Camping in North Cascades National Park should be near the top of every outdoor fanatic’s camping bucket list.
Known for its stunning green-blue alpine lakes, soaring glacier-capped mountains, and seemingly endless expanses of evergreen forests, this Washington State national park is a natural wonderland for camping and backpacking.
It combines easy access along State Route 20 (known as North Cascades Highway) with ample hiking, backpacking, and boating opportunities that take you into immaculate, almost entirely unexploited wilderness.
Mix in dozens of great campgrounds, including hike-in and boat-in backcountry campgrounds, and it`s no wonder nearly one million visitors visit the North Cascades National Park Complex each year.
Here is our ultimate visitors guide to help plan your North Cascades National Park camping trip.
- Park Layout
- Best Campgrounds in the Park
- Other Park Campgrounds
- Best Campgrounds Near the Park
- Free Camping
- Other Lodging
- Camping Gear Checklist
- Additional Camping Tips
- Must-See Destinations
- Hiking & Backpacking
- Other Park Activities
- Things to Do Nearby
- Plan Your Visit
- Sample Camping Itineraries
North Cascades National Park Camping Highlights
North Cascades National Park is a rugged wilderness paradise.
Roaring rivers, countless waterfalls, majestic alpine lakes, glacier-clad peaks, brilliant wildflower meadows, and towering evergreen trees are just a sample of what campers can expect to encounter.
Located in the North Cascades Range, the park is just two hours north of Seattle. It’s made up of over 500,000 acres of the almost entirely protected Stephen Mather Wilderness. It has very few roads or manmade structures to limit human impact.
The North Cascades Highway bisects the park into a northern and southern unit. Most North Cascades campgrounds are located along this highway. But you must hike off the main road for the full experience – the deeper into the wilderness you go, the better.
Unlike other national parks, such as Yellowstone National Park, North Cascades National Park doesn`t have a Disneyland-like outdoor atmosphere with boardwalks, lodges, visitor centers, restaurants, gift shops, and gaggles of tourists.
Instead, you`re in for rugged, untamed, and remote wilderness camping experience.
North Cascades National Park Layout
North Cascades National Park has a slightly confusing layout.
Even looking at a map of the North Cascades doesn’t help sort out the confusion without a more detailed explanation.
The North Cascades National Park Complex is actually made up of three parts: the core North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
North Cascades National Park itself has few roads or services. The only campgrounds within the core park are located in the backcountry.
Most North Cascades campgrounds are actually located in the two adjacent national recreation areas. The most convenient car campgrounds, for example, are all located in Ross Lake National Recreation Area just off Highway 20.
Even though these campgrounds are not technically part of the core national park, they are part of the larger national park complex. The National Park Service even considers them North Cascades National Park campgrounds.
Because of this unique layout and lack of roads and other services, North Cascades is one of only a few national parks that don`t require an entry fee.
Best Campgrounds in North Cascades National Park
Most North Cascades camping is located in the adjacent Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
These five campgrounds can all be accessed by car. Many, but not all, are spacious enough to accommodate RVs and campers. The majority have running water and flush toilets in the peak season and vault toilets in the off-season. Reservations for select campsites are available online at Recreation.gov.
Here are the best campgrounds in North Cascades National Park:
Colonial Creek Campground
Colonial Creek Campground is located near beautiful Diablo Lake. Campsites are available on the lakeshore, along a nearby creek, and deep in the forest.
This easy-to-access campground contains two loops, a north loop with 42 first-come first-served campsites and a south loop with 93 reservable campsites.
Several back-in and pull-through spots are available for small RVs and campers. No RV hookups are available at Colonial Creek Campground.
This campground boasts flush toilets, potable water, and garbage service during the summer. In the off season, a few campsites in the south loop remain open with no services (other than vault toilets), although you should expect snow on the ground.
In addition to the peaceful campsites, this North Cascades campground is notable for its ample hiking opportunities (check out the 3.6-mile roundtrip Thunder Knob hike), boat launch, and fishing dock.
Learn more about Colonial Creek Campground.
Goodell Creek Campground
Goodell Creek Campground is located just off North Cascades Highway on the west side of the park. It has a main campground with 19 first-come first-served campsites and two reservable group camping areas.
Although Goodell Creek Campground is located within walking distance of the town of Newhalem, its small size and forested atmosphere make it quiet and peaceful.
The main campground is open year-round (as weather permits). The two group campgrounds are only open during summer. Vault toilets are available year-round while potable water and garbage service are only available in the summer.
Learn more about Goodell Creek Campground.
