North Cascades Day Trip Itinerary: Spending One Day in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is one of the most beautiful places to visit near Seattle. One day in North Cascades is the perfect day trip for families.

North Cascades National Park has long been one of those national parks that I knew I wanted to visit one day. For some reason, North Cascades always gave me this mysterious impression with its jagged peaks, crazy hikes and hidden lakes. We finally got the opportunity to visit North Cascades and wow it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

Located only about 2-3 hour drive from Seattle and Vancouver, North Cascades National Park is the perfect day trip if you want a family friendly getaway in nature.

There are many short and paved walks, view points and boating activities in North Cascades that make a visit enjoyable for people of all activity levels and interest. There are also short moderate hikes if you do feel like hiking in North Cascades especially to see beautiful lakes with mountain drops.

Before we get into details on how to spend one day in North Cascades, there are some things you would be interested to know before you visit North Cascades.

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Where is North Cascades National Park?

North Cascades National Park is located in Washington State on the west coast of the United States. It is the largest National Park in Washington State over the Cascades Range. (The two other National Parks in Washington is Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park).

There are over 300 glaciers in North Cascades National Park, being the most expansive glacial system in the US.

Maple Pass Loop Trail in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades is on the border of Washington State and Canada. North Cascades 125 miles (200 km) southeast of Vancouver and 107 miles (170 km) northeast of Seattle.

North Cascades is about 2 hour drive from Seattle and less than 3 hours drive from Vancouver, BC. Due to its proximity to both Seattle and Vancouver, North Cascades is the perfect day trip (or weekend trip) from Seattle and Vancouver!

Where do you fly into for North Cascades?

Given North Cascades’ proximity to both Seattle and Vancouver, you can fly into both cities in order to visit North Cascades (assuming border crossing from Canada into the US does not cause any delays).

Once you land at either Seattle or Vancouver, you can rent a car directly from the airports to drive to North Cascades. I highly recommending renting a SUV to visit North Cascades since some roads are gravel and can have potholes. When I visited there was a lot of roadwork on the main highway, so having a SUV was definitely helpful.

Do you need to pay to visit North Cascades National Park?

It is FREE to visit North Cascades National Park.

Yes I was very surprised when I was trying to buy a national park pass and realized that North Cascades does not require reservation or a park pass to visit! I believe this is partially because North Cascades is not as popular or crowded as some other national parks on the West Coast, so you should definitely take advantage of this!

However if you plan to car camp or backcountry camp in North Cascades, then you have to pay a fee. You can find out more about car camping and backcountry permit camping fees and reservation on the official national park services website.

Tip: Some areas you might visit in North Cascades may require a $5 (per day) Northwest Forest Pass.

Cascade Pass View in North Cascades National Park

What is the best time to visit North Cascades National Park?

North Cascades National Park is best visited in the summer and early fall, between July and September when there is less snow on the trail and the roads are open.

Given its avalanche risk due to heavy snow and steep terrain, the main road through the park, Route 20, remains closed in the winter, making it impossible to visit North Cascades during that time.

Even though summer and early fall is the best time to visit North Cascades, you should be aware of wild fire risks especially in recent years. In fact I tried to visit North Cascades in July the year before but had to change plans last minute because Route 20 closure due to wild fires in the region.

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:

  • North Cascades Park Current Conditions here
  • North Cascades NPS twitter with the most updated park condition and status
  • North Cascades road condition here
  • North Cascades trail conditions here
  • North Cascades webcam feed from Visitor Center

If any of the conditions show that Route 20 (N Cascades Hwy) is closed or partially closed, you may not want to visit North Cascades then since it is the main road to and through the park. Even being partially closed could significantly have a negative impact on your day trip to North Cascades.

How crowded is North Cascades National Park?

Given North Cascades is not as popular as the other 2 national parks in Washington State (Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park), therefore it is generally not very crowded at North Cascades, especially if you only want to spend one day in North Cascades.

The most popular view points in North Cascades have plenty of parking even during peak months during the day, but some of the trailheads do fill up due to small parking lot size. It is generally easy to find parking even along Route 20 if the parking lots do fill up, so I would not worry about parking in North Cascades (very different from Banff!)

If you are hiking in North Cascades, most of the time you feel like you are the only person on the trails. Even if you are not hiking, you would not feel like the park is overrun by crowds, making it a really pleasant experience to do a day trip there!

