This post is one in a series about a fall trip to Washington State. Stay tuned for more posts!
North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited parks in the US, in part because most of it is in the backcountry: to be honest, we had never even heard of the park until we started planning this trip. It is roughly the same distance from Seattle as Mount Rainier, but we encountered no crowds here even though the colorful fall scenery was equally spectacular, making it a great destination for a day trip from Seattle.
- 7 AM: Leave the Seattle area with a packed lunch
- 10AM: Stop to catch morning light at Diablo Lake Overlook
- 11 AM: Hike the Maple Pass Loop (7.2 miles, 4 hours)
- 4:00PM: Check out the Trail of the Cedars (~2 miles, or very short walk to bridge)
- 4:45 PM: Stop for ice cream or espresso at Cascadia Farms, outside the park
- 5:30PM: Head back towards Seattle (2h 20min)
Helpful Tips and Links
The fall colors in the North Cascades are brightest from the end of September until sometime in October, but there is also a good chance of snow at high elevations during this season (see Weather and Webcam).
If you are looking for a good home base for day trips to all of Washington’s National Parks we’d recommend staying in Bellevue or Redmond: you’ll be avoiding almost all potential traffic at rush hour during the week this way. Alternatively, if you wanted to spend more time in the area, considering staying near the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is also the hub of Washington’s apple harvest in October.
Though some areas of North Cascades are free, many trails require either a day use fee, Northwest Forest Pass, or America the Beautiful Pass to be displayed in your vehicle.
We left Redmond after a quick breakfast at our hotel, we drove north and east, eventually catching the North Cascades Highway (Washington State Highway 20). The drive itself was through picturesque farm and forested country, and we even had some dramatic fog roll in as the sun was rising.
Our first stop, about 3 hours into our drive, was at the Diablo Lake Overlook inside the park. While the lake is artificial (created by a dam as part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project), the glacial flour flowing in the Skagit River and from the surrounding rocky peaks does give it a brilliant blue color, particularly in the morning.
We continued on from here along the highway and parked at the Rainy Pass parking lot, the start of the Maple Pass Loop. The trail technically starts on US Forest Service land (make sure you pay for parking or display an appropriate Northwest Forest Pass or America The Beautiful Pass) and enters the park at the highest part of the pass. It gets its name from the big leaf maple along the trail, which turns a beautiful shade of yellow in the fall.
Following the advice of several blogs and trail websites, we took the trail counter-clockwise. After about a mile of walking through filtered light in the forest, we were treated to endless carpets of red, orange, and yellow foliage. Even though you may have plenty of solitude along the trail, its important to make a bit of noise. A black bear crossed right in front of a group hiking along the trail ahead of us: it went on its merry way without incident, but you never want to surprise a bear of any variety in the back country.
The first leg of the hike took us up and around Lake Ann, a jewel of a mountain lake with dramating sloping peaks on all sides. The views of the lake culminated at the south-western tip of the loop just before heading up a long switchback. From here, we had an amazing panorama of the lake, the colorful mountain sides, and the cascade peaks all around us.
After the switchback, we found ourselves entering the boundary of North Cascades National Park, the highest section of the trail (and also the most tiring). Luckily, the scenery was so distracting that the hike itself felt less hard than it was. In the distance, we saw some pretty spectacular peaks and even some little alpine lakes. On the southern flank of the ridge, just before the final main ascent, even taller peaks that were still capped with snow came into view.
The final ascent was quite steep, so we were really looking forward to coming back down! A nice treat of taking the trail counter-clockwise was that we had great views of Rainy Lake on the way back down.
In fact, the lake looked so inviting that we tacked on a two-mile extension to the hike to visit the lake. As the clouds rolled in, we stopped by the beautiful lake to have lunch before heading back to the parking lot.
We drove back the way we came and made one final stop on the way out of the park. Next to the visitor center in Newhalem, the path to the Trail of the Cedars crosses an interesting bridge over the Skagit River. We didn’t have the energy to do the entire trail, but walking up to the bridge was well worth it: the flowing river below looked green because of all the dissolved rock flour!
With a very full day behind us, we were in need of a little snack before heading back to the Seattle area. Luckily, the Cascadian Farms Organic Home Farm is just outside the park’s western boundary and open until 6PM! The espresso and pumpkin ice cream we had here were really good, and we had a great time sitting in the farm’s cute garden and reminiscing on the amazing scenery we had just experienced.
That concludes our day trip to the North Cascades! Stay tuned for the recap of our trip to Olympic National Park!