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Your Guide to an Epic North Cascades Camping Trip

north cascades hiking

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Spending a weekend camping at North Cascades National Park should be on every nature-lover’s bucket list. With beautiful forested trails, sweeping views, bright blue lakes, and plenty of epic campsites, it’s truly a hiker’s paradise. It’s also one of the least-visited national parks, so it’s a great spot to escape the crowds and enjoy the scenery in solitude. It’s no wonder why North Cascades is also called “The American Alps”!

Keep reading for details to plan your trip!

SEE ALSO: The Best Things to Do at Grand Teton National Park

North Cascades Camping Trip Overview:

north cascades camping
  • Nights: 3
  • PTO/Vacation Days Needed: 1-3
  • Cost: $

I recommend spending at least 3 days for your North Cascades camping trip!

How to Get to North Cascades National Park

The closest major airport to North Cascades National Park is Seattle (SEA). It’s about a 2 hour drive north of Seattle. You could also fly into Vancouver airport (YVR) and drive about 2.5 hours south (make sure you have your passport to cross the border!)

Best Campgrounds in North Cascades National Park

There’s quite a few options for camping at North Cascades. There are 4 car campgrounds, several boat-in campgrounds, and also backcountry camping options.

Car Camping North Cascades

  • Colonial Creek Campground
  • Newhalem Campground
  • Goodell Creek Campground
  • Gorge Lake Campground

All 4 of these campgrounds are centrally-located and take reservations. Half of the sites at Colonial Creek and Goodell Creek have first-come-first-serve spots.

I stayed at both Newhalem and Colonial Creek campgrounds. Newhalem was nice, but Colonial Creek Campground was my favorite! This one is situated right on the iconic Diablo Lake. Try to reserve a site as close to the lake as possible – there are some sites where you can see the lake from your tent! It’s beautiful.

To be the most comfortable on your camping trip, I highly recommend taking a campervan instead of tent camping so that you can escape the elements and get a better sleep. My absolute favorite campervan company to rent from is Cabana. Cabana is basically like a hotel room that comes with you! You never have to worry about chilly temperatures at night because the van is equipped with a heater (and a ceiling fan if if its hot) to keep you comfortable when you sleep. It also has a shower + bathroom inside, a queen-size memory foam mattress, WiFi, TV, and a pull-out kitchen in the back. I’ve stayed in a few different campervans in the past, and this one is the most luxury by far. You can pick up your van from either their Los Angeles or Seattle location.

There’s a dock here with a picnic table, which is a great place to hang out and enjoy the scenery.

Check out recreation.gov for more info on the boat-in campground options, as well as the backcountry sites. You’ll need a wilderness permit to camp in the backcountry, which you can either reserve in advance or walk-up.

More info on the Sahale Glacier Backpacking (including how to get a permit) below!

Other Lodging Options at North Cascades

One of the reasons why North Cascades National Park is one of the least-visited national parks is because there are not many lodging options nearby, so camping is the most popular option. In fact, the 2 lodges within the park boundaries can only be reached by boating or hiking in! However, if you don’t want to camp – here are some great options:

Airbnb

There are a few Airbnb’s in the small nearby town of Marblemount. We stayed in this awesome farmstead yurt on our first night. It was amazing! It sleeps 7 people and is actually shares land with Cascadian Organic Farm. There’s chickens running around the property, and you can even pay extra to get some farm-fresh eggs to make breakfast (there’s a kitchen in the yurt). The view of the farm with the mountains in the background is stunning.

Lodges

  • Ross Lake Resort
    • If you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, staying at one of these floating cabins looks amazing. The only way to get there is by hiking or boating in (there’s a ferry you can take). It was named one of the top 10 lake resorts by Sunset Magazine!
  • Lodge at Stehekin
    • This beautiful lodge is also only accessible by hiking or boating in. Expect no wifi or cell coverage, but amazing views!

Hotel in Winthrop

The nearest town (besides the tiny town of Marblemount) is Winthrop, which is about an hour away from Diablo Lake area. This cute town looks like it’s straight out of a western movie! We actually went out of the way to stop there for lunch one of the days of our trip, and were so glad we did. One of the best-rated hotels in the area is Hotel Rio Vista. Check out the beautiful mountain views from the hotel room balcony!

When to Visit North Cascades National Park

north cascades camping trip guide

The park is open year-round, but the best time to visit North Cascades National Park is July-September, when all the snow has melted, so you can fully enjoy all the trails.

North Cascades Camping Trip Packing List:

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Want a more detailed guide on my favorite gear for backpacking? Check out my Backpacking for Beginners Packing List!

North Cascades National Park Overview

north cascades hiking

Unlike Yellowstone or other popular and crowded national parks, you won’t find sidewalks, parking lots, huge signs, and facilities everywhere. North Cascades is a much more serene experience where you really feel like you’re able to experience rugged and seemingly-untouched nature.

There are 3 sections that make up North Cascades National Park: Ross Lake National Recreational Area, the Chelan Lake National Recreational Area (including Stehekin) and North Cascades National Park. There is only 1 main paved road in the park – Highway 20 – which is also called North Cascades Highway. This road runs from east to west and essentially splits up the park in half.

