Epic day hikes in North Cascades National Park
There are so many epic day hikes in North Cascades National Park. This blog will show you some of the best hikes in North Cascades that you cannot miss.
If you want to avoid people, you enjoy camping or backpacking, you don’t need too much tourist services and you love epic hikes then North Cascades National Park is meant for you. To be honest, there really isn’t too much else to do in North Cascades aside from hiking and lake activities!
There are some short and easy hikes in North Cascades but most of the really epic hikes are at least 8 miles and many are over 10 miles long. You generally will not see many people on the hiking trails since North Cascades is the least visited National Park in Washington.
But this just means more enjoyment to you! There are a lot of camp sites throughout North Cascades so it is perfect for those who don’t mind backcountry backpacking. Let me list some of the best day hikes in North Cascades.
Tip: North Cascades is free to visit but the nearby Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest requires a Northwest Forest Pass for a couple of popular hikes.
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How to get to North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is the largest national park in Washington State. It is located on the border of Washington State and Canada, so it is accessible from both Canada and the US.
There are a few different airports you can fly into in order to get to North Cascades National Park.
The most popular airport to fly into for North Cascades is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seattle is about a 3 hour drive from Seattle to North Cascades.
Bellingham International Airport (BLI) is another airport you can fly into in order to access North Cascades National Park. There are direct flights from Phoenix, Oakland, Las Vegas and Seattle to Bellingham International Airport. From Bellingham it is about a 2 hour drive to North Cascades National Park.
If you want to fly into Canada for some reason, you can always fly into Vancouver or Abbotsford and cross the border into Washington State. Both cities are about 2.5 – 3 hours drive to North Cascades National Park.
What is the best time to hike in North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park has a very short summer and a long winter. The best time to hike in North Cascades National Park is during this short summer and early fall from mid July to mid September when the trail does not have too much snow (you may still see some snow in July).
Wildflower blooming season is in August at North Cascades National Park, so you will see a lot of wildflower meadows when you hike in North Cascades in August.
If you want to see the golden fall colors of all the larches then September is your best bet. I wouldn’t go to North Cascades after September due to the cold weather and possible snowfall at higher altitude.
Part of SR-20 (the main road that goes through North Cascades) is closed in the winter due to heavy snow and avalanche risk. In the summer there could also be wildfire risk, causing partial closure of SR-20 or some parts of the national park.
To best plan your North Cascades trip, be sure to have the following websites handy so you can check road and trail status to avoid disappointments:
What should you know before you hike in North Cascades
North Cascades National Park is free to enter. You do not need the national park pass to visit.
Dogs may be allowed under certain circumstances, so for each of the day hikes in North Cascades you will need to find out whether dogs on leashed are allowed or not. Sometimes dogs are allowed only on part of the hike.
Some of the most epic hikes in North Cascades are actually outside of the national park itself. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass in order to park your car there. You can either buy an annual pass or bring cash and pay for a day-use pass at the trailhead (bring a pen too!)
High clearance vehicles are highly recommended for anyone that wants to hike in North Cascades. The road to some of the most popular hiking trails are unpaved and full out potholes. Sedans or low clearing vehicles are not ideal to drive on those roads.
Bear mace is a must if you want to explore North Cascades National Park. There are frequent sightings of bears and mountain goats even on popular trails.
Most of the epic hikes in North Cascades are 10 miles or more. You should be adequately prepared to hike this length by having enough water and food. Some hikes do have water source so you can bring a backup filter but I would not rely on that for some of the hikes.
There are no restaurants in North Cascades National Park. You will need to pack lunch.
What to bring on your North Cascades day hikes
You may not need all of the things listed below but since there are a lot of long hikes in North Cascades, you should be well prepared to tackle those hikes.
Sunscreen/ Sunglasses/ hat: some of the hikes in North Cascades are exposed to the sun so be sure to bring sunscreen and a hat and sunglasses.
Hiking Poles: Hiking poles are useful on long and steep hikes in North Cascades, especially the downhill part!
Swim Suit: If you are hiking to a lake chances are you might want to jumping to cool down. Bring a swim suit and towel with you for those lake hikes.
Bear Mace: We bought bear mace from REI before coming to North Cascades and we did see a bear on one of the trails in North Cascades. Most of the time bear encounters are positive since bears tend to run away from humans.
Cash & pen: If you are hiking in the national forest area, you need to bring $5 cash and a pen with you in order to pay for the day pass.
Best easy hikes and walks in North Cascades
If you are not looking for a difficult hike but still want to see the beauty of North Cascades, you can! There are a ton of easy walks and hiking trails in North Cascades suitable for even kids. I will list a few easy hikes in North Cascades here.
