15 Stunning Hikes in North Cascades National Park

From the easy trails to the most challenging, these are the best hikes in North Cascades that highlight the range’s dramatic and wild beauty. We put together this list of the best hikes in one of America’s least-visited national parks to help you plan your trip. 

North Cascades National Park Washington

North Cascades National Park, the “American Alps,” is paradise for hikers and backpackers. Over 400 miles of trails traverse the stunning rugged landscape, several of them widely considered to be among the best in North America

Despite the awe-inspiring scenery, and the park being free to visit, most of the hikes in North Cascades are blissfully uncrowded

Maybe it’s the remote location 2-3 hours from the closest cities, or its untamed environment, but regardless, North Cascades National Park is highly underrated. Those willing to get off the beaten path here reap tremendous rewards, experiencing some of the continent’s most unspoiled nature. 

North Cascades Hiking Guide

We’ve included some extra info for planning your hiking trip to North Cascades National Park. Jump to the following sections (or just keep scrolling to see it all!).

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1. Maple Pass Loop

Image by Stacy Welle via Alltrails
  • Distance: 6.5-mile loop
  • Elevation gain: 2,162 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Challenging
  • View the trail notes

Of all the hikes in North Cascades, Maple Pass is among the best at showcasing them. Sweeping views of craggy, glaciated peaks, wildflowers, an alpine lake, and the sense that this place is truly wild

Come fall, Maple Pass is also one of the busiest trails in the North Cascades. It’s renowned for fall colors, especially golden larches

Starting from the Rainy Lake trailhead, you can hike the loop in either direction. Either way, you can (should!) take the 0.6-mile spur trail down to Lake Ann

You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park, because Maple Pass is technically outside the national park. If you don’t have one, you can buy a day pass online or from a self-serve kiosk at the trailhead. 

2. Blue Lake Trail

Image by Shannon Solie via Alltrails
  • Distance: 4.6 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 915 feet 
  • Difficulty rating: Moderate
  • View the trail notes

A fairly short, family-friendly hike to a sparkling mountain lake with easy access off SR-20, Blue Lake is one of the most popular summer day hikes in North Cascades. 

The trail is dynamic, with boardwalks, gentle switchbacks, mountain views, forest, and wildflower meadows. Once at the lake, you’ll see people (and dogs!) swimming. You can jump in, but it’s COLD! It typically doesn’t thaw until late June or even July.

Like Maple Pass, Blue Lake is just outside the national park boundary, so you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass. 

3. Picture Lake Loop

Picture Lake Mount Baker Wilderness Washington

While it’s not in the national park, Picture Lake is one of the most scenic hikes in North Cascades. You’ve undoubtedly seen the iconic image of Mount Shuksan reflecting on glassy Picture Lake, because this is one of the most-photographed scenes in America.

Amazingly, reaching this postcard-worthy view requires a super short, easy walk. Really, it’s more of a viewpoint. 

The most difficult part of ‘hiking’ to Picture Lake is getting there. It’s in Mount Baker National Forest, 2.5 hours from North Cascades National Park. The trip is worth it any time of year, and as a bonus, you can check out nearby Mount Baker Ski Area. 

4. Trail of the Cedars

Trail of the Cedars (Dmitriy Fridlyand)
Image by Dmitriy Fridlyand via Alltrails
  • Distance: 0.6 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 26 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Easy
  • View the trail notes

This short, beautiful loop through an old-growth forest has two access points. Start from the suspension bridge in tiny New Halem (which is a great stop for snacks and supplies), or the park visitor center. 

The gravel trail has almost no change in elevation, making it ideal for children and hikers with limited mobility. It’s actually probably the easiest hike in North Cascades, even suitable for strollers and wheelchairs with rugged tires. 

Despite being such a short trail, it’s a wonderful place to explore. Check out the fern-draped towering cedars, which give off Olympic National Park vibes. 

5. Ladder Creek Falls Trail

Ladder Creek Falls Trail (Kristol Jones)
Image by Kristol Jones via Alltrails

Another easy option, Ladder Creek Falls is different from other hikes in North Cascades. The waterfall is behind the Gorge Powerhouse, the hydroelectric plant and dam. To get to it, you’ll cross a suspension bridge next to the plant. 

Once you’re in the forest, you’ll see more unusual features, like tropical gardens filled with exotic plants and flowers. The former superintendent of Seattle City Light, who built the dam, created the gardens as a tourist attraction. 

Complementing the gardens, a colorful light show illuminates the trail and waterfall every night. Needless to say, this is one of the best hikes in North Cascades for kids. 

