Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park: 15 Stunning Trails

Ready to discover the North Cascades in the Pacific Northwest? Our guide has all the trail info you need to plan an epic adventure and enjoy the park’s wealth of rugged terrain, crystal-clear waters, and breathtaking vistas.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Kieran James Cunningham
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Welcome to the rugged and majestic North Cascades National Park (NCNP) in Washington State, where towering mountains, cascading waterfalls, and lush forests converge to create an outdoor adventurer’s paradise!

Nestled in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, this park is a haven for hikers, with hundreds of miles of trails that wind through alpine meadows, glacial valleys, and snow-capped peaks. Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a casual day hiker, have entry-level or pro-level experience and fitness, there’s a trail here for you! 

From breathtaking vistas of the Cascade Range to the crystal-clear waters of its countless lakes and streams, there is some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in all of the nation’s national parks. Lace up your hiking boots and get ready to explore some of the top trails you’ll find in the North Cascades

1. Maple Pass Loop

Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades National Park, Washington
Spectacular mountain views on a not-too-difficult mountain loop trail. 
  • Type: Loop
  • Length: 7.2 
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Maple Pass Loop is one of the most popular hikes in North Cascades National Park and one of the best hikes in Washington State as a whole. The 7.2-mile loop begins at the Rainy Pass Trailhead and climbs up to Maple Pass, reaching an elevation of 6,600 feet.

Along the way, you’ll encounter diverse terrain ranging from rocky slopes to gentle meadows. You’ll also pass by several pristine alpine lakes, including Lake Ann, with its crystal-clear waters reflecting the surrounding peaks.

One of the highlights of this trek is the panoramic view from the top of Maple Pass, which offers a beautiful vista of the North Cascades Range. From here you’ll also find an abundance of wildflowers, particularly in late July and early August, when the meadows are covered in vibrant colors.

The Maple Pass Loop can be challenging at times. However, the views and natural beauty make it well worth the effort. Make sure to bring plenty of water and layers as the weather can change quickly at these higher elevations.

2. Fourth of July Pass

Fourth of July Pass, North Cascades National Park, Washington
Fourth of July Pass is a challenging trek through a beautiful old-growth forest. (Photo by brewbooks / CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 6.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Challenging 

Fourth of July Pass is a challenging but rewarding hike that takes you through some of the most beautiful landscapes in North Cascades National Park. From the Thunder Creek Trailhead you’ll climb steadily toward the Fourth of July Pass. It’s a challenging journey with an elevation gain of 5,700 feet.

The trail winds through old-growth forests, past roaring creeks and waterfalls, and up steep switchbacks that provide breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. The pass itself offers stunning vistas of the Skagit River Valley and the surrounding peaks.

One of the highlights of this hike is the wildflowers, which are particularly abundant in late July and early August. You’ll also spot plenty of wildlife such as black bears, mountain goats, and marmots.

Due to the steep and rugged terrain, this one is best suited for experienced hikers who are prepared for a challenging hike. If you’re down for the challenge, you’ll find the trailhead on the south side of Colonial Creek Campground.

3. Rainbow-McAlester Loop

McAlester Loop,  North Cascades National Park, Washington
Sample the best the North Cascades has to offer: alpine lakes, forested valleys, and wildflower meadows. (Photo by Trailspotter / CC BY 2.0)
  • Type: Loop
  • Length: 31.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Challenging 

The Rainbow-McAlester Loop is an unforgettable hike that showcases the best of what North Cascades National Park has to offer. This hike offers a perfect balance of stunning alpine vistas and serene forested trails. 

The trailhead is located just east of Rainy Pass and follows a gradual ascent through a lush old-growth forest, with several creeks and waterfalls along the way.

As you begin to climb, you’ll be treated to breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The highlight of this trek is undoubtedly the stunning vista from the top of the ridge, offering a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains, including the majestic Mount Baker.

You’ll also encounter an abundance of wildlife and wildflowers, particularly in the summer months. The loop is best hiked between July and September, when the weather is generally clear and the wildflowers are in full bloom.

