Mount Rainier may be the more popular national park in Washington, but just north lies a vastly underrated expanse of rugged natural beauty. North Cascades National Park – which stretches all the way north to Canada – is just over 100 miles from Seattle, but somehow it still ranks as one of the least-visited national parks in the whole United States. This may be due to the fact that the park only has one main road to access it: the North Cascades Highway (also known as Highway 20), which closes in the wintertime because of snow and avalanches.
But with less visitors also means this quiet national park is the perfect place to escape when you want to get away from all of the chaos in this world. Among the high peaks, glaciers, dense forest, and shimmering alpine lakes, this stretch of wilderness has seemingly endless opportunities for hiking, camping, kayaking, canoeing, and just simply taking in the great outdoors. These hidden gems across the park are some our favorite highlights.
1. Diablo Lake
It’s true: Diablo Lake really has this intense, bright turquoise color. The water gets its vibrant hue from surrounding glaciers that grind rocks into a fine powder, which is then carried into the water. The lake, created by Diablo Dam, sits between Ross Lake and Gorge Lake on the beautiful Skagit River. You can easily get views of this vivid lake by pulling off the North Cascades Highway and taking a short 3.8-mile trail that winds along the northern shore.
2. Sourdough Mountain
For more experienced hikers, Sourdough Mountain gives even more spectacular views of Diablo Lake. A historic fire lookout sits near the summit, which was actually one of the first lookouts established by the U.S. Forest Service. It’s a lengthy 11-mile hike in-and-out, with over 5,000 feet in elevation – but the sweeping views couldn’t be more worth it. From up top you’ll get a 360-degree perspective of Mount Prophet and Hozomeen Mountain to the north, Jack Mountain to the east, the jagged Picket Range to the west, and Pyramid and Colonial Peaks to your south, about a mile high above Diablo Lake’s turquoise water.
3. Washington Pass Overlook
4. Ross Lake Resort (and the beautiful Ross Lake)
Unlike most resorts, Ross Lake Resort can only be reached by ferry or hiking – no roads will lead you out to this remote hideaway. The secluded resort is literally floating on the western shores of Ross Lake, with twelve individual cabins and three bunkhouses all arranged in a line, built on top of log floats.
Inside, the cabins are all furnished with electricity, hot & cold water, towels, bedding, and a propane grill (though visitors do need to bring their own food). Outside, guests can lay back overlooking the lake and surrounding mountains, or rent one of their motorboats, canoes, kayaks, and/or fishing rods and head out on the water.
5. Desolation Peak
A lot of boaters staying on Ross Lake like to head over to the eastern shore and take on Desolation Peak as a day hike. It’s no easy walk in the park: the long, steep hike through open meadows spans for about 6.8 miles round-trip. In the summer, the trail is known to get hot, dry, and even more challenging. But hang in there ’til the top, and you can explore around a historic wooden fire lookout and take in some tremendous views of all the surrounding peaks.
6. Trail Of The Cedars
8. Hidden Lake
As you can probably tell from the name, Hidden Lake is one of the many hard-to-find treasures in the North Cascades, but it’s also one of the most scenic. A historic lookout sits perched high above the water on a rocky pinnacle, secluded at the end of a steep 4.5-mile hike (about 9 miles round-trip). But with your long hike comes incomparable views of a ton of surrounding peaks, including: Boston Peak, Sahale Mountain, Mount Forbidden, and Johannesburg Mountain – and of course, the dazzling alpine lake itself.
I can’t wait until spring rolls around and I can start marking some of these off my list. Where are some of your favorite places to explore in the North Cascades?