6. Rainbow Loop

Rainbow Loop (Arthur Comer)
Image by Arthur Comer via Alltrails
  • Distance: 8.7 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 2,290 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Moderate
  • View the trail notes

Rainbow Loop is a very popular trail in Stehekin, in the Lake Chelan section of North Cascades. This is largely because it’s accessible early in the season, well before many other trails. 

In addition to early summer wildflowers, you’ll be treated to outstanding views of the Stehekin Valley, Lake Chelan, and Stehekin River. 

It’s not truly a loop; it’s a “U” shape with upper and lower trailheads. You can do it as an out-and-back hike, a 6.8-mile loop if you walk back on Stehekin Valley Road, or a 4.5-mile point-to-point hike by taking the Stehekin shuttle (May through October).

7. Rainy Lake

Rainy Lake (Lindsay Callahan)
Image by Lindsay Callahan via Alltrails
  • Distance: 2 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 131 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Easy
  • View the trail notes

Starting from the same trailhead as Maple Pass Loop, this North Cascades hike offers tremendous bang for your buck. The easy, paved trail takes you to crystal clear, sparkling green Rainy Lake. 

It’s a great family-friendly alternative to Maple Pass for people who aren’t up for the more challenging hike or if Maple Pass is simply too crowded. And really, Rainy Lake is short enough that you can easily check both off while you’re here! 

8. Cutthroat Lake

Cutthroat Lake (Rachel LePage)
Image by Rachel LePage via Alltrails
  • Distance: 3.8 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 479 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Easy
  • View the trail notes

It sounds funny to say, but Cutthroat Lake is actually somewhat boring. Beautiful, but lacking the wow factor of so many hikes in North Cascades. During larch season it’s more impressive, but the real draw here is the easy access

The trail is easy and straightforward enough for children, taking you through the forest almost the entire way. Toward the end, the highlight is a bridge made from a huge log. The official trail stops at the lake, but you can easily explore all the way around it. 

Cutthroat Lake also leads to the much more challenging Cutthroat Pass trail, part of the PCT. 

9. Cascade Pass

Image by Sylvia Cook via Alltrails
  • Distance: 7 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 1,784 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Moderate
  • View the trail notes

Cascade Pass is a wildly popular summer hike, offering tremendous views for relatively minimal effort. The NPS says it’s “the shortest and easiest access in the park to the alpine environment.”

Although there are 30+ switchbacks in the first 2.5 miles, the overall elevation gain is very manageable, even for children. The views of countless peaks, glaciers, and likely, wildlife such as marmots and mountain goats, make it well worth the effort. 

Some people continue to Sahale Arm, all the way to the Sahale Glacier, a challenging 11.7-mile hike. An easier (but not easy!) side trip is 0.8 miles beyond the pass up to the “arm,” a ridgeline overlooking Doubtful Lake.  

10. Hidden Lake Lookout

Hidden Lake Lookout (James Liu)
Image by James Liu via Alltrails
  • Distance: 8.8 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 3,746 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Challenging
  • View the trail notes

Hidden Lake is often called one of the best hikes in Washington state. Some people say the entire PNW!

The views ARE incredible, but you’ll work for them, ascending over 3,300 feet in just four miles. There is good news, though: you get a bit of everything on this trail, keeping you somewhat distracted. 

Hike through forest and wildflower meadows, past streams, over scree and boulders, and above the treeline. At the summit, sapphire blue Hidden Lake lies 800 feet below and you can check out the historic lookout tower.

Use extreme caution in the early season. Deep snow, ice, and couloirs linger well into June, presenting hazards that may force you to turn back early. 

11. Thunder Knob

Thunder Knob (Phoebe M)
Image by Phoebe M via Alltrails
  • Distance: 3.4 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 675 feet 
  • Difficulty rating: Moderate
  • View the trail notes

Short, fairly easy-going, and leading to a stunning viewpoint of Diablo Lake, it’s no surprise this is one of the most popular hikes in North Cascades. 

The trail starts at Colonial Creek Campground, then passes through an area that flooded in the early 2000s. Navigate several creek crossings before walking through the forest, then climb some gentle switchbacks up to the namesake knob, overlooking the lake. 

You can access Thunder Knob most of the year. It’s at milepost 130, and SR-20 closes for winter at milepost 134. Beware, however, that the park takes down several bridges over the creek at the end of the summer. 

12. Diablo Lake Trail

Diablo Lake Washington
  • Distance: 7.2 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Moderate
  • View the trail notes

Turquoise Diablo Lake is a highlight of the North Cascades, and this moderate trail takes you right along its shoreline. 

