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Travel Itinerary: Three Days in North Cascades National Park

Located in Northern Washington near the Canadian border, North Cascades National Park is an alpine lovers paradise. The North Cascades National Park Complex includes North Cascades National Park, the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. There are over 684,000 acres of protected wilderness within the North Cascades National Park Complex with plenty of opportunity for backcountry exploration.

Woman in a sports bra and athletic skirt stands on the shore of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park.
Taking in the view at Diablo Lake.

This itinerary shares how to spend three days in North Cascades National Park without having to hike far (unless you want to of course!). The hiking trails that are included are all easy-moderate, making this a great itinerary for families traveling with young children, especially over a long weekend like Memorial Day or Labor Day. A large portion of the itinerary is within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which permits dogs on trail as long as they are leashed. Trails that enter the National Park boundary are not dog-friendly past that point.

How to Get to North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is located next to the Canadian border in Northern Washington about 2-3 hours from Seattle. The park can be accessed from both the east and west sides of the Cascades via the North Cascades Highway (also known as State Route 20).

Driving along the North Cascades Highway.

For the purpose of this itinerary, I recommend entering the park from the west side near Mazama and Winthrop, Washington. The itinerary will then take you through the park and out the east side near Marblemount, Washington at the end.

Because of its remote location, North Cascades is one of the least visited National Parks in the lower 48, which means you won’t run into the throngs of crowds that you’ll find at other mountainous national parks during the summer. While the locations shared in this itinerary are relatively popular because they are easily accessible, you can find solitude by heading into the backcountry, visiting during the week, or traveling during the off-season.

Where to Stay in North Cascades National Park

Camping

The operational camping season in North Cascades National Park is mid-May through early-September. After that a limited number of campgrounds are still available on a first-come, first-served basis through winter. Making reservations in advance is highly recommended during the summer!

  1. Colonial Creek Campground. If you’re following this itinerary I would recommend making reservations to camp at Colonial Creek Campground during your trip to North Cascades National Park. There are actually 2 campgrounds at Colonial Creek, one north and one south of the highway. The campgrounds are right next to Diablo Lake, which means you’ll be close to all of the trailheads and activities in this itinerary. Each campsite comes with a tent pad, fire ring, picnic table, and bear box, and there are bathrooms and water at the campground. There are 137 sites available across the two campgrounds, including a handful of walk-in sites. You can begin making reservations 6 months in advance. Sites cost $24/night from Memorial Day through mid-September. Sites are free during the fall, winter, and early spring (be aware there are only 10 first-come, first-serve sites available during this time).
  1. Goodell Creek Campground. Goodell Creek Campground is located off of State Route 20 along the Skagit River. There are 19 sites available that are suitable for tents and small RVs. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. A site costs $20/night from Memorial Day through mid-September. Sites are free during the fall, winter, and early spring.
  1. Gorge Lake Campground. The Gorge Lake Campground is located near State Route 20 on the bank of Gorge Lake. There are 8 tent-only sites available (small RVs or trailers fit in some sites) and no running water. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. A site costs $20/night from Memorial Day through mid-September. Sites are free during the fall, winter, and early spring.
  1. Newhalem Creek Campground. The Newhalem Creek Campground is located near the visitor center in the small town of Newhalem. There are 107 sites available, 13 of which are tent only walk-in sites. Bathrooms and water are available. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. A site costs $24/night from Memorial Day through mid-September. This campground is closed during the winter.
Hiker stands on the banks of Thunder Creek while hiking in North Cascades National Park.
View of Thunder Creek along the Thunder Creek Trail.

Hotels

  1. Ross Lake Resort: The Ross Lake Resort is one of the most highly sought after national park lodges in the country. Accessible only via boat or hiking, the Lodge features 15 cabins situated on the shore of Ross Lake that are available between mid-May through October. Due to the popularity, reservations are available only by lottery. You can enter your information here and you will be contacted if and when a reservation becomes available.
  2. Hotels in Marblemount: Nearby Marblemount, Washington has a few hotel and motel options, including the Glacier Peak Resort and North Cascades Inn.

When to Visit North Cascades National Park

The best time of year to visit North Cascades National Park is during the summer from mid-June through September. Snow often lingers in the mountains through mid-July, but all of the hiking trails included in this itinerary are at lower elevations so they will be snow-free much earlier. If you’re planning on hiking higher into the alpine in early summer be sure to check the conditions at the Visitor’s Center and come prepared with microspikes or crampons as needed. Fall in North Cascades National Park brings shades of red and orange at higher elevations along with golden larches, which makes it a great time of year to visit. Winters are very snowy and the highway is closed from late November/early December through April or early May due to avalanche conditions.

Waterfall in North Cascades National Park.

Recreating Responsibly in North Cascades National Park

Follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles. 

This means:

  1. Plan ahead & prepare.
  2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of others.

Be bear aware! Practicing bear safety is extremely important while camping in North Cascades National Park, which means not leaving any food, scented items, or cooking equipment unattended. Be sure to store anything scented in your vehicle or the provided bear box at night. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear!

Trip Itinerary: Three Days in North Cascades National Park

Day 1

Start your trip on Day 1 with a visit to the Old Western themed town of Winthrop, Washington. Fuel up with a cinnamon roll from Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe and then hit the road heading north towards the tiny town of Mazama, which serves as the gateway to the western entrance of North Cascades National Park. Pick up any last minute provisions you may need from Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies and begin your drive into the park!

