An oft heard complaint these days is it’s hard to get away from crowds in the National Parks. Thanks to Facebookers and Instagrammers and bloggers and vloggers and Instagramming-blogger-vloggers all of whom won’t stuff a sock in it, just about every big national park is absolutely overrun by hordes of tourons trying to ride a bison to TikTok glory.
But, what if I told you there was a place that is just as spectacular as those other now-overcrowded spots but which is one of the least visited parks in the entire National Park system?
Which even Thor recognized was pretty fabulous:
You could stand here….
Or drive here…
Or swim here…
Or eat lunch here…
Without a single chick in spandex executing upside down yoga poses while balanced on a tree branch above your head.
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades is one of three national parks in the state of Washington, the others being Olympic and Mount Rainier. Each year, Olympic sees over 3 million visitors while Mount Rainer sees about 2.25 million. North Cascades, on the other hand, attracts far less than a million. Why?
Well, let’s start with the geography of the area. North Cascades is bordered on the north by the the U.S./Canadian border, and on the south by the mountains, forests, and recreation areas of the Cascade Range (which extends down through Oregon and into California). Meanwhile, its eastern border is adjacent to hundreds of miles of no man’s land/desert (there are a couple small towns and reservations between Spokane and the Cascades, but there’s not much), while to the park’s west, traffic headed to and from Canada travels along the northernmost reaches of I-5.
The National Park itself is about 500,000 acres (divided between a north unit and a south unit.) However, when people talk about this park, they are usually talking about the North Cascades National Park Complex which includes Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
As you can see, State Route 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, bisects the park East to West and is the only road to do so. Interestingly, the highway is all contained within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. In practical terms, that means there are no entry gates or entry fees for the park. If you’re willing to make the trek up there, the cost of your visit will be zero dollars! Additionally, since dogs are allowed in national recreation areas, you can bring your pup along with you to appreciate some of the jaw dropping scenery (just beware of where the national recreation areas end and the national park begins.)
So, why is this park so lightly visited?
Well, if you look at the maps and think about it, you’ll realize that visiting means spending an awful lot of time in your car. The only side of the park that’s even kind of close to significantly populated areas is the west side, but to drive from Seattle to the North Cascades Visitor’s Center takes over two hours. And once you’re at the visitor’s center, it takes another hour plus to get from one side of the park to the other.
Related, and likely more problematic, there’s not much infrastructure to support tourism near the park. Unlike many national parks, there’s no buzzing tourist town full of hotels, RV parks, and standard tourist conveniences just outside the front gates. There are only a handful of private campgrounds and motels (mostly in the tiny town of Marblemount), and very few restaurants. There certainly aren’t any standard tourist attractions (think: “museum of the old west,” wildlife sanctuary, etc.) If you are coming to visit North Cascades National Park, you are coming to hike, kayak, and maybe swim. Your accommodations are likely to be rustic and your food options are likely to be limited. For many people, that’s not very appealing, and they will choose national parks with additional amenities.
Adding to the difficulties, the park’s season is very short. Because of its location and elevation, it’s buried in snow much of the year, with route 20 often remaining closed until late Spring.
But… for those who are willing to make the trek up, and drive a lot, and spend some time in the middle of nowhere with limited conveniences, there are several points of interest to enjoy right along Route 20. In fact, I ran into this very helpful blog post that details numerous interesting spots along the way.
One must-see sight is the visually arresting Diablo Lake:
This lake is a reservoir created by the Diablo Dam, part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Like the lakes we saw in Glacier National Park, the water is full of glacial flour (ground up sediments deposited by nearby glaciers), which reflect the light and create this incredible color.
Along route 20, there are also hikes that will appeal to all skill levels. Some – like the Blue Lake Trail – are even popular enough to feel a bit “crowded” at times
But, to be honest, to find the really incredible scenery that makes the whole North Cascades project truly worthwhile, one needs to lace up his or her hiking boots and head up into the mountains. The terrain is tough but the scenery is breathtaking.
