How to Plan an Epic Day Trip From Seattle to North Cascades National Park (2024)

seattle to north cascades national park larches
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As the weather gets warmer in Seattle and we get closer to summer, that means one exciting thing to us hikers – North Cascades National Park is open! If you’re thinking about going from Seattle to North Cascades National Park for a visit, you’re in for a treat. Get ready for your jaw to drop at the sight of those sky-high mountains, secret hideaway alpine lakes, and wildflowers popping in every color you can imagine. 

Regarding hiking trails, North Cascades National Park is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for nature lovers. I’ve made my way to this park more times than I can count over the years, and I keep finding myself drawn back, especially for the killer hiking. I’m practically a regular, with my last trip being in October 2022 to see the highly sought-after larches.

Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been hitting trails since you were in diapers, there’s something for you here. And, unlike some other parks, North Cascades is a breeze to drive through (there’s only one road, so it’s hard to get lost!).

I’ve got you covered, whether you’re planning a quick North Cascades day trip or thinking about spending a few days soaking up all the North Cascades vibes. I’ve put together some top tips for getting around the park, the must-see spots, and even a sample itinerary with some of my personal favorites. Let’s get started planning your trip!

This article was first written in 2019 and last updated in May 2023.

This post promotes travel to a national park that is the traditional land of the Sauk Suiattle and Nłeʔkepmx Tmíxʷ (Nlaka’pamux) people. I make a formal land acknowledgment showing my respect and appreciation to the people of these lands. You can learn more about this on Native Land.

Tips for a Seattle to North Cascades National Park Trip

diablo lake north cascades

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, a fun fact about Seattle is 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 at other national parks in the US.

Some of the most stunning hikes are in this area, with summer and fall time in Seattle being incredibly gorgeous. You’ll love discovering some of the best fall foliage hikes in Washington around here.

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 Seattle From North Cascades National Park?

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, another benefit of visiting this park. However, I recommend planning out your North Cascades itinerary so you see everything you want during that time.

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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 will need to apply for your backpacking permit ahead of time, however.

Is North Cascades Open Year-Round?

One of the most important things to note when planning your day trip to North Cascades is the main highway into the park closes during the winter months and most of the spring (meaning this is not a place to go for spring hikes around Washington). The most accurate source to follow is the WSDOT’s website to see when it’s open.

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 serious 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.

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 will be more tolerable. This will also make for one of the most scenic drives in Washington you’ve ever been on, plus it stays light later at night, so you can see when driving from North Cascades National Park to Seattle.

Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park

While you can easily take a North Cascades National Park day drive from Seattle, some people might want to extend their trip and stay a night or two. However, there aren’t many places to stay in the park unless you’re camping. 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. I’ve stayed here multiple times before. (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 with 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)

North Cascades National Park Map

Here’s a map so you can see your stops during your drive from Seattle to North Cascades National Park.

10 Things to Do in North Cascades National Park

north cascades day hike

The scenic North Cascades Highway, or Highway 20, driving from east to west, or vice versa, is the perfect way to discover the North Cascades National Park. This is also one of the best road trips from Seattle to take.

If you’re spending a weekend in Winthrop (a nearby town that I love!), don’t hesitate to hit the road for a North Cascades day trip.

When you want to explore the park but only have one day, this is the route for you. Check out these must-see stops, hikes, and the 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 Seattle to North Cascades National Park road trip through the park. 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 U.S. 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.

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

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

Need help planning out your road trip? I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to see exactly how long it’ll take from one point to the next and find new places to add to my itinerary!

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 mountain range.

Want another adventure in this area? Check out the best things to do in Stehekin.

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

While there are some beautiful lakes during Mt. Rainier hikes and hikes in Olympic National Park, a day trip to the North Cascades is incomplete without visiting its most famous lake. Expect striking glacier-blue water and enchanting landscapes no matter what time you come (people will be surprised to find most of these pictures aren’t edited because the water really is that blue!). 

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 of 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. I highly recommend adding this to your Washington bucket list, as it’s an experience you won’t forget!

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, and one of the best things to do in the PNW. 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, but it’s still one of the best places to hike in Washington. 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 Pass Loop 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

hiking blue lake north cascades

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 but is considered an easy hike in Washington. 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 family-friendly vacation.

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.

10. Find the Larches

While it’s hard to pick my favorite national park in Washington, North Cascades wins when it comes to having one thing none of the other ones have – the infamous larches. These are the most stunning trees you’ll see in the state, and they’re pretty rare – you’ll only see them for about 2-3 weeks during late September or early October. I’m always up here the second I hear that they’re starting to show.

If you keep an eye on hiking reports online, you may be able to spend your one day in North Cascades National Park taking pictures of the golden yellow larches. This area has some of the best larch hikes in Washington, which include the following hikes:

  • Cutthroat Lake (3.8 miles RT) or Cutthroat Pass (10 miles)
  • Blue Lake (4.4 miles RT)
  • Heather-Maple Pass Loop (7.2 miles RT)

This is one of the most popular times of the year to visit, so you’ll want to head out from Seattle to North Cascades National Park early to get a parking spot. I’ve been known to leave as early as 4 am to get up there and hike by 7 am and head back late to go from North Cascades to Seattle.

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. 


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 high point, with breathtaking views to set the tone for your day. 

Your next two stops on your Seattle to North Cascades National Park trip will be Ladder Creek Falls, if you choose to do the trail in the morning, and Gorge Overlook

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. 


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 to go on one of my favorite hikes. 

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 seeing 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. 


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 day’s stories. 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 (I always stop here at least one trip a year!)

old schoolhouse brewery

If you want to extend your trip for another day, I recommend adding more hikes to your itinerary, as it’s the perfect way to see most of the area.

What Else to Know about Visiting North Cascades National Park From Seattle

cutthroat lake hike

Is North Cascades a day trip from Seattle?

Yes, while it’s a bit of a long day, I actually tend to do only day trips from Seattle to North Cascades so I can go more often. As I said early, just plan to leave earlier, find somewhere for dinner to fill up, and then enjoy the ride home. Summer is the perfect time to visit since it stays lighter out longer.

How many days do you need for North Cascades National Park?

Similar to the above, you can easily do this trip in just a day. However, I highly recommend spending the night, if possible, to fully enjoy the park. I think 2-3 days in North Cascades is the perfect amount of time to visit.

What is the best time of year to visit North 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.

Is there a Seattle to North Cascades National Park bus?

No, there is no direct bus from Seattle to North Cascades, so it’s best to have your own car or carpool. You can take a Greyhound bus to Mount Vernon or Leavenworth, but you’ll still have to get yourself from there to the park.

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

9 thoughts on “How to Plan an Epic Day Trip From Seattle to North Cascades National Park (2024)

  1. Monica says:

    Are the kids on the itinerary kid friendly? I have a 4 and 7 year old. We will be visiting Washington in April.

  2. Marissa says:

    Blue Lake is great for kids, as we took our then 2-year-old. Heather Maple Loop is likely too challenging for your kids based on the length and elevation gain. Many of the stops are just off the highway though, which is perfect for letting your kids get out and explore!

  3. Lera says:

    Hi Marissa, do you know if there are any groups of people that you can join doing a trip to this park?

  4. Marissa says:

    Hi Lera, I don’t know of any tours or groups that go up here, but I do know if you’re looking to do hikes there are a few groups to find people to go with (Washington Hikers and Climbers is one).

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