The Desolation Peak Trail is 6.8 miles one way and has a 4,400-foot elevation gain, but serious hikers willing to make the climb will be rewarded with grand vistas, open meadows, and a fire lookout where writer Jack Kerouac stayed during his time in North Cascades.
Many of the most scenic, rewarding hikes are off the beaten track, giving backpackers the opportunity to make the most of the remote trails. Backcountry campers will enjoy the moderately steep 3.7-mile Cascade Pass Trail, which passes through Horseshoe Basin and by numerous waterfalls and has spectacular glacier and mountain views. Serious hikers can continue along the more strenuous, six-mile Sehale Arm Trail. The trailhead is 23.1 miles from the highway, and backcountry camping permits are required for overnight stays.
Campers, backpackers, and rafters wanting to reach a more secluded area of the park should overnight at Hannegan Camp in the park's Copper Ridge area. The 13.9-mile Copper Ridge Trail affords jaw-dropping views of the North Cascades.
The Skagit Power Project—operated by Seattle City Light—has delivered hydroelectric power to Seattle since 1918. Seattle City Light offers a number of tours of its North Cascades dams, including a "Diablo Dam Good Dinner Tour" and a "Diablo Lake Adventure," which take passengers on cruises around the lake.
Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the United States and the largest natural lake in Washington state. About 10,000 people live year-round in the Chelan Valley area, which is comprised of Chelan, Manson, and Stehekin. Its central location (three hours from both Seattle and Spokane) makes the region a popular vacation spot among Washingtonians. Chelan has plenty of places to stay, dine, and shop, and a host of outfitters give visitors the chance to hike, horseback ride, golf, fish, and partake in a multitude of water activities, such as kayaking, river-rafting, scuba-diving, and boating.
The most scenic drive in the park is the North Cascades Scenic Highway, or Route 20, which splits the northern and southern units of the park. Begin your drive at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount on the western edge of the park and head east. There are plenty of scenic overlooks along the way, but make sure to stop at Diablo Lake Overlook, which affords stunning views of the lake, as well as exhibits that honor Senator Henry M. Jackson, who helped create the park. Just beyond the overlook is the Happy Creek Forest Walk, a 0.3-mile boardwalk nature trail. Continue east to Washington Pass Overlook (at 5,477 feet the highest point on Route 20, located just outside the park in Okanogan National Forest), where you can gaze up at Liberty Bell Mountain. This drive along Route 20 is about 60 miles, so plan accordingly.
Many trails in North Cascades—especially those at higher elevations—are closed for a good portion of the year due to snow (some even remain snow-covered through June or July). Be sure to check the status of any trail you plan to hike at a visitors center or ranger station.
For information on day hikes, click here.
For information on backcountry hikes, click here.
Easy: Stop at the parking lot at Mile 138.4 (about 18 miles east of Newhalem) to hike the 2.2-mile Ruby Creek Trail. This trail is good for kids, follows a creek, and includes interpretive signs detailing the area's history. When Crater Creek meets Ruby Creek, visitors can turn around or continue 2.5 miles to the Canyon Creek trailhead. The easy, one-mile Canyon Creek Trail leads to a cabin dating to the 1800s at the confluence of Granite and Canyon Creeks.
Moderate: Hike the Diablo Lake Trail for sweeping views of Colonial and Pyramid Peaks, as well as of Diablo Lake. The hike has an elevation gain of about 800 feet, with the highest point at about 2,000 feet. This trail can be done as a 7.6-mile round-trip hike, or visitors can hike 3.8 miles from the west and catch a ferry back to the trailhead (ferry available June-October).
Strenuous: Sourdough Mountain Trail (10.4 miles round-trip) follows grueling switchbacks and passes Sourdough Camp. In the last 1.5 miles of the trail hikers are rewarded with subalpine meadows and 360-degree views of valleys and peaks, including 10,781-foot-high Mount Baker.
The park's 75 mammal species include Columbia black-tailed deer, Douglas squirrels, pikas, marmots, gray wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, river otters, bobcats, cougars, mountain goats, and 12 species of bats. Keep your eyes fixed on the sky for glimpses of the park's 200 bird species (some seasonal), including the threatened spotted owl, bald eagle, hummingbirds, swallows, and warblers. The Skagit River Watershed is the only watershed in the continental U.S. to be home to all Pacific salmon species, including chinook (king), coho, chum, pink, and sockeye.
Extreme variation in slope, elevation, rainfall, and rock and soil types gives North Cascades the greatest number of plant species in the National Park system, including some 1,630 vascular plant species. Look for wildflowers like pink mountain heather, fireweed, salmonberry, and Indian plum. The park's tree species include such conifers as Western yew, whitebark pine, Douglas fir, and Western red cedar, as well as broadleaf trees like red alder, big leaf maple, California hazelnut, and alpine willow. See the park's Tree Checklist, which lists the species as well as the eight major forest types found in the North Cascades.
In summer, the park's many rivers and lakes appear emerald or turquoise; the water carries a high concentration of "glacial flour" (caused by glaciers grinding against bedrock). Stop along Route 20 near Newhalam for views of the Skagit River, or hike the Diablo Lake Trail.
Smart Traveler Strategies
There are several wheelchair-accessible hikes in North Cascades. Rainy Lake is a mile-long paved trail that winds through Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir forest, features heaps of wildflowers, and ends at the 4,800-foot-high mountain lake. The 0.3-mile Happy Creek Forest Walk is an easy boardwalk loop complete with interpretive signs that detail the local flora and fauna.
The North Cascades Institute is a non-profit environmental learning and leadership group that hosts activities throughout North Cascades. The institute hosts free guided day trips, field excursions, a speakers' series, and family-friendly trips. Or partake in activities offered by the Learning Center, a 16-building campus complete with classrooms, an amphitheater, and accommodation for participants.
Excursions Outside the Park
One hour southeast of Chelan is the Bavarian getaway of Leavenworth. Originally settled by pioneers in search of gold, the once-bustling town lost its appeal when the Great Northern Railway pulled out of town in 1922. In the 1960s residents decided to change the appearance of the community in hopes of attracting tourists. Today Leavenworth looks like an Alpine village, complete with museums, wineries, spas, shopping, and such seasonal activities as the International Accordion Celebration and the popular Bavarian Christkindlmarkt.
Just west of North Cascades lies 1.7-million-acre Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which includes picnic areas, boat ramps, scenic drives, lots of winter sports, and campsites. If you're simply passing through, take I-90 from Seattle and stop by the 270-foot Snoqualmie Falls, one of the most popular waterfalls in the state.
At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest peak in the North Cascades. Some of the best views of the mountain can be seen from the Sunrise or Paradise areas of Mount Rainier National Park. Sunrise, located at 6,400 feet, is the highest point that can be reached by vehicle in the park and includes a visitors center and day lodge. In winter, Paradise is one of the prime places for snow sports, receiving an average of 680 inches of snow yearly. In summer, Paradise is home to some of the showier wildflower meadows in the state.
In January, head to the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area, ten miles outside North Cascades and home to several hundred bald eagles during the winter, when the eagles feed on chum salmon carcasses along the upper Skagit River. There are marked viewing vistas, but no visitor facilities. Tip: Wear comfortable, warm outdoor gear and bring binoculars.
East of North Cascades is Okanogan National Forest, a 1.5-million-acre park on the state's dry, east side that includes meadows, evergreens, mountain lakes, and plenty of campgrounds and outdoor activities.