Finding the 10 Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park

No matter what type of excursion you’re craving, North Cascades National Park has a trail to answer the call. From easy strolls featuring peaceful scenery and abundant wildlife to challenging treks that take you high into the mountains, this vast outdoor paradise just three hours outside of Seattle features hundreds of miles of trails to suit day hikers and backpackers of every skill level. 

For a list of the best hotels in North Cascades National Park, please visit our article The 6 Best Hotels Near North Cascades National Park

Our Picks For The Best Hikes In North Cascades National Park

Cascade Pass Trail

best hikes in north cascades national parkWith its relatively gentle grades and breathtaking views, the Cascade Pass Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in North Cascades National Park, meaning you may find it a bit crowded on weekends during peak season. At 3.7 miles from the trailhead to Cascade Pass itself, the route winds through dense forests and over alpine meadows, with the rugged peaks of the Johannesburg Mountain ridgeline as a stunning backdrop. Listen closely and you’re likely to hear the thunder of falling ice and cascading water from the hanging glaciers and falls for which the park is famous. Highlights along the trail include Mixup Peak, Magic Mountain and the Cache Col Glacier, as well as splashes of color from yellow glacier lilies, pink mountain heather blooms and other flora during the late spring and summer months.  

Hikers seeking an additional challenge or backpackers attempting a multi-day trek can join the Sahale Arm Trail, which traverses subalpine meadows and talus fields to the Sahale Glacier, offering glimpses of Mt. Rainier in clear conditions. The Stehekin Trail is also accessible from the Cascade Pass Trail, which follows a 23-mile route to High Bridge, where hikers can catch the shuttle to Stehekin.  

  • Trailhead: North Cascades Highway
  • Distance (round-trip): 7.o miles
  • Elevation gain: 1800 ft.

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Copper Ridge Trail 

best hikes in north cascades national parkThis rugged route is a favorite of serious backpackers, with its challenging terrain and ridgeline environment, although it does draw some brave day hikers and trail runners. With more than 30 miles of out-and-back trail, trekkers can choose their distance as the trail follows the Chilliwack River from Hannegan Pass all the way to Canada’s Chilliwack Lake. Popular destinations include Boundary Camp (5 miles one way), Copper Ridge (13.9 miles one way) and the Chilliwack River Trail (17.3 miles one way). Backpackers will need to get a backcountry permit to use the trail, so apply early if you’re planning a trip during the late summer peak season. 

  • Trailhead:  Hannegan Pass
  • Distance (round-trip): 34.0 miles
  • Elevation gain: 8600 ft

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Desolation Peak Trail

best hikes in north cascades national parkThanks to its remote location and dramatic views, Desolation Peak was a beloved writing retreat for beat poet Jack Kerouac. At less than five miles, the Desolation Peak Trail is far from the longest trek in the park, but what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in the strenuous climb to the summit. Simply getting to the trailhead is an adventure in itself, requiring hikers to either take a charter boat across Ross Lake or complete the 16-mile East Bank Trail along the cliffsides of the reservoir. Ascending more than 4,000 feet over 4.8 miles, the trail crosses lovely subalpine meadows and up steep grades to reach a former fire lookout at the top, offering hikers a place to rest and take in the panoramic views of the valley below. 

  • Trailhead: East Bank Trail
  • Distance (round-trip): 9.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4400 ft.

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Diablo Lake Trail

best hikes in north cascades national parkLocated within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area that bisects North Cascades National Park, the 7-mile out-and-back Diablo Lake Trail takes hikers past the picturesque emerald waters of Ross and Diablo lakes and through lush old-growth forests, passing multiple waterfalls along the way. This special unit features not only the 23-mile long Ross Lake, but also the equally emerald waters of the enchanting Diablo Lake. With its easily accessible trailhead near Highway 20 and just 1,400 feet of elevation gain, this hike is particularly popular with novice and intermediate-level hikers. 

  • Trailhead: North Cascades Highway
  • Distance (round-trip): 7.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1400 ft.

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Fourth of July Pass

best hikes in north cascades national parkDue to its starting altitude of just 3,600 feet, Fourth of July Pass is one of the first trails in the park to become accessible after a snowy winter. The trail offers hikers two routes: one following Panther Creek and one following Thunder Creek. The former features mainly forest scenery, with frequent glimpses of the creek rushing along its well-worn path to join Ruby Creek below. This 6.5-mile route includes steep ascents in its early miles, climbing over a high knob before descending sharply into Panther Creek Valley. The Thunder Creek option is slightly shorter at 5.2 miles, with a similar elevation gain (2,200 feet) but lacking the 500-foot drop included on the Panther Creek side. 