The Maple Pass Loop Trail
All of which brings me to the Maple Pass Loop Trail, one of the most unforgettable hikes we’ve ever completed. This trail is definitely in the “difficult” range with plenty of switchbacks, elevation changes, and knee and ankle abuse, but what an incredible hike!
After starting in some unremarkable woods, we opted to follow a side trail to see the centerpiece of the trail, Lake Ann, up close and personal. The side trail only added about a mile onto the overall trek, and the lake’s crystal clear, glacial water was striking:
After returning to the main trail, we continued up through the forest before exiting to ever improving views of rugged mountain scenery
Once we got to a certain elevation, we followed the trail around the bowl that surrounds Lake Ann.
When we got to the far side, the views of the lake gave way to boulder strewn fields:
which were followed soon thereafter by colorful fields of wildflowers and mountain heather:
Eventually, after much huffing and puffing, we got to the highest point on the trail and celebrated with a hard earned mountaintop selfie
only to find out we weren’t actually at the top:
And, before long, that “we did it!” photo had us feeling pretty silly:
Luckily the dog, who was pretty pooped by then, found some snow
and got to take a quick snow nap on top of the world:
After coaxing him along, we finally got to the real high point and got a good look at what was coming next:
And what was coming next was arthritis.
Seriously, the second half of this hike is all downhill so, if you have any type of knee or ankle issues, get your ice packs ready.
On the positive side, however, you’ll be wincing in peace because if you look really, really closely at this picture, you can see that there were just three other people on the trail as we made our way down:
In fact, during the several hours we spent on the trail, we probably crossed paths with 20 people. It just doesn’t get any better than that in a national park.
Especially a national park that looks like this:
(Note: We did our usual thing of going late in the afternoon. I have no idea what the trail is like in the morning. It probably sucks. So, if you insist on going at the crack of dawn and the trail is full of spandex clad yogis, don’t blame me.)
Riverbend RV Park
Unlike our rather uninspiring campground outside Glacier, we really enjoyed our accommodations this time. Riverbend RV Park is located in the tiny town of Twisp which is located just south of the slightly less tiny, but still extremely tiny, town of Winthrop. These towns are really the only places you’ll find commercial campgrounds on the east side of the national park (which is where we stayed because we were coming from Montana.)
To give some idea of the driving distances, for us to get from our campground in Twisp to the trailhead for the Maple Pass Loop took about 45 minutes, and for us to get from our campground to Diablo Lake took an hour and twenty minutes. (As an aside, there are national forest campgrounds up in the national park complex, however, there is no cell service of any kind up there, which is why we didn’t consider them.)
The best thing about our stay was the view out our front window:
The campground is built right on the river, so those with riverfront sites have nice views, while everyone at the campground has easy access to the water.
In addition to the nice sites and nice views, Riverbend also had a decent dog park.
It may not have been fancy, but it got the job done.
We noticed that this campground was populated almost entirely by locals. Ours was one of maybe 5 RVs that had license plates from outside Washington. We considered this more evidence that North Cascades is just tough to get to and most travelers don’t want to make the effort to get up there.
Winthrop is a neat little town where local restaurants and shops are housed in western themed buildings. While it sounds hideously touristy and like everything we dislike, it’s actually pretty well done.
We stopped at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery and enjoyed a beer on their spacious and socially distanced back patio. We didn’t go into any of the other shops or restaurants, but I imagine it’s a fun place to wander around during normal times. (Click on any image for full size version.)
Twisp, on the other hand, is just a normal town. A normal town with a normal grocery store. Totally normal. Nothing out of the ordinary at all:
There are some other good parks and trails in the area if you’re looking to avoid the long drive into the national park complex. We spent a couple hours one cloudy afternoon hiking the 3.5 mile Lookout Mountain Trail, home to a lookout tower and a very cool tree.
Pearrygin Lake State Park offers a nice campground (that I couldn’t get a reservation for) and some pretty trails. We headed over one afternoon to take a wander:
While the park was beautiful, we couldn’t get over how dry everything was. It was an absolute tinderbox. In addition to being warned about the town’s burn ban by our campground owner, we kept getting warnings on our phones about just how bad things were:
Little did we know that, just a few weeks later, we’d be dealing with the effects of lots of similarly dry places going up in flames.