Take your time driving along the North Cascades Highway through the park making sure to stop at all of the lookouts along the way for photo ops. The initial drive into the park up to Washington Overlook provides some of the best views of the mountains.

Woman stands looking at the mountains in North Cascades National Park.

Continue driving through the mountains and stop to take in the view at the Ross Lake Overlook. After taking some photos of the gorgeous view, drive over the Diablo Lake dam and keep an eye out for signs for the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center

Park at the trailhead, which has pit toilets available, and head out on your first hike of the trip along the Diablo Lake Trail. The Diablo Lake Trail is 7.6 miles out-and-back through the forest and past waterfalls to an area overlooking Diablo Lake with 1,400 ft. of elevation gain. It’s an easy-moderate hike that’s great for all ages. I was recovering from an ankle injury during our trip, so we only hiked about 2 miles out-and-back, but we still got to see plenty of forest views!

Female hiker hiking in the forest in North Cascades National Park.

After your hike, head to the Colonial Creek Campground to set up camp for the next couple of nights. Spend the evening exploring around the campground.

Day 2

Begin Day 2 of your trip to North Cascades National Park by going on a hike along the Thunder Creek Trail, which begins right at the Colonial Creek Campground. The trail connects with other trails in the area, so you can make your hike as long or short as you would like. My partner and I hiked 2 miles out-and-back, which took us through the forest and across a bridge over the glacial blue waters of Thunder Creek. If you’re looking for more of a challenge turn off on the trail to 4th of July pass and head higher into the mountains.

Woman walking across a wooden bridge over a turquoise river in North Cascades National Park.

After your hike head back to camp and get ready to go standup paddleboarding (SUP’ing) on the turquoise waters of Diablo Lake. There’s a boat ramp next to the campground where you can put in. If SUP’ing isn’t your thing you can also float in a kayak or ducky. Unfortunately rentals aren’t available inside of the national park, so you’ll need to BYOB (bring your own boat). National Park Service regulations require that you carry a PFD and whistle on board at all times.

Paddleboarding on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park.

After your SUP sesh, hop in the car and head to the Newhalem Visitor’s Center. Visit the national park gift shop and spend some time exploring the interpretive exhibits where you can learn all about the different eco-zones you can find in North Cascades National Park.

Continue driving from Newhalem to Marblemount for dinner. I recommend eating at the Marblemount Diner, which serves delicious American diner food. Be sure to grab a milkshake to-go! After dinner, enjoy a scenic drive back to camp.

Day 3

Start your third and final day in North Cascades National Park with a hike up the Thunder Knob Trail. This 3.6 mile out-and-back trail is short, but provides a big reward with sweeping views of Diablo Lake from the top.

The trail begins by hiking through South Colonial Creek Campground. It then winds through the forest and over a creek before beginning a steady, but moderate, climb to the summit. It’s an easy-moderate hike depending on your hiking experience and fitness levels and is suitable for the whole family. The trail is also technically located within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and is dog-friendly, however dogs must be leashed.

If you’re looking for a challenging hike that still provides gorgeous views of Diablo Lake you can hike up to the Sourdough Mountain Lookout. The trail is 10 miles out-and-back and extremely steep with 5,000 ft. of elevation gain. Dogs are not allowed on this trail.

After your hike head back to camp, pack up, and head home or make your way to your next destination.

If you’re looking for a nearby destination to keep the outdoor adventure going, check out the Baker Lake area of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest outside of Concrete, Washington.

Woman stands on a bridge overlooking the Baker River.
Hiking the Baker River Trail.

What to Pack for Hiking in North Cascades National Park

Pack: Hiking pack recommendations are incredibly subjective. I personally use and love the Osprey Sirrus 24L. A trail running vest is also a great option for the shorter hikes in this itinerary.

Appropriate layers. What clothing you specifically need to wear or carry depends on a number of factors including the forecast, time of year, and your personal preferences, but keep in mind that mountain weather can change in an instant. Helpful layers to consider wearing/bringing include a baselayer, mid-layer, outer layer, and rain jacket

Woman in a yellow rain coat overlooks Ross Lake on a moody day.

Water: You should plan to carry at least 1L per hour of hiking that you plan to do in the desert. Depending on the time of year, temperature, and how acclimatized you are to the desert, you may need more or less. Also consider carrying electrolyte packs like Liquid IV to add to your water, especially if you’re hiking during warmer months!

Snacks: A protein bar, trail mix, pb&j, dried fruit, and jerky are great snack options!

Headlamp: Keep a headlamp handy in your pack in case you find yourself still out on the trail after dark. 

Sun protection. Sun protection is always a good idea, so packing a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen is advised.

First-aid kit: A well stocked first-aid kit should always be in your pack as part of the 10 essentials.

Map & compass: While all of the trails I’ve included in this itinerary are easy to navigate, you should always carry a map & compass in the event you get lost. At the very least be sure to download the trail map to your phone before heading out!

Knife: A knife can come in handy for a variety of purposes from cutting an apple to fixing your gear. Plus it’s part of the 10 essentials, so it should be one of those items that just lives in your pack!

Emergency shelter: Injuries that may require a hiker to spend an emergency night on the trail can happen, so it’s important to carry an emergency bivvy or space blanket to help you stay comfortable during an emergency situation.

Trekking poles: Trekking poles are optional but recommended to help your knees during some of the steeper hikes.

 Emergency GPS: I always carry a Garmin in-reach mini GPS on hikes to easily get in contact with authorities in the event of an emergency.

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