How to Plan an Epic North Cascades Day Trip

diablo lake north cascades
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Towering mountains, hidden alpine lakes, and colorful wildflowers are just some of the sights that will greet you when visiting North Cascades National Park. These are only a few reasons it’s one of my favorite parks in the country and why thousands of people flock here every year for a North Cascades day trip. Coming here also makes for one of the best road trips from Seattle.

One of the best things to do in North Cascades National Park is hiking, as there are dozen of different trails from beginner to difficult. The park is also set up in a way that makes it easy to drive through and you’re able to stop at a few roadside attractions if you want to do that instead.

I’ve been to this park multiple times over the years and last visited in July 2020. Based on that, I’ve put this North Cascades itinerary together based on the places that are my favorite. Whether you have one day in North Cascades National Park or want to spend multiple days exploring, here are some tips for exploring the park, North Cascades attractions to stop at, and a sample itinerary.

The facts in this article have been checked and are accurate as of March 2021.

Tips for a North Cascades Day Trip

Here are some tips to help you prepare for your North Cascades National Park day trip.

Is North Cascades National Park Worth Visiting?

Many people tend to take a Mt. Rainier day trip by thinking it’s closer to Seattle than visiting North Cascades National Park. However, the difference isn’t that significant, and there are so many reasons North Cascades differs from Mount Rainier. You’ll want to add this to your Pacific Northwest road trip itinerary.

When you take a day trip to North Cascades, you drive through the park with beautiful mountains surrounding you. It’s also much easier to stop off and see some viewpoints and find trailheads than it is at other national parks in the US. Some of the most stunning hikes are in this area, with summer and fall being incredibly gorgeous.

Many people wonder how many days in North Cascades National Park they need, but one is enough to see a good majority of it. However, if you plan on doing multiple hikes I would consider several days in the park.

How Far is North Cascades National Park from Seattle?

north cascades national park map

Taking a day trip to North Cascades National Park from Seattle only takes two hours to get to the west entrance. You also won’t encounter much traffic once you get north of Seattle, which is another benefit of visiting this park. However, I do recommend planning out your North Cascades itinerary so you see everything you want during that time.

Can You Drive Through North Cascades National Park?

One of the best parts of going on a North Cascades highway road trip is you can drive through the park, unlike when you take an Olympic National Park day trip. If you were to drive the length of the highway without stopping while visiting North Cascades National Park, it’d take you about 1.5 hours. However, there are many places you’ll want to stop here, so account for that when planning your day.

What is the North Cascades National Park Entrance Fee?

north cascades entrance sign

While you often have to pay up to $30 to get into most national parks, you can actually get into this park for free during your North Cascades National Park day trip! If you choose to extend your trip and go backpacking, that’s at no charge as well. You’ll need to apply for your backpacking permit ahead of time.

Best Time to Visit Cascades National Park

The best time to take a North Cascades National Park day trip from Seattle is in the summer or fall. Temperatures can rise into the 90s in the summer, so you’ll want to dress appropriately and bring a hat and sunscreen. This weather makes it the perfect time to go on a hike and then take a dip in one of the alpine lakes. However, bugs can be nasty during this time of year, so you’ll want to bring bug spray (trust me!).

If your main reason for visiting is to find the best hikes in North Cascades, I recommend coming in the fall. Vivid red, orange, and yellow leaves will surround you on your hikes, and the weather is more tolerable. You also won’t have to deal with the summer crowds.

If you keep an eye on hiking reports online, you may even be able to spend your one day in North Cascades National Park taking pictures of the golden yellow larches. These are rare, as they are only there for a few weeks out of the entire year (usually early October), and this area has some of the best larch hikes in Washington.

While you can take a North Cascades National Park day trip in the winter, you’ll want to be aware of the closures on Highway 20. Due to heavy avalanche danger, the highway tends to close around November and doesn’t reopen until May.

However, you can explore the area west of Diablo Lake and access Winthrop by going on Highway 2 to Leavenworth, north to Chelan, and up to Winthrop during your North Cascades day trip.

I recommend checking the WSDOT’s report for the road status if you’re planning a North Cascades road trip in the spring or winter.

Outfit Suggestion

Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Long-Sleeve Shirt Prana Pillar Legging KEEN Targhee III Waterproof Hiking Shoe Patagonia P-6 Label Trad Cap
Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Long-Sleeve Shirt Prana Pillar Legging KEEN Targhee III Waterproof Hiking Shoe Patagonia P-6 Label Trad Cap

Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park

While you can easily take a North Cascades National Park day trip from Seattle, some people might want to extend their trip and stay a night or two. However, unless you’re camping, there aren’t many places to stay in the park. In fact, Ross Lake Resort is the only lodging within the park limits.

