North Cascades National Park is not a place that easily reveals itself. Sure, the drive along Highway 20 is lovely. And the viewpoints over the lakes and mountain passes are gorgeous. But, to really see this park, you are going to have to invest some time on the hiking trails.
If you only saw the North Cascades from the viewpoints along Highway 20, you would be missing out on a lot.
You don’t truly get to see the beauty and the majesty of North Cascades National Park unless you go hiking, and honestly, you are going to have to hike high. I’m talking challenging climbs up into the mountains. But trust me, it’s absolutely worth it. The views that await you are breathtaking. Layers and layers of glacier-capped mountains stretch off in all directions. It is awe-inspiring, and the only way to get these views is on your own two feet.
Here are 12 of the best hikes in North Cascades National Park Complex. All of these are day hikes, so they can all be completed in one day. Note: all distances are round-trip.
Quick Overview of North Cascades National Park Complex
There are three sections to North Cascades National Park Complex: the Chelan Lake National Recreational Area (which includes Stehekin), Ross Lake National Recreational Area, and North Cascades National Park.
400 miles of hiking trails criss-cross their way through this mountainous landscape. Not only is this a great place to go hiking, but with miles and miles of long-distance trails, this is an awesome place to go backpacking.
North Cascades National Park is nicknamed the American Alps, getting its name from the jagged, rocky mountain peaks and emerald green slopes. At times, it really does look like you are standing in Switzerland.
The North Cascades Range, which runs through the park, is the largest glacial system in the lower 48 states. In fact, there are an estimated 300+ glaciers here.
Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park
The hikes in this post are organized by geographical area. Several of these trails technically lie outside of the park border, but they are located so close to the park, and are so popular, that I could not leave them off of the list.
Ross Lake National Recreational Area
These hikes are located along Highway 20 and in the Ross Lake area, within the national park.
Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk
This short, easy trail makes a loop alongside the Skagit River. You walk through an old growth forest that faintly resembles the temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park. This short walk is nice, but skippable, especially if you have already been to Olympic National Park.
Trail of the Cedars Hiking Stats
Distance: 0.3 miles
Length of Time: 30 minutes
Ladder Creek Falls
Just a short walk from the Trail of the Cedars, also located in Newhalem, is Ladder Creek Falls. You will cross a narrow suspension bridge next to the Gorge Powerhouse and then follow the loop trail up to viewpoints of the waterfall. Parts of the trail are steep, but the trail is paved with steps and handrails.
Ladder Creek Falls Hiking Stats
Distance: 0.4 miles
Length of Time: 30 minutes
Location: Newhalem. Important note: Google Maps does not have the correct location Ladder Creek Falls (according to Google, it is located along the Trail of the Cedars Trail, which is not correct). Ladder Creek Falls is located behind the Gorge Powerhouse, on the bend in the Skagit River, just a short walk from Trail of the Cedars. You will cross a different suspension bridge to get onto this trail. The location of Ladder Creek Falls is correctly labeled on our map below.
This beautiful, remote lake is surrounded by rocky mountains. The trail starts off easy, a relatively flat walk through thick forests. Then the trail climbs steeply up to a ridgeline. After a short descent, you are standing at the shore of Thornton Lake. You can do this hike as a day hike, or, with a permit, camp here overnight.
Thornton Lake Hiking Stats
Distance: 10.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Length of Time: 5 to 8 hours
Location: Highway 20, 11 miles east of Marblemount. Take Thornton Lakes Road 5 miles until you reach the trailhead. This road is unpaved and not recommend for vehicles with low clearance.
Thunder Knob Trail
For beautiful views over Diablo Lake, hike to the top of Thunder Knob. This is a family-friendly trail that starts at Diablo Lake. Before or after the hike, you can spend some time at the lake, relaxing on the beach, paddle boarding, or kayaking.
View of Diablo Lake and Thunder Knob from the Diablo Lake Overlook.
Thunder Knob Hiking Stats
Distance: 3.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 425 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Length of Time: 2 to 3 hours
Location: Diablo Lake
In 1956, Jack Kerouac (author of On the Road) spent part of the summer on top of this peak, serving as a watchman in the fire tower. He wrote the book Desolation Angels from this experience.