Tip: there is basically no internet reception inside North Cascades National Park. Download offline map ahead of time so help you navigate.

Sahale Arm Trail in North Cascades National Park

What to pack for your day trip to the North Cascades?

If you are just spending one day in North Cascades, it should be pretty simple to pack. At a minimum, be sure to pack the following items for your day trip to the North Cascades!

Water Bottle/ Hydration Pack: it can get quite hot in the North Cascades in the summer (when we visited, it was around 88F during a heatwave). Be sure to bring at least 2-4L of water with you in the car and have filled water bottles or hydration packs. Hydration Packs are great if you are walking around and don’t want to hold a water bottle.

Sunscreen/ hat/ sunglasses: even if you are just spending one day in North Cascades, it’s still a good idea to bring sunscreen and other sun protection gears as the sun can get quite strong there. You can use any sunscreen but I personally only use physical blockers like this one, which is better for your body.

Insect Repellent: There are a good number of bugs in North Cascades, especially in July and August. Either wear long sleeve/ pants or bring bug spray.

Layers: North Cascades is quite high in the mountains, so weather can change any time. Temperature difference between early morning and mid afternoon is quite drastic too, so be sure to bring layers.

Camera: an Iphone will do but I personally always bring a professional camera with a wide angle lens. Wide angle is great for landscape and some of the lakes/ mountains are so big you can’t capture everything without a wide angle lens.

Food/ Snacks: there are no restaurants inside North Cascades National Park. If you want proper meal, the closest town is Marblemount, which is still an hour outside of North Cascades. Therefore you should bring packed lunch and protein bars/ snacks with you on your day trip to North Cascades.

Hiking Shoes and Socks: if you plan to hike during your one day in North Cascades, then best to be prepared!

North Cascades Day Trip: what to do during one day in North Cascades?

Now that you know a little bit about North Cascades, let’s plan your perfect one day trip to North Cascades from Seattle or Vancouver!

This one day trip to North Cascades is meant to be family friendly and visitors of all physical fitness level.

I will also recommend some hikes if you want to do some hikes in North Cascades as well, so you can customize your itinerary for the one day in North Cascades National Park.

Arrive at North Cascades Visitor Center

Assuming you are driving to North Cascades in the morning from Seattle or Vancouver, leave early and aim to arrive by 9am to North Cascades.

The first stop you can do is the Visitor Center, right off Route 20. If you already know where you are going, then you don’t have to stop here. But I really liked that I was able to ask questions, get maps and a list of hikes from the ranger.

There is a store there that sells bug sprays and souvenirs. You can also use the bathroom and/or fill up your water bottle.

Trail of the Cedars, Ladder Creek Falls, Gorge Overlook

After you stop by the visitor center, you will spend the next couple of hours at some short and easy walks, some leading to amazing view points and waterfalls.

Trail of the Cedars (20-30 minutes)

About a 2 minute drive from the North Cascades Visitor Center is the famous Trail of the Cedars. This trailhead is actually located right behind Skagit Information Center (the road does not have a sign saying Trail of the Cedars).

The information center area is actually great for kids, as there is a small playground and a train which kids love climbing into! There is also bathrooms and water station at the information center if you need to use them.

Skagit Information Center Train in North Cascades day trip

Trail of the Cedars is a short and flat nature trail that is great for kids and families. You will see the tower Western red cedars and other floras on this 0.3 mile walk. You will also cross a suspension bridge at the start of the trail. Kids love this shaded walk, making this the perfect stop for your North Cascades day trip.

Trail of the Cedars Suspension Bridge

Trail of the Cedars

Ladder Creek Falls (30 minutes)

A couple of minutes drive down SR-20 (N. Cascades Hwy) from the Trail of Cedars is the Ladder Creek Falls, a 0.5 mile roundtrip walk.

Ladder Creek Falls Bridge

On this family friendly walk, you will cross a suspension bridge, see the Gorge Powerhouse, learn how hydroelectric plants work, and see the powerful Ladder Creek Falls.

Stairs at Ladder Creek Falls trail

There are some steps in order to access the Falls but it is very easy and perfect for kids and older people to visit. At night the falls and the surrounding gardens are illuminated by colorful lights and music.

Ladder Creek Falls

Gorge Overlook Trail (30 minutes)

Gorge Overlook Trail is another few minutes drive along the N. Cascades Hwy from Ladder Creek Falls and it is absolutely worth stopping by.

