North Cascades National Park in Washington
North Cascades National Park is one of three national parks in the state of Washington; the other two being Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park. The park encompasses over six-hundred-thousand acres of beautiful Washington nature and includes both the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. It is one of the least visited national parks in the entire country, and to be quite honest, we have absolutely no idea why!
Well, maybe it has something to do with the fact that North Cascades NP is one of the snowiest places in the world with an average annual snowfall of more than 600 inches in certain parts of the park. Over 600 inches! Weather systems from the Pacific Ocean sweep through over the mountain peaks leaving the higher elevations blanketed in snow for more than half the year.
For more information on year-round conditions, check out North Cascades National Park Weather. Ok, so it is possible that the insane amount of snowfall and annual North Cascade Highway closure keeps most people away for over 6 months out of the year, but for the months where the Cascades weather is more tolerable… seriously, where is everyone?!
North Cascades Highway
With its location in the northwestern region of Washington State, the drive from Seattle to North Cascades National Park takes just over two hours, though we’d encourage you to consider a different route. The Cascade Loop Scenic Highway is a 440-mile circular drive that not only guides you straight through the park, but also takes you to the towns of Leavenworth, Manson, and Winthrop, to name a few, along with the charming and quaint Whidbey Island. That being said, the North Cascades Highway (also known as Highway 20) is just one gorgeous portion of this epic road trip!
For a complete look at our drive along the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway, check out our video:
We visited North Cascades National Park during the first week in October and as you can see below, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect! There was an ever-present crispness to the air and the trees had just started to take on their vibrant fall colors.
North Cascades National Park Visitor Center
What’s great about the park is that there is no fee to enter, but even better, there is still a wonderful visitor’s center to enjoy. From the North Cascades Highway, near mile marker 120, cross over the Skagit River to reach the North Cascades Visitor Center. There are plenty of signs, so don’t worry – you can’t miss it. At the center, you will find a relief map of the park and its surrounding area, along with various displays exhibiting the park’s natural and cultural history. In addition, there is a theater where visitors can access a slide program and video presentation.
Behind the center is a short (wheel-chair friendly) interpretive trail leading to impressive views of the nearby peaks and accompanying glaciers. It is here we learned that with more than 300 glaciers, North Cascades National Park is the most heavily glaciated area in the continental United States. Pretty impressive, right?!
Speaking of glaciers, there’s a fascinating explanation of how glaciers helped shape the landscape at the Ross Lake Overlook off of Highway 20. Ross Lake looks more like a river as it winds its way from Ross Dam to the Canadian border, nearly 25 miles away. For another photo-worthy stop, just a short distance further down the highway (barely outside of the park’s borders), is a great place to pull over for a glimpse of the splendid 8,128-foot Crater Peak.
Besides the majestic North Cascade mountains, Diablo Lake is probably one of the park’s most notable attractions. With glaciated peaks as its background, the lake is a stunning turquoise color when the sun is out in full force during the summer months. Fine rock sediment called glacial flour is carried into the lake by glacier-fed streams. The lake’s unique color is caused by refracted light on this fine sediment. For a variety of vistas of this spectacular body of water, be sure to visit the Diablo Lake Overlook.
Within a 15-mile stretch, there are 3 dams (Ross, Diablo, and Gorge). All three dams belong to Seattle City Light and are part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project which provides about a quarter of Seattle’s electrical power. At the time of its completion, Diablo Dam (top two images) was the tallest dam in the world at 389 feet. You can actually drive across the dam as we had to do in order to reach our lodging in the North Cascades National Park.
North Cascade Environmental Learning Center
The North Cascades Institute was started in 1986 as a vision by a group of passionate conservationists who wanted to share the wonders of the North Cascades with others. From that venture came another and in 2005, the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center opened at the base of Sourdough Mountain on Diablo Lake.
The Learning Center welcomes thousands of visitors each year and offers a variety of programs to people of all ages. These range from a multi-day program for elementary-aged children (Mountain School) to a graduate-level residency program for college students earning a degree in Environmental Education (M. Ed. Graduate Residency).
North Cascades National Park Lodging
We participated in the Base Camp program, which provides learning adventures and overnight accommodations to the general public. Unique dorm-style housing accommodates close to 100 individuals at any given time, though there were only about 30 visitors during our early October stay (including a group of moms on a girls’ weekend getaway). There are two bunk sets (4 twin beds) in each room and Base Camp pricing is determined by how your family or friends group fill a lodge room. Clean gender-specific restrooms with many toilets and private shower stalls are just a short walk from any room. You can bring your own towels and linens or have them provided for a small fee.
Not only are accommodations part of the Base Camp experience, but 3 delicious meals are included per each day of your stay. Every meal is prepared using locally grown, organic, seasonally appropriate food.
Gorgeous Washington Nature at Your Doorstep
In addition to lodging and three meals a day, one nature activity (per each day of your stay) is also included in the Base Camp experience! On the first day, we joined in on an educational nature hike along the Sourdough Creek Trail. During the 3-mile (round-trip) hike, we learned about the local flora and fauna of the surrounding Washington nature and were rewarded with a light trickling waterfall at the turn-around point. (In the summer months, the falls are flowing at full capacity!)
For a detailed look at another (much longer) hike we did during our time along the Cascade Loop, check out our post on Maple Loop Pass, known as one of the best hikes in the North Cascades (though it is technically located just beyond the borders of the national park).
Boating on Diablo Lake
The nature activity for our second day at the learning center was taking a ride in the 18-person Salish-style canoe. We took off in search of adventure and explored the inlets and islands of Diablo Lake. If you want to enjoy a scenic tour of the lake without having to work for it, you can sign up for a Diablo Lake Boat Tour with Skagit Tours ($40/pp ($20-Child) 3.5 hours).
There’s also the Diablo Lake Ferry, with limited departures throughout the day going from the Learning Center’s parking lot to Ross Lake and back. Some hikers use the ferry in one direction (or the other) while doing the Diablo Lake Hike, cutting the 7.5 mile hike in half. No matter how you choose to explore the region, we know you will fall in love with the surroundings! It truly is Washington nature at its finest!
Typically when we travel, we rent an apartment or stay in a quaint bed and breakfast and prepare most meals ourselves! Staying at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center was such a unique and nostalgic experience for us. Participating in Base Camp reminded us of days gone by when we used to attend summer camp as teenagers, but this time it was like summer camp for adults (though there were a few children at the center, as well)!
Being surrounded by jagged peaks sprinkled with patches of snow and glaciers was the perfect opportunity for us to take a break from the day-to-day and truly connect with nature. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, and with blue skies and crystal clear nights, it was an absolute dream exploring the breathtaking scenery of the North Cascades.
So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to North Cascades National Park and visit one of America’s most underrated and under-visited natural treasures! For a closer look at our wonderful visit to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, check out our video below:
We’d like to thank the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for hosting our stay at the center. As always, our write-ups are an accurate reflection of the experiences we had.
The National Park Service is a wealth of information for all US National Parks. We have visited several other national parks, including nearby Olympic National Park and Acadia National Park in addition to Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon to name a few! Visiting the parks is an excellent way to support the conservation of some of the most beautiful regions of the USA!