Gorge Lake Campground
Gorge Lake Campground is another option for car camping in North Cascades National Park.
With just 8 total campsites, all first-come first-served, this is one of the best North Cascades National Park campgrounds for those that value privacy.
Note that Gorge Lake is a primitive campground. This means that it has no services or amenities, aside from vault toilets. Campsites are open year-round, although you should expect snow in the winter.
Learn more about Gorge Lake Campground.
Hozomeen Campground is one of the most unique places for North Cascades National Park camping.
The remote campground is accessed by traveling through Canada to the town of Hope, British Columbia before turning south through an uncontrolled area of the border. The road into the campground is rough and unpaved (bring a spare tire and know how to change it). The reward is well worth the long and inconvenient journey.
Hozomeen Campground has 75 campsites plus several overflow camping areas. The entire area is first-come first-served with no reservations offered.
The area is open for camping year-round, although the border gates close to vehicles in the winter, making it walk-in only for the off-season. Forest fires routinely close the access road in the summer, so check the current fire conditions while planning your trip.
Learn more about Hozomeen Campground.
Newhalem Creek Campground
Newhalem Creek Campground is the largest and most popular campground in North Cascades National Park.
It is centrally located along the North Cascades Highway just outside of the town of Newhalem. It’s known for its large, spacious campsites capable of accommodating large RVs.
Newhalem Creek Campground consists of a main campground (separated into three loops) and a group camping area. There is a mixture of first-come first-served campsites and reservable campsites (reserve online at Recreation.gov).
No RV hookups are available, although there is an RV dump station as well as flush toilets, potable water, and garbage service during the summer. Vault toilets are available in the off season.
Newhalem Creek is a favorite among family campers with young children thanks to its proximity to the visitor center, summer ranger programs, and abundance of nearby hiking trails.
Learn more about Newhalem Creek Campground.
Other North Cascades National Park Campgrounds
Want to camp in North Cascades National Park`s actual boundaries (not one of the two adjacent national recreation areas)?
Then you must hike or boat into the backcountry to one of these North Cascades wilderness camping areas.
Here are the best backcountry campgrounds in North Cascades National Park:
Over 130 wilderness campsites are located in North Cascades National Park and the surrounding Stephen Mather Wilderness.
Backcountry camping is only allowed within these established campsites. Although permits are required for overnight backpacking, they are free at ranger stations.
The National Park Service limits the number of backcountry permits available at a time to minimize the human impact on the park complex.
Most permits are available on a first-come first-served basis. Simply visit the ranger station on the first day of your trip. A handful of advanced backcountry reservations are now available for select campsites.
Learn more about backcountry camping in North Cascades National Park.
These campgrounds are often lumped in with other North Cascades wilderness campgrounds – but they’re actually quite different.
Boat-in camping is one of the best ways to explore the majesty of the park`s many lakes. Campsites are available along the shores of Diablo Lake, Ross Lake, and Lake Chelan.
Staying at a boat-in campground is free but requires a backcountry permit. Most permits are first-come first-served, although a handful of backcountry reservations are available.
Using a dock in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area requires an additional Federal Dock Permit. Ross Lake Resort offers a variety of boat rentals. In addition to power boats, many visitors enjoy canoe and kayak camping.
Learn more about individual North Cascades boat-in campsites.
Camping in Stehekin
Camping in Stehekin is one of the most unique ways to go camping in North Cascades National Park.
The remote village of Stehekin, located along the northern shore of Lake Chelan, cannot be reached by car. There are no roads leading into the remote town.
Instead, all visitors much reach Stehekin by hiking, backpacking, or boating. The Lady of the Lake passenger ferry provides regular service in the summer. Another option is to charter a small private aircraft or seaplane.
Most Stehekin campgrounds are free and require only a backcountry permit. Lakeside campsites require an additional Federal Dock Permit if you plan to arrive by boat.
Most Stehekin camping is primitive, although a handful of campsites, including Purple Point Campground, have flush toilets and potable water.
Walk into town from the nearby campsites to access the general store, restaurant, laundry service, and hot showers.
Learn more about camping in Stehekin.
Best Campgrounds Near North Cascades National Park
Camping in North Cascades National Park isn`t limited to the national park complex.
There are a huge number of camping opportunities just outside the park. Most of these are located along the North Cascades Highway.
Here are a few of the best campgrounds near North Cascades National Park:
Alpine RV Park
RV camping in North Cascades National Park doesn`t get much better than Alpine RV Park just outside of Marblemount.