Ladder Creek Falls Trail
Ladder Creek Falls general stats:
Distance: 0.4 mile loop
Time to hike: 15 minutes
Elevation Gain: <100 feet
Ladder Creek Falls is an easy and relaxing walk located along SR 20 in Newhalem, about a 5 minute drive from North Cascades Visitor Center. It features a spectacular waterfalls and plunge pools cascade behind Gorge Powerhouse.
This relaxing walk starts at the small parking lot on the right side of SR 20 as you drive into North Cascades. At the start of the trail there are signs explaining the history of the area. You will immediately cross a bridge next to the Gorge Powerhouse (a dam) before entering the forest.
This loop trail leads to Ladder Creek Falls through manicured gardens and some short but steep stairs. The garden was inspired by J.D. Ross, the “Father of Seattle City Light” and in its prime in the 1930s, the garden was a highlight for visitors to the Skagit Hydroproject.
At the top of the stairs you will see the power of Ladder Creek Falls from the overlook. In 2011, Seattle City Light restored the historic light-show, illuminating the forested falls in a rainbow of colors. Every night, from dusk until midnight, visitors can enjoy a tumbling creek of alternating red, blue, purple, and white lights.
Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk
Trail of the Cedars general stats:
Distance: 0.3 mile loop
Time to hike: 15 minutes
Elevation Gain: <100 feet
Features: suspension bridge and cedar forest
Accessible via the River Loop Trail and Linking Trail, or from SR 20 in Newhalem, Trail of the Cedars is one of the most popular nature walks for families with young children.
If you are coming from SR-20, you will cross a foot suspension bridge over Skagit River and enter an old-growth forest.
This easy gravel loop meanders through a cedar forest, with interpretive displays explaining the type of trees and point out any trees that were charred by the 1922 fire as well as the history of Skagit River and its importance to the area.
When you are finished with Trail of the Cedar walk, you can check out Skagit Information Center and even the old railcar (this is very popular with kids as you can probably imagine).
Sterling Munro Boardwalk
Sterling Munro Boardwalk general stats:
Distance: 330 foot
Time to hike: 20 minutes
Features: boardwalk and view
This universally accessible 100m boardwalk trail begins at the rear of the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center. You will walk on the boardwalk through a western hemlock forest to a big overlook deck with benches. Here you will enjoy excellent views of the Picket range.
Since the Sterling Munro Boardwalk is pretty much flat, wheel chair users and parents with strollers can easily access this hike and even the restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.
Gorge Overlook Trail
Gorge Overlook Trail general stats:
Distance: 0.4 miles roundtrip
Time to hike: 10 minutes
Elevation Gain: 20 feet
Features: view of river and dam
Gorge Overlook Trail starts in a large parking lot along SR-20. The trail has a paved portion and an unpaved portion (unpaved portion is optional).
The paved portion is only 0.2 miles to the overlook and it is wheelchair accessible and stroller friendly. You can turn back the same way once you are at the Gorge overlook. Or if you are more adventurous, you can continue onto the unpaved trail which eventually comes back to the parking lot.
The trail skirts the rim of the gorge, with views of free-flowing cascades and Gorge Dam. You can peek through the forest to see the waterfalls of the Gorge Creek side canyon. Once at the overlook, you will have an incredible view of Gorge Lake as well as the Gorge Lake Dam.
Thunder Knob Trail
Thunder Knob Trail general stats:
Distance: 3.6 miles roundtrip
Time to hike: 2 hours
Elevation Gain: 635 feet
Features: view of Diablo Lake
Thunder Knob Trail is a moderate trail that starts at Colonial Creek Campground. It is a very popular trail in North Cascades since it is short and provides you with a sweeping view of Diablo Lake.
The trail is mostly switchbacks in the forest with a gradual incline. There are some loose rocks at the beginning of the trail but overall it is not rocky and suitable for most people. You will hike to a knob above Diablo Lake with views of surrounding peaks (but to be honest the view of Diablo Lake is better from the Diablo Lake view point since there are trees blocking the view from here).
Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail. Be warned that this trail is generally pretty crowded since it is low effort/ high reward.
Ross Dam Trail
Ross Dam Trail general stats:
Distance: 1.5 miles roundtrip
Time to hike: 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Features: view of Ross Lake and dam
Ross Dam Trail is one of the most popular short trails in North Cascades. You first hike down to Ross Lake and you can also go walk across the dam. If you want, you can catch a water taxi to Ross lake Resort.
However be warned that what goes down must come back up. You will need to hike back up to the trailhead from the dam and weather can be quite hot if you visit in August (like 90 degree hot).
