North Cascades National Park hiking should be on everyone’s bucket list. Some call the North Cascades the “American Alps.” The mountains are incredibly rugged and scenic and contain over 300 glaciers! With over 400 miles of hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties, there is something here for everyone.
Watch the video below to see the stunning Maple Pass Loop Trail. Then continue down to read more on this and many other amazing North Cascades National Park hiking trails.
Hiking in the North Cascades
This national park is located in northwest Washington, and is less than 3 hours from Seattle. The North Cascades National Park Complex is actually comprised of North and South Units, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. There is hiking throughout.
Though you can visit and hike year-round, April to October is the prime hiking timeframe. The driest and most popular time of the year is mid-June through September. Always be prepared for changing weather conditions and pack the supplies you need for being on the trail.
You can see the park’s comprehensive hiking trail lists, conditions, planning tools and information on the North Cascades hiking page. Here are some of our top recommendations:
Maple Pass Loop Trail
The Maple Pass Loop Trail is a 6.6 mile loop with over 2,000 feet of elevation change; however, that also made for an excellent vantage point. The trail starts at the Rainy Lake Trailhead. Heading counterclockwise for a more gradual ascent, you head upward through the forest and then pass through a meadow with wildflowers in the summer and mountain range views. Thereafter, it’s on to the Lake Ann junction where you will stay right to continue up. If you took the left fork you could hike down to Lake Ann. However, you get great views of Lake Ann from above as the views open up.
Next is Heather Pass and it is worth the short detour on the side trail to see this gorgeous view of the surrounding peaks and mountains, including a bright blue lake in the distance. From here keep going to the ridge, walking along the rim for amazing views at Maple Pass, and then down steep switchbacks to return to the trailhead.
Ross Dam Trail
The Ross Dam Trail is a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike down a fairly steep trail from the parking lot to the dam. It crosses a picturesque bridge over a rocky creek with a little waterfall visible upstream. Hiking down the trail past moss covered rock walls, you first see the dam from above and then make your way down to it. You can walk all the way across this 540 foot tall arch dam, which was completed in 1937. There are incredibly scenic views on both directions. It is worth it to walk all the way across the dam before returning the way you came back up to the parking lot. There are additional trails you could plan to hike on from here if you want a longer loop hike instead of the shorter out and back.
Gorge Overlook Trail
You can see Gorge Creek Falls as you drive the Scenic Highway; however, it’s even better if you can park and walk across the bridge to look at it. Then if you have just a bit more time, take the short paved Gorge Overlook Trail out past another waterfall to overlook the Gorge Dam and Gorge Lake. You can return the same way, or continue on the unpaved portion. The unpaved part of the trail is more difficult and continues to complete a 0.8 mile loop back to the parking area.
Diablo Lake Trail
The Diablo Lake Trail is an out and back trail starting at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. It is 3.8 miles in each direction for a total of 7.6 miles. It goes along the north side of Diablo Lake (right side of the above picture taken from the Diablo Lake Overlook) until you cross the Diablo Lake suspension bridge near the foot of Ross Dam.
Another option for the return trip is to take the Diablo Lake Ferry from the ferry dock below Ross Dam back to the start of the hike. You’ll have to time your hike accordingly as the ferry runs only twice a day in season and there is a fee.
Cascade Pass Trail
According to some, this may be the best hike in the park. It is the most popular day hike as it isn’t as long and steep as some, and provides spectacular views of peaks and glaciers. It is a 3.7 mile hike each direction for a total of 7.4 miles. Double check the status of this hike as the road was washed out 3 miles from the trailhead just prior to our visit so we weren’t able to do this trail. If you’re determined to still do this hike that would mean adding 6 miles on to the hike, whew… So you would be better off waiting until it reopens I think!
This would be the trail we would do if we came back to the park again in the future. If you want to hike further, you can continue on the Sahale Arm Trail to the base of the Sahale Glacier, which we’ve heard is also a great hike.
