Looking for one of the best areas to hike in Washington? Get ready, because I’m about to dive into one of Washington’s most jaw-dropping locales for hiking – the North Cascades. This place is like nature’s grand masterpiece, brimming with sky-high mountains and ridiculously beautiful lakes. If you’re anything like me and the local hiking enthusiasts, you’ll find yourself drawn back to these trails again and again throughout the year as you read through my list of the best hikes in North Cascades.
As a massive hiking enthusiast local who hits the North Cascades every summer and fall (I was last there in October 2022 on a mission to spot the stunning golden larches), I’ve got the insider scoop on the best trails in North Cascades National Park. I’m a sucker for a challenging hike that gets the heart pumping, so you’ll find plenty of those on this list.
But don’t worry, if you’re after a more chill day out or have little adventurers in tow, I’ve also included some easier trails that don’t skimp on the views. And, if you’ve only got a day to spare, check out my guide on how to plan a one-day visit to the North Cascades.
Now, let’s get down to it. Strap on your hiking boots, pack that trail mix, and get ready to explore my favorite U.S. national park with 12 of the absolute best hikes in North Cascades National Park.
This article was first written in 2019 and last updated in May 2023.
Tips for North Cascades National Park Hiking
North Cascades National Park is about two hours northeast 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 to drive there for at least three hours. 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. While you can still access the far west part of the park, you’ll be missing all the good hikes. You can check out WSDOT’s website to see when it’s open (as of May 2023, it’s currently open for the season).
- 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.
- Check out the AllTrails app to review and plan hikes before you head out. A majority of the park doesn’t have service, so you’ll need to download any hiking maps ahead of time.
- Be aware of bears, as bears are more common here than in some other parts of the state. While you’ll mainly see black bears, there are a small number of grizzly bears that live here as well, so always be aware of your surroundings and know bear safety tips ahead of time.
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12 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, its stunning views 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 (there are endless hikes here, which is why I’m always coming back to the area!).
Camping is available at Sahale Glacier Camp and Johannesburg Camp for those backpacking North Cascades. You’ll want to bring your Seattle rain gear just in case it rains when hiking North Cascades National Park.
2. Diablo Lake Hike
Mileage: 7.6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation: 1,400 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate
Have you ever been so captivated by a view that you couldn’t help but stop every time you passed? That’s exactly how I feel about Diablo Lake. This man-made wonder, nestled along the Skagit River, has fooled more than one visitor with its natural-looking beauty. The creaking glaciers that feed it give the lake an unreal turquoise color and the towering, snow-capped mountains in the backdrop? Pure magic.
Here’s a little secret I discovered after many stops at the Diablo Lake Overlook: an incredible hike hiding just below! While I love going to Lake Crescent on a day trip to Olympic National Park, this one may be my favorite.
While most local hikers are busy chasing Washington’s waterfalls (and don’t get me wrong, they’re stunning, too), this Diablo Lake trail holds its own when it comes to breathtaking views. And if you’re visiting during the summer months, there’s even a ferry from Diablo Dock that’ll bring you back to the trailhead. It runs twice a day, at 9 am and 3:30 pm, and will cost you about $10.
Or, if you’re more of a ‘return the way you came’ kind of hiker, you can do that too when searching for the best hiking trails in North Cascades National Park. Either from the Ross Lake lookout or the suspension bridge – both spots are stunning.
And for you backpackers out there, I’ve got some good news. There’s boat-in camping available on Diablo Lake. Want more options? You got ’em! Colonial Creek Campground and Gorge Lake Campground are both within an easy distance from Diablo Lake, and you can get there 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 just off the North Cascades Highway and easily accessible from the Rainy Pass Picnic Area. This hike holds a special place in my heart because it was the first hike in the North Cascades I ever did, and a solo one at that (during a beautiful fall day in 2019). However, many others agree that this is one of the best hikes in Washington.
If you’re lucky enough to hike this gem in the fall, you’re in for an extra special treat. The golden larches that dot the trail put on a display that’ll make you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. It’s an annual phenomenon I attend every single year, and it’s not just me – it’s a hot ticket for anyone looking for the best hikes in the North Cascades during this season (so again, get there early).
No matter where your hiking adventures have taken you before – even if you’ve explored the best of the trails in Olympic National Park – the beauty of the Maple Pass Loop is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a must-see for anyone planning North Cascades day hikes, and I promise it’ll be a hike you’ll remember.
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 extra hour to spare, head down to the famous Lake Ann (trust me – it’s worth it!).
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. This is easily one of the best hikes in North Cascades for families and an easy hike in Washington.
I’ve done this hike twice (both during the summer of 2019 and in the fall of 2022), and it was just as beautiful both times. I’ll give you a tip – once you get to the lake, don’t look around the steep southern side. Instead, go along a log bridge until you reach an area perfect for a picnic next to the 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
Despite its name, Easy Pass isn’t exactly a walk in the park. You’re in for a bit of a challenge with steep, rocky slopes and parts of the trail that are pretty exposed. But don’t let that scare you off – the payoff at the end is absolutely worth every single huff, puff, and sweat drop.
