If you only have one day at North Cascades National Park, you may not have time to do a long hike or get on the bright blue lakes like we showed you in our last two blog posts. Instead, you may want to spend your time doing several shorter walks, overlooks, and scenic driving. If you have more time, great! But if not, there is plenty to do in one day at North Cascades National Park!
Watch the video below to see the jaw dropping views at Washington Pass that we thought rivaled the views anywhere else in the park, and several quick stops and short walks that are highly worthwhile as you travel along the North Cascades Scenic Highway. Then continue scrolling down to read more about how to plan your own day in the park!
North Cascades Scenic Drive
The North Cascades Highway is State Route 20 and will take you about 30 miles across the park. It is a beautiful scenic road on which you can take in the striking mountains, forests, lakes, and waterfalls of the North Cascades. Plan to drive the entire length or as much of it as you can through the park. Stop in various places as you see pull-offs for viewpoints and overlooks.
We’ll take you down the North Cascades scenic highway from west to east starting in Newhalem to the Washington Pass Overlook. Here is a good map of the scenic highway so you can see where we will take you!
Newhalem Town & History
Definitely make a quick stop in Newhalem if you can rather than just driving through. Here you will find not only two of the quick trails we recommend you check out, but also the National Park Visitor Center, and fascinating history of the town and Seattle City Light’s Skagit River Hydroelectric Project that will help make all the dams, powerhouses, and powerlines you’ll see throughout the park complex make more sense!
The town of Newhalem started as a construction camp in 1918 and is operated by Seattle City Light. From 1920 to 1940 the town was only really accessible by train. Old Number Six, a steam locomotive, is still on display here and used to carry materials, construction equipment, and workers to the area. The Skagit Information Center, located in the center of town, has more information on the area as well as a giant turbine runner on display out front. Take a quick walk through the town and stop in at this info center. Through the park complex you can see the Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam, Ross Dam, and their associated powerhouses as well as the Newhalem Powerhouse.
We have an entire post on the North Cascades National Park lakes, dams, and powerhouses if you want to read more.
North Cascades Visitor Center
Don’t miss the visitor center in Newhalem for information and exhibits. There is a sign off the main road and you’ll cross a one lane bridge and go past the turn for the campground before you arrive at the Visitor Center.
In addition to the great info at the Visitor Center itself, you can take a quick walk to the Sterling Munro Viewpoint, a 330 foot boardwalk behind the Visitor Center to an overlook of the Picket Range up the Goodell Creek drainage. It’s a great way to get an overview of the park and then a great quick view.
Trail of the Cedars
On the edge of town near the main area of Newhalem, cross a suspension bridge over the beautiful water into the old growth forest. The trail is a 0.3 mile loop past lots of large Western Red Cedar trees 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.
Ladder Creek Falls is a 0.4 mile trail located behind the Gorge Powerhouse at the end of town. You can cross a suspension bridge over the water and past the powerhouse to walk through the gardens, up some stairs and past the waterfalls. You can see them either during the day or at night when they are lit up in various colors, whichever your schedule best allows for!
Gorge Creek Falls & Gorge Overlook Trail
Make a quick stop at Gorge Creek Falls as you drive the Scenic Highway. You can walk across the bridge on the pedestrian walkway to get a good view of it. The falls are 242 feet tall and cascade down the cliff side, flow under the bridge and into Gorge Lake.
From the parking lot you can also take the short paved Gorge Overlook Trail out past another waterfall to overlook the 300 foot tall Gorge Dam and Gorge Lake. You can return the same way, or continue on the unpaved portion for a total 0.8 mile loop.
You will naturally see the beautiful turquoise Diablo Lake as you drive through the area, but stopping at Diablo Lake is a must. You can stop at the Diablo Lake Overlook for an easy view of the lake and surrounding mountains from above and we highly recommend it. However, if you have the time we also recommend getting a view from the beach as well.
An easy way to do this is to park at the Thunder Knob Trailhead on the side of the scenic highway. From here you can take a short walk down to the water. It’s a nice way to see the lake from a different perspective and if you want you can then stick your toes in!
Washington Pass Overlook
All the way down the scenic highway, on the east side of the park, lies Washington Pass Overlook. The pass is at 5,477 feet (1669m) and features a short, paved walkway to breathtaking views. Here you can see Liberty Bell Mountain and the Early Winters Spires. We thought this view rivaled the views at Diablo Lake and on the hike into the mountains we took on the Maple Pass Loop Trail. This must absolutely be on your list. Walk out and back to the main viewpoint, or continue the short loop for additional views, though this portion of the trail does have stairs and steep portions.
If you visit North Cascades National Park, there are many ways to see the park in a single day, from driving the scenic highway, going on some short hikes, seeing the stunning blue water and learning about the dams and powerhouses. We hope you enjoyed learning about the many options that await you in this beautiful place for your one day at North Cascades!
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If you’d like to read about our family travels, full-time RVing, and other adventures, then check out some of our other posts :
- Best of the Best North Cascades National Park Hiking Trails
- How To Experience North Cascades National Park Lakes
- Teton River Stand Up Paddle Board Float Trip
- Chiricahua National Monument | Echo Canyon Loop Hike
- Petrified Forest National Park
You can check out some of our favorite gear and memberships on our Resources Page.
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