The family-friendly campground has spacious RV campsites as well as a large grassy area for tent camping. Full and partial hookups, free wireless Internet, hot showers, flush toilets, and running water are available.
Learn more about Alpine RV Park.
Baker Lake Campgrounds
Located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, a variety of campgrounds are available near Baker Lake.
Among the best campgrounds are Shannon Creek Campground, Horseshoe Cove Campground, and Swift Creek Campground. Depending on the specific campground, you can expect vault toilets or flush toilets, hot showers, and lake access. Many campsites can accommodate RVs and campers.
Concrete/Grandy Creek KOA
Family campers and RV enthusiasts love the KOA in Concrete. It features pull-thru RV sites (for rigs up to 90 feet), a grassy tent camping area, and classic KOA cabins. Summer activities include ice cream socials, tractor hayrides, and pancake breakfasts.
Learn more about the Concrete/Grandy Creek KOA.
Lone Fir Campground
This first-come first-served North Cascades campground is located to the east of the national park near Mazama. It`s a popular stop for bicycle camping and can accommodate RVs up to 36 feet long.
Learn more about Lone Fir Campground.
Marble Creek Campground
Marble Creek Campground is an excellent staging ground for backpacking in North Cascades National Park.
Located near Marblemount, the spacious, wooded campground has campsites for both tent camping and RV camping. No running water is available, although the campground does have vault toilets.
Learn more about Marble Creek Campground.
Pearrygin Lake State Park
Near Winthrop, Pearrygin Lake State Park is a peaceful campground for those exploring the east side of the North Cascades.
The campground has 92 total campsites, including 50 with full hookups and 27 with partial hookups, making it an excellent choice for North Cascades RV camping. Two cabins, complete with kitchenettes and small bathrooms, are also available to rent.
Learn more about camping at Pearrygin Lake State Park.
Winthrop/North Cascades National Park KOA
To the east of the national park is the popular Winthrop KOA.
Also known as the North Cascades National Park KOA, this bustling family campground is set on the Methow River just outside of Winthrop. It has numerous RV camping sites (maximum length is 70 feet), spacious grassy tent areas, and KOA cabins (both classic and deluxe style).
A free shuttle ride is offered into town for those that wish to explore Western-themed Winthrop.
Learn more about Winthrop/North Cascades National Park KOA.
Free Camping in North Cascades National Park
Free camping in North Cascades National Park is surprisingly abundant.
Most of the park’s car campgrounds require a small fee during the main season. All campgrounds which remain open during the off-season are free for intrepid winter campers. All backcountry campsites are free year-round with a backcountry permit.
Nearby North Cascades free camping areas include dispersed sites in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and near Baker Lake. Hozomeen Campground at the north of Ross Lake (accessed through Canada) is also free year-round.
Another free camping option is to explore the many Sno Parks and Rest Areas along Highway 20. However, these are typically only for overnight stays in RVs and cars. Most don`t allow tents, campfires, or the other normal trappings of camping.
Most of these free campsites are dispersed camping areas without any services (including no trash removal, picnic tables, fire rings, or toilets), so get ready for boondocking.
In addition to our complete guide to free camping, FreeCampsites.net is one of the best resources to find free camping in the North Cascades.
Other North Cascades National Park Lodging Options
Camping just isn`t for everyone. Some prefer the creature comforts of a warm bed, hot shower, and Wi-Fi connection.
Or maybe you want to break up your North Cascades camping trip with a night or two in a cabin, hotel, or lodge.
The North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin has a variety of comfortable rooms and rustic cabins, including some rooms with views of Lake Chelan.
Learn more about Stehekin Lodge.
Ross Lake Resort
A one-of-a-kind floating community of cabins and bunkhouses, Ross Lake Resort is one of the most unique places to stay in the North Cascades. It`s located on the west side of Ross Lake near the Ross Lake Dam. There is no road access, so visitors must choose between hiking in or taking the Diablo Lake Ferry.
Learn more about Ross Lake Resort.
Nearby Hotels, Cabins, Airbnb`s
The Mt. Baker Hotel in Concrete (west of the park) is a popular jumping off point for exploring North Cascades National Park.
Another nearby option, on the other side of the park, is the Mazama Country Inn in the Methow Valley.
Many North Cascades visitors now search for nearby lodging, typically cabins and guesthouses, with Airbnb.
Specific Camping Gear You Need
Make sure to pack the right equipment for camping in North Cascades National Park.
In addition to the gear on our family camping checklist, you should consider the following specific camping gear for your North Cascades trip.