4. Blue Lake Trail

Blue Lake Trail,  North Cascades National Park, Washington
A moderate trek that takes you past cascading waterfalls before arriving at a picturesque lake surrounded by towering mountains.
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 10.3 miles 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 

Embark on a moderate 10.3-mile trek on Blue Lake Pass that takes you through lush forests and alpine meadows, culminating in a stunning view of the glacial Blue Lake. 

Start your journey near the Washington Pass Overlook, where you’ll kick off the hike with a steady climb on a forested path. Along the way, you’ll pass by several small creeks and waterfalls.

As you ascend towards the meadows, soak in the breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The highlight of your adventure is undoubtedly the crystal-clear Blue Lake, which sits at the base of the Liberty Bell Mountain range. Its vivid turquoise color, the result of glacial meltwater, will leave you awestruck!

Despite its length, the Blue Lake Trail is an ideal hike for families and those seeking a less strenuous trek. Make sure to bring the appropriate clothing and layers as the weather can change quickly in the mountains.

5. Ladder Creek Falls

Ladder Creek Falls,  North Cascades National Park, Washington
This short hike leads to the illuminated Ladder Creek Falls – the gem of North Cascades National Park.
  • Type: Loop
  • Length: 0.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy

Ladder Creek Falls is a short and easy hike, perfect for families and those seeking a leisurely stroll through the park. The trailhead is located near the Gorge Powerhouse, and the hike is a quick 0.5-mile round trip.

As you start on the trail, you’ll follow a paved path that winds its way through a dense forest. Soon, the sound of rushing water will guide you towards the majestic Ladder Creek Falls. At the base of the falls, you’ll find a picturesque bridge that offers the perfect photo opportunity.

The highlight of this hike is the stunning waterfall, which cascades down a 43-foot drop into a tranquil pool below. If you’re lucky, you may even spot some wildlife along the way, such as birds and small mammals.

The Ladder Creek Falls trail is accessible year-round and is an excellent option for a quick stop on your journey through North Cascades National Park. Make sure to wear sturdy shoes and be cautious on wet surfaces near the falls.

6. Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake Trail

Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake Trail,  North Cascades National Park, Washington
Enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys on this scenic alpine trek.
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 11.4 miles 
  • Difficulty: Moderate

The Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake Trail is a scenic 11.4-mile hike that offers a challenging yet rewarding experience for hikers of all levels. Starting at the Rainy Pass Trailhead, you’ll venture across the gentle cutthroat creek before ascending a series of switchbacks to Cutthroat Pass.

The hike begins with a steady ascent through a forest that eventually opens up to expansive alpine meadows. The highlight of the trail is the stunning Cutthroat Pass, where you can take a break and soak in the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

For those seeking more adventure, the trail continues downhill to Cutthroat Lake, a serene alpine lake that offers a refreshing dip on a hot summer day. The lake is surrounded by towering mountains, making it the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Cutthroat Pass, making this hike a popular side trip for through-hikers. If you’re hiking during the busy spring and summer months, head out early to beat the crowds. 

7. Diablo Lake Trail

Ross Lake, Diablo Lake Trail, North Cascades National Park, Washington
Catch impressive cascading waterfalls and stunning views of Ross Lake from the Diablo Lake Trail.
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 7.6 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate 

If you’re looking for an easy yet stunning hike, the Diablo Lake Trail is a great choice. This 7.6-mile trek takes you through old-growth forests and along the picturesque Diablo Lake. Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as black bears, deer, and birds of prey, as you hike.

The highlight of the trail is the viewpoint at the top, where you can take in the stunning panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The view is particularly striking during the fall season, when the leaves on the trees change color, creating a beautiful contrast with the blue waters of the lake.

8. Cascade Pass Trail / Sahale Arm Trail

Cascade Pass Trail,  North Cascades National Park, Washington
You can enjoy two of the most popular North Cascades hikes on the same day. 
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 12 miles 
  • Difficulty: Challenging

Sahale Arm and Cascade Pass are two of the most popular hikes in the North Cascades, and they happen to be connected by a scenic, high-alpine route. 

The Sahale Arm Trail starts at the Cascade Pass Trailhead and climbs steeply for several miles before reaching the Sahale Glacier Camp. From here, hikers can continue on to the Sahale Arm summit.

The final ascent up to the Sahale Arm viewpoint is challenging, but trust us, it’s worth it! The view from the top is simply breathtaking, with unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. 

