While Washington is full of places to hike, few places are as stunning as the North Cascades. You’ll find towering mountains and gorgeous lakes everywhere you look, so many locals plans at least a few trips out here during the year. To save you time with planning, I’ve created a list of the best hikes in North Cascades to check out.
I love nothing more than a challenging hike, and there are plenty of those on this list. However, I know many people just want to get out for the day or may have kids with them, so I also have easy hikes in North Cascades on the list as well. You can check out my article on how to spend one day in North Cascades if you want to make the most of your time out there.
Here are a few tips for your trip to one of my favorite U.S. national parks and 10 of the best hikes in North Cascades National Park that you’ll want to go on!
This post has been updated and is accurate as of May 2022.
Tips for North Cascades National Park Hiking
North Cascades National Park is about two hours north of Seattle (without traffic), and that’s just to get to the park’s entrance. If your North Cascades day hike is further into the park, you can plan for at least three hours to drive there. I’ve made this trip in one day many times but plan on having a long road trip from Seattle.
Before you go on your North Cascades day hikes, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The main road into the park closes during the winter months and most of the spring, so you’ll want to plan accordingly. You can check out WSDOT’s website to see when it’s open (as of May 2022, it’s currently open for the season).
- There is no entrance fee for this park, unlike most of the ones around the country.
- Bugs can be really bad here during the summer, so always bring bug spray when hiking in North Cascades National Park. In addition, it can get into the 90s, so have your sunscreen in your backpack so you can reapply as needed.
- Go as early as possible for your North Cascades hikes, especially during summer in Seattle, as the parking lot for most hikes are fairly small. While you can park on the main highway, you don’t want to have to park an extra mile away or walk on a busy highway packed with cars.
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10 Best Hikes in North Cascades to Check Out
Hiking the North Cascades offers some of the most exciting backpacking and day trips near Seattle. There is such a wide selection of hiking trails available in this beautiful and vast park that it can be challenging to decide which one to tackle. To help you find the perfect path, here is a list of the best hikes in North Cascades National Park.
1. Cascade Pass Trail
Mileage: 7 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate
The popular Cascade Pass trail dates back to before North Cascades National Park was established as one of the three national parks in Washington and was used by indigenous populations and fur traders. While the path today is much more modern, the breathtaking views that it boasts remain the same.
See some of the park’s monumental attractions, like the massive Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak, and the snow-capped Eldorado Peak on one of the best North Cascades hikes. Upon reaching Cascade Pass, you are instantly rewarded with a beautiful panorama of the park.
The deep Stehekin River, Magic Mountain, and Pelton Peak are visible from here, among many other popular North Cascades National Park day hikes.
For those backpacking North Cascades, camping is available at Sahale Glacier Camp and Johannesburg Camp.
2. Diablo Lake Hike
Mileage: 7.6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation: 1,400 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate
The vivid, turquoise-colored Diablo Lake is an artificial lake that sits along the Skagit River. While artificial, the stunning surroundings provide the area with a natural feel. The creaking glaciers, which give the lake its color, and the tall snow-capped mountains, offer a spectacular backdrop.
While there are many beautiful Washington waterfall hikes locals tend to flock to, this hike is among one of the few that compares in beauty. Hikers may opt to take a ferry from Diablo Dock back to the trailhead during the summer months. The ferry costs about $10 per person and runs twice a day, at 9 am and 3:30 pm.
Alternatively, travelers can turn back the way they came, either from the Ross Lake outlook or the suspension bridge.
For backpackers hiking North Cascades, there is boat-in camping available on Diablo Lake. There is also camping available at Colonial Creek campground and Gorge Lake campground – an easy distance from Diablo Lake and accessible by car via the North Cascades Highway.
3. Heather Maple Pass Loop
Mileage: 7.2 miles, roundtrip
Elevation: 2,000 feet
Difficulty Level: Moderate
The iconic Maple Pass Loop is off the North Cascades Highway and easily accessible from the Rainy Pass Picnic Area. This 7-mile trail, passing through old-growth forests and open ridgelines, treats hikers to spectacular views of the rugged peaks that largely define the park and is one of the best hikes in Washington.
Many people come here to see the beautiful golden larches in Washington that show up in the fall (I try to make the trek every year now!), easily making it one of the best hikes in North Cascades during this season.
Of all the hikes on this list, this is one of the most popular among hikers planning North Cascades day hikes. The beauty of this hike also rivals some of the best hiking trails in Olympic National Park.
Some noticeable summits on this trail include Cutthroat Mountain, Whistler Mountain, and Black Peak. While sounding rather ominous, Cutthroat Mountain gets its name from a species of trout found in the beautiful Cutthroat Lake. The beauty of this region of the North Cascades National Park greatly contrasts its threatening name and the rather dark, rugged Black Peak nearby.
Set in a dramatic cirque, just outside the park’s borders, it is one of the region’s prettiest lakes. For those who have an additional hour to spare, head down to the famous Lake Ann.
The clear, turquoise waters with a small, picturesque island at its center are a true spectacle to behold on one of the best trails in North Cascades National Park.
4. Blue Lake
Mileage: 4.4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,050 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy
Situated just two miles from the North Cascades Highway is the dazzling Blue Lake. With its sparkling, azure waters, this hidden gem sits surrounded by towering mountain peaks, forests, and wildflower meadows. With just 320 meters of elevation to the lake, this is one of the best hikes in North Cascades for families and an easy hike in Washington.