Rainy Weather Gear
Much of North Cascades National Park is located high in the mountains.
Even during the summer months, the area regularly experiences drastic changes in weather, sometimes going from warm sun to cold wind and rain in just moments.
Although you can usually expect sun and warm temperatures between mid-June and late-September, you should always bring warm clothing and at least a waterproof rain jacket.
Traveling in spring or fall requires preparation for even greater temperature variation. Make sure to bring a waterproof tent, warm sleeping bag, and warm clothing, especially if you are planning a backpacking trip.
Be prepared to camp in the rain during spring, summer, and fall. Consider the possibility of camping in the snow in fall, winter, and spring.
Food Storage Equipment
Most North Cascades campgrounds are smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.
Although wildlife sightings of large mammals like bears, cougars, and wolves are relatively rare, it`s important to take the necessary wildlife food storage precautions to limit encounters.
In fact, all North Cascades National Park campgrounds require proper food storage.
Most car campgrounds provide built-in bear boxes. Alternatively, you can store all food – as well as any other scented items – in a hard-sided vehicle (never in your tent!).
Backpacking, boat-in, and other wilderness campers must bring a hard-sided food storage canister or hang all food at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet from any trunk or tree limb.
In addition to keeping you and your family safe, these food safety measures are designed to protect the safety of the animals that call the North Cascades home.
REI has an excellent guide on food storage for camping and backpacking.
North Cascades National Park is notable for its rugged, rutted, unmaintained terrain.
If you plan on hiking or backpacking during your visit, it`s essential to bring broken-in boots – not a brand-new pair. Your feet will thank you.
Here`s how to buy the best winter boots for hiking.
Additional Camping Tips and Information
Use these resources to better plan your North Cascades National Park camping or backpacking trip.
Do I Need Camping Reservations?
None of the backcountry, boat-in, or wilderness campgrounds in North Cascades National Park require advance reservations.
However, all overnight backpacking and camping within the national park complex does require a backcountry permit, a portion of which can now be reserved in advance through the backcountry permit reservation system.
The five drive-in car campgrounds in North Cascade National Park offer a combination of first-come first-served campsites and reservation campsites.
Those camping in the summer, especially at the campsites along the SR 20 corridor, should make advanced reservations through Recreation.gov.
First-Come, First-Served Camping
All of the campgrounds in North Cascades National Park have first-come first-serve camping, although the popular campgrounds along SR 20 fill up quickly in the summer. Arrive early if you plan to camp without making advance reservations.
There are no campsites with RV hookups within North Cascades National Park or the surrounding national park complex.
However, many of the campsites, including those at Colonial Creek Campground and Newhalem Creek Campground, are spacious enough for small to mid-size RVs as well as popup campers.
Large RVs are better off camping at one of the more spacious campgrounds just outside the park, such as Alpine RV Park or Pearrygin Lake State Park.
Our selection of the best RV rentals in Seattle is perfect for anyone interested in renting an RV to camp in North Cascades National Park.
Camping in the Summer
Summer is the busiest time of year for camping in North Cascades National Park.
Most first-come first-serve campgrounds fill up before noon. Campers, especially those with families, should consider making advanced reservations.
Wildfires are a near-annual occurrence in the North Cascades. Check current wildfire reports for potential campground closures and information regarding air quality from smoke.
Because of the extreme forest fire danger, campfires are typically banned from mid summer through early fall in all North Cascades campgrounds.
Camping in the Off-Season
Highway closures to a portion of SR 20 are an annual winter occurrence, typically lasting from at least mid-November to late April or early May. In recent years, the highway has remained closed until early June.
Despite highway closures, many North Cascades National Park campgrounds remain open in the winter.
All open campgrounds are first-come first-served during winter. No overnight camping fees apply, although backcountry permits are still required for wilderness camping.
In addition to the right winter camping gear, including a winter tent and winter sleeping bag, you must remain vigilant to avalanche danger, especially in the backcountry.
Keep an eye on the avalanche forecast, bring the proper avalanche safety gear, and know what to do in an avalanche.
An avalanche safety course is a smart idea for anyone planning to hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, or camp in North Cascades National Park in the winter.
Camping for Pacific Crest Trail Hikers
One of the northernmost stretches of the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail crosses through North Cascades National Park.
Many thru-hikers and long-distance hikers camp for at least one night in the park. Like other overnight backpackers, those hiking the PCT must get a backcountry permit.
Thru-hikers typically get their permits from the Golden West Visitor Center in Stehekin, Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, or the Methow Valley Ranger Station in Winthrop.