Gorge Overlook Trail

This short 0.5 mile roundtrip walk is a paved trail that leads to a few amazing view points of Gorge Dam and Gorge Lake. There is also an unpaved portion that will eventually loop back to the Parking Lot. But we didn’t think it lead to any amazing views so we went back the same way we came on the paved portion.

Gorge River

We loved this walk and would recommend it for families and people who want to see amazing views without hiking.

Diablo Lake (30 minutes to 4 hours)

Diablo Lake is the most famous lake in North Cascades and the main reason why visitors do day trips to the North Cascades.

Diablo Lake view from vista point

Known for its turquoise color and mountain scenery, Diablo Lake offers a little bit of everything. If you just want the nice views and photos without any effort, you can just drive up to the Diablo Lake Vista Point. This view point is blocked off with railings but you can climb down past the bathrooms to an open area with no railings for better photos.

Diablo Lake view in North Cascades

If you want to do a short hike, you can either walk around Diablo Lake for a little bit on the Diablo Lake Trail (do not try to finish it, since the entire trail is 7.2 miles), or do the Thunder Knob Trail, a 3.5 mile out-and-back trail offering a different view of Diablo Lake.

If you want to do water activities, then you can launch of your own kayak or canoe into Diablo Lake to spend an hour or two on the water.

Tip: there is no canoe or kayak rentals on Diablo Lake. You will need to bring your own.

Ross Lake (10 minutes to 3 hours)

Assuming you only stopped at Diablo Lake Vista Point for some photos, your next stop is another fantastic lake, Ross Lake.

Ross Lake is a large reservoir in the North Cascades and it is 23 miles long. There is a nice lake front resort at Ross Lake called Ross Lake Resort. You can stay at this luxury resort if you want to wake up to the view of the Lake or you can simply visit for the day.

There are several things you can do at Ross Lake (I know, so many choices!).

If you simply just want a view of Ross Lake and move on, then drive to Ross Lake Overlook (there are 2 small overlooks on the side of SR-20), you can pull over and take a few photos.

Ross Lake Overlook

Hiking is very popular at Ross Lake and the most popular trail is Ross Lake Dam Trail, an easy 1.6 mile roundtrip forested walk that leads down to Ross Lake and Ross Dam. This trail offers amazing view at Ross Dam and is good for kids and dogs are allowed on leash. However we did notice that the parking lot for Ross Lake Dam Trail is always full, so you may need to park on the road.

If you want to rent canoe or kayak or even motor boats, you can rent them from Ross Lake Resort (advanced reservation is recommended).

Note: You cannot drive directly to Ross Lake Resort

However to get to Ross Lake, you will either need to hike in (3.5 mile one way) or take a water shuttle (hike 1 mile to Ross Lake/ Dam Trailhead) and call the resort for an on demand shuttle ride across the lake). For more details on how to get to Ross Lake Resorts, check out their official instructions.

Rainy Lake (1 hour)

After you visit Ross Lake (assuming it’s still early to mid afternoon), you can continue your one day in North Cascades on the N Cascades Hwy towards Lake Chelan National Recreational Area.

You will drive for about 30 minutes along the SR-20 before you see a sign for Rainy Lake Trailhead.

Rainy Lake in North Cascades

Rainy Lake is a beautiful lake in North Cascades that is accessible for everyone, even those on a wheel chair. The lake itself is a deep blue color when seen from above and it is quite large.

This 2 mile roundtrip trail is a popular trail since it is easy, flat, paved and wheel chair accessible. You can swim, float, and fish on Rainy Lake, making it the perfect place to relax. There is a designated view point at the end of the easy trail.

FYI: Lake Ann and Maple Pass Loop trail also starts at Rainy Lake trailhead. It is one of the best day hikes in North Cascades if you have more than one day in North Cascades.

Tip: You will need the $5 Northwest Forest Pass to visit.

Blue Lake (3 hours)

By now it may already be late afternoon but if you still have time, Blue Lake is a must-do hike in North Cascades. This 5 mile round trip hike is a family friendly trail (although there are moderate inclines the entire trail) and the trail leads to one of the most beautiful subalpine lakes in North Cascades, Blue Lake.

Tip: If there is only one hike you can do during your day trip to the North Cascades, Blue Lake should be the one.

