Want to see some beautiful waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers? Well come on down to North Cascades National Park, located about 3 hours north of Seattle in Washington State. Washington plays host to 3 national parks, and North Cascades is their least visited. It's actually one of the least visited national parks in the lower 48 states, making it perfect for those of us that hate crowds and love nature. The main reason this gorgeous park sees few visitors is due to the fact that there's really only one main road (route 20) through the park- and because of massive amounts of snowfall and avalanches, this road is usually closed from about November to late April. So definitely plan your visit around these months, and check the NPS website for info before you go.
I started my journey in Tacoma, WA in mid-June around 0400. Seattle traffic is a bitch, and I wanted to beat it, hence the early start time. I set my GPS to my first stop- *North Cascades National Park Wilderness Information Center. This info center opens up at 0700 daily, and they are the main providers of backcountry permits, if that's your thing. Otherwise, they provide the usual park information and had a few knick-knacks for sale as
well. I arrived right as they opened, and received some great intel from the rangers about cool hikes and current weather. Side note: The drive up to this park is freakin' gorgeous- a few cute small towns and tons of towering snow-capped mountain peaks.
So to get to the meat of this blog sandwich, here's how to spend a full day in North Cascades Nat'l Park:
*Gorge Creek Falls- My first "official" stop on this lovely adventure was Gorge Creek Falls. There's a parking lot on your right, immediately before a short bridge. If you look to your left, there's a towering, multi-level waterfall, and on your right, a short (0.8mi) loop trail with another waterfall, and a cool view/educational signs about the hydroelectric power dams visible in the river. I honestly didn't expect to see a huge hydroelectricity plant in a nat'l park, but it was actually pretty cool to look at, and the walk to get there was easy and peaceful.
*North Cascades Visitor Center- So I know we already stopped at the Wilderness Information Center, but this Visitor Center is huge, and offers tons of education about the park itself. It has a short film about the park, interactive maps, as well as a plethora of info on the local flora and fauna of the region. Gotta know before you go, as they say. Also, right behind the visitors center is the Sterling Munro Boardwalk, just a 100m stroll and you may catch a glimpse of one of the over 300 glaciers in the park. This is also the only glacier you'll probably see while here, since most of the others are a strenuous hike to see.
*Thunder Knob Trail- This trail was my favorite part of the day. It winds effortlessly up the side of a mountain, where I got to enjoy views of mountain peaks, streams,
swamps, and the gorgeously blue Diablo Lake. It's 3.6 miles to the top with 425ft of elevation gain, so I'd rate it as an easy hike. I was constantly stopping to take photos and enjoying the view, so I'd say that the entire hike there and back took me about 3 hours, but again, I stopped A LOT. But you probably will too. The views are stunning, especially of the lake when you get to the top.
4. Fourth of July Pass Trail- I have not had the opportunity to do this trail yet, but according to the NPS rangers here, it's a real treat. It's about 10+ miles with 2,300ft elevation gain, and surely an all day hike, but apparently the views up here are spectacular, including some views of a few glaciers as well. This is on my to-do list for my next visit, and I'll update this post when I finally have the pleasure of seeing the views for myself.
5. *Washington Pass Observation Site- While technically this vista point is right outside
the boundaries of the national park, it rivals many of the views that are inside the park. To get here, just keep heading straight on Rt 20, look for the signs, and it's on the left. When I went in mid-June, the road up to the actual vista was still closed to cars due to snow, but they did plow a walking path up to it. You can park right at the head of the road (or the parking lot, when it's plowed), and walk the maybe 0.5 miles to the vista. There's a short loop trail you can wander through up here, and I highly suggest doing so. In the mid-June sun there was still snow on this trail, so might I suggest boots? The loop trail contains educational signs and poems about nature, but you'll be to distracted by the views to even notice them.
6. *Mazama Store- Ok, this place is not in the park either, but it's a maybe 15 minute drive from the Washington Pass vista point, and by this point I'm sure you're hungry and need gas. (Keep heading straight on Rt 20, turn left when you see a sign for Mazama). Mazama Store is an adorable general market, with tons of homemade goods, local meats/cheeses/other food, random goodies, outside seating, a sandwich shop, baked goods, and next door there's even a camping store. It has gas so you can fill up your tank, and the most delicious homemade sea-salted baguette to fill up your belly. Seriously, this baguette was insanely good. I bought this and some cheese, and chowed down on my way home.
So there you have it. A few short walks, a little hike, a couple vista points, what more could you want? I even tell you where to get gas and food. The only bummer after this wonderful day was finding out that I had to completely retrace my steps, back through the park, to drive back to Tacoma, which took me about 5 hours with traffic and construction. Yes, it's an absolutely awe-inspiring drive, but I was exhausted. But I would do it again to have another adventure in North Cascades Nat'l Park.