North Cascades NP

Washington, the Evergreen State

Highway I-5 is a street of contrasts. It starts from the border with Mexico, in Southern California, and continues north passing through California, Oregon and Washington up to the Canadian border, just a few miles away from Vancouver. In Northern California I-5 begins to parallel one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in North America: the Cascade Range. Along this range lie natural wonders such as Crater Lake, Mt Rainier, Mt St Helens and Lassen Volcanic. In this article though I'd like to talk about one of the lesser-known gems, one of the pearls that are found in Washington State just south of the Canadian border: North Cascades NP.


North Cascades NP is a park with two faces. It's like a yin yang in which white and black never fuse. On the one hand there is wilderness, on the other there is what man has stolen the wilderness. In between, almost nothing. This park "hosts" an electric plant that provides power pretty much to the whole Seattle area. At the same time this park is considered one of the wildest and most inaccessible parks of the States. I'd like to make very clear from the beginning that if you want to really experience North Cascades NP you must be willing to spend time, effort and sweat on long and strenuous hikes.
If this is not the kind of experience you seek, North Cascades may disappoint you.

North Cascades

Diablo Lake

North Cascades is a mountain park located south of the Canadian border, 3 hours away from Seattle. The only paved road that crosses the park is the beautiful North Cascades Hwy (part of the longer North Cascades Loop).
Technically, the North Cascades Hwy passes through Ross Lake NRA, one of two National Recreation Areas hosted in the park. The second is Lake Chelan NRA, which is located in the southern end of the park and can be reached only by boat from Chelan to Stehekin.
Keep in mind though that even though the two NRA are only 30 miles away as the crow flies, the distance is well over 120 miles to be covered by car and boat. Despite the first impression of Ross Lake NRA is that the designation is just a nice way to rename the dam and power plant constructed in the park, remember that both NRAs are quite wild and isolated.
Visiting the park for many people means stopping at the various viewpoints along the North Cascades Hwy. If you can, try to forget the power poles that characterize the first part of the road into the park and hit a trail as soon as possible. If long hikes are not your passion what North Cascades offers is essentially a series of viewpoints along the North Cascades Hwy.
The most spectacular is certainly Diablo Lake, a lake whose emerald blue is truly unique. While the road climbs you'll see Ross Lake and eventually you'll get to the final stretch of the North Cascades Hwy where the mountains tops are so sharp to appear almost unnatural. The best hiking opportunities to explore North Cascades' wilderness are right in this area.
There are a couple of lodges in the park. The most famous is Ross Lake Lodge, accessible only by hiking or boat. This is truly a unique experience but remember that you are in a wilderness area without easy access to food or other structures. This lodge is also very difficult to book. Virtually all the rooms are booked a year in advance.
Outside of North Cascades NP you can find several motels, especially in the town of Marblemount and Winthrop. Marblemount is famous for being an excellent place to spot bald eagles during Winter but, beyond that, the city in itself is not spectacular. Instead Winthrop is famous for its old-west atmosphere and is a worthy stop.
Ultimately North Cascades NP is a park that can give a lot or very little depending on your approach to it.
If you visit the park knowing you won't be doing a lot of hiking, then simply drive through in half a day and enjoy the wonderful views. Probably it won't be an experience you'll tell to your grandchildren but it still remains the most spectacular way to cross the Cascade Range if you are headed to Idaho or Montana. But if you want to really experience the wilderness, perhaps through a backpack of several days, then North Cascades will become a source of solitude and the arguably one of the wildest park you'll see in this part of the United States.


Thornton Lakes Trail (10.4 miles , 5-7h, strenuous, round trip, 2400 ft elevation gain)
North Cascades is not among those parks your average "viewpoint-oriented/thanks but I don't hike" tourist will enjoy. It's hard to find hikes of medium difficulty and there isn't much choice between stopping at the Diablo Lake viewpoint and a 10 miles 2,500 ft  elevation gain day hike. For this reason, I often end up heading to Mt Baker or Mt Rainier when I want do some hiking. Lately, however, I found a really good hike I wanted to do, the Cascade Pass. Once I got there and after driving 12 miles on a gravel road, suddenly we find our way obstructed by a sign announcing that the rest of the road will be closed for repair for a couple of months. On the way back I open up my Falcon guide to find a 5 or 6 miles hike in this area. It's hard to believe, but I couldn't find even one!
At that point we choose Thornton Lakes Trail, a 10.4 miles round trip and 2,400 ft of elevation gain hike.

North Cascades

Thornton Lake

The 5.3 miles gravel road is very steep but all in all in decent condition (keep an eye on those three or four spots with bigger bumps).
The first 2.3 miles of trails are fairly flat, this once was an access road for loggers, before the area became a National Park. You will have to cross a couple of creeks whose flow can change a lot depending on the season. In one case, you'll have to walk on a bridge which happens to be a huge fallen tree that seems there almost by accident and does not inspire much confidence.
Then the trail enters a forest, and here is where it begins to climb. The elevation gain varies from section to section, from short virtually flat stretches to several series of steep switchbacks. The 1.1 mile into the forest is among the longest and hardest 1.1 miles I hiked. The only consolation, at least for mushrooms lovers, is the amount of mushrooms of all kinds, some of which were of excellent quality. At about three-quarters of the way through the forest you'll leave Ross Lake National Recreation Area where you were and you will enter North Cascades National Park. Nothing will change, but it is funny to witness so directly the unique structure of this park.
Once you get out from the forest you're 3.4 miles from the trailhead and you'll get to an area with nice open meadows where you can see Mt Triumph, Teebone Ridge, and the Skagit Valley. Another effort leads to the top of Trappers Peak from where you can finally see the three Thornton Lakes. The view from up here is really beautiful, with the deep blue water of the largest of the three lakes reflecting snow-capped mountains.
The main trail continues to another viewpoint from which you will see the largest lake and from there it starts descending towards the lake. This last stretch is worth another 0.6 miles and 500 ft of elevation loss (which will obviously become 500 ft of elevation gain on your way back ...). You have the choice to continue down to the lake or stop at the viewpoint and enjoy the view.
Ultimately this is a nice hike. The final view it's definitely spectacular but I'm not entirely sure it is worth the long and strenuous hike. Anyways, at least in this park, there aren't many easier trail.