More on that soon, but next, we stop at the stunning Mount Rainier National Park.
Where we stayed: Riverbend RV Park, Twisp, Washington
Wow! What stunning pictures! Everything is almost too beautiful to be true! Glad you found quiet, unspoiled areas. That’s what it’s all about!
That is definitely what it’s all about. Sadly, everyone else thinks so too. Finding the uncrowded spots is getting harder and harder, so we truly felt fortunate with this place.
As beautiful as these photos are, you missed some of the even more staggering views. Mount Shuksan and Johannesburg falls. However, it takes a long time to travel to these areas as distances are long and gas stations are limited. Mount Shuksan: shttps://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=sb220b32&id=6633B3371EF3C9CE6F9E2C6AD996482886B6C351&thid=OIP.sb220b32YgBPK3TmNGlCxgHaDN&mediaurl=http%3a%2f%2fandyporterimages.com%2fwp-content%2fuploads%2f2015%2f06%2fMount-Shuksan-Dec-15.jpg&exph=1043&expw=2400&q=mount+shuksan&simid=608011238900764539&ck=0470556ABB7D962CD829C48C08BA4A10&selectedIndex=0&FORM=IRPRST&ajaxhist=0
When I was researching this park, I definitely noted how difficult it was to get from one place to another. So many of these incredible sights are way in the back country and require multi-day hiking trips. Those are tough for us because of the dog and because that’s just not the type of hiking we typically do, but it sure would be an incredible way to spend a week or two. The scenery up there is truly epic and we’d love to explore more. Thanks for the tips on Mt. Shuksan and Johannesburg Falls. They are gorgeous!
Absolutely my kind of place! Stunning scenery and no crowds, what more could you ask for? And a taxidermy “zoo” in the grocery store? Too cool. Your latest travels leave me wishing we didn’t have to go back to FL to sell christmas trees and could “Head west young man!”
The grocery store taxidermy may make my “Top 10 weirdest things we’ve found on the road” list – which is saying something. 🙂 As for west vs. east, we do love it out here, but when it comes to winter, I am still of the opinion that Florida is the place to be.
Tik Tok glory… ?
Welp, now there is yet another national park on my list that we MUST visit. It appears to be as far from Florida as possible within the lower 48, but luckily we are going to be itching for long drives after this long shut in period. North Cascades really looks like a perfect place for you to visit, between the lack of crowds and the variety of Thor-friendly options. I have to say I am a little amazed by your comment that this park lacks the typical tourist town at the gates. Seattle is a large city with a real international airport and it’s a mere two hours away, so on paper this park seems much easier to access than Glacier. It’s good to see there are still a few hidden gems out there that are well and truly hidden.
Yeah, I don’t really understand it either. I read something that most of the people who live on the west side of the park work at the hydroelectric power plant. On the east side, Winthrop is certainly touristy, but it’s pretty far away. I think of all these national parks we’ve been to, even the ones with brutal seasonal weather, and almost all of them have some sort of tourist town. It would be interesting to know why that hasn’t happened up there. In either case, if you guys are willing to go off the grid for a couple days, there are plenty of Airstream friendly campgrounds within the National Forests which would give you great access to everything. We drove through a couple right near the visitors center and they were very nice.
I think Ross Lake was my first introduction to the beautiful color of glacial flour. That hue just never gets old. I hope this park can remain untrammeled for a long time to come. It was surprising to read that Olympic gets more visitors than Rainier. I’m glad you guys got to experience much of the beauty of the area without crowds — that’s always the best!
The Olympic vs Rainier thing surprised me a bit too, but I’m assuming a lot of people enjoy the cute small towns of the Olympic peninsula. Again if you’re looking at things from the perspective of a vacationer, a park that offers all different types of landscapes plus access to cute shops and fun restaurants may hold more appeal than a park focused on hiking at a single mountain. Plus, Olympic is closer to all the highly populated areas around Seattle.
This looks like our kind of hike! Stunning pics!