Located on Ross Lake, Desolation Peak offers sweeping views over the park.
The trailhead can be reached by crossing Ross Lake by boat or by hiking an additional 16 miles on the East Bank Trail. To get from the lake to Desolation Peak, it is a challenging, steep hike. Once at the summit, you are treated to views of Skagit Peak, Little Jackass Mountain, and Ross Lake.
Desolation Peak Hiking Stats
Distance: 9.4 miles
Length of Time: 5 to 8 hours, not including transportation on Ross Lake
Elevation Gain: 4,400 feet
Trails in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
These hikes are located on Highway 20 just outside of North Cascades National Park. One of these hikes, the lovely Maple Pass hike, almost enters the national park. We highly recommend the Maple Pass Loop because the views you get from the top of the trail are amazing.
Maple Pass Loop
The Maple Pass Loop offers a little bit of everything…wildflowers, old growth forests, a visit to a lovely alpine lake, and (the best part) panoramic views of the North Cascades.
Although it is not located in North Cascades National Park, you bump right up against the park border. From the highest points along the trail, you will have spectacular views of the national park. The view over Ann Lake is lovely, but the whole reason for doing this hike, in my opinion, are for the high mountain views. It’s truly breathtaking.
From this trail, you really get to appreciate just how vast and rugged North Cascades National Park is.
Maple Pass Hiking Stats
Distance: 7.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Total Elevation Gain: 2,200 feet
Length of Time: 3 to 5 hours
Location: Rainy Pass Picnic Site on Highway 20
Learn More: Complete Guide to the Maple Pass Loop
This hike shares the same trailhead as the Maple Pass Loop. To get to Rainy Lake, it is a flat walk on a paved trail to a viewpoint of the lake. This is a gorgeous hike and beyond the lake sits North Cascades National Park.
Rainy Lake Hiking Stats
Distance: 2 miles
Length of Time: About 1 hour
Location: Rainy Pass Picnic Site on Highway 20
This is a great to add on to your North Cascades to-do list. It’s short and relatively easy, so it’s perfect for almost all ages and ability levels. Most of the hike takes you through an old growth forest, a beautiful, peaceful walk.
The trail ends at the Blue Lake, a brilliantly blue lake that is surrounded by towering mountains. You can continue to follow the trail around the lake for even better views.
Blue Lake Hiking Stats
Distance: 5 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation Gain: 1,100 feet
Length of Time: 2 to 3 hours
Location: Highway 20, about 1 mile west of the Washington Pass Overlook. There is a small parking lot right off of the highway.
Cutthroat Lake is another lovely lake. I don’t think it’s as pretty as the Blue Lake, and this trail is a bit on the boring side, so if you only have time for one lake hike, I recommend the Blue Lake over Cutthroat Lake.
To get to the Cutthroat Lake, it is a mostly flat walk through a forest. The best part of the hike is crossing the log footbridge just before you reach the lake.
Cutthroat Lake Hiking Stats
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation Gain: 550 feet
Length of Time: 1.5 to 3 hours
Location: Park in the small lot at the end of NF-400 (about 1 mile east of the Washington Pass Overlook). The trailhead is located at the end of this parking lot.
Hikes on Cascade River Road
These next two hikes are located on Cascade River Road, a road that is 23 miles long. The final 13 miles are unpaved. This road starts in Marblemount and ends within the national park boundary.
The final 3 miles of Cascade River Road is open just a few months of the year (July through October). In 2020, the road reopened on July 12.
Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm
If you only have time for one hike in the North Cascades, this is the one that we recommend.
Often labeled as the best day hike in North Cascades National Park, the Sahale Arm hike is gorgeous every step of the way.
You will hike through evergreen forests, through fields of heather and wildflowers, past marmots, mountain goats, and maybe even bear. Once at the Sahale Glacier Camp, you get to enjoy spectacular views over Doubtful Lake and layers of jagged, snow-capped peaks.
The Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm hike is a tough one but it is absolutely worth it. We spent 3 weeks hiking in Washington state and this was one of our favorite hikes.