Happy Creek Forest Walk
This trail is a 0.3 mile loop on a boardwalk. The trail goes through the forest and along Happy Creek with various interpretive signs. If you want a longer hike you can also hike to the end and continue an additional 1.5 miles on an unpaved trail to the Happy Creek Falls.
Newhalem Area Trails
Newhalem is a town owned by the Seattle City Light company. It is the employees of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project that live here. There are interesting signs and exhibits, old dam turbines, and a railroad engine around the town, where you can learn more about the Skagit Project and the dams and powerhouses throughout the North Cascades National Park Complex. The North Cascades National Park Visitor Center is here, as are several short trails. See a map of the Newhalem Area Trails. Here are our top recommendations:
Sterling Munro Viewpoint
Take a quick walk on this 330 foot boardwalk behind the Visitor Center. The boardwalk goes through the forest and then to an overlook of the Picket Range up the Goodell Creek drainage. This is an easy way to get a great view if you don’t have much time or to kick off further sightseeing.
Ladder Creek Falls Trail
Ladder Creek Falls is a 0.4 mile trail located behind the Gorge Powerhouse at the end of town. Just past the parking area there are several signs where you can read about the dams and powerhouse. There is a Powerhouse Visitors’ Gallery where you can learn more as well (when open).
Take the suspension bridge to the right of the powerhouse across the water. You get a great view of the bright blue water from here as well as the Gorge Powerhouse. Next you will walk through the Ladder Creek Falls Garden before arriving at the falls. The first of several cascades can be seen by standing on a bridge over the falls. Then continue up multiple stairs to see the rest of the falls.
Pretty during the day, it is also worth a visit at night, when the falls are illuminated in various colors. This is especially fun for kids! Bring a flashlight if you go at night. Once at the top you can return the same way or continue around and back down on a sloping trail. You’ll definitely need a flashlight on this part as it is very dark. The trail takes you down behind the powerhouse. From here you can head back to the suspension bridge and return to the parking lot.
Trail of the Cedars
The Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk is on the edge of the center of town near the General Store. Cross another suspension bridge over the beautiful water into the old growth forest. The trail is a 0.3 mile loop with signs describing the plant and animal life, a previous forest fire, and the Newhalem Creek Powerhouse at the far end of the loop. The big windows let you peak inside of the powerhouse before looping back toward the suspension bridge.
It’s an easy walk with pretty views of the Skagit River and lots of large Western Red Cedar trees to admire. Kids especially enjoy this walk as there is a lot explore and to stop and investigate.
Other North Cascades National Park Hiking Trails
There are many many more trails than those listed above. Here are a few more bonus trails. For even more, check out the Alphabetical List of All Park Complex Trails.
- Blue Lake Trail: This trail is 4.4 miles roundtrip. See a beautiful mountain lake with towering granite peaks above it.
- Rainy Lake Trail: This trail is 2 miles roundtrip. It is a paved, accessible path to the clear, emerald lake. The lake is in a glacial cirque with a tall thin waterfall flowing down the cliffside into it.
- Thunder Knob Trail: This trail is 3.6 miles roundtrip. Get a great view down to Diablo Lake and up to various high peaks.
- Easy Pass Trail: It is 3.5 miles each way to Easy Pass, with additional hiking beyond. The NPS website states that “many believe the Easy Pass and Fisher Basin area to be one of the most superb places in the North Cascades.” Here you can see many meadows with amazing glacial peaks. However, the name Easy appears to be a misnomer and this is a challenging trail.
- Desolation Peak: This long backpacking trail is a steep hike to amazing views and a historic fire lookout tower. The fire lookout tower is well known due to poet and writer Jack Kerouac serving as the lookout here in 1956. The lookout tower is not accessible to the public. You can’t camp on the summit but instead can camp at a designated camping spot about a mile below the summit. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays.
Whether you only have an afternoon in the park or have several days to hike and explore, there is something for everyone. We hope that we gave you some ideas for when you visit the park and go on your own North Cascades National Park hiking adventures!
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