You guys would love it! Though, I imagine you’d insist on running it because you’re insane.. in a good way. 🙂
Now you have gone and done it, everyone is going to read your blog and when we get out that way it is going to be super crowded all do to your wonderful blog…thanks a lot for the tips.
Haha…Luckily, my blog is not nearly large enough to do much damage. You guys would definitely enjoy it. If you ever head up to B.C., it would be a good stop along the route.
We missed some of those hikes and hope to get back. Your pictures are amazing. We found Winthrop kind of cute even though touristy. The dryness is overwhelming.
Thanks. It’s funny how many people think the exact same thing about Winthrop. You expect to hate it, but it’s just extremely likeable. Weird!
I agree, this place is totally underrated! I’ve only ever driven through and stopped at viewpoints, but it’s high on my list of parts to return to. Thanks for all the photos and details here, I’m bookmarking this for the future!
I have no doubt you would absolutely love the hikes in this park. There’s another really highly regarded one on the west side of the park called the Cascade Pass trail that you should put on your list. It would have taken way too long for us to get to and it’s in the national park, so we couldn’t bring Thor, but if you make it up there, it’s supposed to be fantastic.
The highway was completed while I was in high school, it quickly became a favorite destination. On a recent trip we took the boat tour of Diablo Lake, also a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.
Absent the Covid craziness, we definitely would have done something like that boat tour. It’s a bummer to not be able to do those things this year. Next time!!
North Cascades NP is one of our favorites, too…even though we still haven’t managed to get there in the prime months of July and August. We’ve been twice now, but in June and many of the trails were buried in snow. And then we tried to go in September, and there were forest fires. There are also mudslides that close the road through the park, so timing is everything for the North Cascades.
You guys did it right! And you got to hike the Maple Pass Trail, which has been on our list forever. Your photos of that hike are stunning and make me determined that we will, in fact, do that trail. Love your selfie at the ‘top’ of the trail…and then discovering that you weren’t really at the top, lol. Thor was like, “C’mon!!! This is good enough!!” I would probably have felt the same way. You could have left us both in the snowbank and come back for us later. 🙂
Haha. He was definitely DONE by the end of that hike. He kept pulling over at every shady spot and laying down. It was a warm day, so it was unquestionably justified. Poor guy is stuck wearing a fur coat while doing everything we’re doing.
I think a lot of visiting these places now is going to be luck. As we found out with our good luck/bad luck recently, wildfires are consistently a huge issue and they really wreak havoc on entire states. When we were out this way in July and August in 2018, we had tons of wildfire smoke then too, so there really is no perfect answer. I hope whenever you do come back, the weather gods cooperate. You’d absolutely love that trail.
Thor looked pretty happy to be along for your adventures in Cascade NP 🙂 The park is so close to us and yet by the time we head south it is already beginning to be a winter wonderland so if was wonderful to enjoy your stunning pictures.
We have made many day trips to Twisp and Winthrop, in fact my sister got engaged in Winthrop, but have never been able to stay in the RV parks because they are always full in the summer. And while you saw locals this year I believe, when the border isn’t closed, the RV parks are often filled with British Columbia plates.
The dryness you saw in that area is what we have in our area during the summer and is why we normally have fire bans during the hot sunny months.
I sure hope you are going to spend some time in Bend, Oregon before you head back south … we are sad we will miss our bike trips to the craft breweries in Bend this fall.
That’s interesting about Canadians RVers usually coming to places like Winthrop and Twisp. That didn’t even occur to me, but it totally makes sense. I guess we can’t assume anything about any place we visit this year because everything has been so bizarre. Perhaps all the locals in northern Washington are celebrating their ability to finally get into these parks!
Oddly enough, guess where we are right now? Bend! We really enjoy this town and when all our other plans went out the window thanks to the fires, we decided to come here. It really does suck that we’re not overlapping. It would be fun to chat over some good brews.
Thanks for the great info on this new to us area. We had reservations at Twin Peaks in Winthrop last June and hope to try again in June 2021. Maple Pass is on the top of the list!! The scenery is beautiful. Can’t wait to see it in person. I love the glacier flour lakes. That color is just beyond words. It’s was so nice that Thor could accompany you, but he probably was sorry when he saw doing the climb! Thank goodness for the snowy bed for a cooling rest. Looking forward to your Lake Rainier post. We’ve only done a little hiking there.