Alternatively, you can backtrack to the Cascade Pass Trail and continue on to the Cascade Pass summit, which offers equally impressive views of the park’s rugged landscape. 

You’ll start the hike in the forest, and gradually ascend to higher elevations. Along the way, you’ll cross streams and see alpine wildflowers. Once you reach the Sahale Glacier Camp, you’ll find yourself surrounded by towering peaks, with views stretching as far as the eye can see.

No matter which route you choose, you’re in for a memorable adventure!

9. Chain Lakes Trail

Mount Shuksan, Chain Lakes Trail, North Cascades National Park, Washington
A great North Cascades hike for hikers of all levels, with plenty of opportunities to take in the gorgeous scenery.
  • Type: Loop
  • Length: 6.5 miles 
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Challenging 

The Chain Lakes Trail is a fantastic hike that takes you through some of the most picturesque scenery in North Cascades National Park. The trail offers stunning views of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker, two of the most iconic peaks in the park.

As you hike along the trail, you’ll pass by a series of small alpine lakes, each with its own unique beauty. You can take a dip in the crystal-clear waters or just relax on the shore and take in the stunning views.

One of the highlights of the Chain Lakes Trail is the Chain Lakes Loop, which takes you through a series of steep switchbacks that offer incredible views of the surrounding peaks. If you’re up for a challenge, this is a great option to extend your trek.

10. Thunder Creek Trail

Colonial Peak, Thunder Creek Trail, North Cascades National Park, Washington
An incredible hike taking you through some of the most beautiful scenery in the area. (Photo by brewbooks / CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 12 miles 
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Challenging 

The Thunder Creek Trail is a must-do hike if you’re in the area, and a great option for hikers of all levels. The scenery is sublime and the sound of the creek is sure to soothe your soul!

The trail follows the picturesque Thunder Creek, which flows through the forest and over rocks and boulders.

As you hike along the trail, you’ll pass through old-growth forests, with towering old cedars and Douglas firs and lush greenery surrounding you. You’ll also cross several bridges, with stunning views of the creek and waterfalls below.

One of the highlights of the hike is the view of the stunning thunderous waterfall that you’ll encounter along the way. You can feel the power of the water as it crashes down into the pool below, creating an incredible display of natural beauty.

This is a great spot to turn around or you can continue on to the McAllister Camp (you’ll need a backcountry permit to stay the night). 

11. Hidden Lake Trail

Hidden Lake Trail, North Cascades National Park, Washington
If you’re looking for a peaceful and scenic hike, Hidden Lake is a great option.
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 4.5 miles 
  • Difficulty: Moderately challenging 

The Hidden Lake Lookout Trail is a must-do for those seeking a challenging yet rewarding hike through the rugged and stunning North Cascades terrain. 

After ascending steep switchbacks and rocky ridges, the trail rewards you with awesome views of tall peaks, wildflowers, and pristine alpine lakes. At the lookout, you’ll be met with a view of Hidden Lake, shimmering in the midst of the rugged mountain landscape. It’s a perfect spot to catch your breath and soak in the awe-inspiring beauty of the North Cascades wilderness.

Once you reach the Hidden Lakes, you’ll be treated to gorgeous views of the crystal-clear water surrounded by the majestic mountains. Take some time to relax by the lakes, have a picnic, or go for a refreshing swim if you’d like. Once you’re ready, just head back the way you came. 

12. Ross Lake National Recreation Area

Ross Lake National Recreation Area, North Cascades National Park, Washington
Incredible scenery whichever trail you choose in Ross Lake National Recreation Area.

Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a beautiful destination in the North Cascades that offers a variety of hiking trails to explore. With over 50 miles of trails, you can choose from easy strolls to challenging treks.

One of the most popular hikes in the area is the Thunder Knob Trail, a moderate hike that offers incredible views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. This trail is perfect for families and hikers of all skill levels.

If you’re looking for a more leisurely hike, the Happy Panther Trail is a great option. This easy hike takes you through beautiful forests and along the shore of Ross Lake, with plenty of opportunities to take in the scenic beauty of the area.

No matter which hike you choose, Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a fantastic destination for hikers and nature lovers. With its stunning scenery and wide range of trails, it’s easy to see why this area is a favorite among visitors to the North Cascades.