The Long Distance Permits offered by the Pacific Crest Trail Association do not cover overnight stays within North Cascades National Park.
Because the PCT only crosses through 18 miles of the national park, many thru-hikers choose to hike through in a single day so they don`t have to deal with the permit system.
Camping with Pets
Pets are not allowed in the majority of North Cascades National Park.
The sole exception is on the 18-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail and within 50 feet of any roads.
Pets are allowed in the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area sections of the national park complex, including all car campgrounds.
Check out our guide to backpacking with dogs for more information on camping with pets.
Food Storage & Wildlife Safety
Never approach wildlife.
While many hikers and campers think this rule only applies to large mammals like bears, cougars, and wolves, it actually applies to all animal life in the park.
The same goes for feeding wildlife. Never intentionally feed animals or leave food outside unattended.
Follow all camping food storage best practices, whether you`re in a car campground or in the backcountry.
Most importantly, store all food and scented items in a hard-sided vehicle, approved food storage container, or suspended at least 10 feet above the ground.
Where to Buy Groceries/Supplies
There are no grocery stores, convenience stores, or other places to buy supplies in North Cascades National Park.
Most visitors do their shopping before starting their trip.
Large grocery and convenience stores are located in the towns of Burlington (west of the park) and Winthrop (east of the park).
Burlington has large chain stores like Fred Meyer and Safeway as well as a Walmart Supercenter and a selection of smaller convenience stores.
Winthrop`s largest grocery store is a Thriftway Store. There are also a number of small convenience stores in town.
Closer to the west side of the park, you`ll find a Red Apple Market in Concrete, the Skagit General Store in Rockport, and a few gas stations with limited supplies in Marblemount. On the east side is the family-run Mazama Store in Mazama.
The REI in Lynwood and the Cabela`s in Tulalip are the best outdoor recreation stores to stock up on any forgotten camping or hiking supplies for those traveling to the park from Seattle.
North Cascades National Park Must-See Destinations
North Cascades National Park is brimming with must-see destinations.
But, thanks to the park`s unique geography, layout, and lack of development, many of the most beautiful areas are difficult to access.
Fortunately, there are countless breathtaking sites within the national park complex that are easy to access by car or via a short hike.
North Cascades Highway
Also known as Washington SR 20, the North Cascades Highway cuts across the national park through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The drive itself is beautiful with views of pristine lakes, jagged mountains, and lush forests just out your window. Many consider it among the most beautiful scenic drives in America.
Cascade Pass is notable as the only road that actually enters the core North Cascades National Park. The 20-mile gravel road meanders southeast out of Marblemount before ending at a small trailhead. Hike the 7-mile roundtrip trail for breathtaking views of glaciated peaks for as far as the eye can see. The view is one of the best payouts of any hike in the North Cascades.
Dazzlingly turquoise, Diablo Lake (actually a reservoir created by Diablo Dam) is a haven for paddling and boating. The 7.6-mile roundtrip Diablo Lake Trail is a fine hike with sweeping views of surrounding peaks.
Arguably the most unique of all North Cascades campgrounds, Hozomeen requires quite a trek to reach, but the long journey is well worth it. Accessed through an uncontrolled section of the Canadian border, Hozomeen is located at the northern tip of Ross Lake. Steep forested valleys pen the campground in, but nearby hikes allow for a greater view of the surrounding area, including a direct view of Hozomeen Mountain.
The 50-mile long Lake Chelan is one of Washington State`s most popular summer destinations, although much of the activity is centered around the two communities at the southern end of the lake. Head to the far north end of the lake to visit Stehekin, among the most remote areas of the North Cascades. Lady of the Lake provides passenger ferry service to Stehekin.
Ross Lake (also a reservoir) is among the most popular destinations in North Cascades National Park. Although you can see it from the scenic highway, it`s best to stop and explore its many miles of lakeshore. In addition to its beautiful turquoise hue, it`s a prime spot for paddling, boating, fishing, and even swimming – although the water is very cold year-round.
Hiking and Backpacking in North Cascades National Park
Hiking in North Cascades National Park is hard to beat. It’s home to hundreds of miles of hiking and backpacking trails.
The Washington Trails Association is an excellent resource for finding hikes in the area. Their Essential Washington: 20 Must-Do Hikes is a good starting point.
Here are some of the best North Cascade National Park hikes for all skill levels:
Best Short Hikes
Not everyone wants to hike many miles over difficult terrain. For families with young children and others looking to take it easy, the Trail of Cedars is a good choice. This 1-mile hike starts in Newhalem, crosses a suspension bridge over the Skagit River, and ends at the historic Newhalem Powerhouse.
