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Destination Washington: North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

Glacier-clad peaks, virgin forests, vast turquoise lakes, and sub-alpine meadows. North Cascades National Park is a gem of a wilderness — one that is often overlooked by tourists and revered by rugged adventurers. The park is isolated, encompassing 360 miles of trails, an incredible array of wildlife, and innumerable waterfalls (hence the lovely name of the park).North Cascades National Park

The Cascade Range extends from British Columbia to Northern California, with just one paved road embarking into the heart of its untamed wilderness. If you’re an avid hiker or backpacker, you’ve no doubt been seduced by these mountains, but this post is for the road tripper, the casual hiker, and the family adventurer. If you’ve never journeyed through North Cascades National Park, it’s time to make amends.North Cascades National Park

Traveling to North Cascades National Park

There are major airports in both Bellingham and Seattle, Washington. From Bellingham, the entrance to the park is about an hour and a half drive. From Seattle, it’s about three hours. Route 20, also known as the North Cascade Highway, was completed in 1972, and takes visitors on a smooth, easy ride through some seriously imposing terrain. Aside from a few dirt roads, it’s the only road through the park, and it’s closed in the winter. There’s no entrance fee to get into the park, but a few trailheads require a $5 parking pass.

Our Back Road Travels Through North Cascades National Park

Okay, route 20 is really the only road through the park, but what a beautiful way to go! We arrived from the east, in the middle of a 10,000-mile road trip across America.  You really have to visit both sides of the mountain range — they are so incredibly different from each other. The eastern slopes have a very dry, old-west feel to them, with lots of sagebrush, horses, and ranch land. After cresting the mountains and heading down the western slope, we found ourselves in the midst of lush old-growth forests, dark and drippy, and covered with moss. We loved the juxtaposition of the two climates converging within a few hours drive.Outside of North Cascades National Park

Winthrop, Washington

The night before we traveled into the park, we camped in a little campground just outside of Wauconda in the Okanogan National Forest. It was kind of a rowdy place and the campsites were nestled around a swamp/pond that wasn’t good for swimming. The folks at the campground convinced us to visit the little town of Winthrop the next day on our way into the park. They promised wild-west tourism, shopping, and good eats.Winthrop

Winthrop, Washington

We arrived in Winthrop at lunch time the next day, and we weren’t disappointed— It’s a serious tourist destination, with lots of back road travelers like us, motorcycles, RVs, and people everywhere. We ate pickles from the Winthrop Emporium, played the part of tourists-with-cameras all around town, and even did a little shopping. I highly recommend Winthrop as a stop-over, wherever you happen to be headed. We barely scratched the surface there, so if you want to learn more, you’ll have to visit Winthrop’s official website.

Family-Friendly Hikes in the North Cascades

I’d like to leave the backpacking trips, climbing adventures, and strenuous mountain ascents to more seasoned adventurers and tell you about a few family-friendly hikes within the park.Hiking North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

  • Thunder Knob – This 3.6 mile hike is perfect for an afternoon in the woods with or without kids. It gains just 425 feet in elevation with incredible views of both mountains and lakes. It begins at Colonial Creek Campground on Diablo Lake (you should stay there). Leashed dogs are permitted on the trail.
  • Happy Creek Forest Walk – Who can resist a trail with a name like that? This is a really short (.8 miles), accessible walk, perfect for stretching out your legs. It meanders along a creek, and there are plenty of benches for resting or reflecting. You can also turn this walk into a real hike by continuing on from the boardwalk to Happy Creek Falls. Then your total distance becomes 4 miles.
  • River Loop Trail – This is another easy trail that starts in Newhalem Creek Campground. It meanders through the forest and along the creek, with ample opportunities for birdwatching and getting your feet wet. The trail is a 1.8 mile loop that also connects to the “To Know a Tree Nature Trail,” which is a ½ mile interpretive nature path.
  • Stetattle Creek Trail – This one is a bit more difficult, but still a manageable day hike for adults and children who like to walk. The beginning of the trail hugs the Stetattle Creek, with a bit of rock scrambling along the shore. Eventually it leaves the creek behind, heading into a mature forest and then petering out after about 3 miles.

Colonial Creek CampgroundCamping in North Cascades National Park

There’s a bunch of camping options in North Cascades National Park. We were road-tripping, so we chose one of the five car campgrounds, but there are also several boat-in campgrounds, and lots of options for wilderness camping. With the exception of loop C in Newhalem Campground and the group sites, all the campsites are first come-first served. This suited us fine, and even on a busy summer weekend, we scored a waterfront site at Colonial Creek Campground for just $16.squirrel in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

The trailhead to Thunder Knob, Thunder Creek, and Thunder Woods all begin in this campground, which is awesome when you just want to stay out of the car for one more day. There’s an accessible fishing pier on Diablo Lake, oh and some seriously frigid water for swimming. A few of us are pretty brave swimmers when it comes to cold water, but not one of us ventured into Diablo Lake. A pity. Maybe next time.

We loved our Colonial Creek campsite. It offered a good amount of privacy, a soft flat surface for our tent, and of course, an amazing water view. Our next-door-neighbors at the campground were awesome, and I really wish I could remember their names so I could look them up, but I think they will have to exist only in my memories.

Moving On

The Pacific Northwest was one of the regions that we really fell in love with. It’s so different from the east coast. So lush and dramatic. We spent a few blissful days in the shadow of the North Cascades, and then we moved on down the coast. You can read more about our Pacific Northwest adventures here on the blog.