Rainy Lake Trail
Rainy Lake Trail general stats:
Distance: 2 miles roundtrip
Time to hike: 40 minutes
Elevation Gain: 130 feet
Features: Rainy Lake and surrounding peaks
Rainy Lake Trail is technically outside of North Cascades National Park in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Therefore you will need to have a Northwest Forest Pass when you park your car at Rainy Lake parking lot.
Rainy Lake Trail also shares the same trailhead as the popular day hike Maple Pass Loop Trail (and you can certainly do both on the same day like we did).
Rainy Lake Trail is a wheelchair accessible trail where the entire path is paved and pretty much flat. There are benches on the side of the trail if you get tired. After walking for about a mile you will come to Rainy Lake, where you can swim, fish or float on a floaty in the lake. Leashed dogs are allowed on Rainy Lake Trail.
5 most popular hikes in North Cascades
If easy day hikes are not a thing for you, don’t worry, there are some really beautiful hikes in North Cascades that will surely amaze you. Here I will list the 5 most popular day hikes in North Cascades that you simply cannot miss! Even if you cannot do all of these insanely epic hikes in North Cascades in one trip, you can always save them for your next visit.
Sourdough Mountain Trail general stats:
Distance: 10.4 miles roundtrip
Time to hike: 8 – 9.5 hours
Elevation Gain: 5100 feet
Features: spectacular view of peaks and Diablo Lake
Sourdough Mountain is a popular but difficult and steep hike in North Cascades. The hike features beautiful flower meadows, blueberry patches and a view point with spectacular view of Diablo Lake as well as surrounding peaks and glaciers. You can hike to Sourdough Mountain from both Diablo and Pierce Mountain.
Assuming you are hiking up from the Diablo side, the first 3 miles of the hike is up a series of steep switchbacks in the woods. In fact you gain about 3000 feet in elevation in the first 2 miles of the hike.
At about 4 miles, you will cross Sourdough Creek, which is also the first water source on the trail. Therefore I suggest you bring plenty of water and also a lifestraw filter to filter water at the creek.
The last mile of the hike to the peak opens up and you will cross beautiful wildflower fields and blueberry patches. The trail ends at a historical lookout (not open to the public). On top you will have an amazing view of Lake Diablo, peaks, and glaciers in every direction.
There are a lot of wildlife on this trail so be sure to bring bear mace just in case. Dogs on leash are allowed on part of the trail, so don’t bring your dog if you intend to finish the hike.
Cascade Pass/ Sahale Arm Trail
Cascade Pass/ Sahale Arm Trail general stats:
Distance: 3.7 miles to Cascade Pass; 4.5 miles to Sahale Arm, 6 miles to Sahale Glacier (this is one way. For round trip just multiply by 2)
Time to hike: 5 hours (if to Cascade Pass and back); 7 hours if to Sahale Arm and back
Elevation Gain: 1700 feet gain to Cascade Pass; 2350 feet gain to Sahale Arm
Difficulty: moderate to Cascade Pass; difficult to Sahale Arm and Sahale Glacier
Features: view of Cascade Pass; view of Doubtful Lake from Sahale Arm
Cascade Pass/ Sahale Arm trail is one of the most popular hikes in North Cascades National Park, and for good reason. This hike is customizable based on your physical ability and regardless of what you do, you still get beautiful view of glaciers, valleys and mountain peaks. It is also my favorite hike in North Cascades National Park, so if you only have time to do one hike, this should be the one!
Cascade Pass is a moderate hike that most people can do. You will hike up 30+ gradual switchbacks in the forest for about 3 miles before the view opens up. As you hike towards Cascade Pass, you will have an unobstructed view of the mountain and glacier.
From Cascade Pass, you can continue up the steep hike to Sahale Arm and Sahale Glacier. The trail to Sahale Arm is exposed, steep and rocky in certain parts. But the higher you go the better the view become. When you are finally up on the plateau, you will have a view of the other side of the mountain, including Doubtful Lake.
The hike up to Sahale Glacier is even more steep and challenging than Sahale Arm, but once on top you are almost higher than all the surrounding peaks. Backpackers can camp at Sahale Glacier camp and watch sunrise/ sunset there, making it a magical experience.
Blue Lake Trail general stats:
Distance: 4.8-5 miles out and back
Time to hike: 2.5 – 3 hours total
Elevation Gain: 850 feet
Difficulty: Moderate (suitable for family and kids)
Features: beautiful lake!
Blue Lake is a moderate hike to a beautiful subalpine lake right outside of North Cascades National Park. Dogs on a leash are allowed on this hike and there are a lot of families with kids on this relatively easy trail as well.
