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10 Top-Rated Hikes in North Cascades National Park, WA

Written by Brad Lane
May 4, 2020

North Cascades National Park is one of the most rugged national parks in Washington State. It's not just the dramatic ridgelines punctuated by glaciers that make it hard to inhabit, but more than 90 percent of its 500,000 acres are designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness and remain completely wild with little, if any, development.

In combination with the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, the North Cascades National Park Complex has some of the best hiking trails in Washington State, and the big views will linger for a lifetime.

Explore this ruggedly beautiful wilderness area with our list of the top hiking trails in North Cascades National Park.

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1. Cascade Pass Trail

Cascade Pass Trail
Cascade Pass Trail

The Cascade Pass Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in North Cascades National Park. While the relative low grade attracts plenty of interest, as well as the scenic Cascade River Road that leads to the trailhead, it's the stunning views waiting at the pass that give this trail its notoriety. Nearly 30 switchbacks are within the first three miles of the trail, which provide some relief for tired legs from the steep Cascade Mountain terrain.

Well before the North Cascades became a designated national park, Cascade Pass had been traversed by indigenous populations and early fur traders. Back then, the 3.7-mile trail, with well-engineered switchbacks, wasn't as modern, but the views at the top remain the same. Featuring dramatic panoramas of the Johannesburg ridgeline, including Mixup Peak and Magic Mountain, with the impressive Cache Col Glacier sandwiched between, there's no shortage of impressive views from Cascade Pass.

For a more adventurous day out or overnight experience, hikers can divert at Cascade Pass onto the Sahale Arm trail for approximately two more miles to the Sahale Glacier. Hikers can also continue the Cascade Pass Trail to hike into Horseshoe Basin or the mountain community of Stehekin more than 20 miles away.

2. Maple Pass Loop

Maple Pass Loop
Maple Pass Loop

The seven-mile Maple Pass Loop is easily accessed from the Rainy Pass Picnic Area off the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20). This iconic North Cascades hike is a well-maintained trail and treats hikers to old-growth forests, open ridgelines, and dramatic views of the rugged peaks that define North Cascades National Park. Heading clockwise, the trail gains over 2,000 feet of elevation, making it a hearty hike to do in a day.

The trail includes a steep climb whichever way you go. The trailhead and much of the hike lie outside of national park boundaries, and the trail only crosses into the national park after ascending Maple Pass.

At the trail's highpoint, near the peak of Frisco Mountain, hikers can see mountains for miles. While the seven miles of this trail treats hikers to postcard-worthy views the entire way, if you have the extra hour, the Maple Pass Loop also lends access to nearby Lake Ann.

3. Fourth of July Pass

Fourth of July Pass
Fourth of July Pass | Miguel Vieira / photo modified

There are two ways to explore the subtle wonder of Fourth of July Pass, located within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Both routes traverse along the churning waters that define this mountainous landscape. Whether you approach the pass by following either Panther Creek or Thunder Creek, you are exposed to deep forest environments and big views of the overshadowing horizon along the way.

By arranging a shuttle along the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20), hikers can combine Panther Creek Trail and Thunder Creek Trail for a great 12-mile hike. Both approaches gain similar elevation to reach the pass (approximately 2,300 feet), but the trail following Panther Creek is shorter. Both hikes should be considered challenging.

Overnight camping is available with a permit. One of the most sought-after spots is Fourth of July Camp, a mile west of the pass, which offers campers big views of Colonia Peak, Snowfield Peak, and Neve Glacier. The developed Colonial Creek Campground, one of the best campgrounds in North Cascades National Park, is at the trailhead for Thunder Creek Trail to Fourth of July Pass.

4. Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake
Diablo Lake

The Ross Lake National Recreation Area separates the North and South sections of North Cascades National Park. This special unit features not only the 23-mile long Ross Lake, but also the equally emerald waters of the enchanting Diablo Lake. Easily accessible from Highway 20, these two lakes often represent the postcard beauty of most visits to the North Cascades National Park Complex.

Serving as one of the best ways to see the splendor of Diablo Lake and the surrounding region, the Diablo Lake trail treats hikers to views of the otherworldly landscapes that are unique to the North Cascades. The seven miles it takes to trek out and back on the Diablo Lake trail starts at the North Cascades Institute parking lot and heads into the wilderness from there.

The total trail traverses 1,400 feet of elevation gain and exposes the different peaks that define this region. Also in sight along the Diablo Lake trail are old-growth forests, waterfalls, and the enchanting waters of Diablo Lake. Thanks to lower elevations, the trail is a popular early season hike with limited snow blocking the way.

5. Copper Ridge

Copper Ridge trail
Copper Ridge trail

The Copper Ridge trail is a strenuous adventure into the heart of the North Cascade Mountains. The hike features a ridgeline atmosphere, miles of subalpine meadows, and many ways to explore this rugged mountain trail.

More geared towards overnight backpackers, who must obtain a backcountry permit before heading out, the Copper Ridge Trail, in combination with the connecting Chilliwack River Trail, provides more than 30 miles of out-and-back trail, displaying everything the North Cascades has to offer.

All the adventure of this area is accessed outside the park at the Hannegan Pass trailhead. The trail is a very popular backpacking destination in the park, and permits can be competitive during the late summer season. Permits can be obtained in person at park offices no more than 24 hours in advance. An advance reservation process opens in March of the same year.

