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