Guide to North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades National Park is one of America’s least visited National Park and definitely less busy than it’s big name neighbors Mount Rainier and Olympus. Like all outdoor spaces these days, it is increasing in popularity and for good reason: It’s awesome! It’s the one place/ park in the lower 48 states where you can see the most glaciers and the layers upon layers of mountains go on forever. It’s home to beautiful glacial lakes and towering Pacific Cedar trees. If you’ve got a couple days in Washington, I highly recommend a 2 day (at least) visit to this incredible park.

Best day hikes in North Cascades National Park:

Best hikes for families:

Blue Lake

Blue Lake in the North Cascades of WA is a short and sweet hike to a dreamy alpine lake with views of the incredible Liberty towers and many nearby peaks. It’s great for the whole family although I wouldn’t recommend a dip in this lake- it’s cold! You can check out my entire trail guide here for this hike.

Distance: 4.8 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate

Trail of the Cedars:

This is a great short 1 mile RT hike through towering Cedar trees with informational plaques on the flora as well as a really cool suspension bridge right at the start. This trail is great for families as it is flat and there’s lots of fun Cedar trunks you can climb in and a wide trail for people to spread out on. Read my official trail description here:

Distance: 1 mile RT
Elevation Gain: flat
Difficulty: Easy

Best hikes for experienced adventurers:

Cascade Pass Hike

Cascade Pass offers views of several impressive peaks and glaciers and on warm days you can hear blocks of ice break off of nearby glaciers booming down the mountainside. It’s a decent climb up 30-some switchbacks that define the first 2.7 miles of trail and then a little beyond that. It’s only 1800 feet over 3.5 miles to the pass so doable for experience hiker families but not a walk in the park either. Get there early to snag a parking spot, especially on weekends. The road out is also a long unpaved journey- take it slow.

Distance: 7 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 1800 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

Park Butte Lookout Hike

The best hike in the North Cascade range has to be Parke Butte Lookout. It’s challenging without being ridiculous, bursts with wildflowers in the summer, and just offers jaw dropping views from a beautiful, historic WA lookout. I consider it one of the best hikes in Washington state if you are up for the challenge and don’t mind the crowds. For a more detailed trail guide, visit my post just for this hike here.

Distance: 8.2 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2030 feet
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

Hidden Lake Lookout Hike

Like Park Butte lookout, this is another strenuous trail that offers a reward of being up close to multiple mountain summits and touching the sky itself in a beautifully preserved lookout. This is likely the most difficult trail on the list (right after Park Butte) and one that we missed being short on time. If you can, this is another fantastic hike experiencing beautiful WA backcountry and offering a chance (First come first serve) at staying the night in a historic lookout.

Distance: 9 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2900 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous

Must see in North Cascades NP:

Washington Pass

This is a great viewpoint to stop and stretch your legs while taking in the views of one of the highest points along Hwy 20. The viewpoint is just under 0.2 miles RT from the parking lot and offers amazing views of the Liberty towers and  Liberty Bell Mountain. It also includes cool informational plaques about the building of the North Cascades Scenic Route 20 and designation of the park back in the 1970s. This viewpoint is right around the corner from Blue Lake’s trail head.

Diablo Lake Viewpoint

This is another glorified parking area with astounding views of Diablo Lake. Diablo Lake is actually a reservoir formed by the Diablo Dam and is great for canoeing or kayaking. The brilliant turquoise color comes from glacier flour (ground up rocks from nearby glaciers) that is suspended in the water.

When to visit North Cascades National Park:

While some roads and trails are still accessible in the winter, the North Cascades are definitely full glory starting in Early August. If you visit earlier than August, you risk the road to Artist Point still being closed and some of the trails still being icy. A visit in August ensures meadows bursting with wildflowers as well. Visit into the Fall (mid Sept- Oct) for less crowds and golden larches.

National Park Fees:

There is no fee to enter the park! However be mindful as a lot of the listed trails are just outside the park and managed by BLM so require at $5 fee if you don’t have a pass.

Where to stay near in the North Cascades:

There are not many towns within the park however I highly recommend some of the towns along the outskirt.

Winthrop: Best access for hiking Blue Lake and seeing both Washington Pass and Diablo Lake view point. (also one of the cutest towns we visited in Washington)

Concrete: Best access for Cascade Pass, Trail of the Cedars, Hidden Lake Lookout or Park Butte Lookout.


  1. Rivers Edge Resort– Winthrop $100+ in summer. We stayed here and absolutely LOVED it. It is located perfect on main street in Winthrop meaning you can walk to the (limited) restaurants and bars and really enjoy the old wild west feel of the town. Each of their cabins is private, well thought out, and most have private hot tubs on their balconies. We loved our stay here!
  2. Cascade Mt. Baker Hotel – $90 in summer. Great spot especially for hitting Park Butte lookout as it is the closest hotel to the TH. The room was huge, comfortable, and convenient to any of the again limited food options in Concrete.

Best campgrounds:

  1. Goodell Creek Campground- FREE. Easy access to the Skagit River for kayaking/ boating receational activities. 19 first come, first serve sites- vault toilets and drinking water, no showers or hookups.
  2. Gorge Lake – $10. Easy access with a boat launch and nice views onto Gorge lake. 8 sites available online. Vault toilets only- no drinking water or hookups.
  3. South Loop campgound- $16. Easy access with boat launch onto Diablo Lake boat launch. Reserve online during high season. Flush toilets and potable water/ no hookups or showers.
  4. Newhalem – $16. Very convenient to the Trail of the Cedars and other close by nature walks. Reservable online (see link below) and has flush toilets and potable water- no showers or hookups.