Best Day Hikes
The Diablo Lake Trail is one of the most popular day hikes in the North Cascades. The 7.6-mile roundtrip hike provides sweeping views of the turquoise Diablo Lake and a variety of snowcapped peaks.
Another one of the best day hikes in North Cascades National Park is Cascade Pass. Follow the 7-mile roundtrip trail deep into the backcountry. Old growth forest, verdant valleys, and staggering mountain peaks are only a few of the sights you’ll see along the way. By trail`s end, you`ll be in the middle of one of the most glaciated regions in the contiguous United States.
Those visiting the Stehekin area of the North Cascades should check out the 7.6-mile roundtrip Stehekin River Trail. The easy, meandering hiking trail follows the Stehekin River, starting right in the popular Harlequin Campground.
Best Fire Lookout Tower Hikes
North Cascades National Park is home to dozens of historic fire lookout towers.
Once used to patrol the area for forest fires, these remnants of the past now serve as interesting hiking destinations. Located on top of some of the highest peaks, you’re almost always in for a great view.
The 10.4-mile roundtrip Sourdough Mountain is accessed from the town of Marblemount. The lookout tower was built in 1933. It was notably manned by Beat Generation poets Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen.
Desolation Peak is home to another fire lookout manned by a Beat Generation writer and poet. The lookout tower and surrounding area has been widely mythologized in Jack Kerouac’s writings. The 9.4-mile roundtrip hike rewards you with beautiful views of the northern section of the North Cascades. This trail is most easily accessed from the Hozomeen Campground.
Best Overnight Backpacking Trips
Backpacking in North Cascades National Park doesn`t get much better than the Devils Dome Loop.
The 43-mile roundtrip is brutal – expect over 3,300 feet in elevation gain during the first 4 miles, but the views are worth it. In addition to countless wildflower meadows, you`ll encounter sweeping views of the snow-capped granite peaks.
Even experienced hikers recommend spending a few extra days on the trail. Most backpackers plan to spend 4 to 5 days on Devils Dome Loop to safely navigate the difficult terrain and fully appreciate the pristine natural beauty.
Note that all overnight camping in North Cascades National Park requires a free backcountry permit.
Other Activities in North Cascades National Park
Camping, hiking, and backpacking are just the tip of the iceberg of fun activities in North Cascades National Park.
Here are some other great ways for the whole family to enjoy this beautiful wilderness:
Art & History
Due to its lack of manmade structures, there is little in the way of art and history in North Cascades National Park. The exception is the historic fire lookout towers dotting many of the park’s mountain peaks. Most notable among these is Desolation Peak where Beat Generation writer and poet Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956.
Learn more about North Cascades National Park fire lookout towers.
The North Cascades Highway is an enjoyable yet challenging route for bicyclists. It boasts over 7,000 feet in elevation gain. Newhalem Creek Campground and Colonial Creek Campground both have campsites reserved for bicyclists. Note that bicycles are not allowed on any park trails, although mountain biking is allowed on nearby national forest land.
Learn more about bicycling in North Cascades National Park.
Boating is a popular activity in the national park complex, especially boating on Ross Lake. Boat rentals are available at Ross Lake Resort. The park also has several boat-in campsites.
Learn more about boating in North Cascades National Park.
Canoeing & Kayaking
Canoeing and kayaking is another way to explore the beautiful lakes and many boat-in campgrounds of the North Cascades and surrounding areas. Ross Lake Resort also offers canoe and kayak rentals.
Learn more about canoeing and kayaking in North Cascades National Park.
Mountaineers love the North Cascades for the sheer number and variety of climbs, including scrambling, glacier climbing, and rock climbing. Most climbs are relatively private. You`re unlikely to encounter crowds on most routes.
Learn more about climbing and mountaineering in North Cascades National Park.
Eating & Drinking
North Cascades National Park has very few eating establishments. According to Fodor`s Travel, the most popular are a café at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and the Stehekin Valley Ranch dining room in Stehekin. The Mazama Store, just outside of the park`s east boundary, is a popular general store, café, and gift shop.
Fishing is a popular activity in North Cascade National Park and surrounding areas. You`ll find five naturally-occurring salmon species plus rainbow trout in the Skagit River and Ross, Diablo, and Gorge Lakes. Fishing equipment rentals are available at Ross Lake Resort.
Learn more about fishing in North Cascades National Park.