Start your hike from the North Cascades Institute, working your way toward Ross Lake Dam. This makes a perfect turnaround point, or you can turn around at the suspension bridge. 

In the summer, you can also hike one-way and take the ferry back, just below the dam. It only runs twice a day, so pop into the visitor center and ask about the current schedule. 115

Some people mistake this trail for the Diablo Lake Overlook. That’s actually on the opposite side of the lake, and doesn’t require a hike—drive right up to it!

13. Thornton Lakes

Thornton Lakes (Lauren Lofts)
Image by Lauren Lofts via Alltrails
  • Distance: 10 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 3,005 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Challenging
  • View the trail notes

One of the more challenging day hikes in North Cascades, the trail leads to a ridge overlooking gorgeous Lower Thornton Lake.  

The first leg travels an old forest road, then climbs through dense forest before reaching the ridge. Here, you can continue 0.7 miles to Trappers Peak or head down to the lake. 

The short descent to the lake is steep and slippery even in perfect weather. If you’re up for an overnight trip, there are three backcountry campsites along the lake.

AllTrails measures nine miles, but it’s 10-11, depending on whether you go all the way to the lake. Also, the 5-mile road is steep and rough with potholes. A vehicle with 4WD or high clearance is highly recommended. 

14. Sourdough Mountain

Image by Rachel Kuhar via Alltrails
  • Distance: 10.2 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 5,088 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Challenging
  • View the trail notes

Important Note: Unfortunately, the Sourdough Mountain trail is closed indefinitely, a result of the 2023 Sourdough Fire.

Sourdough Mountain is one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding, hikes in North Cascades. It involves over 5,000 feet of elevation gain across five miles (3,000 of them in the first two miles!). 

Four miles in, the trail’s steepness softens, right as you’re treated to jaw-dropping views. Glaciated peaks and wildflower meadows are everywhere, and before long, you’re standing on top of Sourdough Mountain, taking in 360-degree views. 

15. Desolation Peak

Desolation Peak (Brenda Baxter)
Image by Brenda Baxter via Alltrails
  • Distance: 8.7 miles out and back
  • Elevation gain: 4,534 feet
  • Difficulty rating: Challenging
  • View the trail notes

Not only does this challenging hike lead you to a famous historic fire lookout (Jack Kerouac was the summer lookout in 1956), but it also involves a boat ride across Ross Lake

The trail climbs a significant amount and is often very hot and dry, so come extremely well-prepared. Also, because of the boat trip, your actual mileage may vary. We’ve seen as few as 8 miles and up to 14, but 9-10 round-trip seems the most solid. 

Unfortunately, the actual lookout is not open to the public. There’s a backcountry campsite about one mile away, and you can also camp at the boat-in sites on Ross Lake. Either way, you’ll need a backcountry permit

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Best time to go hiking in North Cascades National Park

Hiking in North Cascades National Park
We visited North Cascades in May and there was so much snow on the ground it made hiking a lot more challenging.

The best time to explore the hikes in North Cascades is August and September. This offers the driest, most stable weather, wildflower season, and, starting in mid-September, the stunning larch season.

Unfortunately, this also lines up with wildfire season, when sudden closures are common. Check the official park website for current conditions before heading out.

Although some roads and trails in the park are open year-round, the majority are not. 

A big section of SR-20, the main park road, closes for the season in November and reopens in May or June. Others, like Cascade River Road (leading to Cascade Pass), have even shorter open seasons. 

What to pack for hiking in North Cascades

Hiking in North Cascades National Park

Be sure to download our FREE hiking packing list before your next trip and never leave another essential behind again!

Hiking Packing List | Go Wander Wild

Round up of the best hikes in North Cascades

Here’s a roundup of all the best hikes in North Cascades National Park so you can see everything in one place.

  1. Maple Pass Loop
  2. Blue Lake
  3. Picture Lake Loop
  4. Trail of the Cedars
  5. Ladder Creek Falls Trail
  6. Rainbow Loop
  7. Rainy Lake
  8. Cutthroat Lake
  9. Cascade Pass
  10. Hidden Lake
  11. Thunder Knob Trail
  12. Diablo Lake Trail
  13. Thornton Lake
  14. Sourdough Mountain
  15. Desolation Peak
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Hikes in North Cascades | Go Wander Wild
Hikes in North Cascades | Go Wander Wild

We want to hear from you!

Have you done any of the hikes in North Cascades on this list? What was your experience like? Which of these hikes are you most excited to try next? Leave us a comment below and we’ll do our best to get back to you!

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