Looking for the best things to do in the North Cascades? In this North Cascades National Park itinerary and guide we’re sharing the best hikes, viewpoints, towns, and where to stay! Ready to explore the beautiful North Cascades? Keep on reading!
We’ll never forget the day we visited North Cascades National Park for the first time. We loaded up the car bright and early, coffee in hand, and headed towards the North Cascades Highway.
We spent the day driving along the scenic roads, stopping at overlooks, playing in the snow, and admiring the unreal bright blue lakes and jagged mountains. North Cascades National Park quickly became one of our favorite areas of Washington that day.
We were blown away by how beautiful the area is and could not stop saying “oh my gosh this is incredible” and “this is the most insane drive ever!”
North Cascades National Park, nicknamed the “American Alps,” is a free (yes, you read that correctly!) National Park located about 2 hours from Seattle. Despite being so close to Seattle, it’s shockingly it’s the 5th least visited U.S. National Park.
According to the National Park Service, in 2017 there were only 30,326 visitors to the National Park. For reference, Mount Rainier had about 1.4 million visitors last year and Olympic National Park had 3.4 million visitors…woah!
We were mind blown when we found this out, as it’s easily one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. But on the plus side, the park has never felt overly crowded the few times we have visited, which is a huge perk!
We are so excited to share this North Cascades National Park itinerary, which is perfect for a weekend getaway (or longer if you have time). It’s a full itinerary full of lots of beauty and we hope you enjoy your time in North Cascades National Park as much as we did!
A quick note about dogs in the North Cascades: The North Cascades National Park complex is made up of the national park areas, as well as the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. In these national recreation areas, as well as the national forests surrounding the park, dogs ARE allowed.
In this guide we are mostly sharing spots within the national recreation areas and national forests, as well as some hikes within the national park boundaries. We will note in the guide which spots are dog friendly, so you can hopefully bring your furry friend with you!
Looking for more Washington ideas? Check out the rest of our Washington guides and blogs!
- Our 37 Favorite Hikes in Washington
- Hiking the Enchantments
- Free and Cheap Things to do in Seattle
- Seattle Bucket List: The Best Food, Drinks, & Things to do in Seattle
- Olympic Peninsula Road Trip Itinerary
- 6 Seattle Day Trips
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
When to visit North Cascades National Park
One very important thing to know about North Cascades National Park is that the main road into the park (Highway 20) is closed between late November until April or early May every year due to snow and avalanche threats.
This North Cascades National Park itinerary takes place on Highway 20, so we suggest visiting in mid to late May until mid October. While the road is typically open longer than mid October, October is a great time to see the amazing fall foliage and larches in the park. After the trees turn, it tends to get pretty cold and rainy, which will make the park a little less enjoyable.
If you want the absolute best weather, the summer will be the best time to visit! However, the crowds will be a bit higher. We have visited North Cascades multiple times in both the summer and fall and all of our trips have been amazing, even if we got a surprise snow storm during our fall visit. 🙂
To see the current road conditions, check out the National Park’s website!
Getting to North Cascades National Park
The closest major city to North Cascades National Park is Seattle, which is 108 miles (a little over 2 hours) away. Seattle is home to Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SEA), which is a major international airport, so if you’re traveling from outside of Washington, it’ll be easy to find a flight to Seattle.
We recommend making Seattle your launching point for your North Cascades adventure, but you have a couple other options as well!
Another airport located close to North Cascades National Park is Bellingham International Airport (BLI). Bellingham is a cool little town close to the Canada border and about 72 miles (1.5 hours) from North Cascades National Park. This airport is pretty small and has only a handful of airlines (Alaska, Allegiant, Horizon, and San Juan Air) that fly out of it.
Paine Field (PAE), which is located in Everett, Washington, just north of Seattle, is another option to consider. This is a much smaller airport than SeaTac and has about 24 flights per day on Alaska and United. Everett is only 88 miles (1 hour, 45 minutes) from North Cascades National Park.
Your last option is to fly into Vancouver, BC (YVR). While located the farthest from the park at 122 miles (2.5 hours), it’s an amazing city to start your trip from! You could fly into Vancouver and spend time in the city, explore North Cascades National Park, and then end your trip in Seattle.
