A Circuit Trip Around the Northern Cascades
The North Cascades National Park Complex is the largest and most diverse park in Washington state. Easily and quickly accessible from Seattle, it's comprised of four individual areas that share borders. The North Cascades National Park North Unit and the NCNP South Unit, The Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreational Area.
This itinerary is a clockwise one, however, depending on the time of year and weather, you may wish to do this counter clockwise. Counter clockwise puts you in Eastern Washington first, where there is often less rain. If its rainy on the Western side, traveling counter clock wise gives time for the weather to change before you arrive. Either way, adventure awaits!
There is an incredible amount of diversity on this itinerary, so lets get going!
Day 1: Seattle to Marblemount (Depending on options about 75.6 miles, 1 hour 28 minuntes)
Choose you adventure! There are three routes to your first destination, we’ll call them Mild, Medium and Bold after Seattles famous coffees. Depending on your time frame, kids, etc, you may wish to choose a particular route. There's so much to do here!
(Alert!) Much of the first part of this adventure uses state highway 20. Check the roads report to ensure its open at the pass
Pro tip. If you arrive in April, a little ahead of the normal season, don’t miss the Skagit Valley Tulip festival. It runs the entire month from April 1 to the 30th. Depending on Mother natures schedule, millions of tulips and daffodils are blooming. It's Washington states largest festival, with over a half million visitors. Park your vehicle, get a map and walk the intensely colorful fields!
Mild Roast (Gets you started the fastest):
Head North on I-5 to to Everett, take Washington state highway 20 eastbound heading to Sedro-Wooley. This takes you through the small town of Concrete with its quirky history.
(Alert!) Pay close attention to your speed in town, its well known for its famous speed traps.
Pro tip! While in town, check out the still in use Henry Thompson bridge on the North side of town. Its was once the longest single-span reinforced concrete bridge when it was built over 100 years ago. The town itself is pretty sleepy but worth a gander. Its mostly made out of - concrete!
Continue on highway 20 to Marblemount. Jump to the Marblemount section of these instructions.
Medium Roast (For a bit more adventure): I-5 North to Arlington. Catch highway 530 to Darrington. This route cuts over to state highway 20 and goes through the 2014 landslide at Oso which garnered national attention. If you want to get right into the countryside and cooling forests, this is the quicker more scenic route. You’re headed to the tiny town of Marblemount.
Bold Roast (For maximum adventure, this may take more time): I-5 north to Everett. Take Highway 2 and follow the signs to Granite Falls.
Just outside the tiny town of Granite Falls is the falls itself. A small falls that runs over a half mile of beautiful granite thats been worn smooth by the river and falls. Its a wide spot in the road and a easy 10 minute hike to the viewpoint. Be cautious and take heed of the posted signs, the marble can be slippery.
Pro Tip! A great place to take a sack lunch and relax watching the falls.
Continue on to Mount Pilchuck State Park. This is a day use park only. If you decide to stop here - you’ll need at least three hours - you may wish to consider an overnight at the smaller camps of Turlo, Verlot and Gold Basin across the highway from Mount Pilchuck.
Mount Pilchuck is the trailhead to one of the most scenic spots in the Cascade mountains. A three mile hike ends at a forest service fire lookout with sweeping views. We strongly encourage you read the link for activity at this location.
Continue on the Mountain Loop highway to Big Four Ice Caves. About a mile walk from the trailhead and 200 ft of elevation gain, you come across the ice caves created by avalanches and melt water from the winter and spring. During hot summer days its fun to experience the cold blast of air from the caves.
(Alert!) The caves are exceptionally enticing and delightful to look at but are entirely unpredictable. A seemingly stable cave can give way at any moment.
Continue on the Mountain loop highway to Barlow Pass and follow the Monte Christo access road. Monte Christo is an abandoned Ghost town and a excellent example of the history of the Pacific Northwest. Its a pleasant eight mile round trip hike with only 700 ft elevation gain. The outline of the town is clearly understandable and some large relics remain. Quirky fact: The grandfather of the 45th president of the United States had his first hotel here.