You would absolutely adore the hiking in North Cascades. It is just fantastic! And, as I understand it, there are a number of trails near Diablo Lake that provide nice views of the water. I think the lake is even prettier in the early light before things get hazy, but you know that’s never gonna happen for us. 🙂 Even with the haze though, the color is striking. Thor would have happily remained on that pile of snow and let us finish the hike on our own. Sadly for him though, this pack is not a democracy. 🙂
I totally agree! The area is less crowded with lots of elbow room to roam and lots of distance driving. And of course your hike at Maple Pass Loop Trail brought back memories of field of wildflowers. And no it did not suck when we did it in the morning 🙂 it was spectacular! I feel sorry for Thor, I know it was a tough hike, napping in snow is totally acceptable.
As I recall, yours was one of the blogs I read about Maple Pass that put it on my list. There are a handful of people who’ve written about it and their photos just blew me away. I had never even heard of North Cascades before I started reading RV blogs, so thank you for being one of the people to get it on my radar!
Beautiful! We have never been there but will have to put it on our travel route to Oregon one of these times. Love the deer mounts in the grocery store, that is unique!
It definitely seems like the kind of place that would be on one of your Summer routes and one that you’d love. With your smaller set up, you could easily stay within the park, too, which would be great.
Twisp grocery store, where you can look at what your meat looked like before you purchase it! Thanks for putting this park on our radar. Will definitely check it out when we get back out west, hopefully next summer. Beautiful pictures, as always.
LOL. Right on! We had never seen anything like that – they had quite the collection. It definitely made for an interesting shopping experience. Anyway, it’s a beautiful park and well worth the effort to get to. I hope you get to visit.
One of my favorite places in the US! I lived in Seattle for four years and didn’t even know it was there for three of those years. How sad! I kayaked on Diablo Lake once, so cold from that melted glacier water that I couldn’t leave my hand in more than 15 seconds and this was in August! Someday I’m going to camp there, it’s so on my bucket list. Glad you got to enjoy it and see all the things that make it so special.
I was wondering if most west coasters knew it was there, but just didn’t feel like dealing with the trek up, or if it was off their radar completely. I had never even heard of it until I started reading travel blogs, but as an east coaster, that wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Interesting to hear from someone who lived “just down the road” and had no idea.
Thank you for the gorgeous photos and wonderful write up of your stops in the Cascades! I will certainly be added several of these stops on our to do list but I love the ability to vicariously travel along with you!!
Thank you so much! I hope you’re able to get out there at some point to check it all out. In the meantime, it’s nice to have some folks to share our adventures with! Hope you guys are doing well!
Beautiful photos! I love that area. We stated at Pearygin Lake a couple of years ago. I don’t think you missed much. It was party central and the sites were very uneven. We had our gasser at the time and front was blocked up about 12 inches. The ranger took pity on us and gave us a refund. It was fire season then also, and we made an early exit due to ash raining down on us. The lakes in that area are so beautiful!
IF you are in Bend right now, check out the riverwalk. The fall colors are so beautiful against the lava rock. Also take a trek back over to Smith Rock and the Blue Pool hike on the McKenzie River.
Thanks for the Bend suggestions! We will absolutely check them out. We’ve been enjoying the beautiful weather and great parks, but will definitely head back to the river walk and check out this trail, too. Fortunately, the smoke situation is much improved here, so we’re enjoying it for as long as it lasts. And good to know about Pearrygin Lake. I’ve heard very mixed reviews of it. Some seem to really love it, and others – not so much.