Once you’ve conquered the not-so-easy pass and stand triumphant at the top, you’re treated to a view that you’ll love. You’ll see Golden Horn and Mount Henry looming in the distance, Fisher Basin and Fisher Peak creating a picture-perfect backdrop, and glacial valleys near Mount Logan that look like they’ve been carved by the hands of the gods themselves. And if you time it right and hit the trail in autumn, you’re in for a real delight, with golden subalpine larches and snow-capped peaks adding a touch of magic to the scene.
After a hike like that, you’re going to want to raise a glass to your victory. So, head to a local brewery and celebrate in style – you’ve earned it!
6. Hidden Lake Trail
Mileage: 8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 3,300 feet
Difficulty Level: Hard
This trail takes you way above the tree line, leading you toward a summit that, from afar, looks pretty unreachable. Now, it’s not quite as tough as, say, tackling Mount St. Helens, but you’re going to want to have a bit of hiking know-how under your belt before you take it on.
This hike is like a mini-rollercoaster, kicking off in a thick forest filled with wildflowers and ending up at a rugged, granite lookout that’s about as far from those gentle forest paths as you can get. And the view from that Hidden Lake lookout is something else. It’s like you’ve got the whole of the North Cascades laid out in front of you.
If you’re in for a bit of backpacking, you can snag a camping spot on a first-come, first-serve basis. And if you’re thinking of trying your luck in the colder months, make sure you come prepared. Pack your winter hiking clothes and gear, and be ready to show off your climbing skills to reach the summit.
7. Ladder Creek Falls Hike
Mileage: 0.4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 660 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy
The Ladder Creek Falls Hike is one of the best family-friendly hikes in North Cascades National Park. 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. Cutthroat Lake
Mileage: 3.8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 400 feet
Difficulty Level: Easy
I last did this hike in October 2022 and hadn’t planned to do it, to be honest. My friend and I were hoping to do the longer Cutthroat Pass hike, but fire season was in full swing, and we didn’t think we could make the whole 10 miles in all the smoke. However, this was the perfect opportunity to try a new hike out, and I found out it was one of the best easy hikes in North Cascades.
This trail has very little elevation gain, so it’s ideal for beginners or families with small kids. You end up at Cutthroat Lake, which was a pretty area to take a snack break and enjoy the larches that were starting to pop up. We ended up doing another hike after this, so you could also pack on a shorter hike if you’re feeling adventurous and want more North Cascades National Park 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 backpackers many beautiful camps, like McAllister Camp and Colonial Creek Camp.
10. Rainbow-McAlester Loop
Mileage: 31.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 6,650 feet
Difficulty Level: Hard
Connecting a series of North Cascades National Park 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.
11. Chain Lakes
Mileage: 6.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,820 feet
Difficulty Level: Moderate
I will say that this hike isn’t technically in the park, but it’s one of the best hikes near North Cascades National Park and is worth going on if you’re already in the area because it’s gorgeous. I had this hike on my list for so long and finally did this in the summer of 2022 with my friends, and couldn’t believe I waited so long.
Chain Lakes is a series of lakes connected by small creeks that creates a picturesque waterway through the mountains. It’s a mix of up and down as you go around the trail, which is nice in a way that you aren’t going straight up the whole time.
On a sunny day, you’ll see plenty of nearby landmarks, including 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. Many people come up to this area to snowshoe at Artist Point during this season.
12. Park Butte
Mileage: 7.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 2,220 feet
Difficulty Level: Moderate
I absolutely love fire lookouts, so this hike near the North Cascades was also high on my list. Not only does it end with a fire lookout, but the hike starts in a lush, green forest before transitioning into meadows bursting with wildflowers during the summer (I went in August 2022, and it was the perfect time to visit for flowers). As you continue your ascent, you’ll move above the treeline into a more alpine environment, dotted with heather and huckleberries.
The real prize of the hike, however, is the view from the top. The fire lookout (which you can sleep in!) has 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains, including the awe-inspiring Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters Range. My friend and I took a snack break here, as we were lucky that no one else wanted to come in the lookout when we were there.
Another point of interest along the trail is the Railroad Grade trail which follows the lateral moraine of the Easton Glacier. This trail is a bit more challenging but rewards you with up-close views of Mount Baker and its glaciers (you will need special equipment, though, so research it first).
What Else to Know for North Cascades Hiking
Here are a few extra tips to keep in mind.
What should I pack for hiking the North Cascades?
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. Additionally, I would have bear spray on you just in case (although I’ve never used it there).
What’s the entrance fee for North Cascades?
There is no entrance fee for this park, unlike most of the ones around the country!
Can you camp anywhere in North Cascades?
Many backpackers prefer to spend the night for longer hikes, especially when they have heavier gear with them like a bear can. Backcountry camping in North Cascades is allowed, but you must obtain a backcountry permit for overnight stays. These are available on a first-come, first-served basis and can be obtained at visitor centers. Otherwise, camping is only allowed in established campgrounds like Colonial Creek, Newhalem, and Goodell Creek.
What is the best month to hike North Cascades?
Anytime during summer or fall is generally good for hiking, but I think August and September are the best months to hike North Cascades. The snow is fully melted from the previous summer, but you don’t yet have snow from the upcoming winter yet. You’ll also get to see larches in late September.
Whether it’s a short hike or backpacking in the North Cascades, you’ll love your time there. 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!