!
Day 1: Visitor’s Center, Diablo Lake, Blue Lake Trail
Start the day by arriving to NCNP as early as possible and heading straight for the visitor’s center. Here, you can grab a map and a souvenir if you’d like. Then keep driving along highway 20 and stopping whenever you’d like to pull over and take a picture. This is some of the prettiest scenery, so take your time!
When you get to Diablo Lake, pull into the parking lot and walk to the edge to see some of the bluest water you’ll ever lay eyes on. The lake is surrounded by mountains, making this my favorite pull off in the park. You can easily spend an hour here, just taking it all in. Don’t worry, there are bathrooms!
When you’re finished, continue on along highway 20 until you get to Blue Lake Trail. As described above, this trail is technically outside the park, but it’s just on the border and is a beautiful out-and-back trail.
After that, head to your accommodation for the night. If this is in Mazama or Winthrop, plan to get dinner in Winthrop and walk around the old western town for a bit.
Day 2: Maple Pass Trail
Maple Pass Trail is a bit more strenuous than Blue Lake Trail, so that’s all that’s on the itinerary for today. Depending on how fast you hike, this might take all day, but it is one of the most-liked trails within the park, so I think it’s worth it! You’ll have incredible views the entire way and just enough energy to drive home afterward!
I sincerely hope this guide is useful and helped you plan your trip to North Cascades National Park itinerary! It’s an area that you cannot see all of in just a short trip, so it’ll keep you coming back for more. Let me know in the comments or over on Instagram if you end up visiting!