You need a Northwest Forest Pass to hike Blue Lake trail since it is technically not inside North Cascades National Park.
Most of the trail is in a shaded forest with gradual incline. There are occasional openings among trees where you get a glimpse of the surrounding peaks and mountains. The hike ends at Blue Lake, where you can swim, fish, or just simply chill and enjoy the view.
There are a couple of side hikes around Blue Lake that you can take, they provide different views of the areas and the lake.
Maple Pass Loop
Maple Pass Loop Trail general stats:
Distance: 7.5 mile loop
Time to hike: 4-5 hours total
Elevation Gain: 2185 feet
Features: view of Lake Ann, Rainy Lake and wildflowers
Maple Pass Loop trail is perhaps THE most popular day hike in North Cascades National Park even though it technically sits outside of the national park boundary.
Maple Pass Loop Trail is a challenging hike to Maple Pass through forest and subalpine meadows with great views of Lake Ann, Rainy Lake and the surrounding peaks. If you hike this trail in the summer (like August), you will also see wildflowers in full bloom.
You can do the trail together with Rainy Lake trail and also take a detour down to Lake Ann.
You need a Northwest Forest Pass to hike Maple Pass Loop trail since it is technically not inside North Cascades National Park.
Leashed dogs are allowed on the loop trail, but not allowed over the pass and into the national park because part of the hike does go into North Cascades National Park.
Hidden Lake Trail
Hidden Lake Trail general stats:
Distance: 9 mile out and back
Time to hike: 6 hours total
Elevation Gain: 2900 feet
Features: view of Hidden Lake
Hidden Lake trail is a difficult but beautiful trail that go through forests, avalanche and flower meadows and steep rocky slopes/ scramble to a fantastic view point of Hidden Lake. From the top you will also have sweeping views of Forbidden, Boston, and Sahale Peaks. Most of the trail is exposed so be extra prepared for sun protection.
However be warned that the road to Hidden Lake trailhead is partially unpaved with potholes. A high clearance vehicle is highly recommended to drive on the road to reach Hidden Lake Trail.
Other great day hikes in North Cascades
If you have a lot of time in North Cascades and want to explore and hike more than the trails mentioned above, here are a few other ones for your consideration.
Thornton Lake Trail
Thornton Lake Trail general stats:
Distance: 10.4 mile out and back
Time to hike: 7 hours
Elevation Gain: 2300 feet
Thornton Lake trail is a challenging hike for a view of Thornton Lake. Most of the hike is through the woods but it is rugged with a lot of tree roots or rocks for steps. After hiking about 4.5 miles in the woods you will see the lake. You can also hike steep down to the actual lake or scramble up to Trapper Peak to have a beautiful view of the lake and the nearby peaks.
High clearing vehicles are recommended to access the trailhead as the road is unpaved with large potholes. Dogs on leash are allowed up to the national park boundary.
Pyramid Lake Trail general stats:
Distance:4.2 mile out and back
Time to hike: 3 hours
Elevation Gain: 1500 feet
Difficulty: Moderate – challenging
Pyramid Lake is a nice day hike in North Cascades that can be steep but quiet.
You will see a lot of lovely vegetation on the Pyramid Lake trail. The hike features a walk in the lodgepole pine forest, then moist clear, hemlock and fir forest, a cool creek and a beautiful and deep mountain lake, which was created by an ancient landslide.
The hike can be steep at points and there are some rocks and roots on the trail, but the forest is nice and gives you this magical atmosphere. The trail ends at Pyramid Lake with floating logs. Climbers also use this trail to gain access to the peaks above: Pyramid, Colonial, and Snowfield.
Cutthroat Lake Trail
Cutthroat Lake Trail general stats:
Distance: 3 mile out and back
Time to hike: 1.5 – 2 hours
Elevation Gain: 410 feet
Cutthroat Lake Trail is an easy and family friendly trail located in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
You need to have a Northwest Forest Pass to hike Cutthroat Lake Trail.
The trail starts with a bridge crossing Cutthroat Creek and continues on a very gentle uphill through an open forest. The trail ends at Cutthroat Lake, a nice mountain lake that is perfect for families to relax and enjoy the view.
You can continue another 4 miles and 1800 ft elevation gain to Cutthroat Pass, where you can see alpine lake review and view of towering rugged peaks. Cutthroat Pass joins Pacific Crest Trail at this point.
The best time to hike Cutthroat Lake trail is in the fall (September) to see the fall color of the larches and red colors of huckleberry bushes.
Other North Cascades Resources
To help you plan your trip to North Cascades, I have a few other blogs that provide more information on the various hikes in North Cascades.
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