Best Things to Do at North Cascades National Park

north cascades camping

There are so many awesome things to do in North Cascades National Park, like hiking, fishing, boating, and just enjoying the scenery. Since there is only one main paved road that runs through the park, in order to see more if it and not just the outskirts, you’ll need to take a hike!

1. Hiking in North Cascades National Park

best hikes in north cascades

Hiking is the best way to really explore North Cascades National Park. There are SO many amazing hikes in the area, it’s hard to choose which ones are the best hikes in North Cascades to do during your trip!

I did A LOT of research before our trip, and picked the following hikes for our 3 days in North Cascades National Park:

  • Cascade Pass/Sahale Glacier
  • Maple Pass Loop
  • Thunder Knob Trail
  • Blue Lake Trail

All 4 of these hikes were great, and I highly recommend them.

Cascade Pass/Sahale Glacier

hikes in north cascades national park
  • Miles: 7.5/12 (if you go all the way to the glacier)
  • Elevation Gain: 1,781 ft/ 5,029 ft
  • Trailhead Coordinates: 48.4754, -121.0751

Note that the drive to the trailhead takes about an hour from Marblemount. The last 13 miles of the drive are on a gravel/dirt bumpy road.

Cascade Pass is an out-and-back trail that starts out in a forested section with some switchbacks, and then opens up to amazing views of the surrounding peaks and glaciers. It’s beautiful! We even saw a marmot while hiking through the pass. Once you get to the top, theres a bench area to sit and soak in the view. You can also go further along this trail to Sahale Glacier, which would make the hike 12 miles round trip (5,029 total elevation gain). You can either do the full 12 miles as a day hike, or get a permit to backpack up there and stay the night!

Backpacking Sahale Glacier

north cascades hiking

If you’re looking for some world-class hiking in the North Cascades, this is it! Backpacking to Sahale Glacier is definitely a bucket-list hike! It’s such an amazing experience. The hike is challenging, with seemingly-continuous elevation gain and some rock/scree scrambling at the end. But the views along the trail are absolutely beautiful, and the view from the top is breathtaking!

Getting a Permit

In order to camp at Sahale Glacier, you need a backpacking permit. There are only 6 permits allotted per day, and the group size cannot exceed 4 people. 60% (4) of the permits are given out in advance, via the online lottery. 40% (2) are given out via walk-up lottery on the day-of.

You can apply for the advance online lottery through pay.gov starting March 15 to April 15 for camping between the dates of May 15 through September 30. Apply for a weekday for the best chances of securing a permit!

What to Expect on the Sahale Glacier Hike
north cascades hiking sahale glacier

The hike up until Cascade Pass is pretty mild and pleasant. After stopping for a lunch break at Cascade Pass, continue on up Sahale Arm trail. The hike takes you up switchbacks and over some rock field crossings before you reach the top, with a view of Doubtful Lake.

From here the hike is pleasant and fairly flat as it follows a ridgeline, before starting to take you up to higher elevation. There is a flowing stream right before you start the steep rock/scree scramble for your last chance to filter water!

Once you climb up the steep scree/rock field (this part is tough, but its the final stretch!) you’ll reach the top, and see a sign for Sahale Glacier Camp. Up here you’ll see a few spots with little rock barriers around them which are the camping spot options – take your pick! The views from up here of the glacier, the surrounding mountains, and Doubtful Lake below are simply astounding. Soak in the scenery, enjoy the sunset and sunrise, and also (if you’re lucky) you might encounter some mountain goats up here!

sahale glacier north cascades
Before you Hike Sahale Glacier
north cascades camping
the view from hiking along the road to the trailhead!
  • Make sure to check road conditions. When I did this hike (September 2021) the road had washed out in a storm 3 miles out from the trailhead, so we had to park and hike an extra 6 miles round trip to/from the trailhead. The hike along the road was scenic, but STEEP!
  • Check weather conditions and pack accordingly. It can get cold up there!
  • Be bear aware. You may encounter black bears along the trail. Make noise so the bear does not get startled at your presence

Maple Pass Loop

camping at north cascades
  • Miles: 7.1
  • Elevation Gain: 2,188
  • Trailhead Coordinates: 48.5162, -120.7354

Maple Pass Loop is hands-down one of my top 5 favorite hikes of all time. It was absolutely breathtaking. We were literally saying “wow” at every turn. If you only have time for one hike in North Cascades, choose this one!

On this loop trail, I recommend hiking it counter-clockwise so that you’re hiking down on the steeper section. The trail starts out from the Rainy Pass trailhead parking lot. Make sure you have $5 cash to pay for a parking pass, or bring your America the Beautiful National Parks pass. About a mile into the trail, you’ll come across Lake Ann, where you’ll have the opportunity for a 0.6 mile detour to go down to the lake’s shore.

best things to do at north cascades national park

The trail continues on a moderate incline through scenic meadows with wildflowers and sweeping views of the surrounding mountains until you get up to Maple Pass. Here you will reach a sign notifying that you are at the North Cascades National Park boundary! The trail continues across the ridgeline with nonstop scenic views until you start the downward descent with views of Rainy Lake.

