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Favorite Hiking Trails in North Cascades National Park, Washington

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Tucked in Washington’s rugged terrain, North Cascades National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Lush rainforests and towering peaks offer picturesque backdrops for solitude and epic hikes. From glacial rivers to hidden waterfalls, every step on winding trails leads to thrilling adventures. A must for avid hikers.



Overview

Hidden within the rugged terrain of Washington lies North Cascades National Park, a hiker’s paradise. With its lush rainforests and towering peaks, this park offers a picturesque backdrop for any outdoor enthusiast. From rushing glacial rivers to hidden waterfalls, every step on its winding trails leads to new adventure. Despite its close proximity to Seattle, it remains a hidden gem for those seeking solitude and epic hikes all in one place. North Cascades is truly a dream destination for any avid hiker.

The North Cascades National Park Service Complex protects some of the most breathtaking mountain terrain in all of North America. With a variety of trails ranging from easy paths to challenging climbs, there’s something here for every hiker. Take time to appreciate the tranquility and difficulty that come with hiking in such a stunning park. And always remember to tread lightly, so that future generations can also experience the wonders of this place.

Sunrise at Diable Lake in North Cascades National Park.

The park is best discovered by hiking through its picturesque trails. North Cascades has a variety of routes suitable for all types of hikers, ranging from serene and family-friendly paths to challenging mountain treks. For those looking to spend the night, there are multiple campgrounds along designated trails, as well as drive-in campsites and over 140 sites in remote areas. Make sure you have your camping reservations or backcountry permits ready! It’s important to be aware of bear safety when venturing out here; certain spots require using canisters instead of hanging bags to store food, so it’s crucial to plan accordingly. Regardless of how you choose to explore the park, breathtaking views of majestic mountains are guaranteed.

The park complex is a popular destination for hikers, backpackers and climbers throughout the year, although the main hiking season falls between April and October. The best time to visit in terms of weather and popularity is during the summer months between mid-June and September. Some trails at higher elevations may still have snow until July or even August. From November through March, there is an increase in precipitation and snowfall within the park. The winters are typically wet with heavy snowfall, which can limit access due to road closures. It’s important to check current conditions before planning a visit during these months.

Here are my top picks for hiking trails in North Cascades National Park.


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Scales and Criteria

All of the routes can be accessed by following a trail, eliminating any need for difficult scrambling or veering off the designated path. This review is specifically for a snow-free ascent, which is recommended between June and September. However, if you plan on hiking this trail in snowy conditions, be prepared to navigate carefully. The length of these trails varies and they may be frequented by summer backpackers. When covered in snow, it becomes challenging to stay on the path and orient yourself.

Difficulty Ratings:

  • Easy: less than 5 miles, less than 500 ft. of elevation gain
  • Moderate: 5-10 miles, 500-2000 ft. of elevation gain
  • Difficult: 5-15 miles, more than 2000 ft. of elevation gain
  • Very Difficult: 10+ miles, more than 3,500 ft. of elevation gain

Gorge Creek Falls Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 1.0 mi
  • Elevation gain: 59 ft
  • Route type: Out and Back

The Gorge Creek Falls Trail is an easy hike that spans 1.0 mile with an elevation gain of only 59 feet. Located in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, this trail is a condensed version of all the stunning beauty that the North Cascades have to offer. The hike starts off with a breathtaking view of Gorge Lake from above and continues on a partially paved path where hikers of all levels can appreciate magnificent mountain views, covered rocks, ancient trees, and a waterfall. For a more powerful waterfall experience, it’s recommended to visit after heavy rainfall. And for those looking for a longer hike, there are various side trips accessible nearby.

Gorge Creek at Gorge overlook Trail at North Cascades National Park.

