When our oldest child was a newborn, we attended a family reunion in Washington State and planned to drive through North Cascades National Park on our way home. Unfortunately, she became ill and we changed our route to stay closer to cities and get home quickly.
Fast forward eleven years and our family had the same opportunity to drive through North Cascades. This time, we took it.
The North Cascades are beautiful and wild. Our stay was short, but we learned a lot about the area that will help us plan a longer stay later. Here is what you can expect at North Cascades National Park.
Worth the drive
We started our day in Victoria, British Columbia and didn't reach the boundaries of North Cascades National Park until afternoon. We would have loved to take our time to hike and explore the park, but daylight was limited and we still had to find a bed for the night.
Even with our limited time, North Cascades was worth it! The drive is spectacular and there are short nature trails and viewpoints to enjoy along the way.
Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center for a park map and guide. Check the schedule for ranger programs. Ask a ranger can make recommendations based on your schedule and interests. Pick up Junior Ranger booklets for kids ages 5-12 to earn a FREE North Cascades ranger badge.
There is a short nature trail behind it that offers spectacular views of glacier capped mountain peaks at the end.
The drive through North Cascades National Park is just the tip of the iceberg (or glacier). Our trip was a sample of what the park has to offer and we hope to dig deeper on another trip. If your family enjoys backpacking and wilderness adventures, this is definitely your kind of park.
Where to stay
There are two lodges inside the park, but neither of them is accessible by car – it's ferry, foot or float plane only! If you're just driving through, you will want to look in neighboring communities for lodging.
Winthrop is an adorable resort town on the east side of the park on Highway 20. The classic western novel The Virginian was written here, and its walkable main street looks like an old Western town. Winthrop has lots of lodging options, but be sure to make reservations. We did not have a reservation and found no available rooms in Winthrop. We drove another hour to Pateros to find a room for the night.
On the west side of the park, you have lots of options north of Seattle along Interstate 5. Once you leave Burlington, you'll have few options along Highway 20 until you reach Winthrop on the other side. It's a beautiful drive, but rural.
There are several campgrounds inside the park. Click HERE to learn about your options at the official park website.
Where to eat
Pack a picnic! If you're just driving through, stopping for a picnic is a great way to soak up the spirit of North Cascades.
There are no restaurants along Highway 20 inside the park. There is a small grocery in Newhalem. Like lodging, you'll find more restaurants in neighboring communities like Winthrop.
Skagit Valley, west of the park and north of Seattle, is famous for its produce. Look for farm stands loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables on your way to the park!
Good to Know
Where: About 4 hours northeast of Seattle, in Whatcom County. Highway 20 is the only road through the park.
When: Open year-round. Late May through October is the easiest time to visit, with the most pleasant weather. Weather may close roads and facilities at other times of year. This park is usually uncrowded.
How Much: FREE! North Cascades National Park has no entrance fee.
How Long: At least 2-3 hours, just to drive through with no stops. Do plan time for a few stops!
Amenities: Visitor centers with restrooms, picnic areas, camping, limited dining and lodging options.