Hit the trails on horse for a unique North Cascades experience. The park boasts multiple options for day and overnight horseback riding trips, including horse campgrounds. Cascade Corrals in Stehekin offers riding lessons and guided day rides.
Learn more about horseback riding in the North Cascades.
Children and adults alike will love the ranger programs the park offers. These include slideshows, nature walks, and Junior Ranger programs. The National Park Service maintains a calendar of events during the main season.
Learn more about North Cascades National Park ranger programs.
Snowshoeing is one of the most popular winter activities in the North Cascades and the surrounding area. Dozens of snowshoe hikes are available for all experience and fitness levels.
Learn more about snowshoeing in North Cascades National Park.
Skiing & Snowboarding
Although surrounding areas, such as Mt. Baker Ski Area, are better known for skiing and snowboarding, North Cascades National Park is open for skiing and snowboarding as weather allows. The park is best suited for cross-country skiing, but it`s open for backcountry skiing as well. Avalanche danger is very high, so take all necessary avalanche safety precautions.
Learn more about skiing and snowboarding in the North Cascades, including guided ski tours.
North Cascades many lakes and reservoirs offer ample swimming opportunities for those willing to brave the cold, glacier-fed waters. Ross Lake is one of the best swimming areas in Washington State.
Learn more about swimming in North Cascades National Park as well as current lake and river conditions.
Camping in North Cascades National Park in the summer is a great time to see birds and other wildlife. The park is home to over 200 species of birds plus large mammals like bears, bighorn sheep, cougars, and even wolves. That`s not to mention hundreds of other species, including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fish, and more.
Learn more about viewing wildlife in North Cascades National Park.
Few regions of the country have as many wildflowers as the North Cascades. Take a hike on one of the best wildflower trails to see the beautiful colors in their full glory. Late August and early September are the best times to visit these gorgeous alpine meadows.
Learn more about North Cascades wildflowers and where to find them.
Other Things to Do Near North Cascades National Park
The area surrounding North Cascades National Park is filled with countless points of interest.
Many people, especially those from out of state, go camping in North Cascades National Park as only one part of a larger Washington State camping trip or vacation.
Here are some nearby attractions to visit on your North Cascades camping trip:
Baker Lake is located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to the west of North Cascades National Park. In addition to a number of campgrounds (such as Swift Creek Campground), it`s notable for boating, fishing, and swimming as well as a number of nearby hiking trails.
Just off Interstate 5, a little over an hour northwest of North Cascades National Park, is the town of Bellingham. With thriving arts, food, and music scenes, the small coastal town is also surrounded by nature, notably the Oyster Dome hiking trail. Bellingham serves as the starting point for the scenic Mount Baker Highway.
Part of the Cascade Loop, the Bavarian-styled town of Leavenworth is worth a look by anyone camping in North Cascades National Park. It`s known for its German food (and beer), Nutcracker Museum, and nearby camping on Icicle Creek Road.
The Methow Valley centers on the Methow River. Located to the east of North Cascades, it`s one of the most popular recreation areas in Washington State. Methow hiking trails and camping opportunities abound.
An hour east of Bellingham is Mount Baker. Among the most prominent peaks in the North Cascades Range, the mountain is home to the Mt. Baker Ski Area and a number of hiking trails. Drive up to Artist Point for a breathtaking view in summer.
Mount Rainier National Park
Glacier-capped Mount Rainier is a prominent sight to the south of Seattle on clear days. At 14,410 feet tall, it`s the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. The surrounding national park is far more accessible than North Cascades with miles of roads, great campgrounds (check out Cougar Rock Campground), and the historic Paradise Inn.
Learn more about visiting Mount Rainier National Park.
Olympic National Park
At over 141,000 square miles with three distinct ecosystems, Olympic National Park is the most ecologically diverse national park in Washington State. Located on the Olympic Peninsula, it`s known for its interior mountain range, lush temperate rain forests, and miles of coastline. Camping opportunities are numerous – my favorite is Kalaloch Campground.
Learn more about camping in Olympic National Park.
San Juan Islands
This northwest archipelago is a mixture of rural countryside, pristine beaches, quaint towns, and lush forest. Access to four islands (San Juan, Shaw, Orcas, and Lopez) is available by Washington State Ferry. Most visitors head to San Juan Island (home to the popular town of Friday Harbor) or Orcas Island (check out Moran State Park for camping).
Many visitors to North Cascades National Park first fly into Seattle. Others pass through this Pacific Northwest metropolis as part of a longer road trip. Spend a few days exploring the city. In addition to word-class entertainment and dining, Seattle is notable for its once-futuristic Space Needle and surrounding Seattle Center.