*For more options and details about camping in North Cascades National Parks- or to make reservations, click here.

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Trail Guide: Park Butte Lookout

Whew ok this hike- top 3 hikes in Washington EASY. It is a workout but not too draining, and has some of the best views of any hike we did except the Skyline Trail in Rainier NP. It has a cool river crossing, heaps of wildflowers, up close glacier views, and one of the most unique fire lookouts I’ve seen. There is also the added bonus of staying the night in the lookout but it is FCFS and incredibly difficult to snag. 

Park Butte Trail Details:

Distance: 8.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,030 feet
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult
Time: 3-5 hours
Fees: $5 National forest cash fee at the TH or display your NW Forest Pass/ National Park Pass

Trailhead directions:

If you are travelling from further W than Concrete or Seattle, take HWY 20 and turn left onto Baker Lake Rd. If you stayed in the town of Concrete, you can take a shorter route on Burpee Hill RD. Both of these roads converege at Lake Tyee and become just Baker Lake Rd. Once you pass Lake Tyee, you will drive another 5.5 miles to a left turn onto road NF-12. (This is where the dirt road fun begins). Drive 3.5 miles and turn right onto NF-13. Once on NF-13 you will drive 5.2 miles until the road dead ends in a large parking lot. The gravel road is full of deep put holes. Passenger cars can make it if you drive carefully and avoid the deepest of the pot holes. 

About Park Butte Lookout

This stunning lookout was built in 1932 to keep an eye out for wildfires in the surrounding Mt. Baker valleys. It is excellently perched with amazing vantage points of the Twin Sisters mountain range and even views of Rainier far off on the horizon. While the NFS has more advanced ways of keeping an eye out for wildfires now, you can see how well placed this lookout was back in the day. It is now just one of 106 lookouts left in WA and one of even fewer that you can enter and sleep in. The lookout is now maintained by the Skagit Mountain Club. 

Stay the night in Park Butte lookout

Sleeping in the lookout is free and available on a first-come first-serve basis. There is one double bed frame (Bring your own pads/ sleeping bags) and technically there is room for at least 2 more people on the floor. There are nearby water sources (about a 30 minute hike back down the trail) but the water is somewhat sulfur-y and not the most enjoyable tasting. I’d recommend packing in at least 3 liters and only using the water up there to boil and cook with. (you can drink it with a filter- it just tastes terrible) All waste must be packed out. Plan on using a wag bag for poop. 

If you want a shot at sleeping IN the lookout (especially during high season), plan a 2 night backpacking trip so you can tent camp near the lookout the first night and snag the lookout first thing the next morning. This is what MOST people do and the lookout is guaranteed to be taken every night. We didn’t bring tents with us so we started hiking up at 6:30 AM on a Tuesday morning. We were definitely the first people on the trail (I know because I hit every single spider web) and we got to the lookout at 8:30 AM only to have missed it by 30 minutes since a couple had tent camped the night before. It is extremely common to backpack a few nights up there… Plan ahead.

Trail Description:

The trail starts just to the right of the trail porta potties. The beginning of the hike is a relatively flat walk through boggy meadows with nice maintained boardwalks. After just under a mile, the trail leaves the meadows and enters a rocky boulder field with active rivers flowing down from the glaciers. The NFS maintains a bridge on this trail but it frequently changes position. Watch for cairns to show you the best place to cross through the boulders and water crossings. 

Once through the rocky fields, the trail will start to pick up on elevation gain quickly and the next 2 miles are definitely the worst part. The trail steeply switchbacks up the mountainside though the trees so views are a little limited (and if you are first on the trail, the cob webs are out of control)

The meadows

Eventually you will reach a signed fork in the trail and will only have 1.5 miles left. Keep left at this trail split and prepare yourself to encounter some incredible views. The trail will leave the trees and re-enter high alpine meadows bursting with all sorts of wildflowers. While the trail does still continue to gain quite a bit in elevation, the views are so good it is easier to forget you are working hard. 

Two more trails will split off to the right but keep left and within another couple minutes of your amazing views of Mount Baker you will start to be able to see the lookout. The last bit of the trail looks steep but is actually well graded all the way to the lookout. Take some time to enjoy the small tarns and reflections you can get of Mount Baker on clearer days. 

When you get to the tarns and lookdown on the small lake, you are almost there! Believe me, the views just KEEP getting better!

Once you reach the lookout, take in some of the incredible history and views of 1 hell of a lookout. There’s a “poem” and a guest registry inside and a few sturdy chairs around on the deck. Have your lunch and enjoy your stay before returning back down the same trail. 

Almost to the hut and the views were awesome

A note on crowds:

This trail is very busy on the weekends but on a Tuesday morning wasn’t bad at all. We got to the lookout at 8:30AM and hung around until about noon. In that block of time there were about 6 small groups of people that came and went. Overall don’t plan on having the place to yourself (even if you snag it for the night as other campers will be around) but who can blame anyone with views like this.

Additional Photo Gallery

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