  • Trailhead:  North Cascades Highway
  • Distance (round-trip): 11.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2400 ft

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Hidden Lake Trail

best hikes in north cascades national parkWith nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain over 4.5 miles one way, the Hidden Lake Trail isn’t the ideal trek for new hikers, but those who complete the strenuous 9-mile round trip are rewarded with glimpses of Boston Peak, Mount Forbidden and Sahale Mountain as well as the elusive Hidden Lake on the horizon. The route also passes through thick forests and bucolic meadows and past distinctive avalanche chutes. At the trail’s summit, the retired Hidden Lake Fire Lookout stands ready to welcome hikers for an overnight stay on a first-come, first-served basis. 

 

  • Trailhead: North Cascades Highway
  • Distance (round-trip): 8.0 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3300 ft.

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Rainbow Loop

best hikes in north cascades national parkThis popular, moderate-difficulty trail is known for its stunning spring wildflower blooms and memorable views of the Stehekin Valley and the mountains beyond. With its low elevation, the trail is accessible for much of the year, so expect it to be crowded during the early season when many of the higher trails remain covered in snow.  

The 4.4-mile route takes hikers through stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, with several extended switchbacks comprising most of the 1,000-foot total elevation gain. At the high point of the trail, a rock bench marks a unique geological feature known as a hanging valley, produced by the dual forces of river erosion and glaciation during the most recent Ice Age. A large continental glacier carved the vast Stehekin Valley, while smaller alpine glaciers created smaller tributary valleys like Rainbow Creek, leaving them “hanging” above the larger Stehekin Valley. 

  • Trailhead: Central Cascades
  • Distance (round-trip): 4.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1000 ft

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Sourdough Mountain Trail

best hikes in north cascades national parkHikers up for a serious challenge would do well to attempt the demanding Sourdough Mountain Trail, which climbs 4,870 feet to make it one of the toughest treks in North Cascades National Park. To reach the summit, hikers can approach from Diablo or Pierce Mountain.

The Diablo route is slightly shorter but noticeably steeper, with constant switchbacks over the first 3.5 miles. The middle section of the trail offers hikers brief respite, passing through relatively flat meadowland before reaching Sourdough Creek just over 4 miles into the hike. The route’s final 1.5 miles feature lush scenery, including wildflower-dotted meadows and rugged ridgelines. Wildlife is abundant here, with various bird species as well as deer, small mammals and even bears frequenting the area. Upon reaching the summit, hikers will enjoy panoramic views of the turquoise lakes and vibrant green valleys below and the rocky peaks looming in the distance.  

The Pierce Mountain approach extends 9.9 miles from the Ross Dam Trailhead, following Ross Lake through forests thick with Douglas fir and mountain hemlock before winding through subalpine meadows and a former prescribed burn area that is now carpeted with tall wild grasses. Rock cairns along the ridgeline point hikers to the Sourdough Lookout. 

  • Trailhead: North Cascades
  • Distance (round-trip): 10.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4870 ft

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Thornton Lake Trail

best hikes in north cascades national parkTo reach the trailhead of this challenging route, hikers and backpackers will take Highway 20 approximately 11 miles east of Marblemount to Thornton Lakes Road, a steep, rugged road not suitable for low-clearance vehicles or high speeds. The first half of the trail is deceptively easy, with minimal elevation gain following an old road grade lined with thick brush. The final half of the route ascends almost 2,400 feet to its high point before dropping another 500 feet to reach lower Thornton Lake. Fortunately, trekkers have extraordinary vistas to distract them from the challenging terrain in this section, with the mirrored surface of the lake reflecting the snow-capped peaks and emerald-green forest that surround it. Backpackers with a backcountry permit may opt to spend the night at the picturesque campsite along the lakeshore. 

  • Trailhead: North Cascades
  • Distance (round-trip): 10.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2900 ft

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Newhalem Trails

best hikes in north cascades national parkWithin the corporate enclave of Newhalem, which provides short-term housing for employees of Seattle City Light and the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a handful of well-established trails provides fantastic options for novice and physically-challenged hikers and families with small children. These trails deliver the spectacular scenery for which North Cascades National Park is known without the brutal elevation gains and highly technical terrain of many of the park’s other popular routes. The Newhalem trails include:

  • Sterling Munro Viewpoint: At just under a quarter mile, this wooden boardwalk leads from the North Cascades Visitor Center along Goodell Creek, featuring views of the Picket Range. 
  • River Loop Trail: Also starting from the North Cascades Visitor Center, this 1.8-mile loop winds through thick forest to a quiet gravel bar along the river. Hikers can also connect to several loops within the Newhalem Creek Campground from this route. 
  • Rock Shelter Trail: This 1000-foot, wheelchair-accessible path begins just past the Newhalem Creek Bridge, with easy grades that take hikers past an ancient hunting camp dating back 1,400 years. An adjoining trail takes trekkers on a brief jaunt through an old-growth cedar stand near the creek.  
  • Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk: At just under a third of a mile, this easy gravel path starts at the suspension bridge in Newhalem and winds through old growth forest along the Skagit River.
  • Trailhead: North Cascades
  • Distance (round-trip): 9.0 miles
  • Elevation gain:  800 ft

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