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About North Cascades National Park
If you’re planning on visiting North Cascades National Park in Washington, use this two day itinerary to plan your trip. North Cascades National Park is one of the most underrated parks in the United States. While it’s not too far from Seattle (less than 3 hours!). North Cascades National Park still doesn’t get as many visitors compared to Olympic or Mt. Rainier National Parks in Washington. But don’t discount this park, it is absolutely beautiful! Many of the overlooks, lakes and jagged mountain peaks resemble Glacier National Park. Now, onto the logistics of where to stay and all of that good information (including what to do during two days in your North Cascades itinerary.)
Where to stay near North Cascades National Park
The main road that goes through North Cascades National Park is Hwy 20. During the winter, it’s actually closed so North Cascades NP is seasonal when the winter weather gets intense. The two main cities on the West and East side of North Cascades that most people stay in are Marblemount & Winthrop, Washington. (When we visited we stayed with our RV in Winthrop and went back and forth.)
However, you could definitely strategically stay for a few days in Winthrop, explore the area then spend time in North Cascades National Park for 2 days or so and then stay in Marblemount. It all depends on if you’re camping, RVing or planning on staying in a hotel or short term rental property.
Click here for places to stay in Winthrop, WA: Accommodations near North Cascades in Winthrop, WA
How many days in North Cascades National Park?
You truly need at least one full day to see the best of North Cascades National Park in your itinerary. However, if you tack on an additional day or two (especially if you plan on doing some longer hikes) you will cover a lot of ground and see a lot of this National Park. But, it also depends on your pace and if you like to truly maximize your days and pack them full or move at a more leisurely speed. I will admit, I’m the first option (especially when visiting National Parks!) North Cascades was no exception! I left Winthrop, WA early each day and arrived into the evening, although I will say one day was a bit rainy so we arrived back earlier. (But it was still around 4 PM whether you consider that a full day or not is open to interpretation!)
North Cascades National Park: 2 day Itinerary
North Cascades Itinerary: Day 1
Leaving from Winthrop, WA early in the morning up and at ’em with a coffee in hand, breakfast to eat on the drive & snacks as well as lunch packed in the cooler. (Trust me on being that prepared, it maximizes your enjoyment for a packed National Park day!) It is a little bit of a drive from Winthrop to North Cascades. (A little over 30 miles for reference) to the first stop at Washington Pass Overlook.
Washington Pass Overlook
With just a short walk on a paved trail through a wooded area from the parking lot you will be rewarded with stunning views of the mountain pass as you stand on the highest point of the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20). Click here for more specific details on the trail leading to Washington Pass Overlook.
Rainy Lake Trail
This next stop is a hike. Originally I wanted to hike Maple Pass, but according to AllTrails it was still really snowy and icy in some spots. The Rainy Lake Trail started at the same trailhead and well, we accidentally did part of the Maple Pass hike on accident! Whoops! We share more on our debacle on the WanderLust in Real Life YouTube Channel.
Ross Lake Overlook
There are turnouts off the main roady (Hwy 20) to have a viewpoint of Ross Lake as well as Diablo Lake within North Cascades National Park. You definitely want to include these stop offs within your North Cascades Itinerary. Perfect viewpoints to take in the beauty around you as well as stop and enjoy a snack or meal you packed with you for your day or two within the park.
Happy Creek Falls Trail Hike
The hike to the falls was more strenuous than we had anticipated. Much of the trail is covered and trees are overhead making it decently warm, almost stifling with a decent incline to get to the falls. There is a shorter just boardwalk area, but you won’t see the full falls if you choose to cut it short just to do that little jaunt.
Ross Dam Trail
The Ross Dam Trail leads you to Ross Dam. I’ll be honest, it’s my least favorite kind of hike where the way there is downhill so the way back is uphill. But, Ross Dam is so impressive! It’s huge and just looking down over the sheer power and the blueish green water with the mountains off in the distance. It definitely rivals Diablo Lake as far as beautiful views are concerned. It was well worth the effort to get there. It’s a popular hike and some people park at the trailhead and backpack to the
Diablo Lake Overlook
Possibly one of my favorite things about spending 2 days in North Cascades National Park was the gorgeous Diablo Lake. It seemed somewhat like the lakes located in Glacier National Park which is why it’s so surprising that the North Cascades National Park isn’t visited as much in comparison to other National Parks.
North Cascades Itinerary: Day 2
Thunder Knob Trail
Thunder Knob Trail is under 4 miles and moderately challenging hike. At the end (it’s an out and back trail, there is a view of Diablo Lake as well as the mountains. At first we weren’t sure if we were going the right way because the trail sign is really tucked back into the trees at the trailhead. Then it starts through a campground but the trail really starts near the creek and there were markers on the trees to help guide and mark the trail. Unfortunately it was really rainy and foggy when we hiked it so really there was no view. If it’s raining or foggy, I’d definitely say skip this hike if you’re wanting the reward of a view at the end.
Ladder Creek Falls Trail
This quick under a mile loop is in Newhalem, WA it’s located behind the Gorge Powerhouse. We visited during the day, however at night there is a light show that appears as the waterfall looks like it is illuminated and runs every 15 minutes. You can visit the falls then return back the way you came or complete the loop over a suspension bridge. This is really close by the Trail of the Cedars trail and suspension bridge.
Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk to the Suspension Bridge
A short easily accessible stroll across a suspension bridge hovering over the Skagit River. This is one that’s definitely doable for the whole family. (Leashed dogs are even allowed on this trail!) That is something additional to note that North Cascades National Park compared to other National Parks in the USA there are more trails where dogs are allowed. But, be sure to check the specific trail before hiking with your furry pal as they’re not allowed on ALL of them.
North Cascades Visitor Center
The visitor center in North Cascades National Park is located near Newhalem, Washington on the West side of the park. (Near Milepost 120 on Highway 20 it’s near the Newhalem Creek Campground.) Since the North Cascades National Park is seasonal, the Visitor Center is only open from mid April through mid November.
Sterling Munro Boardwalk
This is located just a short walk on a path behind the North Cascades Visitor Center so you definitely want to add it into your itinerary! Again, it was super foggy so we weren’t able to see the mountain range that presents itself in this nice little opening but the effort was minimal when we were already in the visitor center.
Note: You definitely can fit more into a second day in the North Cascades National Park, however due to rain and being drenched we called it a day! Be sure you’re prepared for the weather and dress appropriately. But, even if you do so in the rain eventually you’ll reach your threshold of putting up with it. But hey, you never know when you’ll encounter rain hiking and exploring outdoors in the PNW!