North Cascades National Park Lakes

How To Experience North Cascades National Park Lakes

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North Cascades National Park lakes will stun you with their bright blue water surrounded by rugged mountain peaks. The turquoise of the lakes is almost too bright to believe. It will wow you as you drive through the park and stare at it from amazing overlooks. If you can, you should also take some time to get out on the water, because there’s no better way to experience it!

Watch the video below to see the stunning water of Diablo Lake as we take you out paddleboarding, view the entire lake from the Diablo Lake Overview, and take you to two of the area’s dams which create the amazing lakes and help provide power to the region. Then continue down to read more on the North Cascades National Park lakes, dams, and powerhouses.

Glacial Lakes at North Cascades National Park

In a park with 300+ glaciers, it’s no wonder that rock particles scoured off of the surrounding mountains by erosion from glaciers have made their way into the waters below. This glacier sediment is called “glacial flour” and is suspended in the water. These rock particles refract light in such a way to make the waters of some of the lakes a striking turquoise color. Other lakes are deep blues or emerald colors.

The three lakes on the main stretch of the scenic highway as you visit the national park are Gorge Lake, Diablo Lake, and Ross Lake. There are countless other lakes through out the National Park Complex that you can also visit including Rainy Lake, Lake Ann, Blue Lake, Lake Chelan, Thornton Lakes, and many more! According to the NPS, in total there are over 500 lakes and ponds in the national park!

Paddleboarding on Diablo Lake

Paddleboarding North Cascades National Park Lakes

Diablo Lake is an excellent lake on which to take to the water. Paddleboarding, kayaking, and canoeing are especially popular. Park at the Thunder Knob Trailhead on the side of the scenic highway. This is located just outside the Colonial Creek Campground. From here you can walk down to the water.

There is plenty of shoreline to find a nice spot to set up a picnic blanket or chairs, let the kids play, enjoy the views, and launch a boat. We set up midmorning, launched our paddleboard, and spent the majority of the day here. It’s a nice way to soak in North Cascades National Park at slower relaxed pace.

From this boat launch location, you can paddle up the Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake, toward the Diablo Lake Overlook on the cliffside above. You’ll pass through a boat passage barrier and then into the main section of Diablo Lake. If you go far enough you can see Diablo Dam in the distance at the west end of the lake. You may see the ferry heading back and forth as well. The water is very cold, but beautiful. The mountains tower around you and create the perfect backdrop to a wonderful day on the water.

The NPS website has detailed information on additional ways to go boating on North Cascades National Park lakes including Ross Lake, Gorge Lake, and Lake Chelan. We picked Diablo Lake specifically because it looked the most stunning to us and for the ease of getting into the water here.

If you want to do some hiking to view the lakes in addition to or instead of getting in the water, we wrote about the best North Cascades National Park hiking trails as well.

Diablo Lake Overlook

North Cascades National Park Lakes diablo lake overlook

Another option for enjoying the bright blue water of Diablo Lake, is to take it in from the Diablo Lake Overlook. This scenic vista is an easy pull-off from the scenic North Cascades Highway. Park and walk along the railing to see the beautiful lake.

Looking left you will see the Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake, all the way down to the beach at the Thunder Knob Trailhead where we went paddleboarding. Colonial Peak rises above the lake in this direction. This mountain is 7,771 feet tall.

Looking straight ahead down the main part of the lake you will see Diablo Dam in the distance. Davis Peak rises in the distance above the dam, at 7,054 feet tall. You can read various interpretive signs at this overlook. This is also a great place to take in a sunset.

Seattle City Light Skagit Hydroelectric Project

Railroad engine in Newhalem

Since 1918, Seattle City Light has used dams and powerhouses on the upper Skagit River to produce power. Seattle City Light owns and manages the city of Newhalem, the powerhouses, the 3 dams discussed below, as well as another dam on a nearby creek. You can learn more by visiting Newhalem and taking a self-guided walking tour based on this flyer, stopping by the Skagit Information Center in town, or sign up for a Skagit Tour.

Diablo Dam

Diablo Dam

Diablo Dam is one of three arch dams along the upper Skagit River. It is the middle of the three dams on this part of the river in North Cascades National Park. It supplies Seattle with some of its power needs and is 389 feet tall. At the time Diablo Dam was built, in 1930, it was the tallest dam in the world.

The roadway curves across the top of Diablo Dam, and you can actually drive across it when the gate is open. We drove across it as the sun was setting. The lampposts that line both sides of the dam were illuminated and made the dam very picturesque.

Ross Dam & Lake

Ross Dam

To the north of Diablo Lake is Ross Lake. Ross Lake is much larger than Diablo Lake and even extends across the border into British Columbia, Canada. Ross Dam is between Diablo Lake and Ross Lake. It was originally called Ruby Dam, and is a 540 foot tall arch dam. Completed in 1949, it was actually supposed to be raised another 125 feet for a total height of 665 feet. This would have raised the water level of Ross Lake and have been able to generate additional power for Seattle. However, this addition was canceled due to significant controversy including environmental factors. A treaty was signed in which B.C. would provide Seattle the amount of electricity it would otherwise have gained by the addition to the dam.

There is a relatively short but steep trail that you can take to hike down to Ross Dam and walk across the dam itself. Ross Dam Trail is a scenic hike with a great reward at the end as you can see the really neat looking dam, Ross Lake, and stunning mountains above.

Gorge Dam & Lake

Gorge Dam

Gorge Dam and lake are the southernmost of the dams and lakes on the Skagit River in the North Cascades National Park Complex. The Gorge High Dam was completed in 1961 and is 300 feet tall. It actually replaced two previous dams in this location. You can see the Gorge Dam by taking the short Gorge Overlook Trail. Nearby the Gorge Creek Falls are also visible.

North Cascades Powerhouses

A powerhouse receives the water from the dam and contains the actual generators that make electricity. The powerhouses in the North Cascades National Park Complex include the Ross Powerhouse, Diablo Powerhouse, Gorge Powerhouse, and Newhalem Powerhouse. Of these, we wanted to highlight a couple of them below.

Gorge Powerhouse

Gorge Dam and suspension bridge

The Gorge Powerhouse is in Newhalem at the end of town. It was the first of the three powerhouses built on the Skagit River. We found this powerhouse especially neat because you can see it from up close. There is a suspension bridge that takes you across the river with a great view of the powerhouse. You can walk immediately adjacent to it through the gardens and see Ladder Creek Falls both in the daytime and lit up at night. The Powerhouse Visitors’ Gallery is also located here.

Newhalem Powerhouse

The Newhalem Powerhouse is on the Trail of the Cedars, a short trail across a suspension bridge and through the forest. This powerhouse supplied energy for the construction of the Gorge Dam but later burned down. It was rebuilt and still contains the original machinery.

If you visit North Cascades National Park, make sure to plan some time on or near the water, as well as seeing some or all of the dams and powerhouses and learning about the interesting history and current state of power production in the national park complex. We hope you enjoyed learning more about North Cascades National Park with us!

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Pinnable image of Diablo Lake and woman with paddleboard
Pinnable image of Diablo Lake Overlook
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