North Cascades

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.

Maple Pass Trail and mountain peaks.


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.

North Cascades Highway
North Cascades Highway

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.

Diablo Lake in the morning from the overlook
Morning view at Diablo Lake Overlook

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.

Big Leaf Maple
Big Leaf Maple

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.

Beautiful fall color along the trail

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.

LakeAnne (2)
Lake Ann surrounded by the peaks in the Cascades

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.

Views from the top of the pass

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.

View of Rainy Lake along the descent

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.

Lunch view by Rainy Lake

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!

Trail of the Cedars

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!

11 thoughts on “North Cascades

    1. Hi Caroline! Yes, it was pretty clear the whole way around. You just have to make sure you start out in the right direction from the parking lot. The AllTrails map and two links I put in the post gave pretty good directions. Note that you can extend further by actually going to the shores of Lake Anne, but we didn’t do this. We did go to the shore of Rainy Lake (again, that trail was well marked). I heard from a friend who went recently that it can get a little trickier when things are covered with snow. Hope you have fun if you go!


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