6. Desolation Peak

Desolation Peak
Desolation Peak | Mike Haeg / photo modified

Within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Desolation Peak lives up to its name and provides dramatic views that have inspired day hikers and renowned authors alike.

The Desolation Peak trail itself is less than five miles long, but the extra steps it takes to get to the trailhead is what makes this trek an often solitary experience. The Desolation Peak trailhead is accessed either by a chartered boat ride across Ross Lake or by hiking 16 miles on the recommended East Bank Trail, which parallels the steep cliffsides of this enormous reservoir. Either way, half the fun of the Desolation Peak trail is just getting there, and the other half waits for you along the trail and at the top.

After trekking the East Bank Trail, or getting a boat ride to the Desolation Trailhead, the true hike up begins. The Desolation Peak Trail climbs more than 4,000 feet in 4.8 miles. This brings hikers into stunning displays of subalpine meadows, as well as dramatic vistas and a retired fire lookout to soak it all in. Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 at this lookout, and it is referenced in many of his popular books. Today, you can see the same views of Hozomeen Mountain, Skagit Peak, Ross Lake, and Jack Mountain that inspired the voice of a generation.

7. Rainbow Loop

Rainbow Loop
Rainbow Loop | Maurice King / photo modified

Comprising the southernmost tip of the North Cascades National Park Complex, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area serves as many hikers' jumping-off point for big and small adventures in the region. No roads access this recreation area or the small unincorporated community of Stehekin that operates within the space (including the Stehekin Pastry Company). So, explorers either need to catch a ferry across Lake Chelan or charter a seaplane, making for a scenic adventure just to start hiking.

Once you land in Stehekin, several trails branch out from the charming community. A good introduction to the area is found on the 4.4-mile Rainbow Loop trail. It consists of two different trailheads, both located on the Stehekin Valley Road two miles apart, making it easy to connect the loop by either walking on the road or catching the shuttle bus back to where you started.

Along the trail itself, hikers are exposed to stunning views of the Stehekin River Valley and the head of Lake Chelan. The trail also offers access to multi-day hikes along the Rainbow Creek or Boulder Creek trail.

Visiting Stehekin almost always requires an overnight trip to make it worth your time. Several great campgrounds are located close to Stehekin.

8. Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake
Hidden Lake

The Hidden Lake Trail in North Cascades National Park isn't necessarily a beginner-friendly trek. But gain the legs and experience to make this rugged, nine-mile round trip, and you'll be rewarded for your efforts. Accessed via the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20), plus a few additional miles on Forest Service Roads, the Hidden Lake Trail takes you through the many rich environments exposed by the North Cascades.

The first mile of the Hidden Lake trail navigates through a dense forest before emerging into meadowlands and avalanche chutes. The trail ascends steadily through rocky traverses as the views from behind grow bigger with each step. The trail finally rests upon outstanding views of the surrounding North Cascade Mountain crest, including Mount Forbidden, Boston Peak, and Sahale Mountain, as well as the aptly named Hidden Lake tucked into the horizon.

To really capture this entire scene of North Cascade splendor, the retired Hidden Lake Fire Lookout stands at the top of this hike. Overnight visitors are welcome to stay in the fire lookout on a first-come, first-served basis. It's nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain to reach the lookout. Interested day hikers are in for a hearty nine-mile trip to the lookout and back.

9. Thornton Lake

Thornton Lake
Thornton Lake

A popular backpacking destination, Thornton Lake also makes for an ambitious day hike. Users need to travel on Thornton Lakes Road to reach the trailhead, which is accessible from Highway 20. After this five-mile drive on a rough and steep forest road, it's a 5.6-mile hike to reach the lower Thornton Lake. Hikers follow a brushy old road grade for the first half of the trail with minimal elevation gain.

A real climb begins about halfway in, traversing forested slopes, and eventually popping out for a great view of North Cascades landscapes. Alongside Teebone Ridge and the Skagit Valley, hikers encounter big views of Trapper Peak including an optional side trail to the top. It's a steep half-mile down to the lakes, where a popular backcountry camping spot awaits those with a permit.

10. Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk

Gorge Powerhouse on the Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk
Gorge Powerhouse on the Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk

While North Cascades National Park is primarily a designated wilderness area, there are still small signs of our current civilization in the backwoods. One example of that is in the company town of Newhalem, exclusively populated by workers for Seattle City Light and the accompanying Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.

Although visitors can't establish permanent residency in Newhalem, they can spend the night in the Newhalem Campground to aid in exploring the many trails branching from this small community.

A good place to begin is the Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk, featuring a gravel pathway that blends into the surrounding Skagit River Valley. The trail immerses hikers in the enormous environment and ends at the still-operating, historic Gorge Powerhouse, all in less than a mile.

A great place to visit for the whole family, the entire Newhalem trail system caters to every level of hiker, with moderate trails and stunning scenery.

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imageMore Hiking in Washington: The best hiking trails in Washington State highlight everything the Evergreen State has to offer. For other national park adventures, the top hiking trails at Mount Rainier National Park will keep you coming back for years. Washington's third national park, Olympic National Park, has its own set of amazing hiking trails to explore.

imageCamping in North Cascades National Park and Washington State: One of the best ways to experience the breadth of nature at North Cascades National Park is by spending the night in the park. Our guide to the best campgrounds in North Cascades National Park features prime spots to pitch a tent or park an RV. For more adventures in the state, the top spots to go camping in Washington offer endless nights of adventure.

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