I recommend staying in Winthrop on the east side of the park as a base for your trip. Here are a few places to check out:

  • One of my favorite hotels in Winthrop is Hotel Rio Vista, as it’s on the river, affordable, and downtown. (rates start at $99 per night)
  • Lewisia Lodge River Retreat – This peaceful retreat is located on the Methow Valley Riverfront, and this part of the river is great for those who enjoy fishing. (rates start at $140 per night)
  • The Modern Condo has an excellent location near town and ski trails. Enjoy some family time apres-ski with the fireplace ablaze for your comfort. (rates start at $184 per night)
  • Alpine Woods Cabin is a beautiful cabin that has ski trail access and sleeps six comfortably. (Rates start at $185 per night)
  • Charming Cedar Chalet with Hot Tub has two bedrooms, a loft, and an outdoor private hot tub. (rates start at $200 per night) 

9 Things to Do in North Cascades National Park Along Highway 20

north cascades day hike

The scenic North Cascades Highway, or Highway 20, drive from east to west, or vice versa, is the perfect way to discover the North Cascades National Park. If you’re spending a weekend in Winthrop, don’t hesitate to hit the road for a North Cascades day trip.

If you’re looking to explore the park but only have one day, this is the route for you. Check out these must-see stops, hikes, and best places to see in North Cascades National Park along the way. 

1. Stop By the North Cascades Visitor Centre

north cascades national park visitors center

The visitor’s center in Newhalem is a helpful place to start your Highway 20 road trip through the park (note – as of September 2020, all visitor centers are currently closed). Here you can get a lot of useful information from rangers about the weather conditions.

I always start at the visitor’s center in every national park to see the trail conditions and confirm my plans with a ranger. They can let you know if there have been recent bear sightings, if the bugs are bad, or if a trail is closed so you can alter your North Cascades National Park itinerary if needed.

If you spend some time touring the visitor center, you’ll pick up interesting information. There are five-minute videos about a ton of fascinating topics, ranging from climate change to glaciers. 

It’s a fantastic place to get your bearings, check out the topographical map, and cool exhibitions about Cascade habitats. Here you find out what to see in North Cascades National Park and get excited about your adventure.

2. Walk Up the Sterling Munro Trail

sterling munro trail north cascades

If you want to pack in as many activities and sights as possible on your day trip to North Cascades National Park from Seattle, it makes sense to embark on short hikes rather than full-day treks. This is another very short trail of only 300 feet that provides incredible views. 

The trail begins to form on the northwest side of the visitor center in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. On the fully accessible path, you’ll have striking vistas of the rugged picket mountain range. 

3. Admire the Lights at Ladder Creek Falls

ladder creek falls north cascades

This is a perfect little pit stop on your North Cascades day trip for a short 0.4-mile round trip to discover the odd mix of quaint falls and a light show. The trailhead begins just a couple of miles out of Newhalem behind the Gorge Powerhouse. 

You’ll walk through an exotic garden after crossing a suspension bridge from the parking lot. It is best to visit the falls during or after dusk as the main attraction is the light show. The waterfalls light up with colorful lights that run in 15-minute programs, and music often accompanies them. 

If you’re planning on turning around and driving back the same way you came into the park, remember to stop past here on your North Cascades road trip to try to catch the show.

4. Find a Waterfall at the Gorge Overlook

gorge creek overlook

Gorge Lake Dam is the closest lake to Newhalem and provides the option of doing a short hike or simply checking out the bridge and the waterfall during your North Cascades National Park day trip. 

The trail is 0.5 miles long and boasts views of the dam and the waterfall. Don’t miss out on stepping onto the bridge that spans the gorge; it’s the perfect photo opportunity. The parking for the trailhead is just off the highway. 

5. Admire the Stunning Diablo Lake

diablo lake north cascades day trip

A day trip to the North Cascades is incomplete without a visit to its most famous lake. Expect striking glacier-blue water and enchanting landscapes. 

The overlook is an easy stop off on the highway in the easterly direction from the North Cascades Visitor Centre. I highly recommend getting out of your car to admire the stunning vistas and snap some pictures at one of the most popular things to do in North Cascades National Park.

You can choose to make it a quick pit stop on your North Cascades day trip or venture down to the lake and hop on a canoe to take in the scenery from the water. 

6. Take a Boat Out on Ross Lake

ross lake north cascades

This lake is one of the largest reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest, and there are a ton of fun activities on offer at this enormous lake. 

Keen fishermen will enjoy casting out a line in the hopes of catching the native Rainbow Trout. There are many boating options, from motorboats to kayaks, and getting in the water for a paddle is recommended. 