13. Desolation Peak 

Fire Lookout, Desolation Peak, North Cascades National Park, Washington
If you’re up for the challenge, the Desolation Peak Trail is a must-do hike in the North Cascades
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 9.4 miles 
  • Difficulty: Challenging 

The Desolation Peak Trail is a challenging hike that rewards hikers with breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The trail is 9.4 miles round trip and has over 4,000 feet in elevation gain, making it a difficult trek even for experienced hikers.

The trailhead is located in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the hike starts off with a moderate climb through dense forest before opening up to stunning views of the surrounding peaks. As you continue your ascent, the trail becomes steeper and more challenging with rocky terrain and a series of switchbacks.

At the top, you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the North Cascades, including Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, and Hozomeen Mountain. The views from the summit are truly breathtaking and make the strenuous hike well worth the effort!

Just be sure to bring plenty of water, and good hiking shoes as the trail is steep and rocky in places.

 

14. Thornton Lake

Thornton Lake,  North Cascades National Park, Washington
Tucked away in a less-visited corner of the park, Thornton Lake is a hidden gem that’s worth the hike.
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 5.6 miles 
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Thornton Lake is a picturesque alpine lake that’s accessible via a moderate, 5.6-mile round-trip hike. The trailhead is located off the North Cascades Highway at the end of Thornton Lakes Road. It begins with a steady climb through a lush forest, offering glimpses of the surrounding mountains.

As you continue along the trail, you’ll emerge from the forest and be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The trail then descends to the shores of a gorgeous alpine lake, where you can relax, take a swim, or enjoy a picnic lunch.

One of the highlights of this trek is the waterfall that cascades down from the cliffs above the lake. It’s a great spot to take a break and soak in the beauty of the North Cascades.

Overall, this trek is a great option for hikers of all skill levels who want to experience the beauty of the North Cascades without tackling a strenuous trek. Just make sure to bring plenty of bug spray, as the mosquitoes can be quite pesky in the summer months.

15. Sourdough Mountain

Sourdough Mountain, North Cascades National Park, Washington
With steep inclines, rocky terrain, and captivating panoramic views, Sourdough Mountain is sure to get your heart pumping.
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 10.4 miles 
  • Difficulty: Challenging 

Looking for a challenging hike that’ll take you to some of the best views in the North Cascades? Look no further than the Sourdough Mountain Trail!

This hike will take you through a lush forest, up steep and rocky switchbacks, and eventually to the summit of Sourdough Mountain. Along the way, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping views of nearby peaks like Eldorado and Johannesburg, as well as wildflower-filled meadows and rocky outcroppings.

Just remember that these rugged mountains are home to black and grizzly bears, so it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your bear safety before heading out. The National Park Service is currently trying to restore the bear population in the park, so encounters are sure to become more likely.

Make no mistake, this trail is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re an experienced hiker up for a challenge, the Sourdough Mountain hike is an absolute must-do.

Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park!

There you have it – the 15 best hikes in North Cascades National Park! Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a beginner, there’s something on our list for everyone. From challenging peaks like Sahale Arm and Sourdough Mountain to more leisurely strolls like Diablo Lake and Thunder Creek, NCNP truly has it all.

If you’re looking for more adventure in Washington State, remember that Olympic National Park is only 1.5 hours away! 

We hope this guide has inspired you to explore this incredible park and discover its natural wonders for yourself. If you have any questions or want to share your own experiences, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to share this article with your hiking buddies – after all, the more, the merrier! Happy hiking!

Last update on 2024-06-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Jolanda Lapegna Avatar

Jolanda is a full-time writer and life-long outdoor enthusiast. Growing up on a small island off the Eastern Canadian coast, she spent most of her childhood hiking, swimming and fishing in the Atlantic ocean.

After a short stint in the corporate world, Jolanda quit her day job to write full-time and check out what lies beyond the Canadian shores. Ever since, she’s been hiking, biking and kayaking her way across 11 European countries and counting.

Jolanda currently lives in the beautiful, Tuscan countryside. When she isn’t hanging out in the woods or at the beach, you’ll catch her foraging for mushrooms and truffles with her truffle-dog, Red.

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