North Cascades National Park Trekking and Backpacking Overview

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Boulder Creek Trail in North Cascades National Park
Boulder Creek Trail in North Cascades National Park (Rosemary Seifried)

North Cascades National Park Trekking and Backpacking Travel Tips

  • North Cascades National Park is renowned for its varied and rugged climbing terrain. The numerous peaks and over 300 glaciers present classic mixed mountaineering routes, intricate glacier travel, and technical rock climbing as well as scrambling—all within a premier wilderness setting.
  • A popular backpacking trail is the 40.4-mile Devil’s Dome Loop, which circumnavigates Jack Mountain. The trail is known for its wonderful wildflowers and much of it is high ridge walking above tree line.
  • Another popular backpacking trail is the 33.5-mile Copper Ridge-Chilliwack River Loop. This strenuous route features a rare ridge walk with expansive mountain views and one of the finest old growth forest hikes in the park.
  • Intrepid hikers, backpackers, and climbers visit all year, but April through October is peak season. The driest and most popular time to visit is during the summer—mid-June through September. Higher elevation trails often remain snow-covered well into July and sometimes August.
  • North Cascades Institute offers hands-on programs including youth adventures, family getaways, adult seminars, retreats, graduate studies, and volunteer stewardship opportunities.

There are 386 miles of trail in the North Cascades National Park complex, allowing access to more than 600,000+ acres of wilderness. The trails follow the long valley bottoms, eventually leaving the dense timber at elevations of 4,000-5,000 feet, allowing spectacular views of an "ocean of peaks." Most hikers enter the national park from trailheads along the North Cascades Highway. Others enter from trailheads along the Cascade River Road, the Stehekin Valley, and via Forest Service trails surrounding the park. Most of the trails are brushed and cleared on a yearly schedule and are in good condition. The lower trails dry out first and nearly all trails below 3,000 feet are open for hiking by mid-April or early May. The higher trails may have some snow on them even in July, so plan accordingly.

Readily reached areas are heavily visited, but some remote locations have yet to feel the boots of backcountry travelers. Forest giants of western red cedar and Douglas fir dot the deep valleys. Off the trail, tangled growths of alder, vine maple, stinging nettles, and devil's club defy cross-country hikers. Glaciers scored by crevasses, permanent snow-fields, sheer-walled cliffs, spires, and pinnacles challenge the mountaineer. Because of the nature of the terrain, off-trail routes are suitable only for the hikers who are experienced, well equipped, and physically fit. The brush in the valleys and on the lower slopes can be thick and formidable and often frustrate even the strongest hikers.

Ross Lake and Lake Chelan both have excellent trail systems. The Pacific Crest Trail, a national scenic trail, passes through North Cascades and is integrated into the park's overall trail system.

Here are some other hiking highlights in the park:

McAlester Pass-Rainbow Lake Loop
Crossing Rainbow Creek and a late-melting snowfield are among the challenges on this hike. Following the Pacific Crest Trail south allows access to several possible loop hikes; other options along this hike include McAlester and Rainbow Lakes.
Challenging crossing of Rainbow Creek and snowfields.
Loop trip: 25.5 miles
Hiking time: 3 days
High Point: 6,500 feet (McAlester Pass)
Snow free: Mid-July to October

Hannegan Pass-Ross Lake
On day three of this hike you can take a worthwhile side trip to one of the most scenic areas at this elevation in the park. Wildflowers, views of glaciers and about a dozen waterfalls are all part of the upper Little Beaver Valley around Twin Rocks Camp.
One-way trip: 46 miles
Hiking time: 5-6 days
High Point: 5,206 feet (Whatcom Pass)
Snow free: Mid-July to October

Colonial Creek Campground-Stehekin Valley
The first ten miles wind through spectacular old-growth forest. Terrific views of glaciers and the national park at the upper end of the Thunder Creek Valley. This valley drains ten percent of all the glaciers in the contiguous United States.
One-way trip: 29.4 miles
Hiking time: 3 days
High Point: 6,040 feet (Park Creek Pass)
Snow free: Late-July to September

Cascade Pass (west side)
Extremely popular trail accessible via gravel Cascade River Road. Access to Sahale Arm, Horseshoe Basin, and Stehekin. Trail winds through fragile alpine meadows (careful does it!)
One-way trip: 7 miles
High Point: 5,384 ft.
Difficulty: moderate

These are only a few of the trails in the park. Books and maps with trail information are also available at the ranger stations and visitor centers. Always check with rangers for current trail conditions.

Keep in Mind

Backpacking: Since very few trail shelters are available, it is wise to carry a lightweight plastic tarp or nylon tent for rain protection. Please don't ditch around your shelter or tent during wet weather. Ditching will cause long-term damage to the environment of the backcountry. Camping is permitted only at designated campsites or not less than 1/2 mile from trails and one mile from established campsites if on cross-country routes. Camping is prohibited in the fragile alpine and subalpine meadows. A wilderness permit is required for all overnight backcountry camping within the national park and recreational areas. Permits are not required for day use or for camping in car access campgrounds. Party size is limited to 12 (six in cross-country zones) and campfires are prohibited in subalpine areas. For more information on wilderness permits, write to Wilderness District Office, 728 Ranger Station Road, Marblemount, WA 98267, or call 206-873-4500.

Campfires: Wood fires are permitted only where iron firegrates are provided and only below the subalpine zones. Please don't cut any live material, but use only dead or downed wood. Backpack stoves are better suited for high country cookery. They burn no wood and leave no fire scars or blackened pots.

Pets: Pets are not allowed on any trail in North Cascades National Park except the Pacific Crest Trail, where they must be on a leash. Leashed pets are allowed on trails within Ross Lake and Lake Chelan NRA.

Insects: The insect problem varies greatly from time to time and place to place, but a general rule would be to carry insect repellent on any hike. Other creatures varying in size from mice to bears might find your food supply tempting. To avoid hunger and harassment, hang your food supplies at least ten feet high from a tree limb.

Hunting Season: Hikers planning trips in the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas during the deer hunting season in September and October should wear some type of red or orange clothing as a safety precaution.

Weather: There is a significant difference between west side and east side climates, with the west side receiving higher precipitation year-round, resulting in cloudier and cooler weather. East side forests, in the Cascade rainshadow, have more sunshine, higher temperatures, and noticeably less vegetation.

Bears: The North Cascades is bear country—we're talkin' grizzlies. You should take the proper precautions against bear attack and food rifling.


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