North Cascades National Park: Few Official Visitors But So Much to See

Our Visit to North Cascades National Park:

SSC_6598 North Cascades National Park: Few Official Visitors But So Much to See
Gorge Lake

Less Official Visitors Than National Park of the American Samoa?

North Cascades is one of the least visited parks.  It ranked just behind National Park of the American Samoa and just ahead of Isle Royal National Park in 2016.  Both American Samoa and Isle Royal are very difficult to reach.  You can’t just drive to either of these parks and you really have to go a long ways to get to American Samoa.  North Cascades is not too far from Seattle and Highway 20 goes right through the area.  Why are there so few visitors to this park?

First, let’s talk about administration boundaries.  North Cascades has a north unit and a south unit.  This, by itself, is not unusual.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park also has a north unit and a south unit.  The two units of the North Cascades National Park is divided by the Ross Lake National Recreation Area.  Notice I said Highway 20 goes right through the area, but Highway 20 only goes through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and never crosses the North Cascades National Park boundary.  The main visitor center for North Cascades National Park is in Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and the Golden West Visitor Center is located in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, only reachable via a 50 mile ferry ride on Lake Chelan.

You Can’t Drive to the Park!

In order to set foot inside the North Cascades National Park boundary, you have to do some work.  You can hike a few miles from trails near Highway 20 like the Sourdough Mountain Trail and Stetattle Trail, hike many, many miles from Harlequin Campground after taking the ferry to Stehekin and a few miles of road, or drive multiple hours on the gravel Cascade River Road that is often unpassable.  You simply cannot easily drive into the park and view the scenery.  You have to do a lot of work to actually set foot inside the National Park boundary.

Most People Really Visit the Recreation Areas

National Park Service treats the North Cascades National Park, the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area as one complex to manage.  The vast majority of the people, including us, enjoy the national recreation areas without ever setting foot inside the national park itself.  In 2016, North Cascades National Park had only 28,646 visitors but the Ross Lake National Recreation Area recorded 905,418 visitors!

Green River and Lake

SSC_6614 North Cascades National Park: Few Official Visitors But So Much to See

The North Cascades mountains and the Skagit River are beautiful.  Gorge Lake, Diablo Lake, and Ross Lake are all gorgeous with emerald green water fed by the glaciers.  They were created by the dams for hydroelectric generation.  Unfortunately, the landscape is marred by giant high tension power lines that is visible through most of the drive on Highway 20. 

The national park itself offers over 300 miles of hiking trails.  The vast majority of the trails are back country trails that require multiple day backpacking that are for the most prepared and hardy of us.  That is beyond our ability but can be very rewarding for those who can.  I doubt a back country hiker in North Cascades will see many other people while hiking in the mountains. 

Glaciers Galore

The park is home to more than 300 glaciers, the largest outside of Alaska parks.  More than 90% of the park is designated as wilderness area, which means as little human impact as possible, including no motorized transport.  The park was established to protect the wilderness area in 1968, decades after the effort that started after the dams were built.

Visitor Center Outside of Park Boundary

We entered the western boundary of Ross Lake National Recreation Area on Highway 20 as the landscape gradually shifted from open fields to dense forest.  The road follows the Skagit river closely as the mountains grew taller.  We stopped by the visitor center and did our business (stamp and movie).  The movie did not introduce the park, like most other visitor center did, but discussed if brown bears should be reintroduced into the Cascades.  Strange.

Shortly after the visitor center was the large Seattle City Lights complex, which had a nice viewing platform for the dam.  Then Gorge Lake view point.  Gorge Lake was nice and it was the first sighting of the beautiful emerald green lake, but it was not the highlight.  Further down the road was the highlight of the dammed lakes – Diablo Lake.  This was gorgeous and the overlook area had a great view of the lake.  The emerald green water was set against tall, snow capped steep mountains.  What a beautiful scene.  There was only a lonesome kayak on the lake for this early June weekday but I would imagine there would be much more boating on a July weekend.  The scenery is idyllic.

Too Early for a Hike?

SSC_6617 North Cascades National Park: Few Official Visitors But So Much to See

We intended to take a hike at Rainy Lake.  Well, that was our intent, anyway.  Snow was the furthest thing from our minds, even though snow began to appear on the sides of the road.  Right at the entrance to the parking area was a tall snow bank and snow as far as I can see.  There goes our intention.  While we were pondering what to do, another car pulled up and a nice couple came out and convinced us to drive all the way to Winthrop.  They said the magic words – quaint shops and ice cream!

Washington Pass was the highest point on Highway 20, but once again, we were thwarted by snow.  The over view area was closed.  We stopped at the next pull out, with a nice valley on one side and snow capped cliff on the other.  I can only wonder if the designated view point had the same view.

Ice Cream in Quaint Town

SSC_6634 North Cascades National Park: Few Official Visitors But So Much to See

The rest of the drive to Winthrop was not that interesting.  The town of Winthrop, however, had an old western town motif that was very well executed.  Other than the cars parked in front of the stores, it felt like an old western town.  As promised, the shops are quaint and the ice cream was delicious.

Thought for North Cascades National Park:

Don’t let the technicalities get in the way.  Look at the big picture.  Just like the official visitor count of North Cascades National Park is small, but the enjoyment is big together with the nearby National Recreation Areas.

Impressions of North Cascades National Park:

The appeal of North Cascades is in the back country.  While the scenery was beautiful and Diablo Lake was gorgeous, the portion accessible by car was just a nice park, but not really to national park standards.  I’d imagine the back country is different.  Given the work it takes to actually reach inside North Cascades National Park boundary, no wonder it’s one of the least visited parks in the system.

Have you visited North Cascades National Park?  Leave a comment below on your experience.   

North Cascades National Park Rating:

(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings.  All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)

Element Rating (out of 5 Stars)
Scenery ⭐⭐
Variety ⭐⭐⭐
Hiking ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Wildlife ⭐⭐⭐

Guide to North Cascades National Park:

Top Attractions at North Cascades National Park:

  • Hiking in the back country (inside the official national park boundary)
  • Scenic Drive (Route 20) (National Recreation Area)
  • Lake Diablo
  • Gorge Lake
  • Ross Lake
  • Washington Pass
  • Chelan Lake Cruise

One Day Visit Plan:

One day is enough for North Cascades unless you want to do long hikes, water activities, or visit Chilean Lake.  You will spend all of your time in the Lake Ross National Recreation Area.  Drive from the east side of the park to the west side on the only road available.  Stop by the various view points and the short hikes around the visitor center, Rainy Lake, and Washington Pass.

Practical Info for Visiting North Cascades National Park:

  • The park (and the main road) is closed for much of the winter.  Check for conditions but any plans before late June or after September would have some accessibility issues due to snow.
  • Be prepared for back country hiking to really enjoy the park and get away from the crowds.  The Lake Ross Recreation area gets nearly a million visitors a year, but concentrated in the few summer months.
  • Lake Chilean and Stehekin is only accessible by a ferry, plan accordingly.

North Cascades National Park Facts:

  • Size: 504,781 acres, ranked 20th
  • Visitors: 30,326 in 2017, ranked 56th.  Record was 65,984 visitors in 1995.  Visitation data before 1990 not counted because it included the current national recreation areas (Lake Ross and Lake Chelan).  Lake Ross NRA had 759,656 visitors in 2017.  Lake Chelan NRA had 38,464 visitors in 2017
  • Peak Month in 2017: 9,704 visitors in August
  • Low Month in 2017: 6 visitors in February
  • Entrance Fee: None

Date Visited: June 6, 2018


IMG_7825 North Cascades National Park: Few Official Visitors But So Much to See

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