Blue Lake Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4.6 mi
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 ft
  • Route type: Out and Back

The Blue Lake Trail in the North Cascades, Washington, is a popular hike known for its stunning beauty and relatively easy terrain. Nestled amidst jagged mountain peaks like Liberty Bell and the Winter Spires, this trail offers a picturesque view of the clear blue waters of Blue Lake and vibrant wildflowers. The hike is about 4.6 miles round trip with an elevation gain of around 1,050 feet. The trail features a mix of forest and meadow, with the best time to visit being late September to early October to witness the breathtaking golden larches. The trailhead is easily accessible from Highway 20, and the hike is suitable for most skill levels, making it a must-do for anyone visiting the North Cascades.

Golden Larch trees and Blue Lake Trail in the North Cascades.

Diablo Lake Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 7.2 mi
  • Elevation gain: 1,509 ft
  • Route type: Out and Back

The Diablo Lake Trail offers a moderate level of difficulty and extends for 7.2 miles. Along the way, you’ll gain an elevation of 1,509 ft. This trail is situated within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and takes hikers to the less popular side of Diablo Lake. The lush green forests and tranquil moss-covered ground make up for the limited views of the lake. As you hike, you’ll encounter ups and downs through boulder fields while catching glimpses of the Skagit River and the majestic mountains surrounding it. Towards the end, you’ll cross a bridge that overlooks Ross Dam. If you visit during summer or fall, you may have the option of hiking one-way by taking the Diablo Lake Ferry to either end of the trail.

During the summer and fall, Seattle City Light offers a ferry service on Diablo Lake for guests and customers of the Ross Lake Resort. This resort offers accommodations and equipment rentals for those visiting Ross Lake. Additionally, hikers or backpackers traveling to or from Ross Lake may choose to use the ferry as well. Before embarking, make sure to check the ferry timetable either online or at the visitor center.

The Diablo Lake at North Cascades National Park in Washington State, USA

Thunder Knob Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 3.4 mi
  • Elevation gain: 675 ft
  • Route type: Out and Back

Embark on a thrilling hiking adventure along Thunder Knob Trail! This moderate 3.4 mile trail boasts an elevation gain of 675 feet and offers breathtaking views of mountains and lakes in Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The journey begins with a picturesque bridge over Colonial Creek, followed by a gradual ascent through lush forests teeming with Douglas fir, red cedar, and western hemlock trees. And the reward at the top? Stunning vistas of Davis Peak, Sourdough Mountain, Diablo Lake, Jack Mountain, Colonial Peak, and Pyramid Peak await you. Come experience the thrill of conquering Thunder Knob Trail today!

Diablo Lake Reservoir at North Cascades National Park in Spring. Photo: Adobe Stock

Thunder Creek Trail

  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Length: 11.1 mi
  • Elevation gain: 1,345 ft
  • Route type: Out and Back

Located in Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Thunder Creek Trail offers a challenging 11.1 mile hike with an elevation gain of 1,345 feet. The trail is opposite of Thunder Knob Trail and takes you through beautiful old-growth forest and rolling hills. You can choose to do a short day hike to the bridge over Thunder Creek or continue for a longer, more peaceful walk. Keep an eye out for fungi along the way! The entire trail is mostly shaded with a gradual incline, making it perfect for a backpacking trip. There are also multiple backcountry campsites available along the way, and even more if you decide to continue further on Thunder Creek Trail. Don’t forget your backcountry permit, if you plan to backpack.

Thunder Creek flows between forested mountains in North Cascades.

Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm Trail

  • Difficulty: Very Difficult
  • Length: 11.6 mi
  • Elevation gain: 3,963 ft
  • Route type: Out and Back

Embark on a challenging journey through the North Cascades with the Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm Trail. This 11.6-mile with an elevation gain of nearly 4,000-feet trek will take you through forests, streams, meadows, and ridgelines, all while providing breathtaking views of majestic mountains. Be prepared for any weather as snow is often present along the way. Experience the vibrant colors of fall as the meadows transform into a sea of red and orange. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as pikas, marmots, goats, and bears – making this hike an unforgettable adventure!

Cascade Pass at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

 


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