Port Townsend: one of our favorite towns in all the world

Sol Duc Valley in Olympic National Park

The Quinault Rainforest in Olympic National Park

We’re already planning our next trip to the North Cascades and Olympic National Park. We’d love to hear about your favorite places, hikes, and campgrounds. Please share your tips in the comments.

And for the Pinners among you – I’d appreciate it if you would share the love.

This underrated national park makes for a great day trip from Seattle. You can score a waterfront tent site for just $16, and there's lots of opportunities for hiking and swimming.



  1. Great post! The North Cascades (and the PNW in general for that matter) are high on our list.

    • Thank you! It’s such an underappreciated park. We can’t wait to explore more.

  2. I love national parks! I’ve never been here yet and it looks amazing. I hope to explore this wonderful park soon. Thanks for sharing your incredible photos!

  3. I’ve never been camping before but I would love to hike around the the Cascade Range. Kind of wild to think that this is so close to home.

    • Hi Danielle. We met lots of people in the PNW who had never heard of the North Cascades. It’s the best kept secret!

  4. Jo

    OMG This looks amazing. I would love to go there one day and explore the raw beauty and wilderness of the park. I quite enjoy hiking and camping especially in national parks so this is right up my alley. The pictures are so lovely – I guess for me the closest I have been to natural beauty like this was Gulmarg in north India.
    Bookmarking for when I visit the states.

  5. Winthrop looks like my kind of honkey-tonk town! I love old school shacks like that. I traveled to Glacier National Park in Alberta yeaaaaars ago. Did you see any of the points where they measure the movement over 5 or 10 year periods?

  6. My boyfriend is an avid hiker, and North Cascades National Park sounds like a place he would love. I’m a novice, but as we both love road tripping, I really appreciate your tips on how to make the most of driving through the area and the more moderate forest hikes. And we would definitely stop in Winthrop — that old west/small town feel is just our thing.
    Patricia recently posted…Hiking the Bluffs of Palos VerdesMy Profile

  7. Winthrop sounds like a fun place to visit, but for me the highlight would be all the hiking, especially the forest walk. Sounds great!
    Amanda Williams recently posted…The London Eye: A Bird’s Eye ViewMy Profile

  8. Woo, I’m moving to BC later this year so I can’t wait to try these trips out for myself! Thanks for the great tips (as always) 🙂

  9. Wow! Looks beautiful, first picture reminds me of Switzerland

  10. I got into hiking when I was in Greece about five years ago. I really need to explore more of the US’ hiking options!! There are so many great ones I never knew about.
    Stephanie recently posted…The Affordable Way to Fall in Love with ParisMy Profile

  11. marie

    Gorgeous photographs, I can almost smell the fresh mountain air! I love hiking, staying in a tent would be my idea of hell 🙂

  12. Beautiful pictures Tara. Your posts are the next best thing to being there. Thank you for putting them together. Hopefully, one day I will be able to hike there. Have a wonderful weekend. xx
    Arti recently posted…Valley of Flowers — Nanda Devi National ParkMy Profile

    • Hi Arti,
      I’ve been thinking about you. I’m so glad you stopped in. Thanks for your kind words about my blog posts. Your words and photos have been such an inspiration to me.

  13. Tara, what a wonderful park and what a great set of photos. Love the moss and the huge trees. Today, I was telling my husband that we have to visit tons of National Parks and monuments next year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Park Service. Hope we can start by exploring the parks in California.
    Ruth recently posted…Valencia: Old TownMy Profile

    • Oh, I forgot about the 100th anniversary, Ruth. That calls for something special. I can’t wait to read more about your explorations. You have a way of bringing places to life!

  14. Beautiful scenery…..reminds me of New Zealand. We don’t have such majestic, snow capped mountains in Australia although I do love my mini mountain where I live and it does get a sprinkling of snow at times. Thanks for linking up to Fun Friday Favourites.

    • I would love to go to New Zealand and Australia, Cath. One of my favorite parts about blogging is finding a community that shares their stories, photos, and homeland with the rest of us.

  15. Lovely photos of Colonial Creek Campground! I love the PCN, and I’m thrilled to learn more about it in your blog and your journey. Looks like the perfect experience into nature and hiking!
    Brooke of Passport Couture recently posted…Nature’s Past and Present at the Garfield Park ConservatoryMy Profile

    • This part of the country is worth a lifetime of exploring, especially for lovers of the hiking, camping, and the natural world. Thanks for popping in, Brooke.

  16. What an incredibly beautiful park! Love the way the mountains tower over that car in the second photo, makes it look so inconsequential.
    Marcia recently posted…Oxford, City of Dreaming SpiresMy Profile

    • Thanks for visiting, Marcia. The mountains are truly stunning, and my photography didn’t come close to doing them justice.

  17. Oh — these photos are so beautiful!
    Stephanie recently posted…A LITTLE SUNSHINE –Winter is one of my favorite seasons. I…My Profile

  18. You’ve convinced me – this would be a lovely trip. Great photos & very informative post.
    Please come link up at
    image-in-ing: weekly photo linkup recently posted…Sparkling crystalMy Profile

  19. Jen

    How incredibly gorgeous! That forest is amazing! One of my goals is for Matt and I to get to a point where we can spend our summers traveling around the country. I’m hoping that will begin in 2017 – if things work the way I have them planned 😉 I’d love to hit all of our National Parks.

    Thank you for sharing with us at Photo Friday and for being such an ardent supporter!
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  20. Oh, to see peaks and forests like these! Someday! So beautiful. We spent last weekend camping and hiking too – underwater landscapes instead of mountains though!
    Kelly Del Valle recently posted…Water Stories || Finding Shangri LaMy Profile

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