Thunder Knob Trail

  • Miles: 3.3
  • Elevation Gain: 666
  • Trailhead Coordinates: 48.6905, -121.0980
hikes in north cascades

This is one of the most popular trails in the park, with great views of Diablo Lake from the top. The trailhead actually starts from the Colonial Creek Campground, so if you’re camping there – it’s super convenient!

The trail is mostly forested until you reach the top and get to the viewpoints where you can see Diablo Lake from above. Unfortunately it was pretty smokey from the wildfires when we did this hike, so my pictures don’t do it justice for how it normally looks with the bright blue colored water!

Blue Lake Trail

blue lake north cascades
  • Miles: 5.3
  • Elevation Gain: 958
  • Trailhead Coordinates:  48.5191, -120.6742

Blue Lake Trail is definitely one of the best North Cascade hikes. This trail is on the east side of the park, near the trailhead for Maple Pass Loop. It’s an easy but scenic trail through the sub-alpine forest, with views peeking of surrounding mountains peaking through the trees. At the end of the trail, you’ll reach Blue Lake, which is beautiful! Spend some time soaking in the views here, and go for a dip if you’re down to brave the chilly water. (It’s worth it!)

best hikes north cascades national park

Other Great Hikes in North Cascades National Park

If you have more time or want other options for hiking in North Cascades, here are a few other trail that were on my list that we didn’t have time for:

  • Hidden Lake (8.4 miles)
    • I was told at the ranger station that you DEFINITELY need 4WD to get to this trailhead, so we weren’t able to go. It looks beautiful though!
  • Trail of the Cedars (1.9 miles)
  • Rainy Lake Trail (2 miles)
  • Cutthroat Lake (3.8 miles)
  • Desolation Peak (about 13.6 miles if you start from Lighting Creek)
  • Fourth of July Pass (9.3 miles)
  • Easy Pass (7.7 miles)

2. Take a Scenic Drive Along North Cascades Highway

Cruising along North Cascades Highway is super scenic. There are several awesome overlook points that you definitely need to stop at during your drive:

Diablo Lake Overlook

best things to do in north cascades

Diablo Lake is one of the most iconic features of North Cascades National Park. The bright-blue colors of this lake are amazing! When I was there, unfortunately it was a bit smokey, but if you google this spot you’ll see colors even more vibrant than the picture I captured. Even viewing it through the smokey haze, it was beautiful!

Ross Lake Overlook

Take a quick stop to also admire Ross Lake from above at this lookout point. You can also see Desolation Peak in the background, made famous from author Jack Kerouac.

Gorge Lake Overlook

north cascades camping trip

This scenic overlook includes about a 0.5 mile paved trail loop that bring you to views of Gorge Creek Falls, Gorge Lake, and the Gorge Dam. Definitely worth stopping at to check out!

Washington Pass Overlook

Washington Pass Overlook has a short paved loop trail with AWESOME sweeping views of the Liberty Bell Mountain with Highway 20 running through the valley. It’s beautiful! There’s also plaques located throughout the lookout points with inspiring, nature-centric poems by William Stafford

3. Hang out at Diablo Lake

diablo lake north cascades camping

Diablo Lake is amazing. If you are staying at Colonial Creek Campground, it’s especially easy to spend some time hanging out on the lakeshore, since the campground is also situated there, but there is also day-parking in the campground if you are visiting. Unfortunately, they don’t rent kayaks there, but if you live driving distance from the park and have a kayak, definitely bring it! There were several people kayaking around the lake and it looked amazing.

Even with no kayak, just sitting on the lakeshore and admiring the view makes for a peaceful and scenic experience. My friend and I played cards on the dock, took a walk from the south end to the north shore, ate dinner on the lakeshore, and watched the sunset from the dock near our campsite. It’s very tranquil!

best camping north cascades

4. Eat Lunch in Winthrop

We found ourselves craving a hot meal during our time camping at North Cascades National Park, and decided to treat ourselves to lunch in Winthrop after one of our hikes. It was such a good decision! The town of Winthrop is super cute – it looks like an old western town nestled among the mountains. It is slightly out of the way. I recommend doing this after the Maple Pass Loop or Blue Lake Trail hikes, which are closer to this area. From here it’s about a 30 min drive to Winthrop.

We ate at Methow Valley Ciderhouse. This cute spot has an outdoor patio and lawn area, and is a great spot for a sandwich and a cider flight! The owners make cider from their organic apples grown on their farm a few miles from the restaurant.

5. Visit Stehekin

If you have a longer time to spend in North Cascades National Park, consider making the trek to the scenic small town of Stehekin. This area located on north Lake Chelan is only accessible by boat or hiking. There’s are two ferry options that you can take to get there. Trekking to Stehekin is a very popular multi-day backpacking trip. We didn’t have a chance to check this out on our 3-day North Cascades trip, but it seems like a very unique thing to do there! Learn more here.

Enjoy!!

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