From here head north to Darrington on FR20 (Forest service Road) which connects up with state highway 530 and head to Marblemount.
In Marblemount you have several camping and adventure options to choose from. (If you decide to do any overnight backpacking on your journey you will need to pick up a free permit from the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount Backpacking in this region is especially beautiful and accessible).
(Alert!) A word about wildlife. The North Cascades are vibrant with Beaver, Deer, Snakes, Bears and many others. Talk to your Ranger and get the skinny on how to cope in this environment if you are not familiar. Generally, wildlife is more afraid of you than you of them!
You have your have a choice of two types of camping in the area. Undeveloped and Developed. Undeveloped sites are compact dirt, generally have a picnic table and vault type toilets. These sites are generally smaller, more intimate, less expensive and put you closer to the out of doors. Developed sites are paved, with flush toilets, generally a picnic table and a fire ring. They are much larger, with more people and usually have a host in residence.
Detour! Take a few minutes to decide what type of camping you wish to do. Stop off at “Good Food” in Marblemount. A perennial favorite and classic burger joint, step outside the dining room and head to one of the many picnic tables dotted in back that overlook the Skagit River.
For undeveloped sites head out of Marblemount over the bridge on to Cascade River Road, thats where you’ll find Marble Creek and Mineral Park campgrounds. You may wish to reserve a site in advance.
For developed sites continue on Highway 20 to Goodell Creek, Newhalem, or Colonial Creek. These are first come first served campgrounds with no reservations, however they offer exceptional services and paved pads for camping.
Day 2: North Cascades Parks
There is so much to do within several short drives.
Cascade Pass: If you’ve chosen Marble Creek or Mineral Park simply continue down the road until it ends. You will arrive at Cascade Pass. Check the link for road conditions, snow can block the road until later in the season, however hiking is still possible. This stop has one of the most accessible and stunning views. A short hike to the top of the pass at 5,392 feet offers a 360 view of all of the Cascade range.
Newhalem, Gorge Dam and Diablo Lake Dam: The City of Seattle gets most of its electricity from hydropower. Three dams, Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams were built in the 1920’s and 30’s. Two are available to tour. The City offers three different tours of the project including a boat tour of the lakes.
The town of Newhalem is a city owned town built and maintained by the City of Seattle to manage the three dams. In Newhalem, the Gorge Dam and its gardens are available to tour during the daytime. The powerhouse requires a reservation to tour.
Pro tip! Show up in the evening for a tour of the Gorge Dam gardens lit at night. Reservations are required and a optional dinner is served along with the tour!
Pro tip! Visit the General store for some of the best fudge in the PNW and stop by the Skagit Information center across the street and talk with a ranger. The entire park system has a extensive network of visitors centers, including the newly built North Cascades Visitor Center.
When Diablo Dam was completed in 1936 it was the tallest dam in the world and still the tallest in Washington state. Its a similar style dam to the world famous Hoover dam (which opened the same year at almost twice the height) and is a art deco architectural beauty.
Pro tip! Head out of Newhalem and up the canyon. Look for the sign pointing to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. You’ll drive over the rim of Diablo Dam, the second of the three dams. Make sure to get out of your vehicle and walk across it. Check out the visitors center as well, its brand new and has great info and views!
Day 3: Marblemount to Winthrop (Approx. 87 miles, 1 hour 50 minutes)
You’re on your way to Winthrop and Twisp on Highway 20. Here you’ll find the Eastern side of the Cascade range.
Pro tip! Stop in at the Washington Pass Observation Site for spectacular views of the West and Eastern sides of the Cascades. You’ll be able to see the marked difference in the two environments.
You’ll find very different scenery on the Eastern side of the Cascade range. Generally much warmer and dryer than the Western Cascades. You’ll be entering the Methow Valley, home to the tiny burgs of Winthrop and Twisp. Both have several laid back opportunities for enjoyment including hot air balloon tours, horseback riding, shopping along an old boardwalk and several art studios. Stop by the Twisp River Recreation area for Fishing, Hiking, Horseback riding and camping opportunities.
