If you are looking for a perfect weekend camping getaway, consider the North Cascades National Park in Washington. With just over 20,000 visitors annually, North Cascades is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States, yet camping, hiking and backpacking in most trails and campsites is FREE. With views of glaciers and the soaring cascade peaks of the American Alps, this park is a hidden gem in the US. In North Cascade National Park (NCNP), you can explore trails that range from short day hikes to long multi-day backpacking trails, but follow our weekend guide and you will be able to see the best of this park in just a few days.
Before you start hiking and exploring the North Cascade National Park, head over to Gorge Lake campground which is FREE! Drop off your camp gear, set up your tent and head out for some great day hikes nearby. Located right next to the bright blue Gorge Lake, this campground can get packed in the summer season and camping spots are snatched on a “first come first serve” basis so make sure to get there early. This campground offers campsites, firewood pits and picnic tables in each designated site as well as a community toilet. Other campgrounds are available nearby along the North Cascades Highway that cost from $12-$16 a night, such as the Colonial Creek campground, but the paid sites offer the same amenities as the free Gorge Lake campground and the surrounding view is equally nice.
Directions to Gorge Lake campground HERE.
Thunder Knob Trail
After dropping off your camping gear at the Gorge Lake campground, head over to Thunder Knob trail for a short 3.6-mile roundtrip hike to an overlook view of the Diablo Lake. The trail starts at the northern end of the Colonial Creek campground and quickly winds into the forest. The trail rises in elevation only 425 ft with multiple switchbacks through the sub-alpine forest, but can still give you a good workout from the non-stop switchbacks. Along the way you will see multiple peekaboo views of the Diablo Lake, but the best open view of the lake is at the top and it’s worth the hike! Take a rest at one of the designated benches and enjoy a snack with an amazing view before heading back down.
Directions to Thunder Knob Trailhead HERE.
Ross Lake Resort Trail
Another easy hike in the North Cascade National Park is the 3 mile round trip trail to Ross Lake Resort. Park your car in the designated lot off North Cascades Highway and follow the signs for the trail leading into the woods. This trail will start off with several switchbacks through the woods, but will also flatten out in many parts giving you a nice break from the steeper switchbacks. A mile into the hike you will reach the Ross Lake dam which you will need to cross in order to continue the hike. As you cross the damn peak over to the left for a view of the steep drop off of the dam that will make your head spin. After you cross the dam, continue your hike through the woods leading you to your destination- the Ross Lake Resort. Once you reach the resort enjoy the gorgeous view of the lake, the mountains in the distance and how secluded it feels. Pack a lunch with you and enjoy it at one of the resort picnic tables located on the docks. If you have extra energy left, you can even rent a kayak, canoe or motorboat for the day, but make sure to make a reservation ahead of time as they can get booked up quickly.
Directions to Ross Lake Resort Trailhead HERE.
Washington Pass Overlook
If you want to take a break from all the hiking at North Cascade National Park, go for a drive on North Cascades Highway for some jaw dropping views of the Cascade Mountains. 40 miles east of the Diablo Lake area, about a 45-minute drive, stop at the Washington Pass overlook for a closer look of the Liberty Bell Mountain and snap some gorgeous photos of the mountain ridges. The walk to the lookout point is only a quarter-mile long, unless the gate to the lot is closed during the off season which will require an additional mile long walk in and back.
Directions to Washington Pass overlook HERE.
Diablo Lake Vista Point
To get the best view of the turquoise blue Diablo Lake, stop at the Diablo Lake vista point off North Cascades Highway. The parking lot has ample spots for all the admirers and don’t forget your camera since here you can snatch the perfect photo of the gorgeous blue lake.
Directions to Diablo Lake vista point HERE.
If you are looking for an intermediate, two-day backpacking trail, the Cascade Pass and adjacent Johannesburg campground are the perfect places for you! From Marblemount, drive up the Cascade River road for 23 miles, of which the last 13 are gravel, to get to the trail where the road ends. In the off-season, the road is usually closed at mile 20, so you might need to backpack an extra 3 miles. The plus side of the extra walk is it often detracts other visitors, so you’ll likely be one of the handful of hikers that make their way out there.
Once you reach the Johannesburg campground, which can be found on the left side of the road about 100 yards before the Cascades Pass Trail and is marked by a brown sign, drop off your camping gear at one of the designated campsites before you go explore the trail. This campground is unlike most traditional campgrounds; although the camp sites are marked, they’re found scattered in the forest about 200 yards from the road along a narrow, sometimes steep trail, and the only amenity is a pit toilet that’s out in the open. In other words, it’s not for everyone, and it certainly is not a drive-in campsite. Also, you will need to obtain an NCNP Backcountry Permit before camping at the Johannesburg campground, available at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, but it is FREE. Bear canisters are suggested and can also be obtained at the wilderness center for free.
After setting up the camp, walk over to the Cascade Pass trailhead which is only a 5-minute walk from the Johannesburg camp. The hike is 7 miles round trip, but takes you through 37 strenuous leg burning switchbacks in the alpine forest so make sure to pack extra water and plenty of snacks. As you hike you will come across many small creeks which you will need to cross, potential fallen trees and snow depending on the season. But if you can overcome all these obstacles the view at the top is spectacular! If you hike early in the season like June, you might also hear rumbling avalanches in the distance as the snow melts and slides down the mountain peaks.
Before you head out to the North Cascades National Park, make sure to check the localized weather from the NWC HERE. During winter and early spring seasons, many trails are not accessible due to snow, avalanches and rock slides or might require additional winter gear. The local park rangers at the North Cascade Wilderness Information Center are very knowledgeable and up to date on the trail conditions and can be reached by calling 360-854-7245, or you can check the latest trail condition updates HERE.
If you have always dreamed of traveling to the Swiss Alps, there is no need to go abroad as the North Cascade National Park is just as breathtaking and within only a couple of hours drive from Seattle. This park offers everything from relaxing on a floating lake resort to exploring the endless miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, boating in a tranquil lake to traversing one of the over 300 glaciers found within. Being one of the least visited national parks in the country, you are always sure to find an abundance of ways to enjoy the nature while avoiding the crowds. So don’t wait, and go for a walk, rent a kayak, relax and enjoy the beauty of the American landscape found within the North Cascades National Park today!
Written by Laura Sausina.