The trailhead is only about a 5 minute drive from Rainy Lake along the N Cascades Hwy. Blue Lake trail is mostly moderately inclined switchbacks through a subalpine forest with occasional view of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Blue Lake North Cascades National Park

The trail ends at Blue Lake, a gorgeous iridescent blue lake with granite peaks in the background. People bring their dogs (on leash) and their kids on this trail and it is popular for fishing.

Tip: You will need the $5 Northwest Forest Pass to visit.

Washington Pass Observation Site (15 – 20 minutes)

The last stop of your North Cascades day trip will be the Washington Pass Observation Site, a beautiful vista point and scenic pull off.

Washington Pass View Point North Cascades

There is plenty of parking and you will need to walk 5 minutes to the actual vista point. You will see towering peaks, valley and N Cascades Hwy.

After you stop here for a quick photo, drive back to Seattle or Vancouver to conclude your epic day trip to North Cascades National Park!

Tip: For the best photos, make sure to use a wide angle lens.

What is the Northwest Forest Pass? How to purchase the Northwest Forest Pass?

The Northwest Forest Pass is required to visit U.S. Forest Service sites in Washington and Oregon.

Even though North Cascades National Park itself is free, since it is located right next to Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, you will need to pay for the Forest Pass if you park/ hike in that forest area. It is sometimes a little confusing to know where North Cascades National Park Ends and where the National Forest area starts.

For the purpose of this itinerary, anything after Ross Lake on this post is part of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Therefore you will need a pass to visit places like Rainy Lake and Blue Lake during your day trip to the North Cascades.

If you are a frequent visitor to the Forest Service sites in Oregon and Washington (think places like Colchuck Lake, Lake Serene, Lake 22, and Mt. Baker), then it may be worth it to get the annual Northwest Forest Pass for $30.

If you are just visiting North Cascades for the day (or even over 2-3 days) and not planning to visit any National Forest area again during the year, then you can just pay for a day pass for $5.

For trails near North Cascades National Park such as Rainy Lake (and Maple Pass Loop), Blue Lake, and Cutthroat Trail, you will need to purchase the NW Forest Pass.

National Forest Pass pay station

Forest Pass deposit box

At these trail heads, there will be a self-service pay station with instructions on how to pay for the forest pass. You will need a pen and a $5 bill (no change) in order to purchase the pass. You have to fill out a form with your vehicle’s license plate number, deposit the money into the envelope in the payment box. Be sure to display your pass (the portion you filled out) on your dashboard to avoid penalty.

Tip: If you have America the Beautiful Pass, you do not need to purchase the National Forest Pass.

Are there bears at North Cascades National Park?

The short answer is yes, there are a lot of bears and mountain goats at North Cascades National Park.

However if you are just doing a day trip in North Cascades, chances are you probably won’t see bears or mountain goats especially if you are not hiking.

If you are hiking in North Cascades, it is always a good idea to bring a bear spray with you. Even though bears generally run away when they hear/ see humans and even the lady at the visitor center told us that there has mostly been positive encounters, but it is best to be prepared.

Mountain Goats on the other hand can be aggressive. As a rule, do not approach wild animals and do not feed wild animals. A fed bear is a dead bear.

Again, things you should know before you visit North Cascades National Park

  • Check road conditions to make sure SR-20 (N Cascades Hwy) is open and there is no wildfires nearby
  • Pack lunch and snack with you because you won’t find a restaurant or even food vendor in North Cascades National Park
  • Bring plenty of water with you as well as layers and rain shells just in case weather changes
  • Have a pen and $5 cash with you in case you visit places in the National Forest area
  • Be sure to bring a trash bag with you so you can take home any garbage you generate
  • Have a full tank. There is only one gas station right outside of the National Park and it is more expensive

Is North Cascades worth visiting as a day trip?

North Cascades is a beautiful and relaxing day trip from Seattle or Vancouver. As a day trip, you do not have to hike much to enjoy North Cascades, instead you can enjoy relaxing walks, beautiful view points and even water activities with your family, even small children.

Since North Cascades is not as busy as other National Parks in Washington State, and given its proximity to Seattle and Vancouver, it actually makes a perfect day trip if you want to avoid people and really enjoy some peace and quietness in nature.

Other North Cascades Blogs

If you are planning to explore more of North Cascades or do more hikes there, be sure to check out my other North Cascades blog articles!

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spending one day in North Cascades National Park
North Cascades Day Trip Itinerary and travel guide