Great review! We have been camping in the North Cascades for years. We have lived northeast of Seattle for 26 years. It still amazes us how many people that have been born and raised in this area have never been there, let alone have even heard of it. When we say we are camping at Newhalem (by the way, it is a National Forest Campground and it has cell service and we can fit our 37 foot motorhome!!), we get a funny look and they say “Where is that?” It has gotten a lot busier over the years. Newhalem used to be the place we could go when we couldn’t get in any place else. It was first come back then. We even showed up on a 4th of July weekend and got a spot. Now we need reservations 6 months in advance. But you did an amazing job reviewing this beautiful area. We will be leaving the state next year and it will be awhile before we get back to our beloved North Cascades, but we have our photos and memories!! P.S. my husband loves the beer at Old Schoolhouse!
Thanks for your comment. I really don’t understand why more folks from the Pacific Northwest don’t visit this park. Its really not all that far and it has so much to offer. Very bizarre. That’s good to know about Newhalem Campground. We actually saw it when we stopped by the Visitor’s Center, but didn’t drive the loops. There are mixed reviews on Campendium about cell signal, so it may just come down to where your site is located, and whether or not you have a cell booster. But it would certainly be nice to be able to stay inside the park and avoid some of the excess driving. I’m sure you’re sad to be heading away from such a beautiful area, but if our experiences have shown us anything, it’s that there are gorgeous places all over this country. I hope you’re going somewhere you’ll love just as much!
I couldn’t agree more with your title! Two years ago, when we planned to visit Glacier NP and the west entrance was closed due to wildfires, we decided to go to North Cascades NP instead. And, we stayed several days! It was amazing and not busy and beautiful. We lucked out with the weather at the end of September as well. We found a free NF campground in the middle of the park. I still remember walking up the road to a power plant (Diablo – what a spooky town; it reminded us of The Walking Dead) and trying to get a cell signal to send and grab emails…
The other thing I remember – how can you forget – is the grocery store in Twisp. I took photos there as well. The entire region is a hidden gem, for sure. Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos as well. Here’s my post about that visit, if you care: https://www.roamingabout.com/north-cascades-national-park-washington/
I just looked at your post from that trip and definitely agree – that is some Walking Dead stuff right there! We’ve run into a couple cities and towns like that in our travels and it’s definitely creepy to see those modern signs of life with no one anywhere. Your hike sounded a bit familiar too. We’ve had those quick moments of panic while on a hike, wondering why we weren’t seeing the next trail marker we expected. We’ve now gotten in the habit of downloading the Alltrails map for any hike we’re doing and then using our phone GPS to track our progress on the trail. It provides some peace of mind that we haven’t wandered off and gives us a realistic expectation of where we are on the path. Gotta love that technology stuff!
Great post, but now the masses will descend! I’m glad you guys enjoyed our little slice of paradise out here in western WA. North Cascades is beautiful, but you should see it in the winter; they usually don’t close 20 until early- or mid-Nov and even after it’s closed, you can still get through to the lakes. The Methow Valley is one of my happy places and we briefly considered settling down out there, but it’s pretty isolated and super-hot & dry in summer. Did you happen to make it into the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery?
We did not make it to that bakery. Someone mentioned a bakery in Winthrop, too, but we prioritized beer over sweets. Did we make a terrible mistake???? Dammit.
We were just discussing the other day how we’d like to see Crater Lake after the first snowfall because the contrast in colors must be striking. I imagine the same would hold true for North Cascades, Those lakes are beautiful any time of year, but set against the bright white snow must be jaw dropping!
We thoroughly enjoyed Washington and would like to spend lots more time there. We intentionally left the Olympic Peninsula for another trip. We’re looking forward to spending a couple weeks really exploring that region and hopefully catching up with you guys. It’s been a while!!
I have been to Yosemite and Death Valley, both close to my home in San Jose. Haven’t been so far north to the North Cascades. Must plan a trip. Thanks for sharing these awesome photos.
Yosemite and Death Valley are actually at the top of our current list! We’re hoping to visit both next year, but we’ll see. It’s cool how different they all are, but each is spectacular in its own right. I hope you do make it to North Cascades. It’s well worth the effort.
Your photos was absolutely gorgeous! And the information very valuable. We can’t wait to visit. We really enjoy the more secluded places.
I’m so glad this was helpful to you. If you’re looking for seclusion, you can definitely find it there. I hope you have a wonderful time!!