Cascade Pass & Sahale Arm Hiking Stats
Distance: 12 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 4,150 feet
Length of Time: 5.5 to 7.5 hours
Location: The trailhead starts at the end of Cascade River Road.
Learn More: How to Hike Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm
This hike takes you through alpine meadows and across barren, rocky terrain to a secluded, deep blue lake. Along this hike, you will have stunning views of the North Cascades range, with views of Sahale, Forbidden, and Boston peaks.
This hike was high on our list but unfortunately, we ran out of time. If you want to visit a beautiful lake and have high alpine views, put this one on your list. I also imagine it would be less crowded than the nearby hike to Sahale Glacier.
Hidden Lake Hiking Stats
Distance: 9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Elevation Gain: 2900 feet
Length of Time: 5 to 7 hours
Location: Take Cascade River Road for 10 miles and then turn left onto Sibley Creek (Hidden Lake) Road. Follow this for 4.5 miles to the end of the road and the trailhead for the hike.
In Stehekin Valley
No roads lead to Stehekin Valley. The only way to get here is by boat, by foot, or by horseback from Chelan. Once in Stehekin, you can camp or stay in one of the lodges. From Stehekin, you can go on short day hikes or backpack the trails into the interior of North Cascades National Park.
This is the most popular hike to do in Stehekin Valley. It is not overly difficult and from the trail, you get to see wonderful views of Stehekin Valley, Lake Chelan, Rainbow Creek, wildflowers, and the surrounding mountains.
Rainbow Loop Hiking Stats
Distance: 4.4 to 6.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1000 feet
Length of Time: 4 to 6 hours
Location: Stehekin Valley. There are two trailheads for this loop and both can be accessed via the Stehekin shuttle. For more information, visit the national park service website.
Mount Baker Area
This area lies outside of North Cascades National Park, but the hikes here were recommended to us by many of our readers. The Mount Baker area looks and feels even more rugged and remote than the national park.
We spent one day here, but stormy weather and low-lying clouds made it impossible to do the hikes on this list. Guess we’ll have to come back someday, not that we mind. The North Cascades are gorgeous and the type of place we would love to visit again in the (hopefully) near future.
Skyline Divide. This hike is 9 miles long with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet. This hike offers incredible, high alpine views with great views of Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Kulshan, and the North Cascades off in the distance.
Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. This hike is also 9 miles in length with 1,350 feet of elevation gain. Get close-up views of Mt. Baker with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. This hike looks and sounds amazing and was #1 on our list for this region. I’m so sad we couldn’t do it.
Artist Ridge. This easy hike (only 1.2 miles and fairly flat) offers panoramic views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan.
Table Mountain. A bit longer and more challenging than Artist Point (2.6 miles with 725 feet of elevation gain), this trail steeply climbs up to the top of Table Mountain for panoramic views of the area.
Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park: On a Map
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Our favorite hikes are Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm (gorgeous hike with jaw-dropping views across the North Cascades), the Maple Pass Loop (more stunning views of the mountain ranges), and Blue Lake (easy-ish hike to a very pretty lake).
If you want a short, easy hike, our top picks are Blue Lake, Rainy Lake, and Thunder Knob.
If you want to leave the crowds behind, we recommend Hidden Lake and the Cutthroat Lake Trail.
For high alpine views, hike Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, Hidden Lake, Desolation Peak, Thornton Lake, or the Maple Pass Loop. The hikes in the Mt. Baker area also offer high alpine views.
Before you go, get updated trail conditions on the national park service website.
What do you think are the best hikes in North Cascades National Park? Let us know in the comment section below!
More Information for Your Trip to Washington:
- NORTH CASCADES: 9 Best Things to do in North Cascades National Park
- NORTH CASCADES: Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm Hike
- ENCHANTMENTS: The Complete Guide to the Enchantments Thru-Hike
- MOUNT RAINIER: Skyline Trail Loop & Panorama Point
- OLYMPIC: How to Hike to Mt. Storm King
Are you planning a trip through the United States? Read all of our articles about the USA in our United States Travel Guide.
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