Most campers heading to North Cascades National Park from the west will pass through the lush farmland that is the Skagit Valley. The towns of Mount Vernon, Anacortes, and La Connor are all worth a look-see. Visit in April for the month-long Skagit Valley Tulip Festival that celebrates millions of tulips blooming once again.
Plan Your Visit to North Cascades National Park
Camping is just one aspect of a trip to North Cascades National Park. Use the following resources to help plan your visit.
How to Get There
Most visitors reach the park from Vancouver or Seattle, both roughly 3 hours away with traffic.
State Route 20 (the North Cascades Highway) connects with Interstate 5 in Burlington to the west of the park. The highway continues east through the park where it connects to State Route 153 in Twisp. Most of the North Cascades National Park campgrounds are located along this highway.
The Hozomeen area can only be accessed by crossing an uncontrolled border from Canada into the United States near Hope, British Columbia.
The Stehekin area is best accessed by passenger ferry, private airplane or seaplane, or hiking in.
Here`s more information on directions to North Cascades National Park.
When to Visit
North Cascades National Park is open year-round. However, State Route 20, the main highway through the park, closes for much of winter. Visit the Washington State Department of Transportation for information on road closures.
Summer, from roughly June through September, is the best time to visit the North Cascades, but expect crowds, especially in all car campgrounds.
Fees & Passes
No fees are required to enter the park, making North Cascades unique among U.S. national parks.
Backcountry camping is also free, although a free permit is required. Most car campgrounds cost $16 per night, although they’re free in the off-season.
Visit Recreation.gov for peak-season reservations for North Cascades National Park campgrounds (there are also a number of first-come first-served campsites).
Maps & Guidebooks
The best North Cascades National Park maps and guidebooks include North Cascades: A Guide to the North Cascades National Park Complex and Day Hiking North Cascades.
North Cascades National Park Camping Itinerary
North Cascades National Park is less than three hours away from Seattle.
This makes it a popular destination for quick overnight camping trips, for both locals and visitors alike. But truly appreciating the area takes a few days at minimum.
Here are three popular camping itineraries for the North Cascades Highway, the Cascade Loop (our top recommendation), and connecting all three of Washington State`s national parks.
North Cascades Highway
Many people choose to “visit” the park simply by driving through on the North Cascades Highway.
Although you`ll see plenty of beautiful sights from the road, we recommend spending at least one night in a campground. You can even visit North Cascades National Park as a there-and-back day trip or single overnight trip from Seattle.
If you have the time, the Cascade Loop is one of the best road trips in Washington.
The 440-mile road trip starts in Everett, travels north on I-5 to Burlington, crosses the North Cascades Highway through North Cascades, continues through the Methow Valley to the southern tip of Lake Chelan, travels along the Columbia River, passes through the Bavarian-styled village of Leavenworth, and returns to Everett via the scenic Stevens Pass.
You can spend as little or as much time on this road trip as you like, although at least four or five nights is needed to enjoy it.
Camping, along with other lodging accommodations, is available along the entire route. Make sure to camp in North Cascades National Park at Newhalem Creek Campground, Colonial Creek Campground, or another car campground.
The Cascade Loop is an exhaustive online resource dedicated to this famous Washington State road trip.
Washington State National Parks
Another one of the best camping road trips in Washington State is to connect Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks into a single camping adventure.
There are dozens of ways to do this trip, although the Outdoor Project recommends spending at least three nights in Olympic National Park, one night in Mount Rainier National Park, and one night in North Cascades National Park.
To truly savor the experience and forgo rushing between each national park, you`ll need to add at least one additional night in between each national park.
Nomads with Purpose recommends an 8-night trip to make the most of the camping experience – and that doesn’t count detours to other Washington State attractions like Mount Baker, Mount St. Helens, or Seattle.
Here at Beyond The Tent, it`s our goal to make your North Cascades National Park camping trip as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
Here are some of our best additional resources to check out:
- Camping for Beginners
- How to Plan a Backpacking Trip
- Canoe and Kayak Camping
- Free Camping in the US
- Guide to Winter Camping
- Best Places To Go Camping in Washington
Here are some other excellent resources from around the Internet:
Please let us know if you have any questions about camping in North Cascades National Park – we`ll do our best to answer them!
Thursday 24th of June 2021
Hi! Some of the information here is definitely wrong. All campsites along rt 20 are reservable in the summer season. There will be very little first come first serve availability.