The best place to enjoy recreational activities on the lake is from Ross Lake Resort. It is the only lodging option on the lake and provides boat and fishing gear rentals. Note – you can’t reach the resort by road. You can choose to hike down to the resort or take the Diablo Lake ferry, which runs twice a day. 

7. Enjoy a Loop Hike at Maple Pass

heather maple loop pass hike

This hike is one of the most underrated but best hikes in the North Cascades. You can choose to do the 7-mile loop either clockwise or counterclockwise. Either way, there is an elevation gain of around 2000 feet and breathtaking views. 

Both routes involve a steep climb that may not be suitable for unfit visitors. However, if you’re ready to get your heart rate up during your North Cascades day trip, you’ll be treated to dramatic scenery and imposing peaks. 

The route begins from the Rainy Pass Picnic Area just off Highway 20 and is well maintained. Maple Loop Pass is absolutely worth the hike, to be surrounded by jaw-dropping views in every direction.

If you come here during a few select weeks in the fall, you’ll be treated to one of the best hikes for larches in Washington.

8. Visit the Family-Friendly Blue Lake

north cascades hike

This trail is a great summertime Washington hike to go on during your North Cascades National Park day trip, as you’ll have an opportunity to dive into the icy waters – if you’re brave enough! Blue Lake Trail is also great for hiking with kids.

It is a relatively busy 4.4-mile return trail that takes you through alpine forests and meadows carpeted with wildflowers. The total elevation gain is around 1000 feet and is suitable for most people, which is why you’ll find many families here on a day trip to North Cascades National Park.

As you may guess by its name, the lake is a majestic teal color with picture-perfect mountain reflections. It’s a great spot to have a small picnic and revel in the park’s natural splendor and one of the most scenic things to do in North Cascades National Park.

9. Take Photos at Washington Pass Overlook

washington pass overlook

Highway 20 has tons of gorgeous overlooks to enjoy during your North Cascades day trip. The only thing you need to do to enjoy them is pull over and stop the car. Washington Pass Overlook includes a 0.25-mile round trip, which is very doable – and very worth it. 

The towering granite peaks and granite outcrops surrounded by tall conifers offer a remarkably beautiful view. From here, you can spot some of the park’s famous natural sites such as the Liberty Bell and Early Winter Spires. 

One Day in North Cascades National Park Itinerary

hiking with kids north cascades day trip

I organized the stops on this itinerary for your day trip to North Cascades in such a way that you can choose to start at the visitor center and drive east or start in Winthrop and drive west on Highway 20. This recommended North Cascades National Park itinerary begins at the visitor center, so just do it backward if you begin from Winthrop during your North Cascades day trip.

There is the possibility of a North Cascades highway loop, but this route takes at least two days. From Newhalem to Winthrop, the drive is about 1.5 hours. Of course, the time it takes depends on you, the activities you choose to do, and the hikes you want to explore. 

Early Morning: Start your day absorbing all the park information at the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem. After that, hit the Sterling Munro Trail as the trail begins at the center. You’ll be starting your journey at a highpoint, with breathtaking views to set the tone for your day. 

Mid Morning: Your next two stops will be Ladder Creek Falls if you choose to do the trail in the morning, and Gorge Overlook. 

Noon: The perfect way to enjoy noon is to get involved in some water activities! Head on to Diablo Lake Overlook, and from there, hop on the ferry or take a short hike to the Ross Lake Recreational Center. Here you can go for a paddle or cast a line. This area is a fantastic place to enjoy a pre-packed lunch picnic. 

Afternoon: Hopefully, you’re not feeling too exhausted after the picnic and paddle. You have some beautiful hikes coming up. From Ross Lake, you’ll make your way to the Maple Pass Loop. 

Late Afternoon: If you’re not feeling hiked-out during your day trip to North Cascades National Park, head onto the Blue Lake Trail. This is a short trail so it’s worth it to see the lake if Maple Pass Loop didn’t tire you out. Otherwise, make your way straight to the Washington Pass Overlook to enjoy some unique views. 

Evening: Your stomach might be grumbling by this point, and if so, check out the charming and quaint town of Winthrop. There are plenty of delicious food options and great restaurants to enjoy a meal and recall the stories of the day. I love Old Schoolhouse Brewery in the summer, as you can sit outside on the river and listen to live music.

As you head back on the highway and dusk begins to fall, remember the light show at Ladder Creek Falls (it looks different at night even if you saw it during the day already) and pop by for a look before you head home. If it isn’t too late and you haven’t eaten yet, stop by Birdsview Brewing Company on the west part of Highway 20 for a burger and beer.

There you have it – everything you need to know to plan a North Cascades day trip! Enjoy your trip and try to make it a long day to see as much as possible.


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