Pro Tip! Stop in at the quant Shafer Museum, step into the past, and see what the area was like at the turn of the last century. Admission is by donation.
This area has many opportunities to camp, we recommend the US Forest service guide to campgrounds in the area.
Day 4: Twisp to Chelan (Approx. 60 miles, 1 hour 15 minutes)
In Twisp, you’ll head south on state highway 153, leaving state highway 20 for the first time. You’ll be heading to Lake Chelan and Chelan State Park. Lake Chelan is the largest natural lake in the state at over 50 miles long. In the town of Chelan you can take the Lady of the Lake or the Lady Express to the tiny town of Stehekin at the very end of the lake. No vehicles are allowed on the ferry. However, its a delightful ride and a great place to spend a day hiking, taking the bus tour to Rainbow Falls or enjoying the many activities at Stehekin Lodge.
Pro tip! Pack a lunch or light snacks for the trip. Ferry schedules are arraigned for up to a 6 hour layover in Stehekin making this a perfect day trip.
If heading up the lake isn’t your cup of tea and you prefer a fine glass of wine, Chelan has become increasingly known for its outstanding wines and vineyards. Check out Mike Stowe and the WAVE (Winery Assault Vehicle Excursion), a Pinzgauer mobility vehicle distantly related to our VW Vanagons, at Chelan Valley Tours for a unique and fun way to tour the local vineyards! Sara Schneider has an excellent write up in Sunset Magazine for the many wineries, and restaurants in Chelan.
Optional Day Trip: Chelan to Grand Coulee and Dry Falls ( Approx 67 miles, 1 hour 15 minutes)
The Grand Coulee Dam isn’t technically within the borders of the North Cascades National Park system, however its a hours drive from Chelan to the mile wide Grand Coulee Dam, which produces more electricity than any other facility in the United States. Grand Coulee also lifts water from Lake Roosevelt to Eastern Washington creating the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project providing water for thousands of acres of new farmland. Both are Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects from the 1930’s that have been integral to the success of the Pacific Northwest. From building planes to growing apples, the Grand Coulee has been a part of that success.
Some of the most fascinating geology in North America is here and is known collectively as the scablands. Check out Dry Falls and Sun-Lakes Dry Falls state park if you wish to go boating, rent a ski-doo or just go swimming. Dry falls is over 3.5 miles wide, 400 feet tall and was once estimated to be under 400 feet of water. This area, stretching as far as Eugene, Oregon, was created when ancient ice floods swept through the area.
Pro Tip! Stay for the evening laser light show at Grand Coulee Dam when the coffer gates open and provide a truly giant screen for a fun (and slightly cheesy) half hour show displaying a all American Story: One River, Many Voices.
Day 6: Chelan to Lake Wenatchee (Approx. 77 miles, 1 hour 35 minutes)
From Chelan take highway 197 to highway 97 which combines into highway 2 in the larger city of Wenatchee. Head West to Lake Wenatchee State Park for the evening. Depending on the season and time of year, evening mosquitoes and other flying critters can be more prevalent due to the warmer weather and availability of water. Alternately you can consider camping further along Highway 2. There are many smaller sites along and just off the highway such as Money Creek and Wallace Falls State Parks.
Pro tip! Give yourself some time to stop in the Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth. Summertime activities include shopping, river rafting, kayaking and plain old inner tubing as well as fishing, horseback riding and even wagon rides!
Day 7: Lake Wenatchee to Peace Vans (Approx. 113 miles, 2 hours 30 minutes)
Head West on highway 2 to the town of Monroe. Take Washington state highway 522 headed to Woodinville. Connect up with Interstate 405 southbound to Bellevue. From there connect to Interstate 90 Westbound. Take the exit for Interstate Highway 5 Southbound and then very shortly after, the exit for 6th avenue. Peace vans is just 3 blocks North.