Get to Know the North End of North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is a short two-hour drive from Seattle, and provides a getaway from the everyday into an absorbing and magical world of water, peaks, valleys, glaciers and beauty. The park is split into two units, north and south with the north being the more accessible of the two.
Most people will enjoy the park via US-20, the Cascades Highway, which cuts though the Northern Unit of the park (technically this is Ross Lake National Recreation Area, you have to hike 2 hours either north or south from US-20 to get to the National Park proper, though who’s counting?)
Note that the in the northern section, the visitor center is only open on weekends; if you are looking to get a stamp or info on the park, stop off earlier on US 20 at the NPS Wilderness Information Center, which is located right before the park boundaries in the town of Marblemount. The info center is open 7 days a week.
From the visitor center, located in Newhalem, there are several easy hikes that take you through the forest, lush with trees and abundant with moisture from the rainfall. These trails also link up with the main campgrounds, which are very popular and can fill up for the whole short high season, (early July to early September), sometimes only hours after availability is released at the 6 month window. Also in the town of Newhalem, you will find The Trail of Cedars. This trail offers a journey at the start on an amazing cable suspension bridge, however the rest of the trail fails to live up to expectations.
The town of Newhalem exits mostly due to the hydroelectric dam and power plant located there which supplies energy to Seattle. The dam itself is a highlight, though the real gem is the Gorge Creek Falls Overlook, which offers stunning views of the falls and the gorge that feeds into the dammed lake. To get the full view of the falls, use the pedestrian path on the Gorge Creek bridge that starts shortly after the Gorge Creek parking lot. Both sides of the bridge are worth the view, though you may want check your vertigo in the car as the railing is only chest high! You can also take a boardwalk trail that in the same parking lot that offers stunning views of the valley, mountain peaks and the dam itself. The trail will eventually loop back and around to the parking lot.
As the park is rarely visited — it ranks 54 out of 59 in visitation — you will have a lot of time to yourself and you likely won’t be contending with crowds. Take advantage of the stunning views of Diablo Lake, the centerpiece of the North Unit, by continuing on US-20 to Diablo Lake. Make sure to take the road down to the damn and drive across the dam taking in the views on both sides. On the other side of the dam is the Diablo Lake ferry The boat will take you around Diablo and Ross Lakes and the fare is reasonable at time of printing $20 round trip; it’s a good half-day option for sightseeing. The boat will also take you to the floating cabins at the Ross Lake Resort which are not to be missed if you are looking for a special and unique stay. The drive over the dam also leads to the North Cascades Institute, an educational and conservation facility for wilderness and nature which has been in service to the area since 1986. The Institute offers tours, field programs, events and a professional Masters degree residency program.
After Diablo Lake, US 20 climbs up in altitude which allows for a great view at the Diablo Lake Overlook, a not to be missed view of the lake below and also about at the 1/2 point on US-20 Here you get a high view of the lake and the surrounding mountains, which include active glaciers! Unlike Glacier National Park, here you can easily see the glaciers and lots more of them from the road. In fact, you can even hike to more glaciers and in easier fashion than in Glacier! Check with the ranger for updates on the specific glacier trails as they can have variable conditions.
Moving along US-20, you will drive through the valley again, and come upon Ross Lake. One easy and fun trail is the Happy Creek Forest Walk, which has a boardwalk. This is a perfect trail to get a sense of the deep woods while having an accessible trail with limited elevation gain. The views of the giant trees as they tower above you is worth the short trek.
You will want to look on the north side of the highway for the eponymous Ross Lake and two pull outs that offer stunning views of the long glacier lake. On a clear day you can see the rugged twin spires of Hozemeen Mountain and if you’re real lucky, a view into Canada.
The remaining journey eastward on US 20 is beautiful and amazing, though somewhat uneventful the next place you will absolutely wish to stop is the Rainy Pass, which offers an accessible trail to one of the most gorgeous lakes we’ve seen. This is also a trailhead for the more adventurous Maple Pass Loop trail.
A few more miles down the highway you’ll come to Washington Pass, the highest part of US-20, the overlook is simply not to be missed, even on a cloudy day. The view of Liberty Bell Mountain will remain with you long after you’ve moved on and will linger as a memory to return and visit the interior of the park.
Note if you do chose to got to Washington Pass, it will be 3.5 hours back to Seattle, you may wish to consider overnighting in Winthrop or Mazama rather than try the drive back at night. Not only for safety, it would be a crime to drive through North Cascades in the dark.
Heads up, US-20 and most of the park shuts down during the serious winters that happen in the North Cascades, some of the snow on the upper elevation trails will not melt until late July, only to be covered again 12 weeks later.
If you are planning adventures or camping off the driving path in the north unit, bear spray is not a bad idea, it is extremely rare to run into a grizzly, you are more likely to see black bears.