The Blue Lake hiking trail will provide you with the best views of the local favorite, Liberty Bell Mountain. With its jagged, rough mountain peaks and steep climbing walls, this monolith beast of a mountain is cherished by climbers.
Upon reaching Blue Lake, do not attempt to loop around the lake’s steep southern end. Go right, following along a sturdy log bridge until you reach a large rocky area that offers a lovely picnic space beside Blue Lake.
This trail is among the best Washington summer hikes as the lake is perfect for swimming. Autumn is also a great time of year to complete this fall hike, as the larches are said to turn gold, making it one of the best day hikes in North Cascades National Park.
5. Easy Pass
Mileage: 7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,800 feet
Difficulty Level: Moderate to Hard
Contrary to its name, this North Cascades hiking trail is one of the more challenging ones on this list. The hike is no easy task with its steep, rocky slopes and somewhat exposed trail. You do not need to let this discourage you, as the end destination is most certainly fulfilling and rewards hikers with awe-inspiring views of the park.
Once at the top of this not-so-easy pass, hikers are treated to Golden Horn and Mountain Henry views. You can also gaze upon the picturesque Fisher Basin, Fisher Peak, and the glacially carved valleys near Mount Logan. In autumn, marvel over the golden subalpine larches and snow-capped mountain peaks. After this hike, you’ll want to celebrate your hard work at a brewery!
6. Hidden Lake Trail
Mileage: 8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 3,300 feet
Difficulty Level: Hard
Hidden Lake Trail offers one of the most exhilarating North Cascades hikes. Taking hikers far above the treeline towards a summit that seems unattainable from a distance, this hike is more than rewarding. While it may not be as hard as climbing Mount St. Helens, you’ll want to have some hiking experience before doing this one.
The start and end of this hike greatly contrast one another, as the hike begins in a dense forest with wildflower-strewn paths and ends at a rocky, granite lookout. From atop of the Hidden Lake lookout, hikers are provided with a view of North Cascades that is truly surreal. Sahale Arm, Eldorado, Boston, Triad, Torment, and more are all clearly visible from one point on one of the best hiking trails in North Cascades National Park.
For that backpacking, overnight camping is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you’re attempting the hike during the colder months, winter hiking clothes and gear, as well as adequate climbing skills, are required to reach the summit.
7. Ladder Creek Falls Hike
Mileage: 0.4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 660 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy
One of the best family-friendly hikes in North Cascades National Park is the Ladder Creek Falls Hike. Quick and easy, this trail takes hikers on a lovely woodland retreat from Skagit River to the third tier of the beautiful Ladder Creek waterfall.
This hike has become a popular attraction among tourists as the skies are colorfully lit up throughout the night and livened by live music. The fun program runs year-round from dusk until midnight, while you can enjoy the falls at any time of the day.
You can camp at the nearby Newhalem Creek campground for backpackers wanting to catch the light show.
8. Chain Lakes
Mileage: 6.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,820 feet
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Situated amongst North Cascades’ stunning scenery is the calm Chain Lakes, which many consider one of the best hikes in North Cascades. I will say that this hike isn’t technically in the national park, but it’s worth going on if you’re already in the area because it’s gorgeous.
A series of lakes connected by small creeks creates a picturesque waterway through the mountains.
On this hike, travel from lake to lake and take in some of the most spectacular views in Washington State. Outstanding attractions seen on this trail include Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, with its distinctive three-sided peak known as Summit Pyramid.
Picture Lake takes in some of the park’s most photographed views in the Mount Baker ski area. Here the glaciated peaks of the mountain beautifully reflect the calm surface of the shimmering lake.
The Mount Baker area is popular during the colder months and among the best Washington winter hikes.
9. Thunder Creek
Mileage: 12 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,300 feet
Difficulty Level: Hard
If you’re looking for the perfect North Cascades backpacking experience, then this is the trail for you. Stretching over 30 miles into the backcountry, Thunder Creek is a gateway to an extensive network of trails, providing lovely North Cascades day hikes and backpacking trips.
Those on North Cascade day hikes should note that this trail is not about the destination but the journey. Grab your hiking boots, explore the trail and the pale green creek, and take in peek-a-boo views of the park’s snow-capped peaks. The trail offers many beautiful camps, like McAllister Camp and Colonial Creek Camp for backpackers.
10. Rainbow-McAlester Loop
Mileage: 31.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 6,650 feet
Difficulty Level: Hard
Connecting a series of trails, the Rainbow-McAlester Loop offers a wonderful opportunity to experience the area in its entirety. The forested valleys, subalpine lakes, and rugged mountain passes make it an excellent destination for multi-day North Cascades hiking.
Spend two or three days trekking through the heart of the North Cascades. You’ll start at Bridge Creek Trail, follow along Rainbow Lake Trail, and then move towards McAlester Pass. Along the way, hikers are treated to unobstructed views of Lake Chelan and its mountainous surroundings.
Offering plenty of campsites along the way, plan an itinerary that best meets your hiking preferences. The difficulty, duration, and views seen can all be tweaked, ensuring the perfect North Cascades getaway.
Whether it’s a short one or participating in North Cascades backpacking, no matter which hike you choose, you’ll be in for a stunning day. Narrowing down the best hikes in North Cascades can be tough, so pick a few to do throughout the summer and fall. Leave a comment below, and let me know which one is your favorite if you go!