9 Top-Rated Hikes in North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is one of the most rugged national parks in Washington State, if not the entire country. 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. Don't be discouraged to explore this dense natural environment, however. 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.
1 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. Well before the North Cascades became a designated national park, Cascade Pass had been traversed by Native Americans 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 them, there's no shortage of impressive views from Cascade Pass. For a more adventurous day out or overnight experience, hikers can continue beyond Cascade Pass and onto the Sahale Arm trail to the Sahale Glacier or stay on the same trail to hike into Horseshoe Basin or the mountain community of Stehekin more than 20 miles away.
2 Maple Pass Loop
Easily accessed from the Rainy Pass Picnic Area off the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20), the seven-mile Maple Pass Loop is a well-maintained trail that heads in either direction and treats hikers to old-growth forests, open ridgelines, and dramatic views of the rugged peaks that define North Cascades National Park. While the trailhead and sections of the trail are outside of the national park boundary, it provides perhaps the most dense concentration of all that the North Cascades has to offer and has proven to be one of the most popular hikes in the state of Washington. 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, which can serve as the cherry on top for an amazing North Cascades adventure.
3 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 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, a retired fire lookout stands at the top of this hike, offering first-come, first-served overnight accommodations or just a great place to catch your breath and enjoy the fresh mountain scenery.
4 Diablo Lake
The Ross Lake National Recreation Area separates the North and South sections of North Cascades National Park and features not only the 23-mile long Ross Lake, but also the equally emerald waters of the enchanting Diablo Lake. 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, exposing the different peaks that define this region, as well as views of old-growth forests, waterfalls, and the enchanting waters of Diablo Lake.
5 Copper Ridge
The Copper Ridge trail is a strenuous adventure into the heart of the North Cascade Mountains that 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 and Brush Creek trail, including Whatcom Pass, can provide more than 30 miles of trail displaying everything the North Cascades has to offer. All the adventure of this area is accessed outside of the park at the Hannegan Pass trailhead, and no matter how far you go or how many nights you spend in this wondrous environment, you'll feel firsthand what makes North Cascades National Park a true national treasure.
6 Desolation Peak
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 only 6.8 miles long, but the extra steps it takes to get to the trailhead is what makes this trek an often-solitary experience. It 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. Half the fun of the Desolation Peak trail is just getting started, and the other half waits for you along the trail and at the top.
For the first two miles of the trail, views of Ross Lake accompany hikers with each step and for the remaining 4.8 miles, more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain climbs 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
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 and 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, there are many trails branching from the charming community, and a good place to start is 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, and the trail also offers access to multi-day hikes along the Rainbow Creek or Boulder Creek trail.
8 Fourth of July Pass
There are two ways to explore the subtle wonder of Fourth of July Pass, located within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and both routes traverse along the churning waters of this mountainous landscape. Whether you approach the pass by following either Panther or Thunder Creek, you are exposed to deep forest environments and big views of the overshadowing horizon along the way, and if you play your cards just right and arrange a shuttle, you can combine the two creek trails for a great 12-mile hike. Overnight camping is available with a permit and recommended at the Fourth of July Camp, a mile west of the pass, offering campers big views of Colonia Peak, Snowfield Peak, and Neve Glacier.
9 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 you won't be able to put up permanent residency in Newhalem, you 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, immersing hikers in the enormous environment and ending 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 towards every level of hiker with moderate trails and stunning scenery.