21 Best Sights in North Cascades National Park, Washington

Cascade Pass

Fodor's choice

This extremely popular, 3¾-mile (one-way), four-hour trail is known for stunning panoramas from the great mountain divide. Dozens of peaks line the horizon as you make your way up the fairly flat, hairpin-turn track, the scene fronted by a blanket of alpine wildflowers from July to mid-August. Arrive before noon if you want a parking spot at the trailhead. If you're feeling fit (and ambitious), a much longer hike (23 miles) goes all the way to High Bridge, where you can catch a shuttle to Stehekin in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Moderate.

Diablo Lake Vista Point

Fodor's choice

This is a must-stop photo op: indeed, countless photos of the gorgeous lake with its turquoise water have been taken from here over the decades.

North Cascades Scenic Highway

Fodor's choice

Also known as Highway 20, this classic scenic route, part of the greater Cascades Loop, runs roughly 140 miles between Sedro-Woolley and Twisp. Heading west to east, the highway first winds through the green pastures and woods of the upper Skagit Valley, with mountains looming in the distance. Beyond Concrete, a former cement-manufacturing town, the highway climbs into the mountains, passes the Diablo and Ross dams, and traverses the park's Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Here several pull-outs offer great views of the lake and the surrounding snowcapped peaks. From June to September, the meadows are covered with wildflowers, and from late September through October, the mountain slopes glow with fall foliage. The pinnacle of this stretch is 5,477-foot-high Washington Pass: look east, to where the road descends quickly into a series of hairpin curves between Early Winters Creek and the Methow Valley. Remember, this section of the highway is closed from roughly November to April, depending on snowfall, and sometimes closes temporarily during the busy summer season due to mudslides from storms. From the Methow Valley, Highway 153 travels along the Methow River's apple, nectarine, and peach orchards to Pateros, on the Columbia River; from here, you can continue east to Grand Coulee or south to Lake Chelan.

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Rainbow Falls

Fodor's choice

It's a 3½-mile bike ride or shuttle bus ride to popular Rainbow Falls in Stehekin. The quarter-mile round-trip Rainbow Falls Mist Trail takes you up some stairs (step carefully; it can get slippery from dampness) to a landing platform for a closer view of the 312-foot falls. When the sun hits the mist just right, you can see the rainbow—hence the name.


Fodor's choice

One of the most beautiful and secluded valleys in the Pacific Northwest, Stehekin was homesteaded by hardy souls in the late 19th century. It's actually not a town, but rather a small community at the scenic northeast end of Lake Chelan, and it's accessible only by boat or trail. Year-round residents—there's about 100 of them—enjoy a wilderness lifestyle. They have intermittent outside communications, boat-delivered supplies, and just two dozen cars among them—vehicles must be barged in, after all. Even on a peak summer season day, only around 200 visitors make the trek here.

Buckner Homestead

Dating from 1889, this restored pioneer farm includes an apple orchard, farmhouse, barn, and many ranch buildings. You can pick up a self-guided tour booklet from the drop box. Feel free to enjoy apples from the trees in season. A harvest festival is held in October. The site may not be too accessible in winter if there's a lot of snow. 

Chelan Ranger Station

The base for the Chelan National Recreation Area and Wenatchee National Forest has an information desk and a shop selling regional maps and books.

Golden West Visitor Center

Maps and concise displays at this visitor center explain the layered ecology of the valley, which encompasses virtually every ecosystem in the Northwest. Rangers offer guidance on hiking, camping, and other activities and arrange bike tours. The center also has an arts-and-crafts gallery and audiovisual and children's programs. Campers can pick up free backcountry permits. Note that access to Stehekin is by boat or trail only.

Happy Creek Forest Walk

Old-growth forests are the focus of this kid-friendly boardwalk route, a ½-mile loop through the trees off the North Cascades Scenic Highway. Interpretive signs provide details about flora along the way. Easy.

Ladder Creek Falls and Rock Gardens

The rock gardens overlooking Ladder Creek Falls, 7 miles west of Diablo, are beautiful and inspiring. In summer, a slide show about the powerhouse and the area's history is offered at 8 pm on Thursday and Friday evening in Currier Hall in Newhalem, followed by a free guided walk to the falls; visitors can reserve in advance for a chicken dinner at 7 pm. Skagit Information Center has maps for a self-guided walk.


Home base for both the national park's main North Cascades Visitor Center and the Skagit Information Center—run by the park service, the North Cascades Institute, and Seattle City Light—the tiny, unincorporated hamlet of Newhalem is tucked between the North and South units of the park, amid the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Stop at the centers for maps and permits and to get information on area tours and nearby trails.
North Cascades Scenic Hwy. (Hwy. 20), North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA

North Cascades Park & Forest Information Center

This is the park's major administrative center and the place to pick up passes, permits, and information about current conditions.

North Cascades Visitor Center

The main visitor facility for the park has extensive displays on the surrounding landscape. Learn about the history and value of old-growth trees, the many creatures that depend on the rain-forest ecology, and the effects of human activity on the ecosystem. Check bulletin boards for special programs with park rangers.

Seattle City Light Information and Tour Center

Based at a history museum that has exhibits about the onset of electric power through the Cascade ranges, Seattle's public electric company offers tours and programs during summer. Several trails start at the building, and the group offers sightseeing excursions on Diablo Lake in partnership with the North Cascades Institute, Thursday through Monday in summer by advance reservation, and afternoon cruises on summer weekends. The tour includes a visit to the Diablo Dam. Free 45-minute walking tours through the historic town of Newhalem are offered daily from July through Labor Day.

Skagit Information Center

This center is operated by Seattle City Light, North Cascades Institute, and the national park. It's the gathering point for various tours run by Seattle City Light and has exhibits about the utility's hydroelectric projects in the North Cascades. Pick up a map of a self-guided walking tour of historic Newhalem, as well as other park information.

Sterling Munro Trail

Starting from the North Cascades Visitor Center, this popular introductory stroll follows a short 300-foot path over a boardwalk to a lookout above the forested Picket Range peaks. Easy.

Trail of the Cedars

Less than ½ mile long, this loop trail winds its way through one of the finest surviving stands of old-growth western red cedar in Washington. Some of the trees along the path are more than 1,000 years old. Easy.

Wilderness Information Center

The main stop to secure backcountry and climbing permits for North Cascades National Park and the Lake Chelan and Ross Lake recreational areas, this office has maps, a bookshop, and nature exhibits. If you arrive after hours, there's a self-register permit stop outside.