Getting Around North Cascades National Park
Unlike some National Parks, North Cascades does not have a shuttle that takes you to all of the main areas of the park. So the only way to enjoy the park, or at least the areas on this North Cascades National Park itinerary is to rent a car.
The park is a bit spread out, so having a car is your best bet to explore all of the viewpoints and trails that make up the park.
Where to Stay in the North Cascades
We recommend staying in Winthrop during your North Cascades getaway. The cute little Western town has quite a few options when it comes to lodging, as well as restaurants to enjoy after a long day of adventuring.
Most Airbnbs in Winthrop require you to stay for more than one night, so for this North Cascades itinerary we will focus on other options instead–like inns, lodges, and campsites.
- Pearrygin Lake State Park
- Winthrop/N. Cascades National Park KOA Campground
- Early Winters Campground (first come, first served)
- Lone Fir Campground (first come, first served)
Inns + Lodges
You could also stay at one of the park’s campgrounds, but to follow this North Cascades National Park itinerary, you would have to do some backtracking and extra driving. If you don’t mind that, these campgrounds are great! We stayed at the Newhalem Campground once and it was very nice.
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North Cascades National Park Itinerary
The first day of this North Cascades National Park itinerary will take you to the stunning viewpoints throughout the park and squeeze in a quick hike before ending the day in Winthrop, WA, a super cute Western themed town 3.5-4 hours from Seattle (the drive is super scenic and we promise it doesn’t feel this long!).
You’ll kickoff your second day in Winthrop before completing a gorgeous hike of your choice and heading back to Seattle, or wherever your adventures take you next!
- Wake up early, grab some coffee (a must!), pack a lunch, and head towards the North Cascades Highway.
- Stretch your legs while soaking up views of a waterfall and beautiful lake at Gorge Creek Falls Overlook (dog friendly).
- Hike the Thunder Knob Trail (dog friendly)–3.6 miles, 635 ft elevation gain. This trail will give you mountain and water views and is good for all activity levels!
- Visit the insanely gorgeous Diablo Lake Overlook (dog friendly) and admire the jaw-dropping turquoise water.
- Continue along the North Cascades Highway and stop at the Washington Pass Overlook (dog friendly). This spot, which overlooks the crazy peaks of the North Cascade Mountains, took our breath away.
- Walk around the shops and streets of Winthrop.
- Grab dinner in Winthrop. A few good options are Copper Glance, East 20 Pizza, Old Schoolhouse Brewery.
- For a sweet treat after dinner, we recommend some ice cream from Sheri’s Sweet Shop!
- Head to your lodging of choice in Winthrop and rest up for a big day of hiking and driving tomorrow!
- Grab breakfast and coffee at the Mazama Store. While you’re there, pick up lunch items for later!
- Spend the rest of the morning and afternoon hiking in North Cascades National Park. There are so many trails to choose from, but here are three popular options ranging in mileage and elevation gain:
- Blue Lake (dog friendly)—4.4 miles, 1,050 ft elevation gain. This hike is amazing in the fall with the larches!
- Heather-Maple Pass Loop (dog friendly)—7.2 miles, 2,000 ft elevation gain. This is another incredible fall hike to see larches!
- Hidden Lake—8.0 miles, 3,300 ft elevation gain
- Drive back to Seattle or wherever your adventures take you next!
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
If you have extra time…
Want to add more activities to your North Cascades itinerary? Here are some ideas of things to do if you have extra time in the area!
Food + Coffee
- Rocking Horse Bakery (Winthrop)
- Arrowleaf Bistro (Winthrop)
- Tappi (Twisp)
- Glover Street Market (Twisp)
- Cinnamon Twisp Bakery (Twisp)
- Hike more trails!
- Cascade Pass–7.0 miles, 1,800 ft elevation gain
- Lake Ann (dog friendly)–3.4 miles, 700 ft elevation gain
- Backpack in the North Cascades! Make sure to grab a permit in advance. Some trail recommendations:
- Thunder Creek Trail–12.0 miles, 1,300 ft elevation gain
- Thornton Lakes and Trappers Peak–10.2 miles, 2,900 ft elevation gain. This could also be a day hike, but they have spots to camp.
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